Death Toll Increases to Over 5,000 and Counting

Death Toll Increases to Over 5,000 and Counting Thanks to Operation Gatekeeper

San Diego, CA- With numbing regularity news bulletins flash regarding groups or individuals suffering severe injuries, snake bites or dying in the remote deserts or mountains or drowning in the river along the 800 mile "Wall" as they attempt to cross the border between Mexico and the USA. In the 24/7 news cycle, this blip quickly fades from our collective memory and we move onto something more interesting, after all, we can't imagine ourselves in the same predicament. Left in the wake are those still living or their relatives, without organized systemic help to search and rescue or recover and claim bodies and try to make arrangements. This doesn't need to be this way and prior to October 1994, it wasn't. Fifteen years of failed immigration policy has not improved the numbers of undocumented aliens entering the country and has cost millions in dollars and human suffering.

International Humanitarian Crisis: Migrant Deaths at the U.S.-Mexico Border

A recent report issued jointly by ACLU and ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties and Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH). It outlines the disturbing findings in a straight forward manner, along with suggestions on how to reduce the death toll that is only increasing in scale.

"The current policies in place on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border have created a humanitarian crisis that has led to the deaths of more than 5,000 people," said Kevin Keenan, Executive Director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. "Because of deadly practices and policies like Operation Gatekeeper, the death toll continues to rise unabated despite the decrease in unauthorized crossings due to economic factors."

Humanitarian Crisis Report
By Maria Jimenez

Some of the highlights within this report:

The deaths of unauthorized migrants have been a predictable and inhumane outcome of border security policies on the U.S.-Mexico border over the last fifteen years.

Beginning in 1994, the U.S. government implemented a border enforcement policy known as "Operation Gatekeeper" that used a "prevention and deterrence" strategy. The strategy concentrated border agents and resources along populated areas, intentionally forcing undocumented immigrants to extreme environments and natural barriers that the government anticipated would increase the likelihood of injury and death. The stated goal was to deter migrants from crossing.

Over the last fifteen years, national security concerns have reinforced the deterrence strategy without any improvements in the results. The mutual interest of intercepting national security threats on a shared border reshaped the bilateral relationship between Mexico and the United States, redefining priorities given to immigration and border policies. The national security lens favored the militarization of the border at the cost of migrant lives. In the last five years, the border enforcement budget expanded from $6 billion to $10.1 billion, the number of agents jumped to 20,000; 630 miles of new fencing was completed around urban areas; 300 miles of vehicle barriers were erected; a "virtual fence" of technological infrastructure was installed...and more migrants are dying now than ever before.

Recommendations to reduce migrant deaths are listed in the report:

October 1, 2009 marks the fifteenth anniversary of the launch of Operation Gatekeeper and the ensuing border enforcement policies that have led to the deaths of more than 5,000 people. Prior to Operation Gatekeeper, migrant deaths were few and far between. In its conclusion, the report reflects on the findings and suggests courses of action that the U.S. and Mexican governments could take to protect and advance the human right to life of international migrants.

Action on Day One:

Recognize border crossing deaths as an international humanitarian crisis.

Action within 100 days:

  • Shift more U.S. Border Patrol resources to search and rescue.
  • Direct government agencies to allow humanitarian organizations to do their work to save lives and recover remains.
  • Establish a binational, one-stop resource for rescue and recovery calls.
  • Convene all data collecting agencies to develop a uniform system.
  • Commit to transparency.
  • Elevate border deaths to a bilateral priority.
  • Invite international involvement.

Action within One Year:

  • Adopt sensible, humane immigration and border policies.
  • Support nongovernmental humanitarian efforts at the border to do what governments are unable or unwilling to do.

These recommendations complement those made in 2002 by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to reduce deaths at the border. These included:

1. Demilitarize the border;
2. Establish a guest-worker program;
3. Increase the number of permanent resident visas available to Mexicans;
4. Legalize undocumented immigrants already in the United States;
5. Modify immigration laws that deport immigrants for minor criminal offenses;
6. Encourage cooperation with Mexico;
7. Protect the rights of asylum seekers; and
8. Recognize U.S. citizenship of the Tohono O'odham.

Except for the growing cooperation between Mexico and the United States, the rest of the solutions have not been considered or adopted.

Illegal Aliens Are Scapegoat for local Ills

Migrant workers are the au-current whipping child of Conservatives, anti-immigration policy makers, any neo-group, Militia groups like the Minutemen or any other persons that feel the need to fly the colors of bias and bigotry. There are constant claims that undocumented workers are taking jobs from Americans, really? When was the last time you fought for a job of stooping in a field picking crops in 100 degree heat for 12-16 hours? Or standing for hours on a street corner with the hopes that you will get picked up, work a long day and hope that you don't get stiffed so that you can repeat another day in order to send a few dollars to your family that is living in extreme poverty. With Operation Gatekeeper and it's equivalents in other border regions, the only purpose is to push emigrating people further out from ports of entry and closer to the high risks of crossing in uncharted land against incredible odds. The mountain and arid desert regions each have their own micro-climates that bring extreme heat during the day and sub-freezing nights that exhausted travelers are unprepared for.

These are not the drug dealers, cartels or even terrorists; they are way more sophisticated than those who desperate enough to use human coyotes to help transport them to what they believe will be a better life. Now, please don't get me wrong, the drug cartel's murder and mayhem with the negative side effects is huge, for both sides of the border it has affected the quality of life for millions and does need to be strongly addressed by both governments.

Add to the mix of government agencies are the San Diego Minutemen http://www.sandiegominutemen.com/site/index.php and other groups, self appointed militia who claim to be American Patriots to help protect the border, confusing vigilantes for activistism, pushing the Birther argument tool of FreedomWorks that Obama was born in Kenya and is therefore ineligible be president, but didn't have a problem with John McCain's Panama birthplace. They will also let you know who to vote for, funding & spinning California measures they don't like and best yet, listing who their enemies and friends that support their cause, and heads up, they cross the line from activist to cult when they start dissing their own and excommunicating those who they no longer support when their riled up members start acting out.

This Land was Their Land, Now It's Our Land
From the Sierra Nevada's to Catalina Island
This Land was stolen for you and me...

California History 101: Before the Gold Rush of the 1840's, the area was an extension of Mexico, yes, the indigenous people occupying the land were Mexicans, Indian-Spanish and Native Americans with immigrants coming from the East. The formation of California into state was not without bloodshed is the equivalent of a land grab that divided East and West Germany with a wall, separating generations of families from each other. Back in California, pre-1994 before Operation Gatekeeper, there was the daily comings and goings of workers from both sides without the animosity and military intervention that has become the accepted norm in the region.

Post NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement that went into effect in 1994, the same year Operation Gatekeeper went into effect opening the borders to trade but closing them to people, had hundreds of US companies setting up operations in Mexico to take advantage of the cheap labor force while promising it would save American jobs. Wall Street and major corporations had a huge stake in its success and lobbied vigorously for its passing but the paradox is the negative effect on the environment, food safety and US jobs they claimed would be created and the human costs associated with its implementation. Public Citizen, www.citizen.org/trade/nafta/ lists the broken promises of NAFTA and why we will continue to feel its effects for decades to come.

I recently visited Tijuana as part of my listening and writing tour and although I have stopped there many times over the past 3 decades, this was the first time it appeared like a ghost town, gone were the hawkers, the crowds on the street, the donkey's painted in Zebra stripes and more then 60% of the store fronts shuttered.

Before boarding the Mexicoach in San Ysidro, the gateway community that hosts the port of entry, a converted bus with Wackenhut on it's side pulled up and discharged two Border Patrol officers with a handcuffed man covered in dirt, in between as he was escorted into the building. Wackenhut is one of the large contractors supplying services to Homeland Security at the Border Region.

Creepier still was the three Homeland Security agents boarding the bus on the US side by checking passports and asking questions, before the bus crossed into Mexico; I thought this was weird but frequent riders and the bus driver had never before experienced it, intimidating and eerie...

Border region protection is a National and International public and private contractors' effort costing taxpayers millions each year with questionable gains in reducing crime, illegal incursions and apprehensions while there are fewer migrants crossing due to the economic downturn yet they are dying at a higher rate than ever before. This can no longer be acceptable.