On the weekend of a different 9/11 -- the one in 1998 -- four migrants died trying to cross into the United States from Mexico. On Friday, the body of a man was found floating in the All-American Canal. On Saturday, a man died who had been in a coma since August, when he was found in the desert. He was found with a core body temperature of 108 degrees. On Sunday, the Border Patrol came upon the body of woman near Ocotillo. Some of her group stayed with her body. She died of heat stress. Also on Sunday, the decomposed body of another man was pulled out of the All-American Canal. There was no human outcry over these deaths the way there was after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, when over three thousand people were killed in the attack on America. However, would an outcry be in order if we realized that as many as six thousand people have died trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border since the institution of Operation Gatekeeper under the Clinton administration? The situation raises a moral question, because the deaths are avoidable; they result in the name of a border enforcement regime that is unnecessary.
Beginning in 1994, the Clinton administration implemented Operation Gatekeeper, a strategy of "control through deterrence" that involved constructing fences and militarizing the southern border where it was most easily traversed. Instead of deterring illegal immigrants, their entry choices were shifted to treacherous terrain -- the deserts and mountains. The number of entries and apprehensions were not at all decreased, and the number of deaths due to dehydration and sunstroke in the summer or freezing in the winter surged dramatically. In 1994, fewer than 30 migrants died along the border; by 1998, the number was 147; in 2001, 387 deaths were counted; and in 2012, 477 bodies were found.
Given the risks, why do migrants continue the harrowing trek? The attraction of the United States is obvious. NAFTA, approved in 1994, wreaked havoc on the Mexican economy. For many, it's a matter of economic desperation, and the migrants are simply looking for a means to support their families. In a sense, they do not have a choice. In spite of the slow growth in the U.S. economy, a variety of industries rely on low-wage migrant workers. Undocumented immigrants may know the risks, but figure that the risks are outweighed by the benefits of crossing.
As we wait for Congress to enact immigration reform, what we do know is that a provision in the Senate bill (S. 744), known as the Corker-Hoeven Amendment, would expand Operation Gatekeeper. The provision adds $30 billion to death trap of "control through deterrence" efforts by hiring thousands more border patrol agents, adding more high-tech surveillance, and expanding drone monitoring of the border. Motivations for continued migration call into question the likely effectiveness of this expansion of Operation Gatekeeper if the goal is to discourage border-crossers. Beyond the economic situation in Mexico, a socio-economic phenomenon is at play. The phenomenon is the long, historical travel patterns between Mexico and the United States, coupled with the interdependency of the two regions. Migration from Mexico is the manifestation of these economic problems and social phenomena. The militarization of the border does nothing to address these phenomena. Instead, it is killing individuals who are caught up in the phenomena.
Understanding the economic and social situations in Mexico and the United States and the nature of their relationship enables us to formulate better approaches to border crossings and migrations. A real solution would address push-pull factors and the economic needs of both countries.
As a nation, the United States ought to do the right thing, especially when it comes to Mexican immigrants, given our long historical ties with Mexico. We have demonized the undocumented, rather than see them for what they are: human beings entering for a better life who have been manipulated by globalization, regional economies and social structures operating for decades.
The right thing to do is to develop a system to facilitate the flow of Mexican migrants to the United States who are seeking employment opportunities. Given the economic imbalance between the two nations, we know that the flow will continue -- legally or otherwise. By regularizing the flow through legalization of undocumented immigrants and increasing visa numbers, we would ease pressures at the border (thus freeing up personnel to concentrate on the serious challenge of looking for terrorists and drug smugglers); address the labor needs of employers; bring the undocumented out of the shadows; and end unnecessary, immoral border deaths that have resulted from current enforcement strategies.
Our nation has a choice between the Operation Gatekeeper/Corker-Hoeven Amendment death trap or a path to enfranchisement for these individuals on whom we have depended for generations. Our economic, social and national-security interests demand that we pursue the moral choice.