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Thursday, June 17, 2004

NCM > La Opini�n Uncovers the Border's Many-Faceted Underside

NCM > La Opini�n Uncovers the Border's Many-Faceted Underside

La Opinión Uncovers the Border's Many-Faceted Underside
NCM Report, News Feature,
Elena Shore, May 26, 2004

Migrant deaths at the border continue to hit record levels every year, with many occurring during the "death season" between May and September. A recent investigative series by Los Angeles Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión reveals the invisible webs of community, industry and culture behind the movement of people across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Nearly 3,000 people have died crossing the border in the last nine years, reports La Opinión. Last year, according to the Border Patrol, 340 migrants died.

As of May 1 this year, 82 have died, and the hot months, when most of the deaths occur in parched Southwest deserts and mountains, is just beginning.

“The border is unique in the world,” writes Gabriel Lerner in the newspaper's recent eight-part series “Entre Dos Mundos” (Between Two Worlds). “In no other place do two countries so different converge: the most powerful empire of history with a developing nation.”

One of the most massive population movements in the history of the world is taking place there, writes Lerner, who traveled to cities along the border as part of a fellowship sponsored by the USC (University of Southern California) Annenberg's Institute for Justice and Journalism. NCM interviewed Lerner after he completed the border series, which ran in La Opinión between March 1 and March 8, 2004.

Since the U.S. government increased border security near urban areas in the mid-1990s, the flow of immigration has shifted to the perilous mountains and deserts, where migrants are dying in increasingly higher numbers.

"There are no positive consequences to this," Lerner says of the U.S. border policy.

“Crossing the border,” he writes, “has become a kind of hell where hundreds of immigrants lose their lives every year in an attempt to achieve the American dream.”


Lerner writes that since Sept. 11, 2001, the border crossers from Mexico have been used as scapegoats. National security concerns have become an excuse for the United States to crack down on immigration as part of a new nationalist agenda, he says.

"The national security problems are exaggerated by the mainstream media and the government," says Lerner. “Not one person has been arrested on terrorist charges along the Mexican-U.S. border. There is another agenda [to the border crackdown]. The other side of nationalism can be racism.”

Lerner came face to face with this racism when he met a group of anti-immigration vigilantes in Arizona in one of the most disturbing encounters of his investigation. These armed groups take the law into their own hands by chasing down migrants along the border and turning them over to the authorities to deport them.

“The vigilantes see themselves as being under attack from hordes of immigrants,” Lerner says. “They are crude, very direct in their approach against immigrants, and cruel, I would say. They showed us a collection of objects taken from dead people like little shoes and plane tickets. It was like war booty. They believe that they are in a cultural war and they are on the front lines."

Many of the U.S. Border Patrol agents, by contrast, are Latinos themselves, Lerner says, who are “caught between an obligation to protect the national border and the fact that this policy causes people to die." They reconcile this conflict, he says, by going to places where they know people are stranded and rescuing them.

U.S. immigration policy, which forces migrants to trek through dangerous terrain, has created the need for coyotes -- human smugglers -- who are paid to help them safely across.

Some coyotes are beginning to be spoken of in the tone of legend and they are increasingly the subject of Mexican corridos, or ballads; some coyotes belong to families who have been smuggling people across the border for generations.

Like the Underground Railroad of the Civil War era, their invisible networks throughout the United States transport migrants to cities like New York. Other coyotes are young, unscrupulous and inexperienced, and may rob migrants and abandon them along the journey -- some migrants lose their lives to callous or criminal coyotes.

But many migrants don’t have enough money to pay coyotes to cross the border and end up living in impoverished and heavily polluted border cities.

"One of the most striking things we witnessed [in Tijuana],” Lerner says, “was how people live on pools of contaminated water, without water or electricity in a modern city with resources. Every week you see a new encampment on the hillsides.”

“If the border region was a state,” he writes, "it would rank last in the country in the number of poor children, last in number of residents with no income, last in income per family and per person, last in school drop out rates, but rank fourth in terms of population growth.”

The border is sick, writes Lerner. Communities living along both sides face high levels of pollution caused by heavy traffic and unregulated maquiladora industries. These were given a big push by NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), which accelerated the industrial transformation of the Mexican side of the border while exacerbating the socio-economic problems of its residents, Lerner writes.

"We have a common destiny in environmental problems,” he says, “because there is no border in that."

Carcinogens and lead poisoning plague populations on the Mexican side. In one area of Tijuana near a metal factory, eight in 11 babies are born deformed, according to 29-year-old resident and community activist Lourdes Luján, says Lerner's article. This pollution then contaminates the water in San Diego on the U.S. side of the border.

The border doesn’t end at the border, argues Lerner, who sees Los Angeles -- where 75 percent of schoolchildren are Latino -- as the border’s north end.

“This is a problem that can’t be solved at the border,” he says. “It’s a political problem that has political solutions.”

The solutions, he argues, include creating real economic development in the areas of Mexico where immigrants come from and granting permits for temporary workers that -- unlike those in Bush’s proposal -- can lead to a way for them to become legal residents.

Meanwhile, migrants continue to cross the border to work in the United States, and death rates continue to rise as many freeze to death in the mountains, die from dehydration in deserts, suffocate in cars or are killed in violent attacks by robbers along the way -- a list of causes of death that Lerner likens to Dante’s Inferno.

"People die for the American dream,” he says. “Others come here and realize the American nightmare [and become homeless]. Some make it. But for many this is a one-way nightmare to hell."

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