Wednesday, October 11, 2006
With President Bush’s signing of the only piece of immigration legislation Congress passed this term, undocumented migration has become a crime punishable by death. Instead of comprehensive reform (which could have included Bush’s guest worker proposal to ease pressure at the border, plus a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants), lawmakers honed in on border security, calling for construction of a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, priced at $1.2 billion. The problem is that the fence idea has been tried; it won’t work, and the result will be countless more unnecessary deaths.
Beginning in 1994, the Clinton administration implemented Operation Gatekeeper, a strategy of “control through deterrence” that involved constructing fences and militarizing the parts of the southern border that were the most easily traversed. Instead of deterring migrants, 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 dramatically surged. In 1994, fewer than 30 migrants died along the border; by 1998 the number was 147, in 2001, 387 deaths were counted, and the past fiscal year 451 died.
Given the risks, why do migrants continue the harrowing trek? The attraction of the United States is obvious. The strong economy pays Mexican workers, for example, eight to nine times more than what they can earn in Mexico. For many, it’s a matter of economic desperation, and some observers think that migrants would continue to come even if we mined the border. In a sense, they do not have a choice. Besides, jobs are plentiful here, because a variety of industries rely on low-wage migrant workers. The migrants may know the risks, but figure that the risks are outweighed by the benefits of crossing.
Motivations for continued migration call into question the likely effectiveness of the 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 U.S., 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. For two years, President Bush has proposed temporary worker plan that, with modifications, makes more sense than enforcement only legislation. As a nation, the United States ought to do the right thing, especially when it comes to Mexican migrants 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 that have operated 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 a large guest worker program, we 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. But we have to do this in a manner that provides the workers with respect from other Americans and hope for membership. Thus, a path toward earning permanent residence after a period of time and paying a financial penalty for entering illegally, as proposed by Arizona Republican Senator John McCain and Representatives Jeff Flake and Jim Kolbe, becomes a critical ingredient of any guest worker program.
Our nation has a choice between the 700 hundred-mile death trap or a path to enfranchisement for these individuals on whom we have depended upon for generations. Our economic, social, and national security interests demand that we pursue the moral choice.