Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The 700-Mile Death Trap

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.


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Mexico's economic problems are the problems of the Mexican government and the Mexican people. No revolution, economic or otherwise ever took place by revolutionaries leaving the field of battle. How will Mexico ever reform itself if there is no driving force to do so. Appeasing the Mexican government by acquiescing to its demands is foolish. The "death trap" is the responsibility of the Mexican government, because it chooses not to prevent illegal immigration. The U.S. is no more responsible for Mexican nationals than we are for the fate of Pakistanis or Indians living in poverty.

There is no such thing as an undocumented immigrant. All immigrants, as defined by immigration law, have the so-called green cards. Mexcans are no more legitimate as immigrants than a Korean national visiting Disney World on a tourist visa, or a German national visiting his U.S. subsidiary to do business. No matter how much you repeat it professor, illegal aliens are still illegal aliens and not undocumented immigrants. You remind me of an old lady prude who cant't bear to say the word hell. This use of unsavory, yet true words is only be a form of denial of the truth.

Posted by: George | Oct 12, 2006 5:16:14 AM

To place your death statistics in perspective, somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 Americans a year die in highway traffic accidents, yet we still choose to take the risk of taking to the roads. Is that a government scandal or result of individual adults responsible for their own actions? The deaths of few hundred adults who who die in the desert in July due to their own foolish behavior seems trivial by comparison.

Posted by: George | Oct 12, 2006 5:23:24 AM

Illegal immigration should be stopped by any means that the American people feel fit to use. The Ag business should be made to feel the impact of their illicit hiring of illegal immigrants. Employers of imported labor should be made to foot the bill for the entire cost of employing foreign labor, including education, health care and any administration costs of running a migrant labor program. Only then would the true cost of hiring migrant labor would become evident to all. They should also be made to pay a bond for each employee, to be forfeited in the event that the employee fails to return to his homeland after his term has expired. Employers should be responsible for assuring migrant laborers are housed in accordance with local zoning and sanitary laws.

It is my belief that once the full cost of employing migrant labor is born by the employer, the cost will rise to the point that an average American will be economically competitive. And if the price of labor gets too onerous for the farmer, the ag business and industry can get together and cut manual labor to a fraction of its current level by use of mechanization. Eli Whitney did it for big cotton, and it can be done for lettuce, spanach and most other fruits and vegetables. The industrial revolution is far from over, despite the ignorance of and self interest of advocacy groups and their friends.

Professor Hing has deliberately ommitted an important illegal immigration control from consideration. If employers of illegal aliens are prosecuted and given long sentences and heavy fines, the problem would solve itself, as nearly all would be let go and no employer would hire them. Their only resort would be repatriation. Forced to go home, maybe the people of Mexico could muster the courage to start an economic revolution in Mexico.

Posted by: George | Oct 12, 2006 5:59:05 AM

Financial penalty? You've really got me going, now! The financial penalty is based upon taxes that they owe, but the fact is these people don't earn enough money to pay taxes in the first place. It's more than likely that they will pay nothing at all. If they had paid any taxes at all, it would probably be refunded!! Not only is it an empty penalty, it's unjust, as this amnesty from IRS penalties is not available to the average citizen. It's outrageous to propose giving amnesty to foreign nationals, a benefit that wouldn't be bestoyed upon the rest of us. Reference to paying penalties is only one of a myriad of disingenuous statements that immigration any cost advocates make about the McCain-Kennedy bill. If professor Chen had been listening to more than his own tired rhetoric and LaRaza, he would have noticed that the M-K bill has been gone over with a fine tooth comb and found to be no more credible at stopping illegal immigration than the 1986 bill.

Posted by: George | Oct 12, 2006 3:28:14 PM

National Public Radio's 14 October, Weekend Edition discussess farm worker shortages in California in its segment, Farm Workers at a Premium in California's Central Valley by Sasha Khokha. A good part of the piece is about the use of manual labor for harvesting grapes, in this instance for the purpose of processing raisins. It seems that grape picking is very much amenable to mechanized harvesting and the dire predictions of shortages of manual labor for this fruit and other produce can be averted by replacing manual labor by machines. Machines are not subject to dying in the heat, do not need benefits, do not go on strike, do not quit for better prospects elsewhere, etc. Machines are generally faster and can always be relied upon to be present when needed. The produce business is one of the few businesses not completely morphed by the industrial revolution, and its about time it got beyond 19th century methods.

Also mentioned in this piece was the propaganda put out by a California Democrat congresswomen who's making an issue about a shortage of labor for pear picking. It turned out that the shortage was caused by extraordinary circumstances of timing during the growing season, not by any crackdown by ICE. My point here is that politicians and farmers in California and elsewhere are not above lying to the people of this nation, so much of what they say is little more than spinning and propaganda to further their agendas of getting re-elected and cheap labor to exploit. This is really not news to most, but worth re-iterating anyway.

In truth most manual labor done by Mexican national labor can be done by machine. Given the pressure of rising wages and benefits and less availability of workers, we can reduce our dependence on foreign labor to a fraction of what it is today. Machine harvesting is the inevitable future for nearly all major crops, and we shouldn't have a need to exploit the unfortunate victims of the government of Mexico's economic policies, as professor Hing would lead us to believe.

Posted by: George | Oct 14, 2006 7:28:02 AM

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