Keeping Mexican migrants safer

The Mexican corps charged with informing border-crossers of dangers is under fire after a tragedy this month.

By day, this desert town hugging the border with Arizona, a hot spot of illegal migration into the United States, seems much smaller than its 100,000 population.

With temperatures passing 100 degrees, the dusty streets are eerily quiet as everyone seeks to stay inside - including the hundreds of mostly Mexican migrants who congregate here daily before trying their hand at sneaking across the border.

But by late afternoon Agua Prieta comes alive with shoppers, gardeners, soccer players, and the large groups of migrants - sometimes two dozen or more - walking with telltale plastic water jugs in hand toward the US-Mexico line.

This is when Agua Prieta becomes a focal point of the persistent and intensifying issue of the deadly dangers that Mexico's migrants face as they attempt to make their way to jobs in the US. And it is when the town's branch of the Beta Group, a special border police corps created a decade ago in Tijuana to protect migrants and inform them of the dangers they face, swings into action. "We can't stop the migrants from trying to go north, but we can let them know what problems they face and what to do if they get in trouble," says Carlos Zozaya Moreno, a legal counselor with the Agua Prieta Beta Group. "When migrants die it hurts all of us."

The Beta Groups are on the front line of Mexican migration, and because of that they are facing mounting criticism for not doing more to stop migrant deaths. The criticism sharpened this month after three Beta officers who didn't know how to swim stood by as two migrants drowned in the Rio Grande between Matamoros and Brownsville, Texas. The chilling incident was captured by TV news cameras, ratcheting up the controversy around migrant deaths.

Mexico's Interior Ministry is now considering deploying the recently created Federal Preventive Police - better armed and supposedly better trained than the low-budgeted Betas - to the task of migrant protection.

This week the world was shocked by the suffocation deaths of 58 Asian immigrants who had been sealed in a truck supposedly delivering tomatoes from Holland to Britain. But every year, hundreds of illegal immigrants die on the southern US border. They drown, freeze in the winter, or perish of thirst in the searing heat of summer.

In a few cases they have been shot by American law-enforcement officials or private citizens. And sometimes on the Mexican side they are robbed and murdered, attractive targets because they often carry hundreds of dollars to pay a smuggler to get them across and because their goal of remaining inconspicuous makes them almost invisible.

Migrant deaths have been a thorn in US-Mexico relations ever since a buildup and redirection in US border surveillance began a few years ago.

Heavier coverage by the US Border Patrol of traditional crossing points with easiest access to US urban areas has effectively funneled migrants to more remote - and more dangerous - areas: deserts, mountains, waterways. In 1999, after deaths had surpassed 300 the year before, US and Mexican officials publicly made reducing migrant deaths a binational priority. But since then, the deaths have only increased, officials agree. Behind the continuing rise is the siren song of the job-rich US economy, coupled with devastating drought and flooding in some of Mexico's traditional emigrant-producing regions.

The deaths have prompted a crescendo of criticism in both countries of US border policy, and of Mexican response to it.

On Monday, human rights groups planted crosses with the names of deceased migrants outside the US embassy in Mexico City. Last week, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace issued a study criticizing both governments for implementing migration policies that only manage the border region instead of providing long-term solutions. For example, the US might broaden legal access for Mexicans to its job market, the Washington organization said, while Mexico could act to curtail illegal entries.

But such approaches are unlikely in a lopsided binational relationship where Mexico prefers not to push the US, some analysts say. "The Mexican government has never insisted on putting the migration theme on the US-Mexico agenda, and that attitude has shown the US that when it comes to migrants it can do what it wants," says Samuel Schmidt, an immigration affairs specialist at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Jurez.

Mexican officials say they are working to reduce the risks migrants face, and point to the Beta groups as proof. In the first four months of the year Beta officers rescued more than 12,000 migrants from life-threatening situations or environments, according to Carlos Flores Gonzlez, director of migrant protection for Mexico's National Migration Institute.

During the same period, more than 1,000 suspected people traffickers - the smuggler-guides who charge up to $1,500 to get one migrant safely across the border - were arrested.

The Betas also set up a pilot program in April in the remote Sonora desert to discourage migration through that treacherous terrain.

Yet despite their efforts, Beta Group officers say they can feel overwhelmed by a phenomenon - economic migration - that is well beyond their means to address. "All we can do is act as a voice of conscience to encourage these people to avoid danger," says Agua Prieta Beta Group coordinator Silvestre Saavedra Padilla. "But the deaths will continue because people are desperate."

On an evening tour with Beta officers, that desperation comes through.

Several married couples, a group with their sights on Phoenix, a single man trying to get back to a body shop where he'd worked in Denver, and others huddle by an embankment five feet from the border. Most had been robbed. Several were caught the night before by the Border Patrol and are making a second attempt.

But when Beta officer Zozaya ends his talk on the dangers of crossing with an offer to pay half of any migrant's bus fare back home, no one takes him up on it. "We've all come from places where there's no work, no money to keep our families going," says Jess Lpez Vsquez, on his way to Chicago with his teen son. "What are we supposed to go back to?"

By 9 o'clock darkness is almost complete, except for the string of lights illuminating the US side of the border like a prison yard. The Beta officers stop a trio of young men from Veracruz making their first crossing attempt tonight.

The officers explain their work and list the dangers. They tell the men what they are attempting is illegal in the US, that some ranchers on the other side have been known to shoot migrants. This conversation takes place within view of the spread of rancher Roger Barnett, famous for patrolling his ranch and delivering captured migrants to the border patrol. But the men, with just one jug of water among them, only half listen, anxious to get going.

Zozaya hands each of them a Beta Group pamphlet and points out the telephone number where the officers can be reached. "Let us know if you have a problem," Zozaya says, to which one of the men responds with a nervous laugh, "Yeah sure. We'll call you on our cellular."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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