Beyond the season of death on the US-Mexico border

When I arrived in southern Arizona in the first days of June, temperatures were in the 90s - considerably more bearable than two weeks earlier when the mercury spiked and reached 115 degrees. The heat wave marked the early beginning of another "summer of death" in Arizona's Sonoran Desert: Authorities found the bodies of 12 unauthorized immigrants in the scorched terrain stretching from Yuma in the west to Douglas in the east.

This summer has been especially deadly in Arizona as migrants are perishing - most frequently from heatstroke and dehydration - at what appears to be a record pace. Over the July 4 weekend, at least 10 lost their lives. During a four-day period in late July, authorities discovered 14 bodies, including one of a 13-year-old boy. With more than 190 documented migrant deaths in the state since the Oct. 1 start of the current federal fiscal year, the grim toll is on pace to surpass last year's record of 221.

These deaths are the predictable result of a flawed boundary enforcement strategy. Barring a fundamental rethinking in Washington and throughout US society about boundary policing and unsanctioned immigration, the loss of life will continue to grow.

While the summer months are the worst and Arizona is the center of this tragedy, migrants die throughout the year and along the entire 2,000-mile US-Mexico boundary as they try to circumvent the federal government's enforcement web. Indeed, such deaths have become a way of life in the US-Mexico borderlands. Yet, because the fatalities typically occur outside the public eye and the corpses are those of "illegals" fleeing poverty in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, they elicit little attention in the media and in public debate.

Deaths took place long before the 1990s, but the numbers have increased dramatically since the Clinton administration initiated a major buildup of the boundary policing apparatus 10 years ago. This "deterrence" strategy has resulted in almost a tripling of the size of the Border Patrol, and a huge increase in surveillance equipment and enforcement infrastructure - including walls and fences.

More than 3,000 migrants have died since 1995 - and that's a conservative estimate, because it is based on bodies actually found. Given the vast and harsh terrain of the border region, the real number is undoubtedly much higher. And despite much-touted efforts by US authorities to address the resulting humanitarian crisis by warning would-be migrants of the dangers of crossing and increasing search-and-rescue missions, the death toll has not slowed.

What is also striking about the new strategy is its marked failure to reduce unsanctioned immigration. While in Arizona, I saw firsthand evidence of that failure. Arduous desert trails were covered with footprints, water bottles, plane and bus tickets to Mexican border towns, clothing and other personal effects - testimony to the large volume of traffic and the unflagging will of migrants.

This evidence dovetails with academic research that has consistently found that migrants have adapted to the new enforcement regime by relying increasingly on professional smugglers and utilizing new and more dangerous routes across the boundary - in addition to staying longer in the US than they would otherwise. In other words, the billions of dollars spent over the past 10 years to gain control over the southern boundary has achieved nothing of the sort. Instead, they have only resulted in increased human suffering.

But nothing succeeds like failure when it comes to immigration enforcement. This is especially true for officials and politicians who are blinded by nationalist logic demanding boundaries be controlled, or enticed by a politics of fear that sees ubiquitous and perpetual threats lurking outside the country, or are opportunistically attracted to easy votes gained by railing against an "out-of-control" border region. The bankruptcy of federal enforcement efforts only results in calls for more of the same. Thus, with few exceptions congressional Republicans and Democrats alike champion ever-more resources for boundary policing.

Additional resources will also certainly fail to block the entry of unauthorized migrant workers and their families into the United States.

The world's profound socioeconomic inequality and instability - one greatly increased by so-called free trade policies - produce intense pressures to migrate. Meanwhile, the growing social and commercial ties that transcend national boundaries and the voracious appetite of wealthy countries for low-cost immigrant labor guarantee that migrants will come here.

Given such factors, international migration is inevitable and unstoppable. And from a human rights perspective, it is also necessary. How else, if not by migrating elsewhere, can individuals and families realize their rights to food, shelter, clothing, a job, and an adequate standard of living when the necessary resources are lacking in their home areas?

The refusal to recognize this and act accordingly explains the mounting death toll. Unauthorized international migration should not be a law-and-order issue. Instead, we should recognize it for what it is: largely the result of an unjust world order and the breakdown of social systems.

Were we to do so and act to remedy these root causes, while instituting a boundary regime truly respectful of human rights, most migrants would have far less reason to leave home in the first place. And the US-Mexico border region would cease to be one repeatedly scarred by avoidable and inexcusable tragedy.

Joseph Nevins is an assistant professor of geography at Vassar College. He is the author of "Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the 'Illegal Alien' and the Making of the US-Mexico Boundary."

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