Death on the Border

Death on the Border

Now that a summerlong Homeland Security crackdown along the Arizona border is concluding, the results are in and they spell lethal failure.



Now that a summerlong Homeland Security crackdown along the Arizona border is concluding, the results are in and they spell lethal failure. Since the fiscal year began last October 1, the statewide toll has reached a record 164 migrants perishing while trying to cross into the United States.

Already in August, when I headed out with US Border Patrol search and rescue specialist Jim Chism on his daily routine an hour southwest of here, he could sense that this “season of death” was going to be as grim as ever. “No one should have to die for entering the United States without papers. It shouldn’t be the death penalty,” he said as we followed the trail of a group of migrants through a jumble of lava-hot volcanic rock, mesquite, greasewood and cat’s-claw brush in triple-digit heat. Chism feared the group we were following was lost and facing dehydration and sunstroke. “Looks like a group of seven,” he said, intensely studying the foot tracks. “In this heat you can only carry enough water for thirty-five to forty miles, then you start drinking out of ponds, contaminated irrigation water and finally your own urine. And then you die.” We never found the group, who may have been a day ahead of us.

Agent Chism was but one piece of the Bush Administration’s much-ballyhooed $25 million-plus Arizona Border Control (ABC) operation, which began in March and which was supposed to curb the flow of undocumented aliens and save the lives of desperate desert-crossers. The Border Patrol had been praising the program as effective and consistently reporting a decline in deaths until local reporters–led by the Arizona Republic–learned that the government had changed its accounting methods to downplay fatalities; they compiled their own independent count. The Border Patrol acknowledged it was accurate. The ABC initiative included the deployment of scores of additional Border Patrol agents, Black Hawk helicopters and even aerial drones to try to stem the flow. A $13 million program to repatriate apprehended crossers deep within Mexico on two daily flights was aimed at reducing repeat-crossers and lowering the death count.

But the lessons of the past decade, which saw nearly 3,000 people die trying to cross, still apply: Tamp down the border in one place and it balloons in another. This past summer as Border Patrol agents squeezed the gap on the central Arizona border, more migrants crossed to the east and west through even more treacherous terrain. Not only is the death count up, but when the final tallies are in, the total number of apprehensions along the entire length of the southern border will remain unchanged from the last few years–about a million. An equal number, maybe two or three times that, will have slipped through. “What we have continues to be a fatally flawed policy,” says Tucson-based Rev. Robin Hoover, organizer of the Humane Borders project, whose members distribute water to migrants near the deadliest crossings. “The crossings and the deaths continue. In a post-9/11 period where Homeland Security is supposed to be paying attention, it seems that the only way to achieve real security would be to get serious about a comprehensive legalization and reform program.”

Few in Washington seem ready for such reform. George W. Bush briefly raised hopes for liberalization this past January, when he proposed a guest-worker program. But protests from the restrictionist right led directly to a White House back-down. Arizona Senator John McCain had been championing a bill, supported by Democrats, that would have moved toward legalization of some agricultural workers, but the GOP Congressional leadership also sandbagged that measure. John Kerry has promised, if elected, an “earned legalization” program in his first 100 days. Kerry, however, would most likely be working with substantially the same Congress, and the previous Democratic White House, it should be noted, is responsible for creating and implementing the current disastrous border policy. The only two active measures on immigration are, unfortunately, going in the wrong direction. The Department of Homeland Security recently issued “expedited removal” authority to its Border Patrol agents, allowing them to summarily deport non-Mexican detainees without a hearing. And nativist forces in Arizona have placed Proposition 200 on the November ballot, which requires state agencies to demand proof of residency before providing basic services.

Two days after my ride with Chism, the press reported that the past weekend had been the deadliest in three years along the border, with the discovery of at least a dozen corpses. The bodies of five people found together on their way north could have been those Agent Chism had been tracking.

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