Emily Beam: Needless deaths and failed policies

BY EMILY BEAM: LOOKING FOR AMERICA

Published March 8, 2006

Hundreds of thousands of migrants make the dangerous trek between Mexico and the United States each year. Many of them make their way up to Michigan to pick fruit, to work as day laborers or to fill the back rooms of restaurants. Some stay for a season, others stay for the rest of their lives - but none do so with even a fraction of the legal protections or privileges that citizens or documented residents enjoy. But before they face what would, under any other circumstances, be considered illegal and unethical working conditions, they must cross the desert.

Sarah Royce

Only the most extreme horror stories - 14 migrants found dead of heat exposure in 2001, 18 suffocated to death in a locked trunk in 2003, countless women raped and left for dead in the Arizona desert - make the news. But every year, hundreds of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border looking for work find only a death sentence.

Our government's response has been both hypocritical and ineffective. The administration's policies of beefing up border security while doing nothing to discourage employers from hiring migrants sends a mixed message that we simultaneously fear and rely upon undocumented migrant labor.

Individuals and communities, whether frustrated with the supposed (and inaccurately labeled) "Mexican invasion" or concerned with the legitimate side effects of illegal immigration, have often chosen to lash out at migrants, missing the underlying economic causes. Those coming across know jobs await them - jobs that most Americans wouldn't work but that allow them to scrape by, send a little money home and help lift their families back in Mexico, in Honduras or in Nicaragua out of poverty.

There is nothing radical in complaining about U.S. immigration policies. Everyone, from the migrants working for less than minimum wage to the lawn-chair minutemen who spend their free time "protecting" America, is frustrated with current policies - and with good reasons. National parks, private ranches and public land are littered with empty water jugs and tattered clothing, posing both a nuisance to residents and a threat to livestock. Cities near the border shell out millions each year in medical care and coroner's fees to cover the expenses of migrants who fall ill or die before completing the trek across the desert.

The United States has roughly tripled the number of border patrol officers over the past decade and walled off sections of the border. But as shown by increasing immigration figures and the number of deaths each year, these practices have only diverted migrants into more dangerous, less inhabited sections of the border. From one Mexican checkpoint alone, some 4,000 migrants currently enter the Arizona desert each day. The border patrol apprehends about one in five migrants making the journey.

Beyond spending millions walling off the border and employing border patrol officers, immigration enforcement is half-hearted. Today, there are an estimated 12 million undocumented residents in the United States, who compose about five percent of the country's labor force. Particularly during summer months, when temperatures will stay over 100 degrees for weeks, border patrol will often drop ill or dying migrants off at hospitals without processing them. This practice shifts the cost of medical care from border patrol to local taxpayers and allows migrants to avoid deportation. Each year, the government does less to penalize those who employ undocumented immigrants. In the mid-1990s, around 1,000 citations were handed out each year, but in 2004 the government gave out just three.

When the government does get around to hunting down undocumented immigrants already settled in the country, it does so in disturbing ways. Last summer, agents arrested 48 workers who attended a fake event advertised as a mandatory Occupational Safety and Health Administration training session. Although OSHA and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff came out against the practice, immigration officials stood by the raid, despite the distrust it fosters.

At best, current U.S. policy indirectly welcomes undocumented migrants but reduces them to a second-class status, allowing them to work and live for years in the country without the protection of our laws. At worst, it labels them as a threat to national security and puts their lives at risk. Frustrated with the failures to address immigration policy, the fashionable thing to do has become blaming the migrant, passing laws and ordinances to further marginalize those without legal status. But how can we accuse the migrant who, out of desire to feed his family or afford to send his children to school, abandons his family and his community to travel thousands of miles, risking his life repeatedly to work jobs Americans shun?

Beam can be reached at ebeam@umich.edu.