August 2 2002

Border Death-Trap — Time To Tear Down America’s Berlin Wall

By Joseph Nevins

The U.S. Border Patrol recently recovered four bodies outside the town of Ocotillo in the scorched desert of California’s southern border region. On the same day, the Imperial County coroner removed a corpse from an irrigation canal near Calexico to the east. And over the previous weekend, U.S. authorities found five more bodies in western Arizona. All of the deceased were from Mexico, part of an ever-growing death toll among migrants crossing the U.S. boundary without authorization.

Mourners March for Border Deaths. Mourners brought to the public's attention the number of deaths at the border, last year. File Photo.

These fatalities helped the United States reach an ignominious milestone during July: 2,000 dead migrants along the southern divide since 1995, soon after Washington began to significantly enhance boundary policing. That’s roughly one corpse per border mile, or one per 1.4 days. Just as the deaths of would-be migrants trying to overcome the Berlin Wall led to outrage and calls for the militarized line of control to come down, moral and political consistency requires a similar response to the ever-deadly U.S.-Mexico boundary.

When Washington, D.C., began its “territorial denial” strategy in the mid-1990s, officials predicted that it would discourage many migrants from crossing by pushing them away from border cities and towns into harsh mountain and desert areas where they would rationally decide to forgo the risks and return home. These predictions soon proved false, as the number of fatalities — largely from exposure to the elements and drowning — rose dramatically.

Denying any responsibility for the deaths, U.S. officials’ typical response has been one of hand wringing, or outrage directed at the “coyotes” — smugglers whose services are made more necessary by the very boundary build-up championed by these same officials. More proactively, officials promised increased search and rescue efforts.

Yet, June was the deadliest month on record, with 70 migrants perishing, including two girls, 11 and 12. And over the last year, the death toll in proportion to the number of migrant apprehensions — a rough indicator of the actual migrant flow — has actually risen.

Such numbers and the human suffering they embody demonstrate there is nothing surprising about the fatalities. They are the predictable outcome of a lethal, predictable charade, one in which Washington provides ever-increasing amounts of boundary enforcement resources in full knowledge that they will do little to diminish unauthorized immigration, but will instead have increasingly deadly consequences.

A report last August from the General Accounting Office found “no clear indication” that unauthorized crossings along the Southwest boundary have declined since 1994. An in-depth study released recently by the Public Policy Institute of California confirms this, while attributing the rise in migrant deaths to enhanced boundary enforcement.

Growing socioeconomic ties and widening inequality between the United States and Mexico (and increasingly beyond) — combined with the will of migrants to escape poverty and to pursue their basic human right to work, maintain their families and have an adequate standard of living — make unauthorized migration inevitable.

The Bush administration’s proposed increase of $1.2 billion for immigration enforcement will do nothing to change this. To pretend and behave otherwise is to effectively sentence hundreds of migrants to death each year.

For such reasons, America’s border policy must change. This does not mean the end of the U.S.-Mexico boundary, but the nature of it. Only by recognizing the inevitability of immigration and welcoming — rather trying to repel —immigrants can we stop the deaths. At the same time, putting an end to U.S. policies abroad that contribute to political-economic instability and injustice would prove to be far more effective, in addition to more humane in diminishing immigration that is unwanted — at least officially.

American capital has long had a voracious appetite for highly exploitable labor, thus attracting “illegal” immigrants, whose presence is widely accepted at the highest levels of society. Moreover, Washington has aggressively pushed the liberalization of foreign economies such as Mexico’s, a process that has predictably intensified migratory pressures among those displaced in the name of economic efficiency.

U.S. officials are not deliberately killing migrants. But they have helped to drive migrants here, and created and maintained an enforcement apparatus that inevitably results in their deaths — in numbers far greater than occurred in East Germany. It’s time to tear down America’s Berlin Wall.

Joseph Nevins ( is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of “Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the ‘Illegal Alien’ and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary” (Routledge).

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