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Illegal Immigration: A Death Sentence?

Immediate Release

Thursday, July 13, 2000

Illegal Immigration: A Death Sentence?

Immigration issues could rapidly bedevil Washington's relations with Fox

* Militarization of safer and more popular border crossings funnels illegal immigrants into dangerous terrain and fatal confrontations

* Ranchers' vigilante movement along the Arizona and Texas borders costs immigrant lives

* President-elect must propose solution to massive movement northward

* Washington's failure to take action is an implicit endorsement of ranchers' abusive actions

* Reports of misconduct by INS and Border Patrol agents have doubled, but adequate administrative controls are strikingly absent

* Further impoverished by NAFTA, Mexicans flood across the border

* U.S. continues to ignore the economic disparities motivating the influx of immigration

No issue is more likely to bedevil U.S.-Mexican relations in the early days of the Fox presidency than the recent rise of the vigilante movement against illegal migrants trying to cross into Arizona and Texas. This new movement reveals the darker side of the U.S. immigration policy toward Mexico. Washington's current strategy focuses on the immediate but superficial difficulties posed by illegal immigration while ignoring the economic problems caused in large part by NAFTA, which are the impetus for most of the illegal cross-border immigration. Fox has proposed accelerating Mexico's economic growth and instituting a common market system similar to that of the European Union among the NAFTA countries as one way to curb the motivation to immigrate. He explains, "The United States' goal has been to put up walls, police and soldiers to stop immigration. That can't work." Fox feels that both countries have lost sight of the development gap that is the root source of immigration. Given that Washington continues to all but snub the vigilante issue, it is also likely to shy away from Fox's politically explosive common market proposal, which would allow free movement of labor across borders and enact agreements to protect the human and labor rights of migrant workers and ensure that they receive social security and other benefits.

The U.S. federal government's denial of jurisdiction over vigilante actions, in light of rising reports of their human rights abuses, strikingly illustrates that, when it comes to Mexico, Washington is prepared to do little more than laud the deepening of economic ties through NAFTA. Meanwhile, it refuses to acknowledge the devastating effects the agreement has had on Mexico's impoverished, or recognize the incompatibility with the Clinton administration's immigration policy that has resulted in mistreatment and hostility toward Mexican and other Latin American immigrants. With each new instance of murder or harm done to Mexican migrants at the hands of vigilantes being played up in headlines throughout Mexico, those who voted for Fox are insisting that he stand up to the Clinton White House on this issue and place it at the top of his agenda when he has his first meeting with the U.S. president in the next few weeks.

Changing Immigration Pattern Causes Border Deaths to Skyrocket While Operation Gatekeeper, launched in October 1994, was created with the ostensible purpose of shifting illegal immigration away from the San Diego area into less inhabited terrain to facilitate increased apprehensions, it has led to the unintended side effects of increased abuses by INS agents and the growth of the vigilante movement, ultimately making the illegally crossing of the U.S.-Mexican border an often fatal journey. The INS is the division of the Justice Department that regulates immigration, and the Border Patrol is a branch of the INS that regulates the U.S. borders. Gatekeeper increased the number of Border Patrol agents by 140 percent and commissioned the construction of a concrete wall stretching 14 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, to seal off the popular immigration route through the San Diego sector, where the many roads, ease of transportation and a milder climate make crossing much safer. Undeniably, these changes have substantially reduced the volume of illegal immigration in the San Diego area. Floodlights, heat sensors and other technology adapted from military use have transformed the area's atmosphere to one of a prison camp. The INS publicly boasts of Gatekeeper's success in achieving its stated goal of reducing immigration flows into the metropolitan area, but the side effects of this strategy often have been devastating for border crossers, who have been forced to take much more dangerous routes into this country. In spite of these effects, illegal immigration has decreased by only about 1 percent overall, with some critics questioning whether the steady expansion in the budget and size of the Border Patrol has been cost efficient.

The change in the immigration pattern almost certainly has been the determining factor behind the six-fold increase in deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border between 1994 and 1999. Most of the fatalities resulted from exposure to the harsh natural conditions of eastern California and southern Arizona. Instituted in June 1998, Operation Lifesaver is the safety campaign jointly sponsored by the U.S. and Mexican governments that reduced the loss of life somewhat (deaths in 1999 were down to 110 from 145 in 1998). Even with this half-hearted effort to save face and ward off attacks by its critics, Washington has failed to confront the grim statistics reflecting the drastic jump in lives lost over the last five years, which demonstrates Gatekeeper's failure to slow immigration. Desperate to improve their economic situation, Mexican and other Latin American immigrants continue to flood across the border, undeterred by the heightened risks.

The Flood at Douglas While the severe geographic and climatic conditions of the new routes have claimed numerous fatalities, an equally pernicious hazard awaits border crossers in relatively unpopulated areas of Arizona and Texas, where ranchers alone or in small groups have become part of a trend toward vigilantism aimed at halting would-be immigrants. Douglas, a city of 15,000 in Cochise County, Arizona, has borne the brunt of the new immigration pattern, becoming center stage for a number of illegal detentions and killings at the hands of private vigilantes. The 170,490 apprehensions made in its vicinity by the Border Patrol during the 12-month period beginning last April (in addition to the thousands more who made it safely across), have provoked some members of the community to take the law into their own hands. However, U.S. authorities not yet acted against these groups, giving them de facto power to continue depriving immigrants of the few rights provided to them under federal law.

The Justice Department's failure to act has prompted the Mexican government to hire a Washington law firm to investigate the possibility of pressing charges against the vigilantes. Although this has angered some U.S. border residents, Mexican officials believe they must protect their nationals in situations where Washington has refused to discipline its own citizens. Mexico's president-elect Vicente Fox has proposed to deepen Mexico's commitment to NAFTA by planning to institute a common labor market by 2010, though he will have a good deal of difficulty convincing any Washington administration to consider the idea. According to Fox's thinking, this expansion would allow the free movement of workers across the border, and would purportedly resolve the current immigration problem by eliminating the need to risk surreptitious border crossings by creating a system to monitor and regulate migrant workers entering the country for fixed periods of time.

U.S. Inaction Further Endangers Lives Despite repeated appeals by Foreign Secretary Rosario Green and other Mexican officials to Washington to control the actions of its citizens, the U.S. has yet to offer any concrete solution to the specter of vigilantism, and State Department attempts to remedy the situation appear to be little more than empty gestures. At a meeting, Green and Secretary of State Madeline Albright jointly condemned the vigilante actions of some ranchers, reaffirming already established bilateral mechanisms such as Operation Lifesaver. While their communiqué recognized "the importance of protecting the rights of migrants and border residents through commitments to defend the rule of law," it merely reinforces the status quo by not undertaking a substantive plan to bring to justice those responsible for the border killings.

Though the INS is responsible for protecting immigrants along the border as well as regulating their entrance into the U.S, Doris Meissner, the Commissioner of the INS, has stated that the vigilante problem is solely a local one for area authorities to handle, thereby nominally absolving the agency of any responsibility to protect the immigrants from angry ranchers. Human rights groups argue, however, that because vigilantes are committing human rights abuses by illegally detaining and murdering immigrants, U.S. authorities have the legitimate authority step in to stop such abuses.

Instead of confronting the vigilante issue, Washington has hiked up the Border Patrol presence in Arizona in hopes of indirectly curing a problem that might be more efficiently resolved by directly punishing the perpetrators. The Justice Department added 250 more agents to the area and increased patrols along the perimeter of ranches near the border so private citizens will feel less pressure to take on the duties of the Border Patrol. But the U.S. has yet to discipline vigilante groups, in effect giving them the green light to continue their abuses and allowing other residents to believe that they may join in such lawlessness with impunity. Even if immigration slows in these areas, many experts argue that ignoring the economic realities behind the flood of immigrants, and increasing surveillance in one area will only cause an immigration explosion elsewhere.

On May 19, the House of Representatives approved the Traficant Amendment to a defense spending measure that would allow the Defense Department, the U.S. Attorney General or the Treasury Secretary to assign troops to monitor problem areas along the border. In response to the bill, Albright made known her belief that troops are unnecessary. Using military personnel to do a law enforcement job for which they have not been properly trained could invite further abuses and killings. But likely of even greater concern to the White House is the inevitably negative domestic press in the midst of a presidential election campaign, which would result from having to admit the inability of the INS to slow the influx of immigrants.

Ineffective INS Accused of Misconduct The stated mission of the INS is to regulate immigration and naturalization, control U.S. borders and uphold federal law by removing illegal immigrants from the country. However, recent events suggest that the agency's actions have spiraled out of control. As it escalates its use of force to deport illegal immigrants, the INS has come under increasing fire for mistreating them. The agency now boasts more armed agents with arrest privileges than any other federal agency, including the FBI. In addition, complaints of misconduct by INS officers doubled between 1995 and 1998 despite a 25 percent decrease in the number of officers disciplined for civil rights abuses from 1997 to 1998. Immigrants' rights groups have accused INS agents of entrapment, illegal searches, excessive use of firearms, and physical abuses such as hitting, kicking and sexual assault. Along the border there are also frightening cases of unarmed immigrants being killed by Border Patrol officers, including a Mexican migrant who was shot dead by a Border Patrol agent near Brownsville, Texas on May 21. The INS also faces allegations that it shields officers who have employed abusive tactics. Officers who witness or have heard reports about their colleagues' maltreatment of immigrants consistently failed to prevent or make them known to their superiors. Neither Congress nor the Justice Department has shown much interest in investigating instances of INS misconduct, though both have the jurisdiction to take effective action. This suggests that the abuses are likely to continue unimpeded.

NAFTA a Major Factor Behind Rising Tide of Immigration Since the 1994 signing of the NAFTA agreement commenced an era of free trade, the Clinton Administration has touted the pact's salutary economic effects on Mexico and the U.S. Despite Washington's repeated praise of the trade accord, it is becoming increasingly evident that relaxing trade barriers with Mexico has had its drawbacks, including potentially opening the floodgates to a flow of drug traffickers and immigrants. Unwilling to sacrifice NAFTA as its emblem of free trade success, the Clinton administration has annually and unquestioningly approved Mexico in the drug certification process in the face of evidence of widespread corruption and ineffectiveness of its law enforcement authorities. Washington is now beginning to show signs of fear that with the strengthening of economic bonds in accordance with NAFTA's terms (like the total integration of ground transportation), the flow of drugs into the United States will reach uncontrollable proportions.

Just as politically alarming to U.S. policymakers is the rising tide of immigrants. Though NAFTA has undoubtedly enriched Mexico's corporate sector, its effects on the Mexican working class are painfully evident just across the border, where U.S. companies have built factories to take advantage of cheap labor. Contrary to the predictions of free trade proponents, the standard of living of the Mexican working poor has stagnated under NAFTA, while lucrative management jobs remain on U.S. soil, and the components used in the factories are manufactured elsewhere. The explosion of the maquiladoras, with their paltry wages for manual laborers, has only made the lure of direct access to the booming U.S. economy a more attractive option for migrants despite the obvious risks and sacrifices.

Echoing the farce of Washington's drug certification of Mexico, the administration is unwilling to admit that the illegal immigration across its southern border is in part caused by its own lionization of free trade. Touted by U.S. and Mexican presidents as the solution to Mexico's economic problems, NAFTA has actually further impoverished Mexico's lower class and its national small- to medium-sized businesses. In addition, weakly enforced employment regulations make it easy for U.S. producers to openly welcome the cheap labor that illegal immigrants offer, sending mixed signals that have made border crossing into a semi-legal process. While Operation Gatekeeper may have shifted illegal immigration away from metropolitan areas and the public eye, the recent surge of vigilante movements and Washington's inadequate response to the violence are glaring examples of the failure of the U.S. to confront the contradictions brought on by free trade. But as long as the U.S. fails to address the harsh economic reality of Mexico's poor, immigrants from that country are likely to continue to find ways across the border no matter how high the risks.

Karen Juckett, Research Associate

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-partisan and tax exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the floor of the Senate as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers."

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