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A View From the Border on the U.S. Immigration Debate

Much has changed on the U.S.-Mexico border over the last decade, but migrant crossing deaths have continued. From the perspective of the border, this still-unfolding tragedy looks like a good place to restart the trifling U.S. immigration debate.
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Nativists favor devolution when it comes to state laws like Arizona's SB 1070, but they are not so open to the collective wisdom of border communities on immigration. A recent gathering in El Paso, Texas served as a reminder of how outlandish the national immigration debate looks from the perspective of the U.S.-Mexico border region. It also revealed the potential of border communities to ground and redirect this debate. The event, organized by the Border Network for Human Rights, joined elected officials, law enforcement agencies, religious leaders, academics, journalists and community organizers in a dialogue over how to improve life in the border region.

The participants broadly supported U.S. immigration enforcement priorities and lamented the threats posed by drug cartels and human smugglers, particularly to youth. However, many wondered why the use of federal enforcement resources did not reflect these priorities. As Andrew Sellee of the Wilson Center has argued, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) "prioritizes terrorism, transnational crime, and immigration violators in that priority order, but Congress and the Department seem to actually apportion resources in the exact inverse order." At the same time, participants rejected the dominant narrative of a violent, chaotic and lawless border region, pointing out that they live in some of nation's safest communities. A consistent theme was that politically motivated rhetoric regarding an out-of-control border deterred investment, led to adventitious public policies, and otherwise ill-served border communities. As DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has frequently pointed out, this rhetoric also dismisses the hard-work, sacrifices and judgments of federal law enforcement agents.

Border residents, many with bi-national families, tend to view sovereignty as more than an expression of a state's power to exclude and to deny membership. The El Paso conversation assumed that the United States and Mexico have an affirmative responsibility to facilitate family life, to promote trade and commerce, to protect migrants, and to work together to address environmental, public health and economic challenges that cannot be solved unilaterally. Border residents understand the immense potential of globalization to improve the material well-being of their communities, but have also experienced the displacement and insecurities that the globalized economy can cause. Several participants spoke in support "fair" trade, not just full trade, and said they would like to "humanize" the dialogue on globalization. They hope to begin a conversation that goes beyond the customary acknowledgment of globalization's "winners and losers," and that addresses how its benefits can be more broadly and equitably shared.

Border residents overwhelmingly support a secure and orderly border. The well-being of their communities depends on it. They seek a border where virtually all migration is legal, not because the two nations forego their responsibility to regulate admissions, but because their laws align with the labor, family, development and protection needs of residents, visitors and passers-through. Many speakers, particularly the public officials, questioned the symbolism and efficacy of the border wall. The federal government must repair thousands of breaches in the wall each year. Meanwhile, under-investment in ports-of-entry stunts bi-national trade and commerce, increases the nation's vulnerability to entries by drug traffickers and other transnational criminals, and degrades the environment as vehicles regularly wait for hours to enter. Participants also criticized resource disparities between traditional Border Patrol operations and initiatives to interdict the southward flow of the firearms and drug profits that fuel Mexico's murderous drug cartels.

Although illegal border crossings have fallen to rates not seen in decades, the Secure Fence Act of 2006 requires "operational control" of the land and maritime border, which Congress immodestly defined as "the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States." Participants argued that this goal will never be achieved and that this may be the point: setting the enforcement bar so impossibly high relieves Congress of the need to pass meaningful reform legislation. Edward Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations has usefully compared this zero-tolerance approach to illegal migration, with far more modest U.S. apprehension rates for violent crimes, even murders.

On May 24, 2001, the Border Patrol found four migrants wandering east of Yuma, Ariz., in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. The four had broken away from a group of 26, who came from the Mexican states of Guerrero and Veracruz. Smugglers had lied to the migrants about the distance they had walk and had directed each of them to carry only one gallon of water, despite 115 degree temperatures. Ultimately, search and rescue teams found six clusters from this group. Fourteen died, including Mario Castillo-Fernandez, a 25-year-old father of a 4-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter from the village of Cuatro Caminos in Veracruz. He earned 35 pesos a day -- then and now about $3 -- working on coffee and citrus plantations. He had a humble goal: to find work that would allow him to finish construction of his cinder-block house.

At their best, border communities do not see migrant crossing deaths as a statistical trend or reporting issue. Good Samaritans devote their time, sweat and toil to prevent deaths. Religious groups commemorate the lives lost, particularly of those who will never be identified. Many Border Patrol agents take a "there but for the grace of God" attitude toward the migrants that they encounter, living and dead.

Much has changed on the U.S.-Mexico border over the last decade, but migrant crossing deaths have continued. In fact, fatality rates have increased and federal officials report a sharp upsurge in crossings by unaccompanied minors, mostly from Central America. These children -- driven by gang violence, crop failure and other factors -- run the gauntlet of cartels, smugglers, criminals and deadly crossing routes.

We hear virtually nothing these days from the presidential campaigns, elected officials or the media about why migrants (including children) expose themselves to these well-known dangers, or why our nation's massive national security infrastructure fails to safeguard these most desperate of human beings. From the perspective of the U.S.-Mexico border, this still-unfolding tragedy looks like a good place to restart the trifling U.S. immigration debate.

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