Connect the Dots

In May 1997, a team of four U.S. Marines shot and killed an 18-year-old U.S. citizen. He was herding goats just outside the tiny town of Redford, Texas, on the Mexican border. The Marines thought he was a drug smuggler.

Last week a Border Patrol officer died in a hail of "friendly fire" on the Arizona border with Mexico, at night, in dark, rugged terrain. The officer who died apparently thought his colleagues were "armed smugglers" and opened fire. Unable to see who was shooting, his colleagues returned fire, killing the officer.

In the intervening 15 years, have we learned nothing? How many border deaths -- American-on-American shooting deaths -- will it take for us to wake up to the fact that we have militarized our border with Mexico beyond all reason?

The 1997 killing produced a $1.9 million dollar payout by the federal government to the young man's family, a report by the U.S. Marines, another report by Lamar Smith, a PBS documentary, and a movie starring Tommy Lee Jones. The shooter was not charged with a crime. The Marines withdrew from border drug patrols.

What will this latest Border Patrol shooting death produce? Another round of investigations, reports, and documentaries, no doubt. But will we change our border policies?

Researchers, journalists and border activists all conclude that while illegal border crossings are down, border deaths are up. The four horsemen of our current border apocalypse -- xenophobia, the migrants' need to work to feed their families, the profit motive that drives more border fencing, unmanned drones and private immigration jails, and a visa quota system completely out of touch with reality -- combine and conspire to make reform difficult and unlikely, at least in the short run.

For most migrants, there is no line for visas in which to wait, not even at the back. Private companies make millions building and staffing ever more immigration prisons. If a laborer can find a job in Mexico, it might bring him $5 or $6 dollars a day, versus $8 per hour in the U.S. And if racism has not vanished, 150 years after the Civil War, fear of foreigners is not likely to evaporate any time soon. These are the facts on the ground fueling border violence.

No, reform is not just around the corner. Unless... unless the families of the dead Americans, from goat herders to Border Patrol officers, connect the dots and say, "Enough!" We have become desensitized to the hundreds (now thousands) of migrants -- foreigners -- who have died in the desert trying to cross into America. Perhaps the deaths of Americans on the border will jar us, finally, from our unholy slumber.