Immigrant deaths a casualty of free trade
May 30, 2001
Last week, smugglers abandoned a group of Mexican immigrants in the blistering 115 degree heat of the Arizona desert. Fourteen died during the border crossing and 12 others were hospitalized.
It is believed to be the largest group of immigrants to die while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in the past 15 years.
Current free-trade policies, in conjunction with a crackdown by the U.S. Border Patrol, are to blame for these deadly conditions.
For the past decade, U.S. corporations have enjoyed unlimited movement across the U.S.-Mexico border. To increase profits, they have transferred thousands of jobs from the United States to Mexico, but not to the benefit of Mexican workers.
Since NAFTA's passage in 1994, the economic situation of Mexico's workers has worsened. About 2 million jobs have disappeared, and real wages have declined by more than 40 percent. Approximately one-third of workers earn less than minimum wage, which is about $4 per day, according to political economist John W. Warnock.
But as more and more U.S. corporations are allowed easy access to cheap labor in Mexico, Mexican workers are denied the same rights of access to jobs in the United States. Desperate for work and a means of survival, workers cross the border only to encounter increasing dangers.
Desert temperatures climb well beyond 100 degrees during the day and drop to freezing conditions at night.
To make matters worse, since the early 1990s, the U. S. government has funneled more and more resources into border surveillance in an effort to seal off popular crossing points. If Congress approves President Bush's budget, the number of Border Patrol agents would increase by 1,140 in the next two years, totaling 11,000 guards by 2003.
I was recently in Brownsville, Texas, where I witnessed the daily effects of misguided border policies. Brownsville is within walking distance of the Rio Grande River, which separates Mexico and the United States. Border Patrol cars cruise the streets and agents routinely harass people, including U.S. citizens and legal residents. And until recently, huge lights installed by Border Patrol along the river illuminated the area so brightly that the wildlife no longer knew whether it was day or night.
Brownsville is not an anomaly. In El Paso, San Diego and other points along the border, crossing has become more difficult.
As a result, desperate immigrants turn to smugglers -- also called coyotes -- who sometimes charge them hundreds of dollars and then abandon them in dangerous and isolated areas. In the case of the 14 immigrants who died in the Arizona desert, coyotes left the group promising to bring back water. They never returned.
A joint statement by the Mexican and U.S. governments declared, "These tragic deaths highlight the pressing need for our governments to continue their work to reach new agreements on migration and border safety."
But change will not come unless both governments recognize that supposed free trade comes at a high human cost.
Yolanda Chvez Leyva is a historian specializing in U.S.- Mexico border history. She can be reached at email@example.com.