Check Your Rights at the Border

Economic globalization is driving workers north. They increasingly leave their rights at the border.

Border wall in Nogales, Mexico with memorial crosses and Arizona on the other side. In all, more than 4,000 men, women, and children have died in the act of looking for work in the U.S.

Photo by Susan Schulman/Barcroft Images/Getty Images

Economic globalization is driving workers north. They increasingly leave their rights at the border.

Rising from the heat of the Sonora Desert, from the thickets of ocotillo and saguaro, is the border town of Sasabe, Mexico. It used to be a cattle town. But its economy has been redefined by its position along a migrant corridor. Today its outskirts are a staging area and waystation for the cast-off workers of Mexico and Central America seeking economic refuge in the United States.

The undertow of “economic restructuring” pushes about a million workers a year to risk unauthorized migration across reinforced borders.

I have come here to gain insight into the experiences of migrant crossers, and I quickly observe that profit-seekers have found ways to capitalize on displaced workers at every stage of their journey. I walk past a row of vendors hawking supplies to prospective crossers—jugs of water, portable snacks. A Pepsi truck unloads cases of pop to sell.

In the distance, men loll in the shadows of trees, waiting for their coyote, the smuggler they've paid handsomely to get them to the next stop on the journey northward. Immigrant smuggling is a labyrinthine exercise, with numerous exchanges and pay-offs along a globalizing underground railroad. It lies at the center of a developing human rights crisis.

Unequal Crossings

When we think of immigrants, we generally picture people from poor countries moving to rich ones. But only about a third of the 200 million people who comprise the global migrant populace moves from developing to wealthier nations. Another third moves between developing nations, and the remainder moves from wealthier nations to developing nations.

Why do they go?

Of the many forces that drive individual immigration from developing countries, neoliberal capitalist policies are among the most significant. They have disrupted traditional and protected economies in nations like Mexico and Guatemala. “Free-trade” agreements like NAFTA (and the impending DR-CAFTA) have lowered tariffs and abolished the government subsidy and welfare programs that have sustained the campesino classes of these nations for generations. Absorption into the competition of the “world market”—dominated by heavily subsidized American agricultural corporations—has led to the clearing of indigenous peoples from their land at a rate that reproduces the Cherokee “Trail of Tears” weekly. Displacement in rural regions is matched by urban out-migration, as the “Wal-Martization” of the economy accelerates the rate of deindustrialization.

Overall, the undertow of “economic restructuring” pushes about a million workers a year to risk unauthorized migration across reinforced borders.

Ironically, these same policies make national boundaries increasingly irrelevant for migration in the reverse direction. During the last decade, according to U.S. State Department estimates, the number of Americans living in Mexico has soared from 200,000 to 1 million—a quarter of all U.S. expatriates. But we don't call these people “immigrants.” They are “retirees.” They are the “managers” and “technicians” in the maquiladoras. They are the “commuters”—the working poor of the United States, gentrified out of inflated housing markets like San Diego and seeking refuge in more affordable Tijuana.

José's Journey into Uncertainty

I speak with José, a young migrant crosser who could be from Chiapas, Veracruz, Michoacán, or any of a number of exporting states in the interior of Mexico or Central America. He shows me his one connection to the other side: a piece of paper scrawled with a 10-digit phone number.

José is about to enter the shadow of globalization, where he will be reduced to “an illegal,” a nonentity without the basic rights guaranteed to him by international law.

José arrived at the pick-up spot this morning, but others have been waiting here for weeks. Some are among the approximately 850,000 Mexicans who, according to the Mexican Interior Ministry, try crossing each year, get caught, and are deported. Most will try again, because about 350,000 Mexicans do successfully make it to their destinations each year. And about 500,000 people from Mexico and farther south do find work in the U.S. each year.

This is José's first crossing. The odds are against him—not just because the amount of enforcement has increased, but because its nature has changed.

Since 1994, the U.S. enforcement strategy has been two-pronged: criminalize the immigrants and militarize the borders. The U.S. has choked off traditional urban crossing points by building double and triple walls, increased the number of agents, and introduced military technology and personnel into routine activities. This policy has made the journey more dangerous by pushing crossing points into remote, hazardous regions in desert and mountainous terrain, or into the equally dangerous underworld of human smuggling—through ports of entry as container cargo.

Funding for border enforcement has increased from $1.3 billion in 1994 to $7.3 billion in 2005, and the yearly death toll during that period has mushroomed from 23 to 473.

In all, more than 4,000 men, women, and children have died in the act of looking for work in the U.S. But the rate of unauthorized crossings has not slowed.

If José does beat the odds and cross successfully, he still faces multiple tiers of U.S. criminal enforcement and the possibility of imprisonment, for the crime of looking for work in an economy that depends on his labor.

During the past year, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) has issued 3,667 “administrative violations,” which generally involve the apprehension of undocumented immigrants at work sites—up from 485 in 2002.

Since 1994, the U.S. enforcement strategy has been two-pronged: criminalize the immigrants and militarize the borders.

Another 24,000 people were picked up separately during Operation “Return to Sender.” Although it was theoretically a plan to arrest those with criminal records, two thirds of those apprehended in this operation had committed no crimes at all but were detained as “collateral arrests.”

Noncitizens generally do have immigration hearings with a judge and are supposed to be notified of the charges against them before they can be deported. And they have the right to counsel—but only if they can afford one.

Benita Jain, attorney with the Immigrant Defense Project of the New York State Defender's Association, says that while noncitizens do have some rights, “many of these rights have become meaningless—the laws have changed to make deportation a ‘mandatory minimum' for many people, where the judge has no discretion to prevent deportation.”

At least 25,000 undocumented migrants are imprisoned in more than 200 immigrant detention centers across the country. But there is still an overflow. So detainees en route to deportation hearings are routinely housed in local and state prisons, integrated into the general population there, and subjected to a host of foreseeable problems. Since 1995, about 1.5 million people have been ejected from the U.S. through this process.

Deportations have tragic consequences for families. They separate parents from children, husbands from wives, and same-sex partners from each other. An estimated 5 million children in the United States—at least 3.1 million of them U.S.-born citizens—have parents who are undocumented immigrants.

Deported parents, hoping that they can soon return, commonly leave citizen children with relatives. But current immigration law dictates that if an undocumented person is deported or leaves the country voluntarily, he or she cannot re-enter the United States for 10 years. Worse, anti-immigrant opponents have proposed legislation to deny “birthright citizenship,” so that the children of undocumented migrants born in the U.S. would be denied the right to citizenship that has historically been granted by the Constitution to all people born in the United States.

State and local governments, too, are leaping on the anti-immigrant bandwagon. In 2006, 570 immigrant bills were introduced in 32 states, mostly to implement such restrictions. Local governments have enacted restrictions on renting or providing services to migrants without proof of residency, passed “English-only” ordinances, and empowered local police to check immigration status as part of their normal routine.

Why Not Just Enter Legally?

With all these dangers arrayed against him, why doesn't José just get in line and come to the U.S. legally?

“For most Mexicans there is no line to get in,” explains sociologist and immigration expert Douglas Massey.

Despite the virtually open borders for the migration of American capital and people into Mexico (90 percent of the 2,000 foreign-owned firms in Mexico are U.S.-based), many layers of obstruction prevent Mexicans from obtaining authorization to work in the north. For one, displaced laborers or subsistence farmers like José are categorized as “unskilled,” and the U.S. distributes only about 5,000 visas each year for unskilled workers globally. In 2005, only two of those went to Mexicans.

Human Rights–Based Immigration

The trajectory of human rights for migrants in the United States not only fails the test of international standards, it fails the test of common sense. Surely we can find an easy, orderly way for working people to cross our southern border. Instead of persecuting these workers, we should be thanking them for their efforts, and ensuring every means to extend equal rights to them while they are here.

 See SIDEBAR: Humanity for the Crossing

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