Jul 31, 2012

The economics and human costs of migration: violence and healing in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands

The Americas MexicoBlog is pleased to post this guest blog by our contributor, Dave Feldman. Dave has been volunteering on the border and brings us his observations and reflections on migrants along the Arizona-Sonora border and US projects to provide help.

By Dave Feldman
I am not usually one to frequent McDonald’s, but I nonetheless head towards the double golden arches, which seem to cry out: “Welcome to the United States of America.” I am returning to Douglas, Arizona after an afternoon spent at the Migrant Resource Center in the Mexican border town of Agua Prieta, Sonora.

The MRC is a partnership of many different people and organizations, such as the primarily Tucson-based activist aid group No More Deaths—who I am officially volunteering with for the second summer in a row—and the bi-national faith-based Frontera de Cristo, all working together towards the common goal of helping migrants caught in the deadly web of U.S. economic and border policy. We provide food, water, clothing, simple toiletries and basic first aid, and connect folks with other organizations and shelters serving migrants in town. Some have been caught by Border Patrol and deported after walking for as long as eight days in the desert, while others are coming from the south and using the town as a departure point before trying their luck. Raia, a fellow volunteer, had heard that a vigil for those souls whose luck had run out among the cacti and rattlesnakes was going to take place in the McDonald’s parking lot, and so we decide to stop by before heading back to our double-wide trailer in the Hidden Valley Mobile Ranch.

We are met by Mark from Frontera De Cristo, along with a couple of local volunteers and a group of students from Duke—who have arrived with the Tucson-based Border Links—and Stanford. We also spot Kara, a No More Deaths volunteer we met a couple days before at our training session in Tucson. She is based in ambos Nogales—both border towns share the same name—but has just gotten back from a day in the desert near Arivaca, AZ, where No More Deaths maintains a camp and leaves water for the many migrants attempting to cross over to el Norte.

The 100+ degree heat, mountainous terrain and frequent summer monsoons do not make it a logical crossing point along the nearly 2,000 mile-long U.S./Mexico border, but the increased patrolling of urban areas through the construction of a military-style wall and the deployment of heavily armed Border Patrol and National Guard agents has left little choice. The so-called Southwest Border Initiative, first launched by the Clinton Administration in El Paso/Ciudad Juárez in late 1993, is essentially a militarized arm of the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement.

Mark has hundreds of white crosses with him, each bearing the name, date of birth and date of death of one of the thousands of people who have perished in the desert since the operation’s launching.  Many simply bear the word desconocido, as it is often impossible to determine the identities of the human remains recovered in the desert. With an armful of crosses each, we march in single file towards la línea, taking turns reciting names and responding “¡presente!”  in unison. Afterwards we lay each cross against the curb, so they form a long line from the McDonald’s parking lot to la garita. Some of the passing vehicles give a muffled honk to show their solidarity before continuing on to Mexico. We then form a circle, pass along the three remaining crosses, and reflect upon the larger economic forces that are responsible for this migration and its multitude of victims. I share with the group that I want nothing more than to make sure that the names of those who I have met at the MRC over the two preceding days never appear on such a cross.

I am thinking of Juan[1] from Veracruz, who is trying to cross to the U.S. to find work and send money back home so that his two sons can attend college. He wants to enter with proper authorization, and he shows me the crisp Mexican passport that he has recently received to achieve that goal. Now he is trying to find an American employer to sponsor him so he doesn’t have to cross in the desert.

I am thinking of young Roberto from Toluca, who wants to find work in Atlanta or Los Angeles so he can send money home to his wife and baby boy since he cannot find a job in Mexico City, where they have been living. Both have already worked in the U.S.—before the onset of the Great Recession—and are willing to go through great lengths to support their families back in Mexico.

I admire the courage of both Juan and Roberto, but am angered that we are meeting under such circumstances. The neoliberal Structural Adjustment Programs that have been imposed on Mexico by the IMF, the U.S. Treasury and Wall Street banks since the debt crisis of 1982, required that the government slash public services, food subsidies and aid to the poor. Promotion of a policy of privatization of public enterprises allowed Carlos Salinas de Gortari to sell national companies to soon-to-be billionaire friends like Carlos Slim at artificial rock-bottom prices. I think of the millions of small farmers from Oaxaca and Chiapas who were forced to migrate north after NAFTA triggered an avalanche of cheap, heavily subsidized and genetically modified corn from the U.S., making it impossible for them to earn a living on their ancestral land.

I think of the maquiladora workers toiling for low wages under harsh conditions just south of the border, and as an American I think of the role that the Border Industrialization Program and NAFTA have played in this burgeoning exploitative industry. I think of those in the maquiladoras who are lured by the possibility of a better salary in the U.S. and make the decision to cross that border on foot, once nothing more than a line on a map but now an imposing, heavily-guarded 20-foot tall steel wall already responsible for more deaths than its more famous predecessor in Berlin. I think of the daily difficulties the nearly 12 million currently undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. face every day.

There is more than a tinge of sadness to my anger. Juan, on the other hand, says that he has no time for sadness. He is constantly cracking jokes and regaling us with stories from his years spent working in the U.S. As a former truck driver, his knowledge of the country’s geography is impressive. He also tells us of his time working as a KFC cook from 4pm to midnight in Salt Lake City, and mentions that this was after his 7 to 3 shift as a welder. He had worked hard to land the welding job, and was fortunate enough to be rewarded with a $27 an hour wage. Juan tells us how young migrants from Central America traveling through the country on the roofs of freight trains would get off when the trains stopped near his work to unload, and announce that they were hungry and thirsty but had no money for food or water. Conscious of his good fortune, Juan would take all of them—sometimes up to twenty—to a nearby Mexican food stand and say “piden lo que quieran,”  treating the youngsters to five or six tacos each before they would inevitably hop back on the train and continue on their long journey to some unknown destination.

Roberto tells me that neither his wife nor his parents wanted him to go north, and that his greatest fear is that he will come across a dead body in the desert. When I ask him about the dangers that the desert poses to his own body, he claims he isn’t scared. Juan dismisses my concerns with a wave of his hand and a “no va a pasar nada”. How many of those who have had their names forever etched into a white cross had uttered the same words? I am slightly relieved when Roberto tells me the following day that Beto, the MRC coordinator, has been convincing him not to make the journey, and when I overhear Juan, who had wanted to cross in the late afternoon, talking about the dinner that a nearby shelter will be serving at 7.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but think of Juan as I catch a glimpse of the KFC on the other side of the strip mall. I wonder who their cooks are and what they are paid, and for that matter, who is flipping the Big Macs across the street. As Raia and I leave the parking lot I happen to notice that there are two cars in the drive-thru lanes at the McDonald’s. It is an utterly mundane scene, but for some reason they look like border crossing booths today. They are sites of countless face-to-face yet impersonal interactions, and although they have taken on the semblance of normalcy, I can’t help but think that behind that façade lies a system of institutionalized exploitation.

The sun has started to set as we turn north and head towards our trailer, with the wide open expanse of the desert and the mountains to the west providing the backdrop for a gorgeous sunset. But it is also monsoon season, and the scattered lightning and storm clouds in the distance look ominous. Monsoons move fast in the area this time of year, bringing with them howling winds and local but torrential rains. Raia and I are spared during our short ride home, but as we bring the bikes inside, I think of the hundreds of human beings in the desert who travel by night to avoid detection and the blistering heat, and how the barren landscape offers very little in the way of shelter.

Dave Feldman is an immigrant rights activist originally from New Jersey and currently based in Paris. He is also a frequent visitor to the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, and is writing his Master’s thesis on the militarization of the region in the post-NAFTA era. He is a CIP Americas volunteer and a contributor to “Dissident Voice”.

[1] Juan and Roberto are fictitious names

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