The Trail of Tears, Trail of Death

U.S. policies are killing migrant workers

By Janice Sevre-Duszynska

Migrant Trail Walk in 2006. Photo by Janice Sevre-Duszynska.

“The U.S./Mexican border es una herida abierta (an open wound) where the Third World grates against the First and bleeds. And, before the scab forms, it hemorrhages again, the life blood of the wounds merging to form a third country – a border cultur.”

– Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands/La Frontier: The New Mestiza.

Sonoran Desert folk say that before one dies in the desert – from extreme heat and dehydration – he becomes delusional. He strips off his clothes and covers himself in the sand, heating himself up even further. As his body gives way, scorpions, spiders, insects, snakes and other animals invade as the huge turkey vultures swoop down and begin their meal.

Since 1994, with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and U.S. border policies that channel migrants to the deadliest part of the Sonoran Desert, it is estimated that more than 5,000 migrants from Mexico and Central America have died on the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona/Sonora. Many succumb to unbearable temperatures above 110 degrees. Others are never found as they dissolve into that which is part of the desert.

On May 30, in an act of solidarity with migrants and to raise awareness of their plight, people from across the country and world participated in the sixth annual Migrant Trail Walk, a 75-mile, seven-day trek from Sasabe-Sonora to Tucson.

“Today, as we celebrate the 520th weekly community vigil, 10 years of bearing witness to the human casualties of the deadly border policies of militarization and enforcement imposed on border communities, we cannot help but continue to ask when this madness will stop,” said Kat Rodriguez, coordinator of the Tucson-based Coalicion de Derechos Humanos (the Coalition of Human Rights), a non-governmental organization.

The continuing increase in the recovery of skeletal remains indicates that more individuals are being funneled into more isolated and desolate terrain of the Arizona-Sonora border, the organization reports.

“This ‘Funnel Effect,’ which has been documented by the Binational Migration Institute, has shown that the practice of sealing traditional crossing points ultimately pushes migration into the deadliest areas,” Rodriguez said. “The extent of this crisis is not known as the numbers of human remains recovered in neighboring states are not available.”

282 ribbons

In 2006 I participated in the weeklong walk as a member of the Christian Peacemaker Team and BorderLinks, an interfaith educational community in Tucson. 

Our trek was nothing like the gauntlet of death that migrants face. The 130 of us who participated were accompanied by support vehicles and unlimited amounts of food, water and medical attention provided by interfaith communities. Still, it was challenging to walk many miles each day in the unrelenting sun.

“Where are you from?” asked a U.S. Border agent.

After showing him our drivers’ license, we symbolically gave up our identifications — as migrants do — by placing them in a metal box. 

 As we crossed the border into Sasabe-Sonora, Mexico, we gathered in a church to pray and be blessed on our pilgrimage by the local priest. As in the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, the body on the cross in the Catholic church there was of Christ as an indigenous migrant refugee.

Twelve people picked up three coffins, remembering the women, men and children who have died in the desert. Tohono O’odham Indians Maria and Jim, a married couple, blew a sage incense blessing through an eagle feather to each one of us. In their consecration, they evoked the Grandmother and Grandfather and displayed a string with 282 ribbons — one for everyone who died in the borderland in 2005. Then we each took a wooden, white-painted cross.

I chose one of a “desconocida,” an unknown woman who died in the desert heat that year. On the other side was the word “Presente.” What we held up in our hands represented the life and death of another human being. As we wandered farther into the desert, we felt haunted. All around us were signs of our migrant sisters and brothers, Christ the refugee: bandannas, discarded clothing, shoes and boots, baseball-style caps, cowboy hats, ski caps to keep warm on cold nights, blankets, paper refuse from fast-food places and more, including an uncountable number of empty gallon jugs, many with ropes tied to them. To keep hydrated, we were to drink two to three gallons of water each day. A migrant would need around eight gallons of water to barely survive the desert and cross over.

It’s typical for migrants to cross the border at dusk, when the night vision surveillance doesn’t catch them and the buster lights haven’t been turned on. They often travel at night under the Milky Way while the whirligig sound of searching helicopters pierces the quiet desert sky. They journey until the early morning, when they’ll lie low in the unforgiving heat of the desert bush where rattlesnakes are common. The Border Patrol watches them on radar in their office through cameras called “cherry pickers,” which resemble the machines in the movie Return of the Jedi. Their heat sensors can detect movement thousands of times smaller than what we see.

Migrants must face the desert’s many trails, where it’s easy to lose one’s way. There are quick floods called “washes” 2-10 feet deep in the canyons and fierce “dust devil” storms that swirl for 20 minutes at a time. If they are caught by the Border Patrol, migrants face the possibility of mistreatment. Beatings have been reported, and withholding of water and food at detention centers is not uncommon.

During the week of our walk, the bodies of six migrants were found in the desert. Desert folk say that, for each body found in the desert, many others will never be found. On the Sunday morning after we trekked our last 6.7 miles into Tucson, some of us participated in a “die-in” in front of the Border Patrol office. We mourned the “dead” as if they were our migrant mothers, fathers, children.

To leave is to suffer

“The nearly 2,000-mile border between the United States and Mexico has long been a zone of conflict and change, a cultural crossroads where First and Third Worlds meet,” said the Rev. Delle McCormick, a minister of the United Church of Christ and director of BorderLinks. “Many patterns of international economics and politics that affect all of our communities can be seen in sharp focus in the borderlands.”

The creation of a “free trade” zone along the border in 1965 began the flood of U.S. manufacturing plants to Mexican border towns. In 1994 the enactment of NAFTA exacerbated the difficulties. As a result, cities along the border have exploded as migrants, not able to find work elsewhere in Mexico, move north to find work along and across the border.

Today serious health problems, massive poverty, disintegrating families and environmental degradation are the unintended and often unrecognized legacies of this “development.” In addition, serious immigration problems have escalated.

“To leave one’s land is to suffer,” said a coffee farmer from Chiapas, Mexico, who now works for Just Coffee, a cooperative of coffee growers.

He told us that, since the passage of NAFTA, hundreds of thousands of coffee farmers in Chiapas and other parts of Mexico have been forced to leave their lands because of the fall in coffee prices. After NAFTA, the price of 90 pounds of coffee fell from $150 to $35. Then there are the middlemen who take their cut. The farmers could no longer support their families and needed to seek fair work.

The U.S. response to the increase in migrants crossing the border has been to increase the militarization of the border. Now migrants must cross in more remote and dangerous areas of the deserts; this has increased the number of migrant deaths. 
Miguel Pickard, a Chiapan economist from the Center for the Economic and Political Investigation for Community Action who spoke to us and participated in the walk, said we should be asking why this is happening. What is causing Mexicans who do not want to leave their land to do so?

Pickard said the main reason is NAFTA. NAFTA promotes a “savage, no-holds-barred capitalism” in which more jobs are being lost, he said. Since 1994, under NAFTA, Mexican farmers no longer receive subsidies for growing their crops. However, U.S. and Canadian farmers still do. Cheap, highly subsidized corn and other crops from the United States and Canada are allowed into the Mexican market. Mexican farmers cannot sell their crops and make a profit –- or compete with the open market. This is what drives Mexican peasants from their farms. Then a Mexican family must develop survival strategies, so they send a family member –- son, brother, husband or wife -– from the land into the cities. If a job is not available in the cities, they continue on to the United States.

Before the border became tightened and militarized, Mexican migrant workers were able to work in the United States seasonally as needed and then return to their families in Mexico. Now the migratory pattern has ended. It is too expensive to return because of coyotes and the militarization of the border, Pickard explained.

“Under neo-liberalism, the wealth is concentrated in the hands of those designing the free trades which are more than just agreements,” Pickard said. “NAFTA and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) have not been designed or voted on by the people but by ‘business types.’ As a result of their passage, the rich have gotten richer, and the middle class and poor have gotten poorer.”

Pickard explained that other countries such as China, South Korea and India operate with tariffs on imported goods that have allowed their economies to grow. Argentina got out of the World Bank so it could put tariffs on imports to protect its industries. NAFTA, however, is part of a paradigm shift that began in the 1980s, according to Pickard. It did away with tariffs that protected infant Mexican industries and agricultural products and kept out foreign competition. 
 The result in a country like Mexico – which is not on the top of the development slope – Is that the local economies are destroyed. Before, this was not permitted.

“NAFTA has frozen countries on the development path, and Mexico has gone down the last 20 years into a more relative and absolute poverty,” Pickard said. “The solution is to do what many academics are saying and what is already happening on a global scale: Open the borders now and eliminate barriers so that the movement not only of goods and capital is allowed but also of people for labor. Why does one person have to die responding to the natural supply and demand of labor?”

In March, at a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, former President Bill Clinton apologized for forcing Haiti to drop tariffs on imported subsidized rice, during his presidency. This destroyed Haitian rice farming and severely damaged its self-sufficiency. It appears he was regretting CAFTA and NAFTA.