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Border Deaths as a Public Health Issue: Free Trade, Militarization, Legal Entry Systems

Talk given at University of Alabama in Birmingham-Huntsville Medical Center April 1, 2014

Tucson Sector Border Wall. Photo Courtesy US Border Patrol
Tucson Sector Border Wall. Photo Courtesy US Border Patrol

“Since 1997 when the US government began to keep records, the remains of somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000-7,000 migrants have been recovered from the American Southwest. If this figure is accurate, it means that more migrants have died trying to cross our southern border illegally than died as a result of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina combined.

This figure, which is more or less official, does not take into account the migrant remains which are never recovered. Those additional remains are speculated to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 18,000-21,000. Crossing through the Pacific Ocean or the Rio Grande in Texas or through Arizona’s Sonora Desert is dangerous.

We have to ask ourselves what happens to cause these men, women, children, and babies to die? Is it primarily their human smugglers, the so-called coyotes or polleros? Is it because of drug smugglers?

Typically, overwhelmingly, they die because of the hazards of nature–drowning in the Pacific Ocean or Rio Grande or succumbing to the treacherous heat or cold in the Sonora Desert. Dying because of the heat or cold in the Arizona’s Sonora Desert, Ground Zero for migrant deaths, is a protracted and extremely painful experience. As Dr. Eric Peters of the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office says in The Second Cooler, “You’re not just here one minute and gone the next. There is a great deal of suffering involved.”

Take the case, for example, of 10-year old Olivia Luna Noguera who was crossing the desert with her sister. They were trying to re-unite with their parents who were living in Atlanta, Georgia. When authorities found Olivia, she was wearing pink sneakers. Her body temperature was 106 º F.

Or the case of 12 year old Josselina Hernández from El Salvador. Josselina was trying to reunite with her mother who lived in Los Angeles. She had bought a pair of sweat pants that said “Hollywood” on the rear. With her brother, she had crossed from El Salvador into Guatemala, through Guatemala into Mexico and had survived crossing Mexico’s 3,000 or so hostile miles. It was January and it had begun to rain. Josselina was exhausted and could no longer continue. Her coyote left her behind and she and died, alone and terrified, of the brutal cold.

How do private decisions made by Salvadorans or Hondurans or Mexicans become a US public health issue? They are a US public health issue in my opinion because there is a direct connection between these deaths and US trade and border security policies. It is imperative that we understand why millions of Latin Americans have left their homes and families to make such a humiliating, expensive, illegal, treacherous, and sometimes deadly journey. Much of phenomenon has to do with the North American and Central American Free Trade Agreements, otherwise known as NAFTA and CAFTA. When President Bill Clinton, Mexico’s President Carlos Salinas, and Canada’s Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signed NAFTA in particular, they understood as they signed it that they were “signing away life rights for a large percentage of Mexico’s rural population,” as political scientist Scott Whiteford puts it in The Second Cooler. “It wasn’t a surprise to the government leaders and it wasn’t a surprise to the peasantry.” That is why on the day NAFTA took effect on January 1, 1994, peasant farmers and indigenous people in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas participated in the largely symbolic Zapatista uprising.

Recovered Migrant Remains, Arizona
Recovered Migrant Remains, Arizona

This is how it worked. What made the trade “free” was that the protections to small farmers in the forms of tariffs which deep pocket US and Canadian corporations had to pay to export their products to Mexico were lifted. So heavily subsidized US factory producers of corn, for example, the staple product of both the Mexican agricultural economy and the Mexican diet, were put into direct competition with small, traditional farmers. Meanwhile, in order to be admitted into the NAFTA agreement, Mexico was required to repeal Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution which had provided subsidies to these small farmers to allow them to stay on their traditional, often communally-held lands. They simply could not compete.

The inability of the small farmer to compete was not part of a well-intentioned policy which had unfortunate, unintended consequences. If you read the NAFTA agreement, you will find about 50 pages in that the people who shaped and signed it knew what they were doing would push small farmers and other small producers over the edge financially. That brings us to border militarization as a public health issue. The US / Mexico border began to be militarized in conjunction with the signing of NAFTA in 1992. The purpose was to keep displaced Mexican poor people from crossing the border into the US. The militarization of the US / Mexico border had nothing to do with terrorism and everything to do with controlling poor people made even poorer by our trade policies.

Border militarization was outlined in the Southwest Border Strategy. The theory was that by sealing off the urban areas, at Nogales, Arizona for example, the traditional corridors for migrant crossing, migrants would be pushed into more hostile crossing areas, especially the vast Sonora Desert. Part of the strategy included sending migrants to their deaths. The theory was that limited numbers of migrants would die, word would get back to Mexican and Guatemalan communities and migrants would stopped trying to cross. The policy was a failure as desperate people looking for jobs or to re-unite with their families continued to come and continued to risk their self-respect, their property, and even their lives to journey north.

“Why don’t they just come legally?,” you may be asking. That would take the risk out of the picture. That is a fair question. The answer is that the US has two legal entry systems. One is for Canadians and Western Europeans. They do not need to prove anything to come, they just need to purchase a passport. The other system is for Africans, Latin Americans, and most Asians. They have to qualify in order to come. Someone has to want them in order for them to come. They have to stay for a specified period and then go home. To come they have to demonstrate two things at the outset. One is that they have title to land. This disqualifies the millions of indigenous people who live on communally-held lands, the very ones pushed into migrating by NAFTA, the very ones who are dying in disproportionate numbers in the Sonora Desert, from coming legally. They also have to prove that they have substantial quantities of money in order to come. In other words, they have to demonstrate what the US government calls a “strong attachment” to their home countries in order to come.

The deaths of thousands of migrants along our southwestern border is a bona-fide public health issue, in my opinion. If we are to stop these deaths, we must begin to look at free trade agreements, our militarized border, and our two socially and ethnically encoded legal entry systems as public health issues. Thank you.”

©Ellin Jimmerson, 2014

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