Death at the Border

Comprehensive Immigration Reform Can End Needless Loss of Life

Immigrants suffer crimes and needless death trying to cross the border every day. But we can end the tragedy with comprehensive reform, writes Henry Fernandez.

A group of illegal immigrants wait in line while being deported to Mexico at the Nogales Port of Entry in Nogales, AZ. Many immigrants don't even make it this far, however, as many suffer crimes and unnecessary death daily while attempting to cross the border illegally. (AP/Jae C. Hong)
A group of illegal immigrants wait in line while being deported to Mexico at the Nogales Port of Entry in Nogales, AZ. Many immigrants don't even make it this far, however, as many suffer crimes and unnecessary death daily while attempting to cross the border illegally. (AP/Jae C. Hong)

There is so much misinformation about violence in southwest border states, yet for some reason, there has been little coverage of the deaths that do occur. Despite politicians’ claims otherwise, crime in Arizona over the last decade is down and it is not close to being the kidnapping capital of the world. But the American press and politicians paid virtually no attention to the real violence facing immigrants until last week when a crime syndicate in Tamaulipas, Mexico, slaughtered 72 Central and South American immigrants looking to cross into the United States.

Now some politicians who should know better are saying that these people, including women and young children, are dead because we have not secured our border. It did not take long for the lies to pile up, but some honesty is in order in the face of such a horrific tragedy.

Authorities believe these immigrants were held hostage and told they needed to either get more funds from their families or turn into drug mules or assassins for the Zetas crime syndicate. It looks like en masse they refused to do any of these things.

Crimes against immigrants happen every day, but American media has paid far less attention to the similar numbers of immigrants who die without being slaughtered by drug gangs. The LA Times reported last week about just one Arizona border county—Pima—saying: “July [2010] was the worst month of this year so far, with 59 people found dead. More than half of them died from heat-related causes. On July 15, the deadliest day of the month, seven bodies were found, among them the remains of Omar Luna Velasquez, 25. The high temperature that day was 108 degrees."

These people are dead because we have secured our border without providing comprehensive immigration reform. Recognizing the need for comprehensive reform requires an understanding of two key facts about the current U.S. immigration policy, both of which are well understood by Central and South American immigrants:

  • It is virtually impossible for Mexican and Central and South American immigrants to enter the country legally to work unless they have an incredible skill—such as throwing a 95-mile-per-hour fastball—or have $1 million to invest.
  • The southern U.S. border has become quite secure, but this has had unintended consequences. It might have once been possible for an immigrant family to cross back and forth regularly between populated areas in California or Texas and Mexico in order to earn money picking fruits and vegetables, but this is no longer the case. It has therefore become increasingly common for immigrants to walk long distances over several nights through the desert in Arizona. Summer temperatures average a 105 degree high, and it is simply too hot to walk during the day, so immigrants try to find a little shade to sleep in during daylight hours. But many still die from the heat.

Mexican and Central and South American immigrants now have virtually no legal way to enter the country, and choosing the wrong path in the desert regularly leads to death from heat exposure. So they contract with “coyotes” to help them cross the border. Mexican crime syndicates frequently control these coyotes, and these syndicates also engage in kidnapping and drug running. Needless to say, these syndicates, like all crime syndicates, are extremely violent and are only in the business of getting every dime they can out of immigrants.

So in addition to often robbing their own “passengers,” coyotes will also kidnap immigrants they come across who have not contracted with them for safe passage through the desert. Even immigrants who successfully make it to the United States often report being raped and robbed while making the journey.

Immigrants die every day at our southern border. They die in the heat. They are killed by organized crime. They are slaughtered when their poor families in places like Guatemala, Ecuador, and Colombia cannot meet a ransom demand.

Think of this as the 21st-century version of Prohibition. There was a huge demand for alcohol, yet the 18th Amendment made it illegal to purchase liquor in 1919. Organized crime then stepped in to provide alcohol. Speakeasies and bathtub gin came along with extreme levels of violence and lawlessness as criminal gangs fought for turf, paid off police, and bought politicians. G-men and these gangs fought a years-long violent war with neither side gaining an upper hand. The 21st Amendment eventually ended Prohibition in 1933 and alcohol became a highly government-regulated industry. Criminal involvement in the sale of alcohol ended in relatively short order.

Our immigration policy has created a similar problem at the border. Combining the human inclination to provide for family with the lack of a legal way to enter the United States ensures that people will take their chances with the heat and the crime syndicates. And so hundreds, if not thousands, of immigrants will continue to die every year at our border unless we do something about it.

The solution is to couple a secure border with a highly regulated way for immigrants to enter. If immigrants believe they can enter the United States legally, they will do so, even if it means waiting for a period until a visa becomes available. People risk their lives because they have to under our current policy—not because they want to.

It doesn’t have to be easy to enter the country under a new comprehensive policy. Background checks, strict documentation, and a requirement that taxes be paid on all income earned make sense. Labor groups have suggested tying levels of annual immigration to the job needs of specific industries, while business representatives are concerned that entire industries such as agriculture are at risk without a clear way for their labor force to enter the country legally. Reasonable people relying on data can work all of this out.

But we are not relying on data in our current immigration system, nor do we appear to be concerned about human life. Right now, our border policy is based on sound bites from politicians who are willing to see innocent men, women, and children die because it serves their re-election goals. If we want to end these deaths and deal a blow to the crime syndicates south of our border, it’s long past time for a new border strategy.

Henry Fernandez is a Senior Fellow at American Progress focusing on state and municipal policy.

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Henry Fernandez

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