By Wolverine de Cleyre
Recently in Europe, several high-profile mass deaths of refugees attempting to enter the EU have forced a long-overdue conversation about immigration and border policy. Increased security along the land borders has led immigrants to attempt dangerous sea crossings. Almost 3,000 people who attempted to enter Europe by sea this year are missing or dead, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. This is four times as many as 2013, and the year isn´t over yet. The carnage has inspired a mobilization of pro-immigrant sentiments, with tens of thousands demonstrating across Europe, and thousands cheering arriving refugees at German train stations.
Unfortunately, Europe is not the only place where tighter security at the border has led to massive loss of human life. The U.S. government´s immigration enforcement has created a steady barrage of corpses at the border with Mexico, and this needs to be central to our own conversation about immigration.
Much media and political attention have been given to the DREAM act, which would have provided a legal path to citizenship for people who entered the US as children. Meanwhile, according to the Pew Research Center, deportations have increased each year that Obama has been in office, from 360,000 in 2008 to 438,000 in 2013, and the border has become increasingly militarized.
This has forced migrants entering the U.S. to take more dangerous routes, involving days trekking through remote areas of the desert where it is easy to die of thirst and exposure. In the past ten years, more than 2,000 bodies have been recovered from the Arizona desert alone, according to Humane Borders. According to the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group, the number of deaths is the equivalent of five migrants dying every four days.
Particularly disturbing, when immigrants, realizing they are near death, decide to give themselves up and call 911 from a cell phone, they often receive no aid.
In most counties along the border, 911 dispatchers, often overwhelmed by the sheer number of these distress calls, transfer them to Border Patrol. These are police, not medical or rescue workers, and their job is to apprehend as many immigrants as possible. They arrest migrants when it’s convenient, and leave them to die when it’s not.
There is no mechanism to keep track of these calls, no accountability for how searches are handled. According to the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, some 70 percent of calls they forward to Border Patrol don’t go through. Those that connect often don´t result in an actual search. Border patrol agents have told No More Deaths that they will only search for people if given exact coordinates, which are often missing due to the spotty cell phone service. Once a search is initiated, Border Patrol usually finds the person in less than an hour. If the person isn’t near a main road and cannot be seenfrom the air they give up.
I cannot imagine this happening if I, a US citizen, were to place a 911 call that I had gotten lost hiking in the desert. Teams of helicopters would be deployed to look for me. Officers would comb the area on foot until I was found.
911 operators choosing where to redirect these calls can’t ask for I.D., so they have nothing to go on but racial profiling. Whether someone “sounds Mexican” on the phone will determine whether they get police or rescue workers, whether their life is worth saving.
This callous lack of regard for certain human lives comes directly from a system that defines immigrants as criminals to apprehend, not to protect. Those of us who stand against this police attitude in our cities must also stand against it at the border.
We need initiatives like the Dream Act or others to expand the number of refugees that the US takes on. But these legal changes will help only a few; curbing the massive death toll at the border will require something very different.
We also need to recognize that while some immigrants want to become U.S. citizens, many migrants do not. They prefer their home countries. They just want to come to the US to work their ass off for a few years, make enough money to go home and buy a house or start a business. And there´s nothing wrong with that. Human beings are a migratory species, and people have been crossing the U.S. – Mexico since border long before this fictional line existed. The problem is not the undocumented nature of some migrants, the problem is the border.
In order to change the actual facts on the ground, we need to stop insisting that everyone be “legal.” Instead of only enabling regulation for a few, we need to fight border brutality and the criminalization of all migrants without exception or apology. The death toll at the border is the real immigration crisis, and we need to do something to stop it.
We can do this by providing direct humanitarian assistance to people migrating, and by limiting the reach of anti-immigrant police.
Several organizations already exist to provide medical aid to migrants in the desert, or help their relatives recover their bodies. No More Deaths and Humane Borders operate in the Arizona desert, the most deadly region for migrants.
Many major cities, including San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles, have enacted “sanctuary city” laws. These are ordinances which keep local police from acting as or co-operating with federal anti-immigrant authorities. They allow immigrants to go about their daily lives with less fear.
The next legal step is defunding the bloated budgets of Border Patrol and ICE. And those so inclined can take a lesson from the Anti-Raids Network in London, which organizes disruption of immigration raids in progress on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis.
Initiatives like these are not solutions, but rather steps in the right direction. The important thing is to identify the problem, which is not the immigrants´ lack of documents, but the lack of respect for their lives.