News & Politics

Collateral Damage on the Mexican Border

The body count keeps growing as the crackdown intensifies against people who were born 'on the wrong side' of a geographical boundary.
She was 11 years old and was wearing pink sneakers. She was unconscious when they found her in late July on the reservation of the Tohono O'odham Nation in southern Arizona's scorching desert. Doctors at the local hospital tried to revive her, but she died of cardiac arrest brought about by hyperthermia. Her body temperature was 106 degrees.

Her name was Olivia Luna Noguera. Accompanied by her 17-year-old sister, Marisol, she was trying to get to Atlanta, Georgia to reunite with her parents. Instead, she joined the almost 4,000 migrants who have perished while trying to beat the ever-intensifying enforcement web in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands since 1995.

Proponents of the massive border build-up that has taken place since the mid-1990s, and those who advocate more of the same, often contend that heavier policing and enforcement help to reduce deaths. They point to large numbers of rescues of migrants in distress by the Border Patrol. But it is the very presence of the Border Patrol and its policing apparatus that put migrants in harm's way. After all, they wouldn't have to trek through the desert if they could just walk through a port of entry in a safe, dignified and legal manner.

Backers of tougher enforcement ignore the fact that Fiscal Year 2005 was the borderland's deadliest year on record: 463 migrant fatalities. Like all such counts, this is a conservative estimate, as it is based on bodies that were actually found. And FY 2006, which ends Sept. 30, is close to the pace of last year's ignominious toll. As of July 27, according to the Border Patrol, there had been 331 deaths along the U.S. southern boundary.

But such facts mean little to those on Capitol Hill who are shaping policy and the pundits that legitimate the narrow set of federal legislative options being offered. House Resolution 4437, for example--the so-called Sensenbrenner bill--would require 10,000 additional Border Patrol agents over five years, and 700 miles of additional walls and fences.

Meanwhile, the "moderate" Senate bill, and one deemed acceptable by the Democratic establishment, calls for 370 additional miles of walls and fencing and 500 miles of vehicle barriers along the U.S.-Mexico boundary, in addition to 14,000 more Border Patrol agents over the next six years.

In a world of great instability and insecurity--especially for those on the global socio-economic margins--and intensifying ties that transcend international boundaries, there is no question that migrants will continue to try to cross the U.S.-Mexico border despite the risks. This is true regardless of the number of Border Patrol agents and the length and height of the proposed walls. As one man who was getting ready to try to cross into Arizona from Mexico told a reporter just two days before Olivia perished, "Our needs are greater than our fears."

Such needs most likely brought Olivia's parents to Atlanta, so they could provide for their children. And such needs undoubtedly drove them to try to reunite with their daughters--a basic "family value" lost in what passes for debate among those championing a further enforcement build-up on the border.

The tragedy of Olivia Luna Noguera is hardly unique. Such avoidable deaths increasingly occur in the border regions that both divide and bring together rich and poor, the safe and the insecure, the first and third worlds, the white and non-white. They are just one form of suffering and indignity that all too many people must endure simply because they were born on the wrong side of the boundaries that make up the unjust world order in which we live.

Many will no doubt point their fingers at Olivia's mother and father, asking what type of parents would expose their 11-year-old daughter to a treacherous trek through the desert. But such blame is misplaced. Instead, we should be asking what type of people would compel the parents to make a risky choice by denying them and their children the right to be united and to work and reside where they can have access to resources needed for a life of well-being.
Joseph Nevins is assistant professor of geography at Vassar College and the author of "Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the 'Illegal Alien' and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary" (Routledge, 2002).