Dying for Work
Close to 3,000 progressive activists from all walks of life joined Jim Hightower for his third "Rolling Thunder/Down-Home Democracy Tour" in Tucson on July 26. A traveling extravaganza of grassroots activism, music, speechs, workshops, exhibitions and food, Rolling Thunder's turn-out in Tucson was a testament to commitment in hard times. Schools and colleges are out of session, August is vacation time and desert rains battered Tucson's empty downtown, where participants gathered in the convention center. Those in attendance represented an array of environmental, labor, religious and social justice causes as well as political candidates and parties -- Democrats, Greens and independents.
Labor and Democrats are currently embroiled in an intense Congressional primary battle pitting longtime progressive County Supervisor Raúl Grijalva against State Senator Elaine Richardson. Grijalva, with a background in the Chicano and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s, is the strong favorite of the Latino community and environmentalists. Richardson, a more moderate, pro-business Democrat, has financial support from EMILY's List, primarily because she is a female candidate, and is heavily supported by corporate groups seeking to prevent the populist Grijalva from taking office in the sixty-one percent Democratic district. The EMILY's List endorsement has so far neutralized national liberal funders like Progressive Majority from supporting Grijalva.
All of which makes Tucson a battleground in two high-stakes struggles: whether the Democrats will retake the House of Representatives in November, and whether progressive Democrats will gain ground over corporate Democrats as the Enron/WorldCom/Halliburton/Harken business scandals continue to hammer Main Street.
The Grijalva forces were heavily represented during the "down home democracy" doings, while Richardson was nowhere to be seen. Longtime activist Lupe Castillo of Derechos Humanos (Human Rights) wanted the outside progressive world to know she is "deeply angered as a feminist at EMILY's List" for propping up the Richardson campaign. Castillo's frustration is more than partisan politics; the roots lie in the conditions of anguish in southern Arizona, which call for a national voice of conscience.
Not many North Americans visit the vast Sonora Desert, where the border of Arizona and Mexico, imposed in 1853, is still an open sore in the history of the region. The lands of the Tohono O'Odham, or Papago, people are divided into two areas, each the approximate size of Connecticut, on both sides of the border. Its 25,000 members have difficulty showing proof that they are US citizens, because they were born on tribal land. Two were arrested and deported a couple of weeks ago; a conservative opinion leader called them "indigenous aliens." A bill to make them US citizens has 123 Congressional co-sponsors but languishes in the Republican House.
In the 1970s a powerful humanitarian sanctuary movement arose in southern Arizona for refugees fleeing our Central American wars. A similar movement is stirring -- with little or no national attention except from the American Friends Service Committee -- to protect economic refugees from Mexico, who risk their lives to cross the heavily militarized border in search of work.
It is a daily and deadly crisis. Of four people found dead in Cochise County last week, three were from Chiapas in southern Mexico. Most of the other refugees are from Oaxaca, Guerrero and Puebla. They leave rural Mexico in despair and board buses to Mexico City, and from there make their way to the border in an almost biblical journey by foot and in the backs of trucks. At the border they sleep by the hundreds under trees before they attempt to pass through.
Between June 6 and July 18, forty-seven people were found dead of thirst and heat prostration on the Tohono O'Odham lands. For the larger Tucson sector, as immigration officials define it, the death toll since Oct. 1, using the government's calendar of the fiscal year, is 101. According to a University of Houston study, 2,000 have died since 1996 trying to cross into the United States.
This is a cost of globalization never officially counted. "If you're a tomato, you can cross at will," complains Lupe Castillo. But human beings who "come up to scrub toilets for a subminimum wage" are blocked by a militarized fence, made of corrugated metal left over from the airstrips of the Persian Gulf War, made by the same manufacturer of those air strips since Vietnam days, Brown & Root/Halliburton.
The desert at the border has been transformed. At the tiny town of Douglas, stadium-style lighting has ended the night. Armored personnel vehicles, helicopters, nightscopes and watchtowers are the forms taken by the high-tech economy here. In an area where the US-Mexican war left a permanent imprint, where Yankee miners and ranchers customarily assumed that "our Mexicans, and our Indians, work our ranches," the militarization effort is supplemented by the so-called "American Patrol," composed of armed men wearing T-shirts proclaiming "I Hunt Mexicans." These de facto paramilitaries intend to make sure the US Border Patrol does its job. The Border Patrol, which, unlike a police department, is completely unaccountable to local people, is seen by Lupe Castillo as a preview of the broader tactics of the war on terrorism. "Racial profiling was part of their practice long before 9/11," she says.
It is important to understand that official US policy, from the Clinton to the Bush eras, is premised on accepting the rising death toll of refugees as a deterrent to more emigrants coming north. The militarization process is an ongoing public works project that pushes the migrants away from metropolitan areas like San Diego/San Ysidro to the harshest deserts and mountains. The policy has failed to curb the deaths, which means the United States intends to try harder.
US corporations are complicit in the process, feasting on farm subsidies which result in corn imports flooding rural Mexico, pushing subsistence farmers off their lands to migrate to the cities and bordertown maquiladoras, where they find they still cannot earn more than subsistence wages. Already uprooted, at that point they frequently decide to risk their lives for low-wage, dead-end work in the States.
If our national media were less New York/Washington-centric, the story of these emigrants dying to escape poverty would be so shocking that government policies would have to be reconsidered. But these deaths occur far from the media spotlight, as do most of the deaths from globalization and the war on terrorism. That leaves only brave activists like the "samaritan patrol" to drive the desert leaving buckets of water in remote spots for the parched refugees. The Border Patrol refuses to allow the samaritans to provide "know your rights" leaflets for the same travelers.
The student antisweatshop movement at the University of Arizona is doing its best to lessen the humanitarian crisis as well. After a 10-day sit-in in 1999, followed by a lockdown of the administration building, university officials agreed to reform their procurement procedures to avoid sweatshop-produced athletic uniforms and the like. The students wanted a proactive policy, not simply monitoring of contracts, so an innovative partnership was explored with a sewing cooperative of women in Agua Prieta, just over the border. The sewing cooperativa, named Lazos (bonds) de Union, would do the sewing of the athletic shirts, while the cutting and logos would be done by a worker-owned firm in Douglas called AriSEWna, an arrangement permissible under trade rules. The plan is languishing due to lack of resources on the Mexican side (customs fees are just as high for a small cooperative as for a large maquiladora) and lack of a "just do it" commitment on the US side, but it may well happen.
During the civil rights movement, people across America helped protect endangered African-Americans trying to vote in remote corners of the Black Belt. During the Central American wars, thousands again acted in solidarity with civilian victims of US aggression. Today there are similar stirrings in the antisweatshop, fair-trade and immigrant rights movements. If a similar concerted effort achieves critical mass, it could make a difference in preventing the tide of deaths in the desert. Such a movement might slow down the deadly abuses while demanding revisions of the trade and investment agreements that insure the continuing treadmill of destruction.
Senator Tom Hayden, the Nation Institute's Carey McWilliams Fellow, has played an active role in American politics and history for over three decades -- from the student, civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s. He served for ten years in the California State Legislature and eight years in the State Senate. Hayden is also the author of eleven books, including Reunion, Lost Gospel of the Earth, Irish Hunger (Roberts Rhinehart), and Irish on the Inside: In Search of the Soul of Irish America (Verso).