Dying to come to America

GOODFENCES MAKE GOOD NEIGHBORS. That's apparently the opinion of the Clinton administration, which has overthe past several years broadened efforts to seal off the U.S.-Mexicoborder behind sturdier fencing and a border patrol that has more thandoubled. When Pat Buchanan called for longer stretches of the borderto be fenced or otherwise closed off with trenches or walls, he wasdismissed as a right-wing zealot. Somehow President Clinton hasescaped similar criticism even as he seems to have adopted a lot ofBuchanan's border vision, overseeing the largest military andparamilitary buildup along the 2,500-mile border in decades whileexpanding the length of actual fencing throughout border urbanzones.

Thefencing has not met with universal approval. The main criticismcenters around its frank ugliness. Vietnam-era helicopter landingmats—not noted for their aesthetic appeal—have beenused to create most of the fencing that has been erected in urbanareas where illegal crossings had been rampant.

Plannersfrom the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) have apparentlytaken some of the criticism to heart and in Nogales, Mexico havereplaced a small section of the drab army-green fencing with a pinkpastel, user-friendly wall they believe more simpaticoto Latin temperaments. The prettier fence allows folks on either sideof the border to look out over the other side and even to communicatethrough, but it's tall enough to prevent any clambering over the top.Unlike the fence it replaces, however, climbers are less likely tohave fingers sheared off by unprotected edges or to break their legslanding on the other side.

Thepink pastel may be more soothing to the eye, but it does little toprettify the reality of the hard-scramble life along the border. Ifthe fencing of urban areas in border towns like Nogales and San Diegohas made crossing more difficult for the Mexican and Central Americanmigrants who manage to reach the border, it hasn't succeeded indiscouraging the migration into the fabled elnorte.While many will still find a way to get across—orunder—the fences, others are seeking easier but ultimatelymore dangerous crossings at spots where the fences run out—inthe vast stretches of the borderlands' deserts.

Needlessto say, some migrants are not finding their yearned-for escape intothe land of milk and honey but a dreadful end in the desert fromexposure, exhaustion, or dehydration. A study from the Center forImmigration Research reports that since 1993 nearly 1,200 people havedied trying to cross the border. That number is likely to represent agross undercount. It's easy to die alone and undetected in thedesert.

Migrantshave been asphyxiated by pesticides after stowing away on producecars; some are hit by cars trying to cross border highways. Most ofthe deaths have been caused by drowning as migrants become trapped byflash floods in drainage ditches as they try to find less-obviousroutes into the United States.

Critics of U.S. Border Policy charge that more deaths are resulting because of routes taken around the newfences and that many more such fence-evasion fatalities are likely tooccur. The INS has acknowledged the problem with a TV ad campaign.Featuring lurid footage of migrants who didn't quite finish theirjourneys, the campaign's straightforward message is: "Nopase! No muera!"("Don't cross; don't die"). Unfortunately a lot of folks don't watchas much television as the INS thought or are too desperate to pay anyattention because desert crossings continue despite thedanger.

Howeverdeadly they may be proving to migrants, the new fences have so farproved at least statistical successes in reducing the number ofillegal crossings in border urban zones. But even some border patrolofficials wonder what the point of the new fencing is if migrantssimply go around it. After years of public pressure to do somethingabout controlling illegal border-crossings, the fences have theirappeal. Some might argue that if migrants choose to skirt them atmore dangerous spots, they're assuming the risk and the culpabilityfor any unpleasant results in the desert.

I'm not so sure. If I place high-voltage wiring around my home, I'lllikely discourage burglary, but if someone were killed trying tobreak into my house, wouldn't I be held liable for that death?Wouldn't someone say that even legitimate security needs do notjustify lethal measures? The U.S. has every moral and legal right tocontrol its border as it sees fit, but 1,200 or so deaths should meansomething—do mean something—and have to be part of thepolicy-making equation.

American capital flows south in pursuit of lower wages. Southern laborers begin a more perilous journey northto escape the crushing poverty those lower wages offer them. Butwhile capital makes its way around the planet unmolested, thecounterflight of labor in pursuit of higher wages is technicallyillegal if practically unstoppable. At the same time that Americansangrily call for some level of control of the border, America'sservice and agricultural industries, and to a great extent whatremains of its manufacturing industry, cry out for cheap labor. Alongour desert borderlands, migrants pay for this national schizophreniawith their lives. People will continue to come to the U.S. lookingfor work; American business will be happy to havethem—whatever their documentation.

Thereare a couple of ways to be a good neighbor. One is to fence off yourproperty and allow as little contact as possible between you and yourneighbors. The other way is to tear down the fence and speak withyour neighbors, find out what makes them tick, hear what their hopesand dreams are, learn about their problems, maybe even find ways toresolve them together.

Good fences may make good neighbors, but I gotta tell you that secondoption strikes me as just a little more neighborly.

Kevin Clarke is Claretian Publications' managing editor for online products and a freelance writer living in Chicago.

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