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U.S. border police makes no sense

Isabel Garcia, a Tucson, Ariz., attorney, asks the most unsettling question about the increase in deaths among Mexicans trying to make their way to jobs in the United States: “So, why are we forcing people to run a deadly obstacle course to find employment in U.S. industries which are begging for them?”

Apparently, no one has a good answer.

The troubled and troubling attempts by the United States to seal its southern border with Mexico has been a tragic failure. For too many years, the sham went on silently: The United States desperately needed Mexican workers who would labor in our chemical-saturated fields or in meat packing plants or in low-level construction jobs for a pittance. They often live in substandard housing and are constantly uprooting their lives to follow the pattern of modern agriculture or other jobs. At the same time, the government has been insistent on making travel miserable for the desperate border crossers.

As Jim Wright’s reporting points out (see page 12) the deadly game has finally been exposed by some former INS officials once charged with carrying out the irrational policy.

Anonymous Mexicans desperate enough for low-wage jobs in the United States that they risk death in crossing mountains and desert are not good bets to get a fair hearing before a Congressional committee.

But their case is worth pressing as more and more die in anonymity in the wilderness of the American Southwest.

If Doris Meissner, former Immigration and Naturalization Service Commission official, can admit in a talk to new border patrol recruits that the current strategy for patrolling the border has played a role in the deaths of illegal border crossers, then the policy is in serious need of revision.

The former chief patrol agent of the Tucson Sector, Ron Sanders, said he is haunted by memories of coming upon dead border crossers. Sanders is one of the whistleblowers who believes the shift in policy has been a tragic mistake.

Policy makers may want to continue a legitimate debate on immigration policy and limits to immigration from Mexico. But openly allowing this double track on immigration -- satisfying both the needs of U.S. business and those who think borders should be closed -- creates a shameful trail of victims. The policy now is mystifying, refusing as it does to recognize the simple fact that American industries have become dependent on cheap Mexican labor.

On the most pragmatic terms, a policy that does not force people to risk death to get to jobs we want them to fill is certainly not beyond our capacity to devise. As Garcia put it, “People wouldn’t be forced to hire a smuggler or cross the desert at risk to themselves if we had a realistic immigration policy.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 2, 2001