On Sunday morning, March 21, I will be preaching at the Foundry Church in Washington, D.C. That afternoon, I plan to march with tens of thousands of Americans demanding that President Obama remember his campaign promise to propose comprehensive immigration reform, a promise he seems to have forgotten. I will march on Washington not because this is a Latino issue. I march on Washington because this is a human rights issue.
When this government implemented our border policy, known as Operation Gatekeeper, on the heels of ratifying NAFTA, the major intended consequence of the policy was the expectation that some migrants would die while traversing dangerous terrain. The possibility of death was not some unforeseen consequence, but acceptable collateral damage that would hopefully serve as a deterrent preventing others from attempting the dangerous crossing. This strategy was known as “prevention through deterrence.” However, no significant decrease in the number of unauthorized crossings since the start of Operation Gatekeeper has been reported.
The only deterrence that occurred was funneling hundreds of thousands from urban crossing points in California and Texas toward the dangerous and deadly terrain of Arizona. Since the implementation of Operation Gatekeeper, there has been a 20 percent increase in known deaths associated with unauthorized border crossing.
Even the U.S. Government Accounting Office credits Operation Gatekeeper for creating a humanitarian crisis. This U.S. policy, which was based on deliberately causing the deaths of thousands of men, women and children of Hispanic descent, is either ignored or legitimized by our culture and society.
Our border policies represent the grossest human rights violations of our time for they are systematically perpetrated on U.S. soil by the U.S. government to deliberately bring death to one group of people based on their ethnic characteristics. Not since the days of Jane and Jim Crow have the deaths of a certain group of people of a particular race or ethnicity been normalized by the overall U.S. culture.
Hispanics are presently funneled to unforgiving areas for crossings. This stretch of harsh terrain can see daytime temperatures in excess of 115 degrees (higher during summer months) and frigid nighttime temperatures that pose the risk of hypothermia. Almost 60 percent of border-crossing deaths were caused by exposure to the elements – specifically hyperthermia, hypothermia and drowning. Most of those who perished were in the prime of their lives (34.2 percent between the ages of 18 to 29, and 18.9 percent between the ages of 30 to 39).
Even if death does not claim the life of the border crosser, many still suffer permanent kidney damage caused by dehydration. Women are 2.87 times more likely to die of exposure than men, and for those women who do not perish in the cruelty of the desert, they face the cruelty of sexual assault. It is common practice now for women preparing to make the crossing to first get on some type of birth control medication prior to the journey because they will more than likely be sexually assaulted.
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It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine how many people have actually perished attempting to cross the border. Seldom are any of these deaths reported by the news media. Still, it is conservatively estimated that more than 3,600 bodies have been recovered on the U.S side of the border between 1995 and 2005. Official numbers reported by U.S. governmental agencies are woefully underestimated.
According to an investigative report conducted by the Tucson Citizen, the border patrol undercounted border deaths by as much as 43 percent – a charge also made by the U.S. Government Accounting Office. Part of the problem is that while some perish on the Mexican side of the border, others who do make it to the U.S. side are never found due to remote and inaccessible terrain. Still others can never be counted for lack of human remains due to predatory desert animals. The desert is very efficient in cleaning itself. For these reasons, bodies recovered underrepresented actual deaths occurring along the border.
Even if only one person died a horrific death as a direct result of U.S. genocidal policies or procedures, that is one death too many. It is easy to justify the death of a border crosser by blaming the victim for attempting the crossing in the first place. But before we can take comfort in blaming the victim for her or his predicament, it is important to realize that there exists a reason why a person would risk death to cross a desert.
It is safe to say that all opposing sides concerning the ongoing immigration crises are in agreement that the present system is broken. Operation Gatekeeper has failed, no deterrence has occurred, and the result has been death for many created in the image of God. We have to ask why they risk death to cross this artificial 1,833-mile border.
We must be willing to recognize that the reasons migrants are risking their lives is rooted in the historical relationship between the United States and Latin America (specifically Mexico) that has led to economic and trade inequities. Contrary to popular opinion, they do not come looking for a better life in America, or because they plan to deplete American social services. They attempt the hazardous crossing because our foreign policy throughout the 20th century has created an economic situation in their countries in which they are unable to feed their families.
For more than a century, the U.S. military provided and protected the freedom for U.S. corporations to build roads into developing countries throughout Latin America to extract, by brute force if necessary, their natural resources and cheap labor. Some of the inhabitants of those countries, deprived of a livelihood, took those same roads following the resources taken from them. They come following what has been stolen. They come to escape the violence and terrorism unleashed in order to confiscate their resources and cheap labor.
This changes the questions usually asked about the undocumented. The real question we are faced with is not whether they should come, but ethically and morally, what responsibilities and obligations exist for the United States in causing the present immigration dilemma?
To be human is to stand against such injustices, thus leading us to another question. Are you marching in Washington on March 21? And if not, why?
Miguel A. De La Torre is director of the Justice & Peace Institute and associate professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.