The Rio Grande/ Rio Bravo that divides El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
On July 23, a truck holding dozens of migrants, dehydrated and desperate, was found parked in a San Antonio Walmart parking lot. Ten migrants died. The tragedy made national news. Within days of this horrendous discovery, another heart-breaking story emerged in my own city. It has received little coverage outside of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez although it is equally tragic. Five people died trying to cross the Rio Grande/ Rio Bravo from Juarez into El Paso in the week after the San Antonio deaths, including a 37 year-old woman, a 15 year-old girl, and a 16 year-old boy. The dead were from Guatemala. This year ten people have drowned trying to cross the river.
The river that has brought life to so many over centuries now brings death as governmental policies and immigration laws make it a barrier rather than a place of gathering. Because of the border fence, children in my community haven't even seen the river.
Friday, Bishop Mark Seitz held mass at Sagrado Corazon Catholic Church in El Segundo Barrio in honor of the five who had died. the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee held a candlelight vigil the same night. El Pasoans came together to mourn these unnecessary deaths, to pray for those who died so far from home. I too mourn their deaths. I grieve the end of their dreams. The sister of the young woman said she wanted to go to school. Her dream was an education.
Photograph by Luis Hernandez.
Central Americans who make it to the US border have traveled a dangerous 1,000 miles, facing violence, including rape. They are preyed upon by gangs and smugglers. They are robbed by criminals and government officials. Like in San Antonio, trucks filled with once hopeful migrants are found abandoned by the smugglers in Mexico. Some almost make it, like those who drowned last week. Others cross and are deported.
Central American migrants first came to the public's attention three years ago. Until then, migrants on our southern border were painted with the broad stroke of being Mexican. It changed with the arrival of thousands of children. In an eight month period from October 2013 to June 2014 50,000 Central American children crossed the US-Mexican border. In June of that year, President Obama met with President Peña Nieto to discuss ways to improve the root causes of the migration: gang violence, lack of economic opportunity, among others. Although the United States denies pressuring Mexico, two weeks later Mexico announced Programa Frontera Sur. It was touted as a program that would protect migrants and help manage the porous border between Mexico and Guatemala.
US funding for Programa Frontera Sur was critical to its implementation. According to Human Rights Watch, the U.S. State Department was expected to provide $86.6 million to Mexico to support immigration enforcement the year it was announced. For FY 2015, Obama requested $115 million, which was increased by Congress by an additional $79 million. The US has also provided technology and training.
Programa Frontera Sur has done anything but protect migrants; rather, it has made life more dangerous. Now the trains, la bestia, are almost empty because of changes that included low-hanging concrete barriers making it impossible to ride the top of the trains and concrete walls making it difficult to jump on to the trains. Walking has become the new mode of transportation for Central Americans making their way to our border. Smugglers have new opportunities to exploit desperate people since the program was put into place. Migrants are more vulnerable than ever to gangs. Migrants report that there are more rapes and more robberies.
Since the Obama administration, our southern border has moved a thousand miles to the south. (For all my searching, I couldn't find any information on the Trump administration's view of Programa Frontera Sur.)
Do such deterrents work? They may stop some people. The economic situation in the United States usually stops many more. We know that they do make crossing much more deadly for everyone. We have seen that in El Paso. In the 1990s, El Paso was the laboratory for immigration policies such as Operation Hold the Line, instituted by then Chief of the El Paso Border Patrol Sector Sylvestre Reyes. The 1993 initiative placed Border Patrol vehicles along a twenty-mile stretch of the border, each vehicle within site of the other. Detentions in the area decreased and it became a model for other initiatives along the US-Mexico border. But it didn't deter desperate people from attempting to cross. It only pushed them to more dangerous areas like the Sonoran Desert that encompasses the Mexican state of Sonora and Arizona on the US-side. People walked in the desert, dying each day of dehydration and heat. Their internal organs "cooked" as the desert heat made its way into their bodies. People are still attempting that dangerous crossing.
Coming to the United States is not a decision taken lightly. It is not a decision made on a lark. Mothers have to decide whether to leave their children with relatives in the hope that they will someday be reunited. Or they make the decision to take their children with them, possibly exposing them to danger. Leaving family and friends and everything that is known is a sacrifice that allows us to measure their desperation.
The drownings of five Central Americans trying to cross our river last week is a personal tragedy for their families back home. It is also a sign of the political tragedy of our immigration policies that have pushed our boundaries further south, that have treated people like statistics, and that have denied their humanity.