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Dying to work: Humanitarian disaster on the desert

by Roberta Wood Saturday, Apr. 12, 2003 at 2:44 PM 212-924-2523 235 W 23st., NYC 10011

SASABE, Sonora, Mexico – The Sonoran desert has a delicate, haunting beauty. Hundreds of species of birds, cacti and lizards have adapted to survive its lack of water and brutal temperatures exceeding 120 degrees. The list of these desert-hardy species does not include human beings.

SASABE, Sonora, Mexico – The Sonoran desert has a delicate, haunting beauty. Hundreds of species of birds, cacti and lizards have adapted to survive its lack of water and brutal temperatures exceeding 120 degrees. The list of these desert-hardy species does not include human beings.

It was noon on the desert, but a mean wind was blowing through a clearing just outside this tiny dusty border town, when the first van of the day pulled in. Fourteen or fifteen passengers poured out, somewhat reluctantly perhaps. They huddled together near their vehicle. Some carried their gallon of water in their hand, and that was all they had. Others sported newly purchased backpacks. They looked out of place, like city folks, not desert hikers, with their light jackets. An open pickup truck approached and the group clambered on board. Standing up on the bed of the truck it must have been possible to see the desert stretched out for hundreds of miles to the north right up to the mist-covered Santa Catalina Mountains. But no one was looking.

By the time the truck returned empty, half an hour later, several more vans and a bus had pulled into the now bustling clearing. It began to have the feel of a busy Greyhound depot with vans arriving and pickups departing, drivers and dispatchers, passengers and vendors milling about.

In the next hours and days, this small group and hundreds of others would be making their way north on foot, across a desert whose surface reaches 140 degrees in the day and can fall to freezing temperatures at night.


Every day, hundreds of construction workers, cooks, meat packers, factory workers, nursing home attendants, hotel employees, and agricultural workers, members of the U.S. workforce, find themselves making a life-threatening journey across this desert to get to their jobs. “It looks like entering the U.S. through the desert is some kind of employment screening test administered by the U.S. government for the hospitality, construction and recreation industries … ,” Healing Our Borders, a faith-based organization from Douglas, Ariz., notes bitterly.

According to the American Immigration Law Foundation, Mexican immigrants make up four percent of the U.S. workforce, and are located in key sectors of the economy. Meatpacking tops the list with a workforce of 26.8 percent Mexican immigrants. Agriculture comes next with 22.9 percent. Manufacture of apparel, plastics and furniture are in the 10-15 percent range. And Mexican immigrants now make up nearly 10 percent of the construction industry.

In 2002, there were 163 recorded deaths of migrant men, women and children within the Tucson Sector of the Border Patrol. The Catholic Diocese of Tucson says, “The deaths, unacceptable in themselves, were of the most miserable – dying of thirst, dehydration, cactus pain, and unbearable heat.” Unrecorded deaths may be many times that number; human remains quickly disappear given the harsh conditions and activities of wild animals

Mass death on the desert is not a natural phenomenon. It has soared 600 percent since 1994, when a new border policy was implemented in the anti-immigrant frenzy whipped up by right-wing politicians like then-California governor Pete Wilson. That was the year of the vicious Proposition 187, which denied public services to California’s undocumented residents. Until then, the bulk of south-north immigration came through urban entry points such as Laredo and El Paso, Tex., and San Diego.

With great fanfare, Operation Gatekeeper was announced by the Department of Immigration and Naturalization (INS) in 1993 with the stated goal of “shift[ing] the immigration traffic eastward from San Diego to desert and mountain regions” where the Border Patrol “enjoyed a strategic advantage over would-be crossers.” Urban crossing points in Arizona and Texas were sealed off. A new INS military infrastructure was put in place, with over 8,000 agents outfitted with night-vision goggles and all-terrain vehicles, miles of three-tiered fortress-like walls and stadium-strength floodlighting. The Border Patrol’s human-tracking systems added helicopters, 47 infrared scopes and 766 underground sensors. INS incarceration facilities were greatly expanded.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Congress’s General Accounting Office found there was “no persuasive evidence” that the .5 billion operation had decreased illegal entries along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border.

More than 1,500 people have died along the length of border trying to cross into the U.S. since 1994, according to former Tucson Sector Chief of the Border Patrol Ron Sanders.

The American Friends Service Committee states “border crossing is not merely an enforcement issue … “ Powerful economic factors are responsible, says the AFSC, and therefore “the migrants simply keep coming, now diverted into more treacherous terrain.”


“We can’t live on what we grow anymore,” Refugio, 24, a soft-spoken campesino from Hidalgo, told this reporter. He was waiting for the pickup truck that would drive his group into the desert, the next step on his way to a job he had lined up in Tennessee. He had worked all his life in agriculture, he said, but could no longer make a living. No, he didn’t own land. He laughed at the question. He and the rest of his family always had worked for others. “The corn and vegetables they bring across the border from the U.S. now sell for less than the ones we grow. So a lot of the farmers stopped growing and the pay is much less than it used to be.” Refugio said some in his village had looked for work in Mexico City, while he and his traveling companions had made arrangements with a coyote (human smuggler) to bring them to their jobs in the U.S.


Jose Matus, from the Tucson-based Coalicion de Derechos Humanos (Coalition for Human Rights), says, “They will never stop immigration, no matter what they do. Hunger and poverty are stronger than any force they put out there.” U.S. trade policies, he said, have damaged the economic position of millions of city and rural workers in Mexico, adding to the pressure to emigrate to the U.S. “NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] has displaced the ‘mom and pop’ operations in Mexico – the little clothing stores, auto mechanic shops, convenience stores – and replaced them with Walmart.”

Economists recognize the large influx of immigrants in the 20th century as a key factor in the growth of the American economy. Immigration, actually creates jobs because “immigrants may expand the demand for goods and services through their consumption,” says a study cited by the American Immigration Law Foundation. Immigration policies that governed the entry of 22 million European immigrants through Ellis Island from 1892 to 1924 allowed for the orderly processing of 700,000 immigrants per year through that one entry point.

But no such legal and orderly process is available to the 250,000 per year Mexican workers who are added to the U.S. workforce. This has created a permanent sub-class of the American work force that exists in the shadows of legality, subject to abuse and super-exploitation. America’s undocumented, mostly Mexican, now number 9 million, 3 percent of our population.


The group that set out that noon from Sasabe will likely be hiding beside cactus during the day and then moving north under cover of night. It could take them days to get to their designated pick-up point, hopefully less, because one gallon of water is the minimum one needs to get through a day on the desert.

Heat stroke and the Border Patrol aren’t the only perils facing the group. Every night, armed vigilantes round up and detain migrants. Their websites advertise “Fun in the Sun” for adventure-seekers from across the country to join them in stalking human beings on Arizona’s public lands and ranches.

Bragging that he packs a “45-caliber 1911 government-issue,” one of the newest residents of Tombstone, Ariz., Chris Simcox, told the monthly meeting of the local Republican club how he moved there from California to launch “Civil Homeland Defense,” to protect America from the “security risk and cultural risk of illegal immigration.” Simcox didn’t seem to have a much higher opinion of U.S. workers. “We have plenty of Americans who could take these jobs if they were forced to,” he told the World. “Americans have gotten fat, lazy and apathetic. Cut off unemployment after 13 weeks and pay them minimum wage … America needs to sacrifice!”

Most Tombstone residents seem to wish Simcox would just disappear. “The whole thing just stinks,” says Steve Goldstein, the owner of Tombstone’s biggest tourist attraction, Big Nose Kate’s Saloon. “Tombstone is a wonderful little town with a tremendous Mexican heritage filled with a cross-section of people.”

Every day at high noon Tombstone stages a Wild West “shootout” in front of the saloon. Today, even the light-hearted drama set against the awe-inspiring beauty of the region is overshadowed, like every other aspect of life in southern Arizona, by the real-life daily tragedy of thousands of desperate men, women and children being pursued by an army of border patrols and stalked by gun-toting vigilantes across the desert and through backyards, gulleys, ranches and nature preserves.

“The terrible direct human cost is not the only price we are paying,” says Pima County Supervisor Richard Elias. “The fenced and militarized border inhibits the movement of [endangered] wildlife ... Severe damage by off-road Border Patrol vehicles alters landscapes and damages watersheds …”

Arizonans say the militarization of their region is destroying the fabric of their treasured social and cultural life. The Tucson Catholic Diocese states, “walls of steel, barbed wire, … growth of vigilantism … create a culture of militarization and death that don’t reflect our values, damage our history on this border and increase ill will.”

Jose Matus of Derechos Humanos points out that the Tohono O’odham Nation’s territory straddles the Mexico-Arizona border for hundreds of miles. Its members’ rights of mobility, even to access the Nation’s medical service, are being violated by Border Patrol activities. Pima County Supervisor Elias reports, “Border Patrol agents routinely harass and often deport Tohono O’odham members who try to interact with family members south of the line who cannot show them ‘proper’ papers.”

Lorenzo Torrez, chair of the Arizona Communist Party, points to the grotesque ever-expanding 16-foot iron fence through the desert as the ultimate symbol of the militaristic, anti-democratic and brutal border policy. A broad array of human rights, labor, and faith-based groups has spoken out against the crises posed by border policies, he says, focusing on opposition to militarization of the region and the need for a legal process for workers to enter the U.S.

Derechos Humanos, housed in a small bungalow on a busy Tucson street, is the center of a whirlwind of vigils, demonstrations, and workshops aimed at changing government policies, documenting Border Patrol abuses, and fighting racist violence of the vigilantes, says organizer Kat Rodriguez.

Newly-elected Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), in his first official action, called for investigation of the activities of the vigilante groups and their funding.

Humane Borders, headed by Rev. Robin Hoover, runs a church-based network of volunteers who maintain dozens of life-saving water stations marked by blue flags atop 20-foot-poles across the Arizona desert.

Meanwhile, in Ohio, the end of the journey for many migrants, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) has proposed a new initiative, FREEDOM Act, which includes legislation to provide for temporary residency renewable after three years. Migrants “could apply in Mexico and then enter the country legally,” without the abuses of the infamous bracero or H2A guest-worker programs, says FLOC’s immigrant rights campaign lead organizer, Beatriz Maya. The proposed visas would not tie the worker to any one job or employer, she said.


Twenty-two-year-old Rosario was by far the most confident of the group in the Sonoran desert. His huge, rough hands didn’t match his youthful grin. He was proud to explain he’s a skilled drywaller returning to his job in North Carolina, where he learned the trade. The group of friends accompanying him left together from Hidalgo, and had each made arrangements to go to different jobs in Tennessee and Florida. They were interested to hear about an upcoming newspaper article on the injustice of the border policy and they offered to pose for a last group shot for the piece and as a recuerdo – a keepsake of their friendship. Their message, they all chimed in with the exuberance of youth: “Tell the people, we just want to work!”

The author can be reached at

PDF version of "Dying to work: Humanitarian disaster on the desert"

Originally published by the People’s Weekly World

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