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The hunt for Mexicans

Print edition : Jun 10, 2000 T+T-

Increasingly thrown out of jobs by policies that are in tune with the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexicans cross over to the United States illegally where they are hunted by right-wing farmers.

VIJAY PRASHAD

ON February 16, the American Federation of Labour-Coalition of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO), which represents 13 million United States workers dropped a bombshell. Its vice-president Linda Chavez-Thompson said that "the current system of immigration enforcement in the U.S. is broken. If we are to have an immigration system that works, it must be orderly, responsible, and fair." The AFL-CIO called upon the state to restructure its immigration policy mainly to protect the rights of all workers and to hold employers accountable for the exploitation of immigrants. "Employers often knowingly hire workers who are undocumented," Chavez-Thompson noted, "and then when workers seek to improve working conditions, employers use the law to fire or intimidate workers." Certainly, the net result of this policy is that the immigration law is used to discipline the workforce. "The law should criminalise employer behaviour," the AFL-CIO noted, "and not punish workers."

The AFL-CIO's position did not come all of a sudden. Over the past few decades the presence of immigrant workers in the service sector has increased in the U.S. Each year about a million migrants enter the country, with about 40 per cent of them from Mexico and Latin America. Many of them work in the service trades. Of these, only about 300,000 are undocumented migrants, even though most migrants from the Third World report being treated as undocumented even if they have legal papers. When the AFL-CIO took a more radical turn in 1995, it was pushed forward by the unions of the service workers (the current president of the AFL-CIO is John Sweeney, who was previously the president of the Service Employees International Union). Immigrant workers across the country have been at the forefront of several campaigns. For that reason, Warren Mar, a senior AFL-CIO organiser said that "basically we feel immigration laws should be broken. We should protect undocumented workers, we should harbour them, we should not cooperate with the Immigration and Nationalisation Service (INS)." These are strong words.

Two months later, a group of right-wing farmers responded to this union thrust with firepower on the U.S.-Mexico border. In Douglas, Arizona, with a population of 20,000, two brothers, Roger and Don Barnett, became the focus of attention. Roger owns a 22,000-acre cattle ranch that abuts a part of the 3,360-km U.S.-Mexico border. Recently, the Barnett Boys (as they are called) have led a vigilante posse against those who cross the border for myriad reasons. The Boys, some on horseback, but always heavily armed, have stopped vans and trucks on the public highway to search for migrants. The search is illegal. When they found people, they 'arrested' them, tied them up and called the INS to send them back to Mexico. Why are they doing this? Don Barnett said that "when my brother bought his ranch five years ago, it was pristine. Now it's a garbage pit. There is plastic, tin cans and dirt everywhere you look. Old blankets, cut hoses, cut fences. You name it, illegals will do it." A member of the Arizona posse posted a note on the Internet in mid-May, which said "Let's keep out this refuse from the Narco-State next door."

But the illegal interdiction of human beings is not all that has alarmed the governments of the U.S. and Mexico. Since January 1994, 32 incidents of violent vigilante action have been reported, 27 in Arizona alone. In Cochise County, Arizona, private citizens detained immigrants at gun-point on at least 25 occasions last year. On May 14, 74-year-old Samuel Blackwood of Bracketville, Texas, shot a Mexican migrant, Eusebio de Haro who had stopped at Blackwood's home and asked for water. Blackwood and his wife refused to give water. Then Blackwood chased de Haro and shot him in the leg. The migrant bled to death. Two days later, ranchers in the Douglas area chased and shot at a group of 30 immigrants. By late May, vigilante squads had shot at least four migrants. These were no accidents, since the ranchers have circulated handbills asking others to join them in "hunting the Mexicans for sport".

Ray Borane, the Mayor of Douglas, Arizona, was incensed by this attitude. "It is demeaning to treat this as recreation," he told the media. "We do not want to be filling up with militia types." However, the border region is already being flooded by the right-wing activists. For example, the Ku Klux Klan, the leading force of white supremacy, made its appearance at a rally in Douglas in mid-May. "What do you expect me to do," asked Roger Barnett at that rally. "Give my ranch to Mexico? No way." Barnett's position was bolstered by support from Reform Party presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan who noted that the vigilante actions "will focus attention on a bleeding and haemorrhaging border. This is nothing less than an invasion going on down there".

To characterise the migration as an invasion is a long-standing trope of the U.S. right-wing. Some people are upset by the entry of the Right into this region. Alexis Clarie of Bisbee, Arizona, noted that the right-wing is "inviting more and more people to come here and get armed. Imagine, instead of sitting on your porch watching the sunset, sitting there with a gun watching out for trespassers. There is a lot of racism that is growing by leaps and bounds". Isabel Garcia, a member of Coalicion de Derechos Humanos (Coalition of Human Rights) told the media that the right-wing has invited "crazies to come in and hunt Mexicans. It is at a real danger level".

On May 19, Foreign Minister of Mexico Rosario Green announced that "the government of Mexico will use all the political and legal resources at its disposal to guarantee that any violation of the rights and dignity of Mexicans is investigated and, if applicable, penalised". The attacks, she said, are "intolerant, racist, xenophobic actions against Mexican citizens". Mexico sought legal advice from Zuckerman and Associates, a law firm in the U.S., as well as turned to the United Nations for recourse. In response to Green, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that the Clinton administration is "very concerned about what has been happening in Arizona and we agreed that such behaviour was inadvisable and that violence against migrants was unacceptable. I think it is very important that it be totally clear that vigilante justice is unacceptable". She blamed the "intolerant expressions of some American ranchers" for the attacks, but said that the U.S. remains committed to "legal migration and to the humane and orderly management of our borders". The issue then is one of the maintenance of border security, and not of labour.

Roger Barnett, also mainly interested in security, complains that he had to become a vigilante because the U.S. government is not doing its job effectively. "So far, the government has not dealt with the problem. It lacks any formula," he noted. "They have put more U.S. Border Patrol troops in the area, but as far as stopping the problem, stopping the aliens coming across my property, they have not done that."

Since 1994, the INS and the Border Patrol have spent almost $2 billion on making the U.S.-Mexico border a militarised zone. With over 8,000 border patrol agents, the INS claims that it cannot do its work without at least 20,000 of them, and an increase of the annual budget of $864 million. The U.S. General Accounting Office, which monitors the effective use of governmental resources, concluded that "despite the investment of billions of dollars" the INS "did not know whether the investment was producing the intended results". Since 1994, the number of agents have doubled, and yet the flow of migrants across the border seems unchecked. In 1999, the INS apprehended 1.5 million people, just a little under the 1986 record of 1.6 million.

As news of the Arizona vigilantes reached Washington DC, the U.S. Congress rushed through an amendment that allowed the military to enter the border area. Politicians from the border area opposed the measure, but they were overruled. "Most of the people along the border - not all - feel they do not want their border turned into a military zone," said Representative Jim Kolbe of Arizona. But it already has.

Intensified INS actions at certain points have driven migrants, according to Green, to "increasingly harsher areas and this has led to the loss of life". Immigrants reacted to the blockades on well-worn paths not by going back home, but by going around the INS posts. These areas include southeast Arizona, the area of the recent fracas. Since 1994, the U.S. National Commission on Human Rights acknowledges that at least 450 migrants have died on the border mainly owing to hypothermia and sunstroke. The harshness of the routes, has forced the migrants to seek out better guides (called coyotes) who charge anywhere between $1,000 and $1,500 a person (it was $700 before 1994), and they perforce seek assistance from people along the way. Mild forms of help were often given in the past. "The average rancher has learned from his daddy and his granddaddy that the best thing to do is ignore the immigrants," said L.K. 'Buddy' Burgess, the Sheriff of Kinney County, Arizona. New residents "are scared" of the immigrants and "think that they have to apprehend them". Richard Flores, a longtime ranch worker, said that "the new landowners are doctors of lawyers from Houston, Texas", the big city in the orbit of the southwest U.S. "They are not used to being approached by immigrants, and some of them are prejudiced." Carlos Antonio Menjibar of Pueblo, Mexico, was one of 153 migrants caught at the border recently. "We do not bother anybody," he said. "We are peaceful. All we want is work."

INDEED, the central question here is work, as put forth by the AFL-CIO. Jorge A. Bustamante, president of El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, Tijuana, Mexico, notes that most migrants are between the ages of 20 and 30, "their most productive years economically". The U.S. government, he notes, "never wavers from defining undocumented migration as a crime problem requiring law enforcement solutions" and has refused to consider labour migration in the negotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 (NAFTA). Amitava Kumar's recent book Passport Photos (University of California, 2000) reveals that about 300,000 Mexican farm workers lost their jobs owing to NAFTA, a crisis situation that leads many to seek employment in the U.S. Besides, since it takes about $45,000 to raise a child in Mexico, the Mexican workers seem to be offering a subsidy to the U.S. workforce. For these reasons the flood of migrants cannot be checked by a fence and by gun power.

For many years now Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes has been saying much the same thing about many of the nine million Mexicans who live in the U.S. "Without the contribution of Mexican labour, food scarcity and higher prices would hit the U.S. and many services would go unattended."

In addition, undocumented workers pay about $29 billion in annual taxes, more than they get as social benefits. The cultural presence of Mexicans makes them "perfect scapegoats" for the U.S. state and society that prefer to target them rather than address the problems of unemployment and inadequate education. Fuentes does not let Mexico off the hook. The workers send about $3 billion a year in remittances, a weighty sum for a country with fiscal problems.

The U.S., however, comes in for the sharpest attack. Because of a lack of formal agreement, the U.S. admits "workers in boom times, harasses them in crises and manipulates them in the name of sacred borders, even if the price to be paid is a dangerous one: racism and xenophobia. When will it be recognised that this is not a police problem, but a question of bilateral flux in the labour market that demands responsibilities from both Washington and Mexico City?" Fuentes argues that Mexico should invest in the regions that send migrants, a tall order without the repeal of some of the harsher NAFTA provisions. The U.S., he notes, "should abide by the international agreements on protection of migrant workers and admit, without hypocrisy, the benefits of migration to the U.S. economy'. This is along the grain of the resolution of the AFL-CIO, which asks for a marked change in U.S. policy. The bodies of the dead Mexicans are a testimony to the importance of these changes.

Vijay Prashad is Assistant Professor, International Studies, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut.