IN EL PASO, they called it Operation Hold the Line. In San Diego it became Operation Gatekeeper, and in Arizona, Operation Safeguard.
But inside a downtown hotel recently, our government's penchant for morphing the border into a lethal armed camp--under big-cajone catchphrases--caught a little ethical fragging.
You might call it Operation Moral Conscience.
More than 600 people attended the conference From Border to Border: Building a Human Rights Movement. The watershed forum, held December 8-10 at the InnSuites Hotel, also drew a heavyweight roster of panelists, from Mexico City Mayor Manuel Lopez Obrador to Enrique Dovalina, national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. Even a pair of discomfited U.S. Justice Department honchos wandered about, ostensibly to get a read on the huge crowds.
Kudos to the dogged organizers, including longtime local activists Nancy Hand, Isabel Garcia and the Derechos Humanos staff, along with the American Friends Service Committee and Bisbee-based Citizens for Border Solutions. Their work paid off in spades. The national press was eavesdropping as speaker after speaker laid bare the naked, simple truth: Current American laws governing the border simply don't work.
In fact, they kill.
The numbers say it all. Since 1994, the number of Border Patrol agents in the Tucson sector (which encompasses Douglas and Nogales) quadrupled to 1,300. Between October, 1999 and last September, the Border Patrol apprehended 1.63 million border crossers, and more than 370 people--babies, grannies, moms and dads--died trying to cross into the United States from Mexico.
Compare that to the Oklahoma City bombing, with its wrenching death toll of 168.
Yep, the Oklahoma attack was a twisted act of pure, degenerate evil.
Conference attendees pointed out that the Border Patrol's variously labeled, meticulously planned "operations" share one key element: spinning a thick enforcement web around towns like Nogales and Douglas, thereby forcing crossers out into the desert where they're more easily nabbed--and much more likely to die.
CLAUDIA SMITH IS an attorney with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, and she knows all the anecdotes of death.
She spoke late on the Saturday afternoon of the three-day conference. Her somber words hushed the restless, packed hall.
Some immigrants lost in the desert "simply go berserk and their bodies are found by following a trail of clothes," Smith said. "Others, very conscious of their death, take their clothes off, make a little pillow, and lay down to die, tucking whatever identification they have under their clothes. It is a horrible, horrible death, and they just realize they cannot go on.
"The Border Patrol is driving people out into the desert," she said, "and not coincidentally, out of the public view. They're sending migrants into some of the most remote and dangerous areas in the Southwest.
"When you look at the Border Patrol's strategic plan, which was approved in late 1994, they anticipated, in their words, that 'people would face mortal dangers when re-channeled into the mountains and desert.' It also predicted that many people would be desperate enough that they would adjust to the new routes. And indeed they did.
"I'm not advocating open borders," Smith said. "What I'm talking about is abuse of the right to control borders." Operation Safeguard and its ilk are "not only morally unacceptable, but also a violation of various international agreements which we have signed, guaranteeing that we would protect life. We don't have the right to enact strategies that ensure that hundreds of people will die."
Compounding the irony, such suffering is one-sided, she said. "While in six years we have had almost 600 deaths of migrants from San Diego to Yuma, less than half a dozen employers have been prosecuted for hiring undocumented workers--which speaks volumes about the hypocrisy of our policy."
Besides the piercing comments of Smith and others, the conference was significant for the emerging coalition it revealed, between labor as represented by Jerry Acosta, an official with Arizona AFL/CIO; Native Americans in the form of Henry Ramon, vice-chairman of the Tohono O'odham Tribe; environmentalists such as Scotty Johnson from Defenders of Wildlife; church leaders like Fathers Robert Carney of Douglas and Jesus García of Naco; Victor Clark Alfaro, director of Tijuana's Binational Center for Human Rights; and LULAC's Dovalina.
Particularly significant is the AFL-CIO's ardent embrace of immigrants' rights, given labor's traditional, competitive antipathy toward undocumented workers. But Acosta firmly linked the rights of all working people. "I firmly believe we must reach out to immigrants," he told the audience.
Dovalina of LULAC noted an increasing awareness among Hispanic Americans of the deaths and malaise on the Southwest border. "I think it's a great thing that this conference is taking place in Arizona," he said. "We ... recognize the problems that exist here, and want to focus the attention of the national press. We want them to come down here and recognize that there are issues that need to be addressed."
Scotty Johnson noted that border militarization has been much more effective at blocking migrating wildlife than stopping people. "Quite literally, animals don't know the difference between U.S. soil and Mexican soil," he said. "Nobody stops them when they try to come across, although we've had people try to shoot them."
He also described how Congress--prodded by the vitriol of Newt Gingrich--granted the Border Patrol loopholes for evading the Endangered Species Act. Thus the agency can run rampant in the desert, with little concern for environmental impact. "What we're seeing with the militarization projects is quite literally huge stadium lights (that stay on all night), miles and miles of mat fencing, mowing and dragging in areas" where habitat protection is crucial, he said. "And they're keeping large carnivores like the jaguar from coming into the United States.
"What (government officials) will attempt to say is that protecting your children from drugs, and protecting America's labor force from Mexican nationals, is more important than protecting our environment, protecting our endangered species, protecting (wildlife) diversity on this planet."
Writer Timothy Dunn closed the conference. He's the author of Militarization of the US Mexico Border 1978-1992: Low Intensity Conflict Doctrine Comes Home. That militarization, he said, "has deadly consequences, and it's entirely the wrong way to enforce border policies.
"The real issue is the lack of democratic accountability" from authorities running border enforcement programs, he said. And unless activists make enough racket, the government "is not going to do anything to change that policy."