The Hunt for Mexicans

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Fri Aug 4 13:18:56 PDT 2000

ZNet Daily Commentary

July 16, 2000

The Hunt for Mexicans

By Vijay Prashad <vijay.prashad at>

On 16 February 2000, the American Federation of Labor- Coalition of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) which represents 13 million US workers dropped a bombshell. Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson said that 'the current system of immigration enforcement in the US 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 criminalize employer behavior,' the AFL-CIO noted, 'not punish workers.'

The AFL-CIO's position did not come from no-where. Over the past few decades the presence of immigrant workers in the service sector has increased in the US. Each year about a million migrants enter the US, with about 40% from Mexico and Latin America, many of whom 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). Brave immigrant workers across the country have been at the forefront of several organizing campaigns. For that reason, Warren Mar a senior AFL-CIO organizer said that 'basically we feel immigration laws should be broken. We should protect undocumented workers, we should harbor them, we should not cooperate with the INS.' These are strong words.

Two months later, on the US-Mexico border, a group of right-wing farmers responded to this union thrust with firepower. In Douglas, Arizona, home to 20,000 people, 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 2100-mile US-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 illegally search for migrants. When they have found people, they 'arrest' them, tie them up and radio the Immigration and Naturalization Service (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's plastic, tin cans and shit everywhere you look. Old blankets, cut hoses, cut fences. You name it, illegals'll 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 US and Mexico. Since January 1994, 32 incidents of violent vigilante action have been reported, 27 in Arizona alone. In Cochise County, Arizona, in the last year private citizens detained immigrants at gunpoint in at least 25 occasions. On 14 May, a 74-year-old man in Bracketville, Texas shot Eusebio de Haro. Mr. de Haro stopped at Mr. Samuel Blackwood's home and asked for water. Mr. Blackwood and his wife refused, and then Mr. Blackwood chased Mr. de Haro and shot him in the leg. The Mexican migrant bled to death. Two days later, ranchers in the Douglas area chased and shot at a group of 30 immigrants, and one man was shot in the back. By late May, vigilante squads have shot at least four migrants. This is no accident, since the ranchers have circulated flyers that ask others to join them in 'hunting the Mexicans for sport.'

The Mayor of Douglas, Arizona, Ray Borane was incensed by this attitude. 'It is demeaning to treat this as recreation,' he told the media. 'We don't want to be filling up with militia types.' However, the border region is already being flooded by the right wing. 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 hemorrhaging border. This is nothing less than an invasion going on down there.' To characterize the migration as an invasion is a long-standing trope of the US 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 for trespassers. There's a lot of racism that's 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's at a real danger level.'

On 19 May, the Mexican Foreign Minister 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, penalized.' The attacks, she said, are 'intolerant, racist, xenophobic actions against Mexican citizens.' Mexico sought legal advice from Zuckerman and Associates, a US law firm, as well as turned to the United Nations for recourse. In response to Minister Green, US Secretary of State Madeline Albright said that the Clinton administration is 'very concerned about what has been happening in Arizona and we agreed that such behavior was inadvisable and that violence against migrants was unacceptable. I think it's 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 US remains committed to legal migration and to the humane and orderly management of our borders.' The issue then remains about the maintenance of border security, and not about labour.

Roger Barnett, also mainly interested in security, complains that he had to become a vigilante because the US government is not doing its job effectively. 'So far, the government has not dealt with the problem. It lacks any formula,' he noted. 'They've put more US Border Patrol troops in the area, but as far as stopping the problem, stopping the aliens coming across my property, they haven't done that.' Since 1994, the INS and the Border Patrol have spent almost $2 billion on making the US-Mexico border a militarized zone. With over 8000 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 US 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 bit under the 1986 record of 1.6 million. As news of the Arizona vigilantes reached Washington, DC, the US Congress rushed through an amendment that allowed the US 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 don't 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 Minister 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, where the recent fracas is ongoing. Since 1994, the US National Commission on Human Rights acknowledges that at least 450 migrants have died on the border mainly due to hypothermia and sunstroke. Due to the harshness of the routes, the migrants have sought out better guides (called coyotes) who charge anywhere from $1000-1500 per 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 (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 US. 'They're 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 don't 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 US 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 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 due to NAFTA, a crisis situation that leads many to seek employment in the US. Besides, since it takes about $45,000 to raise a child in Mexico, the Mexican workers seem to be offering a subsidy to the US 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 9 million Mexicans who live in the US. 'Without the contribution of Mexican labor, food scarcity and higher prices would hit the United States 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 US State and society that prefer to target them than 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 US, however, comes in for the sharpest attack. Because of a lack of formal agreement, the US 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 recognized that this is not a police problem, but a question of bilateral flux in the labor market, demanding 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 US, 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 US policy. The bodies of the dead Mexicans are a testimony to the importance of these changes.

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