August 31, 2007

Insight:

Political and Immigration News: The Border’s Summer of Discontent

It’s as if all the contradictions of the US War on Terror, immigration reform, US-Mexico relations, free trade, and sagging economies on both sides of the border have burst at the seams, and at the same time. As the record hot summer of 2007 crawls to a close, the political barometer on the US-Mexico border is tipping red. Barely a day goes by without hunger strikes, human chains, border crossing demonstrations, marches, and calls for economic boycotts.

In a press conference this week, Carlos Marentes, director of the El Paso-based Border Agricultural Workers Project, said “neo-liberal” economic policies exemplified by the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) are sparking a growing crisis in the borderlands and beyond. He contended that US immigration laws and policies are shrouded in a veil of “hypocrisy” which views immigrant workers as an indispensable, cheap labor pool but then turns them into convenient political scapegoats. “We want to stop them, but we also need them,” Marentes said.

While border protests are hardly new, what’s striking about the latest manifestations of discontent is how they are cutting across the political spectrum and even incorporating centrist and conservative forces that are increasingly frustrated by a status quo dictated in Washington and Mexico City.

In the wake of the US Congress’ failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation this year, several developments are rekindling citizen activism. Among the most important are the construction of new border walls, long waits at border crossings, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) crackdown on undocumented workers, the deaths of detained immigrants while in US custody, Border Patrol shootings, and the August 19 deportation of activist Elvira Arellano.

The August 8 shooting of Jose Alejandro Ortiz by the US Border Patrol in El Paso, Texas, unleashed a wave of indignation on the border and in Mexico. Ortiz, who reportedly had a criminal record in both the US and Mexico, was allegedly involved in an attempt to smuggle immigrants when he was fatally shot.

According to the Border Patrol’s account, Ortiz threatened to throw a rock at a still-unidentified agent, who was forced to fire in self-defense at the young man. At least one witness contradicted the official version, and the local US attorney’s office is investigating the killing. Since Ortiz supposedly died south of the border, Mexico’s Office of the Federal Attorney General has also opened an investigation. The Ortiz shooting was the fifth time El Paso Border Patrol agents have shot an undocumented person this year, but the first fatal incident of 2007.

Ortiz’s killing was condemned in strong language by Ciudad Juarez Bishop Renato Ascensio Leon, Chihuahua Governor Jose Reyes Baeza, Chihuahua State Attorney General Patricia Gonzalez and members of the federal Mexican Congress. On Saturday, August 25, several federal congressmen from President Calderon’s center-right National Action Party leafleted motorists crossing the Bridge of Americas between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso. Two days earlier, Ortiz family members and supporters burned a Border Patrol pinata at another bridge linking the two cities.

El Paso Democratic Congressman Silvestre Reyes, who headed the El Paso Border Patrol office during the 1990s, said an investigation of the Ortiz killing was necessary but challenged critics he said downplayed the seriousness of rock-throwing against agents. “Anybody who thinks you can’t get killed by a rock is a fool,” Congressman Reyes said at an El Paso border security conference.

The construction of new US border walls is another issue stoking anger in the region. While proponents of physical barriers insist the walls will guard against terrorists, deter illegal immigrants and curb drug traffickers, opponents, including most Texas border city mayors, contend the million-dollar structures will divide sister cities, intrude on private lands, create flood hazards, threaten ecosystems and wildlife like rare jaguars, and funnel undocumented immigrants to deadlier, isolated desert crossings.

Isabel Garcia of the Tucson-based Human Rights Coalition, said more than 200 migrants have died trying to cross the border in the Arizona-Sonora corridor alone since October of last year. The Arizona-Sonora border is “the epicenter of the war on immigrants,” Garcia charged.

In opposition to border walls, a Texas-based group called Border Ambassadors kicked off a 16-day campaign August 25 in El Paso. Led by Jay J. Johnson-Castro, the group organized a small human chain across the Santa Fe Bridge between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez.

The demonstration was supported by the League for United Latin American Citizens, Miss Latina Texas beauty contest queens and the mayors of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. El Paso Mayor Cook said that people outside the region don’t understand the “symbiotic relationship” between border communities dependent on mutual economic, academic and social exchanges.

Border Ambassadors plans human chains in the coming days in other Texas-Mexico border cities.

A separate anti-wall mobilization is planned for October 11-13. Endorsed by 37 Western Hemisphere non-governmental groups, the action grows out of last year’s Border Social Forum held in Ciudad Juarez. Protest organizers include San Antonio’s Southwest Workers Union, the Border Agricultural Workers Union, Southwest Organizing Project, and many others.

Economic grievances remain are the core of many border-area protests.

Former Bracero Program guestworkers, for instance, are renewing demands that the Mexican government compensate all the eligible braceros who had money deducted from their paychecks decades ago for savings accounts that never materialized.

On Monday, August 27, nine women initiated a week-long hunger strike in El Paso against the North American Free Trade Agreement, the conditions of women workers and treatment of immigrants in the US. Organized by La Mujer Obrera, a longtime group of former garment industry workers, the hunger strikers demand investment in women-centered economic development enterprises.

In Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, meanwhile, thousands of teachers are expected to hold a border demonstration August 31 to protest the Mexican government’s passage of a new social security law that lengthens retirement age eligibility requirements and sets the stage for the privatization of pension accounts.

Building on a trend that’s developed over the past few years, the latest round of border activism is connected to issues affecting communities across North America. In Prince William County, Virginia, the Sin Fronteras organization launched an economic boycott this week to protest a new county law that gives local police immigration law enforcement responsibilities.

In an August 27 telephone press conference, representatives of several US-based human rights and Latino and Asian community organizations criticized the expansion of law enforcement measures once confined to the border region to the interior of the United States. Activist leaders condemned house-to-house ICE raids, alleged detention center abuses, employer verification letters, the use of local police forces to enforce immigration laws, and the appearance of high-tech aircraft monitoring communities far from the border.

Immigrant communities are in a “state of siege,” charged Christian Ramirez of the American Friends Service Committee. Activists are “now calling for our communities to come together and say enough to these governmental initiatives,” Ramirez added.

Veronica Carmona, an organizer for the New Mexico-based Colonias Development Council, told Frontera NorteSur that pro-immigrant groups are backing a national day of action for September 12. Carmona said the character of the protest is still being debated.

If cross-border activism needed a media face, Elvira Arellano certainly provided it. The undocumented Mexican worker’s long fight to remain with her child, a US citizen, was abruptly interrupted when ICE agents arrested Arellano as she was leaving a Los Angeles press conference this month.

Arellano’s rapid deportation to Mexico drew the protest of the Mexican government.

Arellano’s arrest injected new life into the immigrant rights movement, and thousands of people streamed into the streets of Los Angeles on August

25 chanting “We are all Elvira,” a slogan evocative of the 1994 cry in Mexico, “We are all Marcos,” in allusion to the Zapatista subcomandante.

The Arellano case received ample coverage and touched off sharp commentary in the Mexican media, with some outlets proclaiming the young woman as the “symbol” of the Mexican immigrant in the US.

Reprinted from Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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