Over the past year, amidst the heated immigration debate, immigration hawks have pointed to the violence taking place on the Mexican side of the border to argue that the U.S. isn’t ready for comprehensive immigration reform and should instead pursue a single-minded focus on border security. It’s probably only a matter of time before anti-immigrant lawmakers start pointing at the recent “massacre” of 72 Central and South American suspected migrants who were brutally tortured and killed by human smugglers in Mexico on their way to the U.S. as yet another reason to pour billions of dollars into immigration enforcement.
However, it’s actually the absence of immigration reform that contributed to their deaths and has helped propel the violence on the other side of the border. Just as the “insatiable demand” for illicit drugs in the U.S. fuels the bloody drug war in Latin America, heavy demand for and a steady supply of immigrant workers together with an outdated visa system that shuts most migrants out of the U.S. has fueled the profitable and violent human smuggling business.
Despite the poor state of the economy, the Global Consortium on Security Transformation wrote in May 2010 that “[t]he U.S. labor market has seen chronic shortages in some sectors for decades. As a result, “[i]t is no secret that much of the U.S. food processing and agricultural industries depend heavily on foreign-born (often illegal) workers for harvesting fruits and vegetables.” An aging population, low fertility rates, and rising education attainments and employment aspirations are amongst the factors that the study cites as contributing to the labor shortage in those sectors.
Meanwhile, few economic opportunities across Latin America creates an ample supply of workers who are more than willing to fill many of those jobs. However, irrespective of “good” or “bad” economic conditions, they can’t. The decades-old U.S. visa system that allows immigrants to enter and work in the country legally consists of static quotas that don’t respond to economic fluctuations.
Meanwhile, a focus on border security has made it increasingly difficult for migrants to enter the U.S. illegally. Yet it hasn’t stopped them from coming. Instead, it has increased the profitability of the human smuggling business and strengthened its ties with organized crime. In 2008, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, “[a]s U.S. border security has tightened, Mexican drug cartels have moved in on coyotes…the traffickers now use their expertise in gathering intelligence on border patrols, logistics and communication devices to get around ever tighter controls.”
Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez, chair of the department of transborder Chicana/o and Latina/o studies at Arizona State University, explains, “[n]ow, because of the so-called security needs of the border, what’s been created is this structure of smuggling in the hands of really nasty people who only treat the migrant as a commodity.” Along the way, migrants face rape, theft, physical and emotional abuse, and even kidnapping, torture, and death. Their own smugglers view them as exploitable cargo. If they make it to the U.S., they are cheap labor or trespassing “criminals,” depending on who you ask. Migrants like the 72 who were brutally killed in Mexico risk everything to attain the American Dream, but, somewhere along the line the humanity of their journey is lost.
Watch Amnesty International’s video on the risks migrants to the U.S. face:
Some well-meaning, free market thinkers would argue that an open border that allows for the free flow of labor is the answer. However, besides running the risk of being an economic and national security nightmare, it’s also politically impossible. Fixing the broken immigration system by creating a flexible number of opportunities for economic migrants to work in the U.S. without sacrificing border security is a much more practical and realistic solution. Replacing old visa quotas with a system that responds to economic supply and demand would devastate the lucrative human smuggling business by allowing more economic migrants to enter the U.S. legally, rather than paying someone to smuggle them through. It might even significantly dent the illegal drug trade by freeing up resources that are currently being indiscriminately used to pursue non-violent economic migrants and dangerous drug cartel operatives alike. In the meantime, more border security means more human smuggling profits, more violence, more exploitation, and more migrant deaths on both sides of the border.