NAFTA at 20: The New Spin

March 15th, 2013

Only a few years ago, analysts were warning that Mexico was at risk of becoming a “failed state.” These days, the Mexican government appears to be doing a much better PR job.

Despite the devastating and ongoing drug war, the story now goes that Mexico is poised to become a “middle-class” society. As establishment apostle Thomas Friedman put it in theNew York Times,Border 048Mexico is now one of “the more dominant economic powers in the 21st century.”

But this spin is based on superficial assumptions. The small signs of economic recovery in Mexico are grounded largely on the return of maquiladora factories from China, where wages have been increasing as Mexican wages have stagnated. Under-cutting China on labor costs is hardly something to celebrate. This trend is nothing but the return of the same “free-trade” model that has failed the Mexican people for 20 years.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was ratified in 1993 and went into effect in 1994, was touted as the cure for Mexico’s economic “backwardness.” Promoters argued that the trilateral trade agreement would dig Mexico out of its economic rut and modernize it along the lines of its mighty neighbor, the United States.

The story went like this:

NAFTA was going to bring new U.S. technology and capital to complement Mexico’s surplus labor. This in turn would lead Mexico to industrialize and increase productivity, thereby making the country more competitive abroad. The spike in productivity and competiveness would automatically cause wages in Mexico to increase. The higher wages would expand economic opportunities in Mexico, slowing migration to the United States.

In the words of the former President Bill Clinton, NAFTA was going to “promote more growth, more equality and better preservation of the environment and a greater possibility of world peace.” Mexico’s president at the time, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, echoed Clinton’s sentiments during a commencement address at MIT: “NAFTA is a job-creating agreement,” he said. “It is an environment improvement agreement.” More importantly, Salinas boasted, “it is a wage-increasing agreement.”

As the 20th anniversary of NAFTA approaches, however, the verdict is indisputable: NAFTA failed to spur meaningful and inclusive economic growth in Mexico, pull Mexicans out of unemployment and underemployment, or reduce poverty. By all accounts, it has done just the opposite.Road_Cross_05

The Verdict Is In

Official statistics show that from 2006 to 2010, more than 12 million people joined the ranks of the impoverished in Mexico, causing the poverty level to jump to 51.3 percent of the population. According to the United Nations, in the past decade Mexico saw the slowest reduction in poverty in all of Latin America.

Rampant poverty in Mexico is a product of IMF and World Bank-led neoliberal policies—such as anti-inflationary policies that have kept wages stagnant—of which “free-trade” pacts like NAFTA are part and parcel. Another factor is the systematic failure to create good jobs in the formal sectors of the economy. During Felipe Calderon’s presidency, the share of the Mexican labor force relying on informal work—such as selling chewing gum and other low-cost products on the street—grew to nearly 50 percent.

Even the wages in the manufacturing sector, which NAFTA cheerleaders argued would benefit the most from trade liberalization, have remained extremely low. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mexican manufacturing workers made an average hourly wage of only $4.53 in 2011, compared to $26.87 for their U.S. counterparts. Between 1997 and 2011, the U.S.-Mexico manufacturing wage gap narrowed only slightly, with Mexican wages rising from 13 to 17 percent of the level earned by American workers. In Brazil, by contrast, manufacturing wages are almost double Mexico’s, and in Argentina almost triple.

Mexico’s stagnant wages are celebrated by free traders as an opportunity for U.S. businesses interested in outsourcing. According to one report by the McKinsey management consulting firm, “for a company motivated primarily by cost, Mexico holds the most attractive position among the Latin American countries we studied. … Mexico’s advantages start with low labor costs.”

But even as the damning evidence against NAFTA continues to roll in, entrenched advocates of the trade agreement have been busy crafting new arguments. In his recent book, Mexico: A Middle Class Society, NAFTA negotiator Luis De la Calle and his co-author argue that the trade agreement has given rise to a growing Mexican middle class by providing consumers with higher quality, U.S- made goods. The authors proclaim that “NAFTA has dramatically reduced the costs of goods for Mexican families at the same time that the quality and variety of goods and services in the country grew.”

Most of the economic indicators included in the book conveniently fail to account for the 2008-2009 financial crisis, which hit Mexico worse than almost any other Latin American country. The result has been skyrocketing inequality. As the Guardian reported last December, “ever more Mexican families have acquired the trappings of middle-class life such as cars, fridges, and washing machines, but about half of the population still lives in poverty.”

The indicators of consumption that suggest the rise of Mexico’s middle class also exclude the dramatic increase in food prices in recent years, which has condemned millions of Mexicans to hunger. Twenty-eight million Mexicans are facing “food poverty,” meaning they lack access to sufficient nutritious food. According to official statistics, more than 50,000 people died of malnutrition between 2006 and 2011. That’s almost as many as have died in Mexico’s drug war, which dramatically escalated under Calderon and has continued under President Enrique Peña Nieto.

The food crisis has coincided with the “Walmartization” of the country. In 1994 there were only 14 Walmart retail stores in all of Mexico. Now there are more than 1,724 retail and wholesale stores. This is almost half the number of U.S. Walmarts, and far more than any other country outside the United States. The proliferation of Walmart and other U.S. big-box stores in Mexico since NAFTA came into effect has ushered in a new era of consumerism—in part through an aggressive expansion built on political bribes and the destruction of ancient Aztec ruins.

The arguments developed prior to the signing of NAFTA focused primarily on the claim that the trade agreement would make Mexico a nation of producers and exporters. These initial promises failed to deliver. Throughout the NAFTA years, the bulk of Mexico’s manufacturing “exports” have come from transnational car and technology companies. Not surprisingly, Mexico’s intra-industry trade with the United Sates is the highest of any Latin American country. Yet the percentage of Mexican companies that are actually exporters is vanishingly small, and imports of food into Mexico have surged.088248_06_SD_2006

Same Snake Oil, Different Pitch

Because their initial promises utterly failed to deliver, the NAFTA pushers are now hyping “consumer benefits” to justify new trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership. One of the most extreme examples of this spin is an article inThe Washington Post that celebrates a “growing middle class” in Mexico that is “buying more U.S. goods than ever, while turning Mexico into a more democratic, dynamic and prosperous American ally.” Devoid of all logic, it goes on to say that “Mexico’s growth as a manufacturing hub is boosted by low wages.” How can low wages make people more prosperous?

The Post also boasts that in “Mexico’s Costco stores, staples such as tortilla chips and chipotle salsa are trucked in from factories in California and Texas that produce for both sides of the border.” Is this something to celebrate? The influx of traditional Mexican food staples, starting with maize, and goods from the United States has displaced and dislocated millions of Mexican small-scale farmers, producers, and small businesses. And not only that, Mexicans’ increasing consumption of processed foods and beverages from the United States has made the country the second-most obese in the world.

In essence, NAFTA advocates have been reduced to saying: “so maybe NAFTA didn’t help Mexico reduce poverty or increase wages. But hey! At least it gave it Walmart, Costcos, and sweat shops.”

The bankruptcy of NAFTA’s promises is only compounded by the poverty of this consolation.

By Manuel Perez-Rocha and Javier Rojo, March 14, 2013

New Study Sheds Light on Mistreatment of Migrants Crossing the U.S.-Mexico Border

March 11th, 2013

Apprehended while attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, a young Mexican man surrenders peacefully to U.S. Border Patrol agents, but the agents violently shove him to the pavement, knee him in the back and handcuff him forcefully. His story is just one of many incidents of abuse and excessive use of force brought to light in a new study, “Documented Failures: The Consequences of Immigration Policy on the U.S.-Mexico Border,” released today by the Jesuit Conference, the Kino Border Initiative (KBI) and Jesuit Refugee Service/USA.

The comprehensive report details incidents of physical and verbal abuse suffered by migrants both at the hands of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Mexican police, and through attacks by human traffickers, robbers and gangs. Additionally, the study highlights the stories of migrants separated from family members and those who have been sexually assaulted by criminals, left for dead in the desert and then denied medical care by U.S. border agents.

While offering humanitarian assistance and food at its Aid Center for Deported Migrants in the border town of Nogales, Mexico, KBI noted a disturbing increase in the frequency of migrants’ accounts of mistreatment. In response KBI, which is a bi-national ministry of the Jesuits, collaborated with Jesuit Refugee Service/USA and the Jesuit Conference to undertake a study documenting migrant experiences at the border and making concrete policy recommendations to U.S. and Mexican authorities. The research and analysis was funded by Catholic Relief Services of Mexico.

In an effort to persuade lawmakers to rectify the situation, the report proposes taking steps to limit family separation during the deportation process; reunite families that have mixed legal statuses and are split between the U.S. and Mexico or Central America; reduce violence against migrants in Mexico and Central America; and curb abuse by the U.S. Border Patrol and local police in Mexico.

“We, as Jesuits, because of our commitment to educating the children of migrants in our schools, serving migrant communities in our parishes and offering deported men, women and children food and shelter on the border, see firsthand the costs of our current immigration laws,” said Jesuit Father Thomas Greene, secretary for Social and International Ministries at the Jesuit Conference.

Calling for broad reform and the need for professionalism in the U.S. Border Patrol, the three organizations made policy recommendations in the report based on the analysis of data drawn from surveys that KBI conducted of migrants visiting its aid center as well as data from the Mexican government’s own Northern Border International Migration Survey. Michael Danielson, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at American University, interviewed migrants in Nogales and evaluated the survey responses for the study.

Shaina Aber, policy director for Social and International Ministries at the Jesuit Conference, attributed the uptick in turbulence in Northern Mexico and the resulting vulnerability of deported migrants in large part to an intensified drug war and lack of serious cooperation between the Mexican state and federal governments in addressing the issue of migrant safety.

“There has been a dearth of follow-up by local police for migrants who are victims of violence at the hands of criminals, which may contribute to the rising crime rate,” she explained.

Migrants from Central America brave additional difficulties crossing borders from Central America into Mexico en route to the U.S. The findings demonstrated that a growing number of migrants cite the intensifying violence in their home countries as a driving reason for immigrating to the U.S. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, and nearly 12% of Honduran migrants reported fear of violence as the primary factor underlying their choice to migrate north.

Adding to the list of grievances against U.S. border authorities, the report showed that the U.S. Border Patrol frequently denied migrants their basic right as foreign nationals to contact their consulate when apprehended, even when migrants expressly requested to do so. Furthermore, a large proportion of migrants did not contact their consulate upon being caught because they were never made aware of their right to do so, were not sure how to establish contact or did not believe it would help.

Encouraging more transparency, dialogue, and accountability on the part of U.S. authorities, Jesuit Father Sean Carroll, Executive Director of KBI in Nogales, Ariz., said, “Law enforcement agencies like CBP and ICE must take local community input into account for true security and respect for human rights to become a reality along the U.S./Mexico border.”

Added Aber, “We recommend that U.S. Customs and Border Patrol allow lawyers or NGOs to inform migrants of their rights and do “know your rights” presentations at CBP facilities.”

Urging elected officials to “place family unity, human dignity, transparency and accountability at the center of their debates,” KBI, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA and the Jesuit Conference supported the U.S. Senate’s recent bipartisan efforts to improve the nation’s broken immigration system in a separate statement.

“We can and must do better,” the statement declared.

The full report may be accessed by clicking here.

A summary of the report is available here.

By Doris Yu

14 February 2013

Inside an Arizona Drug Smuggling Gang

March 11th, 2013

His boss had just bought the white sedan he drove; it still was fitted with Mexican license plates. He had no insurance, and his only identification was a fake Mexican driver’s license — now tucked against $140,000 in cash in a black backpack resting on the floor of the vehicle’s passenger side.

Arizona Naco_2009

“Oh, shit!” Rodrigo says in Spanish into the phone, speaking to his boss in Mexico. “I’m getting pulled over. I got to call you back.”

Maybe the officers had been tailing him. Maybe, he thought, they knew what he was up to. He steered to the side of the road and placed the phone on the driver’s side armrest.

Rodrigo is 26 years old and six feet tall. He was born in Mexico but grew up and graduated high school in Phoenix. His Mexican features are his dark hair and eyes. He has light skin, bordering on pale, and often wears Ray-Ban-style glasses with clear lenses. He can switch effortlessly between Spanish and English. His favorite band is Green Day. Much of life is a punchline to him. When he walks into a room, regardless whether he knows anybody, he banters with everyone and quickly becomes, if not the center of attention, a source of comic relief.

See the slideshow that accompanies this story.

The money in the backpack resulted from 280 pounds of marijuana he and his uncle had just sold. The cash would return to Mexico, with the weed heading over highways to the east, where it sells for about $400 more per pound each 1,000 miles it travels.

One of the officers asks for his identification, and Rodrigo removes the ID from the front pocket of his backpack. While that officer returns to the squad car with the fake license (technically, it’s real but acquired through illegitimate means) the other questions Rodrigo — who remembers the incident like this.:

“So, what do you do?” the officer asks.

“Oh, I’m just working at my uncle’s restaurant.”

“What kind of food is it?”

“Oh, it’s Mexican and whatever.”

“Is it any good?”

“It’s the best, man. You should try it.”

“So, what’s in the bag?” the officer says. “You don’t have any knives or guns in there, do you?”

Rodrigo thinks, “Man, I’m fucked! What am I going to say? I’m gambling? My ass is going straight to jail!”

He tries to remember his rights and whether they can legally search the bag. Even after eight years in the smuggling business, he’s never thought about what he would do or say if he got caught, never built a backstory or practiced composing himself and lying to a cop. He’d always thought he’d just jump out of the car and haul ass.

“Oh, just some dirty clothes,” he responds. “I was going to go do some laundry over at my sister’s.”

Then the phone in the armrest rings, and rings.

“You wanna pick up your phone?” the officer asks. “It’s ringing.”

The cop leans in toward the window and stares at the caller ID. “You have a friend named Paloma. Doesn’t that mean dove?”

“Yeah. That’s a nickname.”

“Hold on, let me talk to him.”

The officer takes the phone and asks in gringo Spanish, “Co-mo say ya-ma tu amigo? De K calor es su car-O?”

After the officer interrogates Paloma, he hands back the phone and the other cop returns.

“Where’d you get this license?” this officer asks.

“Oh, it’s because I live over there [in Mexico].”

“How come you look white and speak English?”

“Oh, I come and go a lot. I live over there a lot. I’m just visiting.”

The cops wrap up the questioning and let Rodrigo leave.

Afterward, Paloma, a calm 31-year-old Mexican who coordinates the delivery of more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana to Phoenix each month, calls back, and the two laugh about the officers: “Stupid gringo policía.”

Looking back on the moment, Rodrigo says, “I think [they] looked at my appearance and probably thought I didn’t look too foul or something. If I would’ve looked like some foul-ass beaner, they probably would’ve been digging around and shit . . . My appearance helps a lot.”

Rodrigo picks up loads and coordinates deliveries. He’s a go-fer for a gang that smuggles weed from Mexico to Phoenix. Rodrigo might spend a day scouring auto-parts stores in the Valley, looking for shocks for his boss’ cars in Mexico, or tracking down binoculars at outdoor stores — whatever Paloma needs. When work arrives, he meets drivers in grocery or mall parking lots and switches cars to drive the hundreds of pounds of weed in trunks to the stash house, which is also home.

Rodrigo, his 19-year-old cousin Sal, his uncle Sergio, and four other family members live in the small house on Phoenix’s west side. From the house’s garage, the pot moves to wholesalers. “Most of them are black or Jamaican,” Rodrigo says. Each year, Palmona’s group distributes about 10,000 pounds of marijuana to different people who drive it to places like Michigan,Maryland, Kentucky, and Chicago, where it’s divided into pounds, half-pounds, ounces.

Indeed, says a 2011 U.S. Department of Justicereport, “Most of the marijuana and heroin that transits the Mexico-Arizona border area is destined for [out-of-state] domestic markets, including those in East Coast states.”

Rodrigo’s group is paid for bulk loads they pass on to the wholesalers. If it’s someone they’ve worked with for years, they financially front the load. If not, they receive payment first. Rodrigo’s crew takes its cut and sends the rest back to Paloma in Mexico. He takes his cut and uses the rest to buy the merchandise that keeps the $500,000-a-year business rolling.

No one in the group carries a gun; none has teardrop tattoos or dresses in shirts that reach their knees. They’re a small operation, a tiny part of marijuana smuggling from Mexico, which Los Angeles’ RAND Drug Policy Research Center says is a $2 billion-a-year business overall.

Rodrigo, Sergio, and Paloma were born or grew up in a small Mexican city in the state of Chihuahua a few hours south of the border. It’s a family business. Paloma isn’t related; he’s a family friend, but he’s the pápi of the group. About 10 others work in the operation: backpackers, lookouts, those who drive packed weed from southern Arizona after it has crossed the border.

Rodrigo works directly with Sal and Sergio. The men who pick up and drive the weed and deliver it to the stash house might be friends of theirs or friends of people they’ve worked with, but they typically won’t know who they’re dealing with until a shipment arrives.

Paloma manages the operation. In a business where asking questions is grounds for dismissal, Paloma oversees the smuggling process to Phoenix, passing along appropriate phone numbers and making certain that each cog in the operation does what it’s paid to do, when it’s paid to do it.

The government calls operations like Paloma’s “drug trafficking organizations,” the tone of which sounds as if such endeavors are formalized from a cartel boss on down. But the groups that Paloma works with are more like floating subcontractors connected only by product.

Forty percent to 67 percent of all weed in the United States comes from Mexico, according to the RAND Center. It’s typically called “commercial grade,” contains stems and seeds, and — when it comes to Arizona — is supplied by the Sinaloa Cartel.

“Sinaloa . . . exploits well-established routes in Arizona and [has] perfected smuggling methods to supply drug-distribution networks located throughout the United States,” states the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, a coalition of federal and local agencies.

Asked whether she knows how many groups like Paloma’s operate in Arizona, Ramona Sanchez, special agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency in Phoenix, says, “Not really. We’ve made several operational take-downs. We’ve taken down several people with connections to the Sinaloa Cartel.”

Sanchez defines a “connection” to the Sinaloa Cartel as someone merchandising dope bought from the cartel. And since almost all the pot in Arizona comes from the Sinaloans, does Paloma’s group work for the cartel? Does a dealer who’s slinging sacks on the corner?

Sanchez and many government reports acknowledge that subcontractor groups such as Paloma’s have no direct link to the cartel, but this doesn’t stop certain law enforcement from calling every Mexican carrying a load of weed through the desert a cartel member.

Aside from buying about $250,000 worth of weed each month from the cartel, Rodrigo and Paloma say they have no other connection to it. Paloma says his group seldom has resorted to violence, but he admits that it he is part of an industry where murder, torture, and kidnapping are tools.

In their minds, Paloma and his gang move a product demanded by U.S. customers — a product that supports Sergio’s three children and Paloma’s family and subsidizes his clothing shop. As for Rodrigo, if he can manage to start saving some of his earnings, he wants to someday open a restaurant in Phoenix — or maybe a strip club.

Rodrigo wakes at 9:30 on a warm winter morning. “Fuckin’ Paloma calls me at this time every day just to bug the shit out of me.”

Paloma keeps tabs on Rodrigo, gives him hell when he’s hung over on a weekday, and disapproves when he learns that Rodrigo has snorted cocaine. Rodrigo reveres Paloma, but he thinks he’s a prig. Paloma says he’s looking out for Rodrigo.

Later that day, Rodrigo wires $800 to Mexico from a pawn shop, which he prefers over Western Union because it saves him money. After that, he pays Paloma’s phone bill at a Boost Mobile store and returns home to waits for his uncle.

The white stucco house with a Spanish tile roof has three bedrooms. It’s littered with Barbie dolls for Sergio’s daughter. There’s a crack in the ceiling of the living room, where they watch Spanish novelason a stolen flat-screen TV.

Sergio’s wife keeps the white refrigerator stocked; atop it sits a Cookie Monster cookie jar. AtChristmas, Sergio paid a neighborhood tweaker $10 to hang lights on the house. In the garage, there are two white freezer boxes. One is filled with Red Baron pizza, and the other contains an old 20-pound brick of marijuana.

The garage is crucial for any smuggling operation: Car pulls in with dope, garage door closes, dope is unloaded, car leaves. Another car pulls in later, dope is loaded, and away it goes.

The smuggling business involves lots of waiting around — thank God for PlayStation. But when a load arrives, Rodrigo and his uncle and cousin can move a few hundred pounds of marijuana in and out of the garage in no more than a couple of days.

It has been nearly a month since the last load arrived. It’s time for a little side work.

Sergio, a thick 37-year-old with a mustache and short black hair, piles into his silver truck with Rodrigo. His daughter’s empty baby stroller is in the back. Sergio barely says a word unless it’s on the phone. He talks with people who want weed but can’t find it, who have it but can’t get rid of it, and friends who want small amounts.

A squawking phone is something Sergio, Paloma, and Rodrigo have in common.

As Sergio and Rodrigo near Seventh Street and McDowell Road, Sergio arranges a meeting, parks at a Sonic restaurant next to an outdoor intercom, and orders cherry limeades.

A black Lincoln Navigator parks at the intercom to the right. Sergio knows a man with more weed than he can get rid of, so he agrees to buy a couple of hundred pounds at $535 a pound. The plan is to turn around and sell it to the guy in the Navigator for about $555.

“You know, it’s not even worth it,” Rodrigo says of the side deal and others like it. They might make $20 a pound total from this deal, but they’ll have to haggle with the sellers and buyers. And it’s a lot riskier.

“Yeah, but we got to do something,” Sergio says.

When weed comes in from Paloma, there’s far more money at stake. Sergio makes about $10 a pound; Rodrigo’s cut would be about $7 a pound. Rodrigo alone generally makes about $2,000 for 300 pounds.

A Hispanic man wearing a black shirt and jean shorts leans over the passenger’s-side window of Sergio’s truck, looking nervously about. In plain sight, Sergio passes him a mason jar with a sample nugget the size of a plum, eliciting a jittery smile from Navigator man. It used to be that when they came to meetings like this, they’d break off a piece of a 20-pound bale and give it to the guy. Now, Sergio and Rodrigo won’t even let the Navigator guy take the nug out of the mason jar. He has to unscrew the lid and sniff it.

“Fuck, man, we’re in a recession,” Rodrigo says sarcastically.

Rodrigo met Paloma through Sergio, whose family has been involved in the drug trade in Chihuahua for a long time. Rodrigo grew up in several homes in Mexico and around Phoenix. When Rodrigo was young, his father and mother split up, and Sergio — his uncle through marriage — had a hand in “kidnapping” Rodrigo from his father so his mother could have him. After that, Sergio took Rodrigo and his mother into his house on the west side.

When your family owns a bakery, you become a baker. Rodrigo’s new family ran drugs.

During high school in Central Phoenix, Rodrigo and his friends sold shake they found in used plastic that had wrapped marijuana bales. Sometimes they pilfered leftover nugs and sold them. Paloma hung around Sergio’s house to check on things, and sometimes he would pick up Rodrigo from school. Rodrigo shuttled money for a bit: He’d drive from Phoenix to a house in Las Cruces, New Mexico, with cash stuffed in propane tanks. “One time I took half a million,” he brags. Paloma slowly gave Rodrigo more responsibility, and their relationship grew. Now they talk a lot; when Rodrigo was in jail for an old bench warrant last year, Paloma bailed him out.

Sergio and the buyer in the Navigator set a 7 a.m. meeting to pick up the weed, and he and Rodrigo drive away. With his left hand on the wheel, Sergio reaches into his khaki cargo pants pocket, pinches a bit of coke between his thumb and index finger and takes a succession of loud sniffs.

“Today is Friday, man,” Rodrigo says, meaning it’s still the work week.

“Whatever,” Sergio replies. “Every day is the same: Sun goes up and fucking sets in same place.”

“Say that to the guys who wake up at 8 everyday and get off at 5,” Rodrigo says.

“To me, every day is Saturday,” Sergio responds, as he drives toward the stash house also known as home.

A few days later, 400 pounds of pot on its way to their house is caught by authorities 20 minutes north of Tombstone. But, soon after, 200 pounds makes it to their garage, having started its U.S. journey at the border in Cochise County.

The border fence is 12 feet tall a few miles east of Naco in Cochise County: One portion has rounded poles the thickness of fence posts and gaps of equal size. The other is wire mesh. The poles have shiny slick marks from the shoes of Mexicans who have slid down. And for those climbing the mesh fence, “All they had to do was use screwdrivers [to go up and over],” says Detective Daniel Romero of the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office. “It was no issue.”

Romero has worked in law enforcement for 24 years, 15 of it in this border county. He’s a member of his office’s eight-deputy Narcotics Enforcement Team, some of whom work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the DEA. Romero’s ancestors hail from Central Mexico, and the frustration of trying to defend the United States from contraband doesn’t invade his soft, matter-of-fact voice.

As a narcotics agent, Romero mostly interdicts marijuana loads. In 2010, marijuana seized along the southwestern U.S. border accounted for 96 percent of what was confiscated nationwide. Half of it was nabbed in Arizona. Smugglers come at all hours: Two days earlier, Romero busted a car carrying 200 pounds of pot at 1:30 in the afternoon. Broad daylight. A day before that, a golfer playing the fifth hole at the Turquoise Valley Golf course in Naco reported a troupe of packers as they scudded through a wash — just a chip shot away.

“We’d like to tell you that there are certain times of the day when they do it most,” Romero says. “But it’s all the time. They go when they’re ready.”

Most of the smuggling action is near milepost six, which authorities call “The Seam,” halfway between Naco and Douglas. Romero drives his Silver Chevy truck, with an M4 carbine and a shotgun where the drink holders should be, along a dirt road beside the border fence. Up close, the desert here is anything but level; it’s streaked with washes and has dense grass several feet high, boulders, and creosote bushes so thick that if a smuggler wanted to hide from pursuing authorities, he’d simply need to bend over and scurry off like a jackrabbit to vanish.

“It’s hard to find them if they get into this stuff,” Romero says.

As Romero stands atop a hill, he focuses the dial of his $1,200 Vortex Razor binoculars at a faded, white tarp flapping in the wind. On the Mexican side of the border is a lookout bivouac that’s manned, Romero thinks, 24 hours a day. A smuggler might be up there right now, he says, staring back at him while communicating to a boss in a nearby town.

Paloma’s home is not far from the bald hill where Romero stands. In the Mexican town where he lives, Paloma shares a sparse, tile-floored, two-bedroom house with a friend. He keeps almost an entire butchered cow, including head, in his freezer. He has a propane space heater and spends hours perusing Phoenix Craigslist posts, searching for random items that Rodrigo will have to pick up.

Paloma has dark skin and the build of an athlete gone a bit doughy. He wears jeans and shirts with collars and the brand names stamped on the chest. His haircut could be described as faux-hawk. He can be taciturn and stern. But, among friends, this gives way to a smile and a cackling laugh.

Although his SUV is conspicuously shiny compared to the many beaters in town, Paloma tries to keep a low profile. Years ago, he got into an argument at a bar, and his adversary smashed a beer bottle against Paloma’s face. He decided to walk away. You never know who might have connections. If he’d wanted revenge, Paloma says, he knows a few people who could have kidnapped or killed his assailant.

Working as a smuggler means he must live away from his wife and daughter, whom he shows off in cell-phone pictures. Paloma hates the town he lives in. He’s building his family a house in his hometown, where he visits them nearly every week. During work, he lives like a bachelor: bland Chinese food, sweet bread from a gas station, hot dogs from street vendors.

A walkie-talkie in his kitchen sounds off with the voices of associates. Either Paloma or his roommate carries the radio to lunch, dinner, and on trips around town, holding it closely to their ears at times. With the radio and his phone, Paloma tracks each leg of his dope’s trip north, starting with the backpackers who slip across the fence and attempt to evade the Border Patrol (or whatever agency is on duty), each packer carrying two or three 20-pound bales of weed.

Nearly all drug seizures outside points of entry in Arizona and New Mexico involve marijuana. And more than 90 percent of the seizures are from smugglers on foot. Backpackers generally work in teams. Each squad has a leader, who may carry a few bales himself, getting paid about $1,000 for each operation. Authorities call these men FTOs, or field-training officers. Typically, an FTO has worked in the smuggling business for many years and knows about hideouts, Border Patrol shift changes, and how to get by thermal-vision cameras that enable agents to see about eight miles.

Once the backpackers cross the border fence, the lead packer communicates on a disposable phone to men posted on hills who relay warnings, locations of authorities, and all-clear signals. In some spots, it’s four miles of stop-and-gos from the border fence to State Route 80, a favored smuggling highway that connects Douglas to Bisbee.

Paloma sends his lead backpacker the phone number of a driver who will pick up the load in the area. The driver will pull off to the side of the highway or down a dirt path that connects ranches and homes in the area. The packers hide in bushes. With the deft speed of a racetrack pit crew, they can load 200 pounds of marijuana into the trunk of a compact car and send it on its way in about 30 seconds.

“[Authorities] do what they can, but because of the terrain, they can’t stop the [vast majority of] it,” Romero says. “And that’s a fact. You’d have to constantly have thousands of guys working this area all the time.”

The driver might backtrack to Douglas and let the weed lie low at a stash house; he might circuitously make his way northwest on smaller highways. Or, sometimes, the driver will head through Bisbee on State Route 80 and past a Border Patrol checkpoint near Tombstone. Although this route is through a checkpoint, it’s the quickest path to the carotid artery of smuggling, Interstate 10.

The Border Patrol caught the 400 pounds of pot headed to Rodrigo and his uncle’s house along SR 80 just days after he and Sergio met with Navigator man for the side deal. Sensing that he was about to get caught, the driver stopped his Dodge Durango north of the Tombstone checkpoint and vanished into the night, leaving the weed behind.

It was on SR 80, as well — although along the eastbound portion that runs through New Mexico — that the Border Patrol busted two of Rodrigo’s close friends in 2005. One is Sergio’s nephew, the other Rodrigo’s high school pal. Rodrigo’s pal hadn’t been out of school more than a year.

The Border Patrol pulled over the two to perform an “immigration check,” and a K-9 dog went crazy. This led to 260 pounds in the trunk of the sedan. Originally, the pair only had been supposed to scout the road ahead and watch for authorities, for which they each were to be paid $800, plus expenses. But when they pulled up to the rally point, the packers stuffed the trunk and told them they’d have to drive on with the product.

Rodrigo can’t help feeling responsible, blaming himself for getting his friend involved. His buddy was sentenced to 30 months in prison and four years’ supervised release.

Authorities aren’t the only ones Rodrigo and the team worry will take their product. In recent years, rip crews, or bajadores, increasingly have preyed upon smuggling units. Rodrigo speaks of these rip crews as subhuman parasites. It’s one thing if the authorities intercept a load, because this is written off as a cost of doing business. But if a rip crew steals a load, it’s the carrier’s responsibility, and he must foot the bill.On the Road_14_Nougales

This happened to Rodrigo when someone he’d worked with and trusted for years ran off with 200 pounds of product. Rodrigo still owes $70,000 for this misfortune and pays off the debt monthly to Paloma.

There’s a code of ethics among most of the criminals who smuggle marijuana into the United States — which is why, when thieves stole from his gang, the normally cool-headed Paloma vowed, “We’re going to kidnap those motherfuckers!”

Two men they’d worked with in the past had recommended a man to shuttle a load. As soon as the driver picked it up and drove away, he stopped answering Paloma’s phone calls. Thinking it might be a scam perpetrated by the two men who’d recommended the driver, Rodrigo arranged a meeting between himself, Paloma, and the pair to chat on neutral ground: Chandler Fashion Center. They talked in the food court, and as the four walked outside toward the parking lot, two guys hired by Paloma pressed guns against the suspected thieves’ backs.

Rodrigo drove as the duo was ushered to the Red Roof Inn near 51st Avenue and McDowell, through the motel’s double doors, past the complimentary coffee stand, and down a carpeted hallway into a room.

“We fed them,” Rodrigo says. “We were decent.”Arizona Nogales_04_2007

Paloma and Rodrigo left, and the hired men held the thieves. The kidnappers were local hoods, not professionals. Threatening violence, they insisted that the men were responsible for the lost load and that it better be returned. It never was, but Paloma decided to let the pair survive uninjured, figuring that if they were the thieves, they’d never have the nerve to cross his people again.

“I didn’t feel that bad about it because we didn’t hurt those guys,” Rodrigo says. “It was just something we had to do. It was just part of the business.”

Rodrigo is sipping on soup at a family member’s apartment on Phoenix’s east side when his phone rings. For weeks, he’s been waiting for a load, and one has arrived.

The night sky is clear and the moon half-full when Rodrigo pulls up in the quiet neighborhood where he and his family live. His uncle, cousin, and the men who drove the weed from down south shuffle on the driveway beneath the switched-off Christmas lights. The carrier car, loaded with 200 pounds of marijuana, is in the garage.

Normally, Rodrigo would meet the person who brought the weed to Phoenix in a parking lot, take the man’s keys, drive the bales himself to Sergio’s garage, unload it, and write down the weight of each brick, to the hundredth of a pound, in his notebook. But Rodrigo and his uncle have worked with these men for a long time.

The dope eventually is driven to a stash house in Scottsdale operated by men who move loads east.

The next morning, Rodrigo and his cousin, Sal, sit at the kitchen table and divvy up the $100,000 they were paid for the drugs. Each takes his cut, and then they bundle the remaining cash in Glad ClingWrap into $5,000 stacks — each marked with a “5″ — to be driven to Paloma in Mexico.

Rodrigo doesn’t know how long he and the others can last in the smuggling trade.

For Paloma, there’s a reduced threat of getting gunned down on the streets of one of his towns because violence has calmed in northern Mexico — maybe, his gang believes, because the Sinaloa Cartel has reasserted itself as the feared, dominant force there. It pays to be doing business with thejefes in control.

Rodrigo wonders what he’ll do after this phase of his life ends. He worked for a while in a restaurant, learning the ropes, in the hope that his dream of owning one might someday be realized.

For now, when he meets a girl and she asks what does for a living, he says, “I work with money.” The well-spoken Rodrigo sometimes goes on that he works in a bank, because, he says with a sigh, no decent girl wants to date a drug dealer.

By Weston Phippen Thursday, Mar 7 2013

Arizona’s Law Banning Mexican-American Studies Curriculum Is Constitutional, Judge Rules

March 11th, 2013

A court upheld most provisions of an Arizona state law used to prohibit a controversial Mexican-American Studies curriculum in Tucson on Friday.

The ruling dealt a blow to supporters of the suspended classes, who had hoped the courts would overturn a 2010 law championed by Arizona conservatives determined to shut down the unconventional courses.

La Linea_01“I was really surprised at the decision,” Jose Gonzalez, a former teacher of Tucson’s suspended Mexican-American Studies classes, told The Huffington Post. “But as a student and teacher of history, I know in civil rights cases like this there’s always setbacks.”

The experimental Tucson curriculum was offered to students in different forms in some of the local elementary, middle and high schools. It emphasized critical thinking and focused on Mexican-American literature and perspectives. Supporters lauded the program, pointing to increased graduation rates, high student achievement and a state-commissioned independent audit that recommended expanding the classes.

But conservative opponents accused the teachers of encouraging students to adopt left-wing ideas and resent white people, a charge the teachers deny. Aiming squarely at Tucson’s Mexican-American Studies program, the Arizona legislature passed HB 2281 — a law banning courses that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, foster racial resentment, are designed for students of a particular ethnic group or that advocate ethnic solidarity.

Federal Judge Wallace Tashima said the plaintiffs failed to show the law was too vague, broad or discriminatory, or that it violated students’ first amendment rights.

The news wasn’t all bad for supporters of the suspended classes. Tashima ruled that the section of the law prohibiting courses tailored to serve students of a particular ethnicity was unconstitutional.

Originally filed in October of 2010 on behalf of the program’s former teachers, who lost standing because they are public employees, the case is currently brought by former Mexican-American Studies student Nicholas Dominguez and his mother Margarita Dominguez. They will likely appeal the ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals within the next 30 days, their lawyer Richard Martinez told The Huffington Post.

“This case is not over,” Martinez said. “It’s not only important to Arizona, but to the country as a whole that this statute be addressed.

Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne began a campaign to eliminate the Mexican-American Studies program from Tucson Unified School District in 2006, when he was serving as the state’s Superintendent of Public Education.

Angered that Mexican-American civil rights leader Dolores Huerta had said that “Republicans hate Latinos” in a speech to Tucson students, Horne sent Deputy Superintendent Margaret Dugan, a Latina Republican, to give an alternate view. But the intellectual exercise turned confrontational when students, who said they were not allowed to ask Dugan questions, sealed their mouths with tape and walked out of the assembly room.

“As superintendent of schools, I have visited over 1,000 schools and I’ve never seen students be disrespectful to a teacher in that way,” Horne said in an interview last year.

The final product of his efforts was House Bill 2281, which then-State Sen. John Huppenthal (R) helped pilot through the Arizona legislature. Huppenthal, who succeeded Horne as state superintendent of schools, then found Tucson out of compliance with the new law and ordered the district to shut Mexican-American Studies down or lose 10 percent of its annual funding — some $14 million over the fiscal year. In January of 2012, the school board complied, voting 4 to 1 to discontinue the classes.

The decision drew national attention as administrators plucked Latino literature that once belonged to the curriculum from classrooms, explicitly banning seven titles from instruction.

Tashima wrote in Friday’s ruling that Horne’s anti-Mexican-American Studies zeal bordered on discrimination.

“This single-minded focus on terminating the MAS (Mexican-American Studies) program, along with Horne’s decision not to issue findings against other ethnic studies programs, is at least suggestive of discriminatory intent,” Tashima wrote.

But the federal judge stopped short of invalidating the law on those grounds.

“Although some aspects of the record may be viewed to spark suspicion that the Latino population has been improperly targeted, on the whole, the evidence indicates that Defendants targeted the MAS program, not Latino students, teachers or community members who participated in the program,” the judge wrote in the ruling.

Not everyone agrees.

______________________________________________________________________

Writer and activist Tony Diaz — who along with independent journalist Liana Lopez and multimedia artist Bryan Parras launched a “librotraficante” caravan to “smuggle” books banned from Tucson classrooms into Arizona — said the court had “failed our youth, our culture and freedom of speech” by upholding the Arizona ethnic studies law.

“But we remain inspired by the youth of Tucson, the teachers, the families, the activists who will appeal this unjust ruling and continue the struggle to the Supreme Court,” Diaz said.

New Study Sheds Light on Mistreatment of Migrants Crossing the U.S.-Mexico Border

February 23rd, 2013

Apprehended while attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, a young Mexican man surrenders peacefully to U.S. Border Patrol agents, but the agents violently shove him to the pavement, knee him in the back and handcuff him forcefully. His story is just one of many incidents of abuse and excessive use of force brought to light in a new study, “Documented Failures: The Consequences of Immigration Policy on the U.S.-Mexico Border,” released today by the Jesuit Conference, the Kino Border Initiative (KBI) and Jesuit Refugee Service/USA.

The comprehensive report details incidents of physical and verbal abuse suffered by migrants both at the hands of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Mexican police, and through attacks by human traffickers, robbers and gangs. Additionally, the study highlights the stories of migrants separated from family members and those who have been sexually assaulted by criminals, left for dead in the desert and then denied medical care by U.S. border agents.

While offering humanitarian assistance and food at its Aid Center for Deported Migrants in the border town of Nogales, Mexico, KBI noted a disturbing increase in the frequency of migrants’ accounts of mistreatment. In response KBI, which is a bi-national ministry of the Jesuits, collaborated with Jesuit Refugee Service/USA and the Jesuit Conference to undertake a study documenting migrant experiences at the border and making concrete policy recommendations to U.S. and Mexican authorities. The research and analysis was funded by Catholic Relief Services of Mexico.

In an effort to persuade lawmakers to rectify the situation, the report proposes taking steps to limit family separation during the deportation process; reunite families that have mixed legal statuses and are split between the U.S. and Mexico or Central America; reduce violence against migrants in Mexico and Central America; and curb abuse by the U.S. Border Patrol and local police in Mexico.

“We, as Jesuits, because of our commitment to educating the children of migrants in our schools, serving migrant communities in our parishes and offering deported men, women and children food and shelter on the border, see firsthand the costs of our current immigration laws,” said Jesuit Father Thomas Greene, secretary for Social and International Ministries at the Jesuit Conference.

Calling for broad reform and the need for professionalism in the U.S. Border Patrol, the three organizations made policy recommendations in the report based on the analysis of data drawn from surveys that KBI conducted of migrants visiting its aid center as well as data from the Mexican government’s own Northern Border International Migration Survey. Michael Danielson, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at American University, interviewed migrants in Nogales and evaluated the survey responses for the study.

Shaina Aber, policy director for Social and International Ministries at the Jesuit Conference, attributed the uptick in turbulence in Northern Mexico and the resulting vulnerability of deported migrants in large part to an intensified drug war and lack of serious cooperation between the Mexican state and federal governments in addressing the issue of migrant safety.

“There has been a dearth of follow-up by local police for migrants who are victims of violence at the hands of criminals, which may contribute to the rising crime rate,” she explained.

Migrants from Central America brave additional difficulties crossing borders from Central America into Mexico en route to the U.S. The findings demonstrated that a growing number of migrants cite the intensifying violence in their home countries as a driving reason for immigrating to the U.S. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, and nearly 12% of Honduran migrants reported fear of violence as the primary factor underlying their choice to migrate north.

Adding to the list of grievances against U.S. border authorities, the report showed that the U.S. Border Patrol frequently denied migrants their basic right as foreign nationals to contact their consulate when apprehended, even when migrants expressly requested to do so. Furthermore, a large proportion of migrants did not contact their consulate upon being caught because they were never made aware of their right to do so, were not sure how to establish contact or did not believe it would help.

Encouraging more transparency, dialogue, and accountability on the part of U.S. authorities, Jesuit Father Sean Carroll, Executive Director of KBI in Nogales, Ariz., said, “Law enforcement agencies like CBP and ICE must take local community input into account for true security and respect for human rights to become a reality along the U.S./Mexico border.”

Added Aber, “We recommend that U.S. Customs and Border Patrol allow lawyers or NGOs to inform migrants of their rights and do “know your rights” presentations at CBP facilities.”

Urging elected officials to “place family unity, human dignity, transparency and accountability at the center of their debates,” KBI, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA and the Jesuit Conference supported the U.S. Senate’s recent bipartisan efforts to improve the nation’s broken immigration system in a separate statement.

“We can and must do better,” the statement declared.

The full report may be accessed by clicking here.

A summary of the report is available here.

By Doris Yu

14/02/2013

Border Wall’s devastating toll

February 22nd, 2013

It’s slowed the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico, but the price — human and environmental — has been costly

For the aid workers who found 14-year-old Josseline Jamileth Hernández Quinteros in the Arizona desert, it is hardest to forget the little things, the beaded bracelet around a tiny wrist, the bright green sneakers, the pink-lined jacket, and the sweatpants with the word “Hollywood” across the backside. She was a wisp of a girl, barely 5 feet and 100 pounds, no match for the rough terrain or subfreezing temperatures.

No one can say for sure that Josseline died because of heightened security measures along the U.S. border with Mexico. Yet, to the volunteers who found her lying under a bush, her head resting on a rock in an unnamed creek bed, Josseline’s death was a predictable consequence of American policy, in particular, the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which mandated construction of enough fencing to cover about one-third of the U.S.–Mexico border across California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. The goal was to foil unlawful entries, especially by drug dealers and terrorists. Josseline was neither. A native of El Salvador, she was on the last leg of a 2,000-mile quest to reunite with her mother. She was, nonetheless, an illegal alien.

Josseline and her ten-year-old brother were among thousands of children who head north from Mexico unaccompanied by parents or relatives. The two were with a group of adults that had entered the U.S. near Sasabe, Arizona, probably through an unfenced area. The gaps in the fence are as strategically positioned as the fence itself, in this case routing Josseline’s group through the Tumacacori wilderness, a spiny, mountainous badland that poses a challenge to the most experienced hikers. Spanish soldiers had a name for places like this, El Despoblado, the emptiness.Texas_Plate_28

Josseline’s group had been walking two days north of the border when the girl became violently ill. She insisted that her brother continue without her. What happened to her after that is a mystery. Dan Millis, a staff member of the Tucson office of the Sierra Club, came upon her body while he and other volunteers were putting out containers of water for thirsty migrants. By then Josseline had been separated from her group for several weeks. Her brother had been reunited with the family in California, and they had reported that she was missing, according to writer Margaret Regan who covered the story for the Tucson Citizen. It was winter and cold enough for snow to spot the Arizona mountainsides. Josseline’s weakened condition probably made her susceptible to hypothermia. It is tempting to think that such a death is relatively painless, but dying of exposure isn’t a matter of fading dreamily into a coma. Death by cold typically advances slowly from violent shivering to loss of motor skills. Victims become disoriented and often lose the ability to act rationally. With nighttime temperatures hovering around freezing, Josseline had taken off her shoes and both of the jackets she had been wearing. Once the body’s temperature approaches 90 degrees, the shivering may become convulsive, seizure-like. As the body temperature continues to drop, the victim loses consciousness. Breathing becomes irregular, signaling the onset of pulmonary edema and ultimately respiratory and cardiac failure.

In another era, Josseline’s death might have engraved itself on our imagination, like the missing kids whose faces were reproduced on milk cartons. As an illegal, though, Josseline stands little chance of achieving a martyr’s place in a society inclined to accord her a status once reserved for bastards. But if she is not to be remembered as an innocent victim of a merciless law, how should Josseline and others like her be remembered? As collateral damage? As criminals? Many won’t be remembered at all, their unidentifiable remains as desiccated as the bones of wild animals that have perished from the same harsh conditions. The naturalist Craig Childs, who has spent much of his life combing deserts of the Southwest for the half-buried tools, utensils, and other grave markers of the Paleo-Indians, describes the land as a vast cemetery: “It changes a place to know that it still has physical ancestry. … You feel the oldness in the ground. … I thought that if there were such things as ghosts, I was stirring them by passing through here.”

Since the early 1990s, when the first section of the modern border fence was built, we have reconsecrated the ground, increasing the population of the dead by about 6,000. As the fence and other defensive measures have made the arduous crossing even harder, the mortality rate has risen. By 2009, the risk of dying while crossing the border in Arizona was 17 times greater than it was a decade earlier, according to one analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union, and since 2009, the mortality rate has nearly doubled. About 10 percent of the fatalities are children. Along Arizona’s border with Mexico, that can mean 18 to 25 children die each year. The body count is at best an educated guess, since many of the missing have never been found. We know more about the prehistoric dead than some of the more recent casualties whose only markers are cast-off clothing and empty water bottles.La Linea_01

Seen from a distance, the border fence is a tantalizing mirage, a piece of land art in the tradition of the Spiral Jetty or The Lightning Field, its concrete supports and steel-mesh panels rendered immaterial like a long, hard road that seems to liquefy in the harsh light. Up close, it’s more imposing, the apotheosis of a junkyard fence. In the history of cross-border insults, it ranks with Pancho Villa’s 1916 raid on Columbus, New Mexico, and the U.S. government’s Harmon Doctrine denying Mexico’s right to water from the Rio Grande or Colorado River. Only, in this case, injuries have been inflicted on the culture, commerce, and environment on both sides of the border. Design flaws in the fence have caused floods that cost lives and resulted in several million dollars of damage to homes and businesses in Arizona and Mexico. Mountains in one California wilderness were dynamited to make way for the fence. In Texas, private property has been seized, elsewhere ranches trashed, and everywhere wildlife habitat damaged and ancient migration routes blocked.

Border fortifications are likely to remain in place and even grow if many in Washington have their way. Under legislation that has passed the House, the authority of the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Border Patrol would be vastly expanded. The effects on people’s livelihoods, on topography, and on natural resources would be felt across an area larger than New England. The push for even more security is due in part to people’s misperception of what the fence is supposed to accomplish. Its apparent fragility is not a mirage, as evidenced by the ladders, the 149 tunnels, and the holes in the mesh panels that make long stretches of the fence look like a patchwork quilt. In 2010 alone, more than 4,000 holes were cut. Yet it was never meant to be an impenetrable barrier. Don’t mistake the fence for something it isn’t, then–Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told Fox News five years ago: “I think the fence has come to assume a certain kind of symbolic significance, which should not obscure the fact [that sealing off the borders] is a much more complicated problem.”

All of the bluster during the Republican primary about building a double fence (Michele Bachmann), electrifying it (Herman Cain), or extending it the entire length of the 1,950-mile border (Mitt Romney) missed the point. The fence is simply one component in the militarization of the border, a $90 billion project that marshaled thousands of Border Patrol agents and National Guard, deployed manned aircraft and aerial drones, established military-style bases and a network of radio-transmission towers, and carved thousands of miles of new roads in national parks and wildlife refuges. In the end, it is a system quite different from what was originally envisioned. It is designed less to stop people from crossing the border illegally than to apprehend them once they have crossed; it slows them down and makes them easier to catch once they are in the United States.Road_Cross_04

The strategy is comparable to football’s prevent defense, in which the team playing defense doesn’t attempt to stop its opponents from crossing the 50-yard line but concentrates its efforts on preventing a touchdown. “A speed bump in the desert” is the way one Border Patrol official describes the fence. The Government Accountability Office reported in May that the strategy assumes that nearly 90 percent of apprehensions are going to be made after people have entered the country illegally. The Border Patrol put it this way: “Illegal traffic will be deterred or forced over more hostile terrain less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement.” The fence funnels people into some of the roughest country along the border, into places like the Tumacacori wilderness, Josseline’s final resting place. A more cynical take on the policy is that apprehensions drive budgets, and if you deter people from crossing the border, you won’t apprehend as many. As one official puts it, “Agencies thrive on numbers.”

One look at the groups of travelers gathered on the Mexican side and it’s clear from their flimsy sneakers, cotton pullovers, and quart-sized water bottles that most are unprepared for the 20 to 30 miles of hellish terrain that lies ahead, where temperatures routinely soar above 100 degrees in summer and often drop below freezing in winter. Anyone who has hiked in the desert knows how deceiving it can be. Terrain that appears flat from a distance turns out to be a steeply furrowed maze of arroyos and canyons, cliffs and cul-de-sacs. Long-distance trekkers cache water and nonperishable food before heading out, as it is almost impossible to carry sufficient quantities of either. Many migrants give themselves up when they become too sick or weak to go on, or they are abandoned by coyotes, their paid guides. You see the ones who can’t continue  standing meekly at highway checkpoints, waiting to be processed and deported.

Arizona_02_Pima County_LDThere have been fences along the border with Mexico for more than a century. They just weren’t designed to keep people out. Strung with barbed wire, the first ones were erected to segregate American and Mexican cattle. The federal government didn’t start putting up pedestrian fences until 1990. The first one was built in San Diego where the number of apprehensions was approaching 500,000 per year. The fence started at the Pacific Ocean and continued several miles inland. Sixteen years later, when Congress passed the Secure Fence Act, the wave of migrants trying to sneak across from Mexico was beginning to recede. But in the years following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the specter of jihadists toting bombs across the desert and the more routine threat of Mexican drug gangs moving tons of product north provided the impetus to build what is there now. Today, a combination of pedestrian fence and vehicle barriers extends intermittently across 650 miles from Texas’s Rio Grande Valley to 1,300 feet out into the Pacific. The longest stretch is in Arizona where the illegal traffic has been heaviest in recent years.

From the beginning, the idea of walling off the border struck critics as an outdated approach to national security, a throwback to the era when we built a line of forts to protect the pioneers. It wasn’t the Berlin Wall we were re-creating but Fort Apache. As in olden days, soldiers patrol on horseback. Volunteer militiamen scour the hills for signs of invading campesinos. Along a particularly gnarly stretch of desert on Arizona’s Tohono O’odham Reservation, Indian scouts, known as Shadow Wolves, follow the trail of smugglers who wrap their shoes in fabric to cover their tracks as they guide migrants or transport drugs.

Two assessments of border security issued this year, one by the Congressional Research Service and the other by the Government Accountability Office, found that the Border Patrol has gained “effective control” of about 50 percent of the border with Mexico. Although the Border Patrol reports that it has caught 18 million illegal aliens since the mid-1990s, the number has plummeted in recent years, from 1.6 million in 2000 to 340,000 last year. At least for now, El Norte is no longer Mexico’s magnetic north. The Pew Hispanic Center reported a few months ago that the net migration flow from Mexico to the United States has stopped and may have reversed. The population of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico living in the U.S. is almost one million fewer than it was five years ago. The report concluded: “The largest wave of immigration in history from a single country to the United States has come to a standstill.” The causes are many: an uptick in Mexican employment, a sharp decline in that country’s birth rate, the scarcity of jobs in the U.S., and a record number of deportations under President Barack Obama. There is also the fear of tangling with the murderous drug cartels that control access to the border on the Mexican side.

The border fortifications have made a difference, though it is hard to gauge how much since the trend in illegal migration had been heading downward for five years before the Secure Fence Act was passed. Fencing the border has stopped some people. A 15- to 20-foot fall from its top to a graded road or concrete apron at its base is comparable to a plunge from a diving board into an empty swimming pool. The Border Patrol and local medical personnel have reported concussions, broken limbs, and other injuries serious enough to prevent the victims from venturing any farther into the U.S.deadimmigrant-Blog

So far, the decline in the illegal-immigrant population has not made a difference in official policy. There have been few calls for the president to tear down the fence. Just the opposite. In Arizona, a campaign is under way to raise money to build an additional 200 miles of border fence. The Texas Department of Public Safety is launching a fleet of gunboats to patrol the Rio Grande, the river that forms the state’s border with Mexico. The Obama administration is preparing to build 14 more miles of fence in South Texas.

Obama made light of Republicans’ obsession with border security with a joke about moats and alligators. But he has deported twice as many people as George W. Bush did during his first term, while deploying 1,200 National Guard and doubling the size of the Border Patrol to 22,000. As CNN’s Paul Begala said: “President Obama has put more boots on the ground on the Mexican border than any president since Woodrow Wilson was chasing Pancho Villa.”

If the border has become a safer place—as crime statistics strongly suggest—it hasn’t become safe enough in the view of many members of Congress. Lately, they have been focusing on what they see as a particularly vulnerable component of Obama’s border policy—the environment. Congressional conservatives say environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act are limiting the Border Patrol’s access to borderlands frequented by migrants and smugglers. The Government Accountability Office investigated the claim and reported back to Congress that, except in a few instances, environmental laws have not impeded law enforcement. But neither the GAO’s findings nor the denials of officials from both the Obama and Bush administrations have slowed the progress of the bill recently passed by the House. One of the most sweeping anti-environmental laws ever proposed, it would essentially nullify laws protecting parks, wilderness, and wildlife within 100 miles of the nation’s northern and southern borders. It would override century-old protections of Olympic National Park in Washington, Glacier National Park in Montana, Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota, and Big Bend National Park in Texas, as well as sacred Indian sites such as Montana’s Chief Mountain and nearby Sweet Grass Hills. The bill would permit the construction of military installations, roads, airstrips, and communication towers anywhere within the 100-mile zones. Federal law-enforcement officers would be free to drive on or off roads on public or tribal land.

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America’s Southwestern deserts have been sacrificed to national security for more than half a century. We exploded the first atom bomb in New Mexico’s Jornada del Muerto and detonated 1,000 nuclear devices at the Nevada Test Site. During World War II, the Army trained nearly one million soldiers, most famously General George S. Patton’s tank battalions, on 18,000 square miles of California and Arizona desert. Today, Southwestern deserts are home to our largest missile and bombing ranges. No doubt because deserts, like the Tumacacori, are inhospitable to human life, we have treated them as if they had no life of their own.

The routes most heavily used by migrants and smugglers in recent years have been across the desert between El Paso, Texas, and the California border, a 30 million–acre wedge of land bought from Mexico in the 1853 Gadsden Purchase. The first American to survey these lands, John Russell Bartlett, described them in 1854 as an “unbroken waste, barren, wild and worthless. … One becomes sickened and disgusted with the ever-recurring sameness of plain and mountain, plant and living thing.”  A bookseller from New York with no formal education beyond high school, Bartlett traveled across the desert in a private coach, which he made into a bed at night. There, he found relief from the monotony of the landscape by reading Adolph Erman’s Travels in Siberia. Heading west from El Paso, Bartlett’s party lost its way in sandstorms, fought brushfire, and warded off hostile Indians. Bartlett himself was laid low with typhoid.

If the beleaguered surveyor sometimes failed to appreciate his surroundings, he was not unlike a modern tourist speeding across the apparently lifeless region. Then as now, the desert camouflages its assets. The area that Bartlett explored, extending across southwest New Mexico, northern Mexico, and east–central Arizona, is known today as the Madrean Archipelago or more informally as the Sky Islands. A checkerboard of isolated mountains separated by vast tracts of scrub, the region teems with life. It is home to nearly twice as many types of mammals as is Yellowstone National Park. Animals that thrive here do so by virtue of extraordinary resourcefulness. Bighorn sheep find water by goring open barrel cactus and devouring its moist pulp. Kangaroo rats metabolize water from seeds and plants. The key to survival for dozens of species is unfettered access to habitat on both sides of the border. Mule deer, puma, black bears, bighorn sheep, jaguar, ocelot, Mexico’s last free-ranging bison herd, and the nearly extinct Sonoran pronghorn must be free to move back and forth to search for scarce forage and water, to escape wildfires and drought, and to find mates. Now, many of them can’t do that. The fence, along with the noise and lights of generators and radio towers, has inhibited or simply blocked their movement. The Sky Island Alliance, a conservation group, says that only three viable migration corridors are left along the eastern third of Arizona’s border with Mexico, about 120 miles. Some species have already lost 75 percent of their historic range.

The pressure on wildlife is not due entirely to border fortifications. Millions of migrants trooping across the countryside have taken a toll as well, leaving mountains of trash, starting fires, polluting springs, vandalizing historic sites, and scattering wildlife. Officials of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, on Arizona’s southern border, were compelled to close two-thirds of a 330,000-acre park to the public because of the dangers posed by narcotics traffickers. In 2002, after a park ranger was shot to death by two suspected drug smugglers, Organ Pipe was declared the most dangerous park in America by the park rangers’ branch of the Fraternal Order of Police. If the militarization of the border has made parks like Organ Pipe safer for visitors—and park officials insist it has—it has not provided a respite for harried wildlife.

Border Patrol base camps carved out of wilderness, speeding jeeps, and all-terrain vehicles have cut thousands of miles of unauthorized roads through national parks and wildlife refuges, compacting soil and diverting moisture. Unchecked, the process destroys the plants that hold scarce desert water in place and provide sustenance for ranchers’ cattle and wildlife. Three years after the installation of vehicle barriers prevented smugglers from driving north through the park, officials there reported a 40 percent increase in unauthorized roads, mostly due to Border Patrol activity. A recent study of Arizona’s Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documented a vast network of new roads, forged by the Border Patrol, that had caused an alarming level of damage. “We are disturbed by both the magnitude and the extent of the impacts we recorded,” the study said. “We did not expect to find almost 8,000 miles of vehicle trails through wilderness.”

In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security pledged $50 million to repair environmental damage, but the release of that money—less than $9 million so far—has been slow. Even that allocation has outraged some conservatives. Arizona’s governor, Republican Jan Brewer, ridiculed one project to study the impact of the border fence on jaguar that range between northern Mexico and southern Arizona. In June, the House prohibited Homeland Security from spending any more money on repairing environmental damage along the border, with the sponsors of the ban referring to the payments as “extortion.”

The U.S.–Mexico border was once a co-dependent region with communities on both sides profiting from a daily exchange of goods and services, a hybrid culture with its own food, music, and commerce, where members of the same family lived on both sides, and businesses relied on an international clientele. Nogales, Arizona, for example, depended on Mexican consumers for 70 percent of its sales-tax revenue. Not only has the fence changed all that, it has cut people off from their own property. In South Texas, where the winding Rio Grande traces the border with Mexico, the fence had to be built on higher, dryer ground. Erected inside U.S. territory, it has separated some American farmers from their fields. John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, estimates that 35,000 to 50,000 acres planted with onions, cabbage, leafy green vegetables, and citrus are being trapped between the fence and the river.

Today, many critics of the fence are people it was supposed to protect—ranchers, farmers, and urban refugees who have been most vulnerable to the trespassing, littering, and petty thievery by migrants trooping north across their land. Arizona rancher John Ladd is one of the critics. His family has been raising cattle along the Arizona–Mexico border in the small community of Palominas for more than a century. A 15-foot-high section of fence runs along the 10-mile-long southern boundary of Ladd’s land. “They cut their way through it in a heartbeat,” says Ladd, standing next to a section of steel mesh that had been expertly peeled back. A sieve when it comes to stopping people, the fence acts as a dam. When it storms, rock and dirt pile up behind the fence, capturing the runoff that used to spread out across Ladd’s land and irrigate his pastures. When the water eventually does find a path through the fence, it gushes, cutting deep gullies and bypassing the high ground and the plants that feed Ladd’s cattle. Skinny calves bring skimpier profits. If too much water accumulates behind the fence, the area floods as it has several times along the Arizona border. The flooding killed two people and caused several million dollars in damage to hundreds of homes and businesses in Nogales and the smaller towns of Sonoyta and Lukeville in 2008. “The hydrology is tricky,” Ladd says. “You need to spend a little time out here to understand how it works. But they didn’t listen to us.”

Federal land managers warned Homeland Security officials that the design of the fence could impede normal drainage patterns during heavy rains. They didn’t heed the warnings, because they didn’t have to. The laws requiring consultation in such matters had been waived. Even though the fence was built through some of the richest wildlife habitat in the Southwest, Congress empowered Homeland Security to ignore every major environmental statute—the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and 30 other laws protecting historic structures, farmland, and American Indian relics and grave sites. As all-encompassing as it is, the waiver is a modest precursor of the legislation now making its way through Congress.

“It’s the wildlife that’s suffering the most,” says Ladd, noting the decline in the mule-deer herd that used to browse on his ranch. “We had about 200 that migrated seasonally between here and Mexico. After they finished building the wall in October, our herd has declined 70 percent from what it used to be.”

* * *

Nowhere is wildlife more abundant along the border than in the Malpai Borderlands, about 50 miles east of Ladd’s ranch. The Malpai is a tableau of grassland, marshy bottoms, and cottonwood thickets that extend from the emerald palisades of the Peloncillo Mountains to Mexico’s Sierra del Tigre. If the Sky Islands have an epicenter, the Malpai certainly qualifies. A 50-acre patch of scrub supports more rodents than does the state of Pennsylvania. In just one of the mountain passes, more species of reptiles and amphibians are found than in any other place in America. The mix of mountain and forest is ideal habitat for some of the most striking creatures in the wilds, among them the aplomado falcon, the parrot-like elegant trogon, and the jaguar, which until recently was thought to be extinct in the U.S. Slightly larger than Rhode Island, the Malpai is home to just 100 families, who have grown accustomed to surprise visits by both hungry humans and animals.

Warner Glenn is perhaps the best-known resident. His craggy features have graced the pages of menswear catalogues for many years. The kitchen wall of his modest ranch house is pocked with bullet holes where he and his wife, Wendy, dispatched a pair of rattlesnakes that had crawled behind the refrigerator. A hunting guide as well as a rancher, Glenn photographed a jaguar in 1996, laying aside his rifle and allowing the animal to escape. Glenn was violating a century-old Western code when he chose to let the animal live, but his decision became a model of Malpai conservation. Working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Glenn and his neighbors have restored springs and vegetation, reintroduced bighorn sheep, and preserved the habitat of two dozen threatened species. One family alone spent two years rescuing a dwindling population of endangered Chiricahua leopard frogs by replenishing water holes and building an artificial stream. Their work earned the Malpai ranchers a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and gave credence to their opposition to the sort of border fence that has wrought havoc on John Ladd’s ranch. Although vehicle barriers have been built along the Malpai’s border with Mexico, they do not block wildlife migration. Now the ranchers worry that the legislation being pushed by congressional Republicans could jeopardize much of their conservation work.

More than 40 percent of our Southwestern borderlands are administered by federal agencies responsible for enforcing many of the nation’s environmental laws. Congressional critics say that these laws have made the federal lands a sanctuary for migrants and drug dealers who have crossed the border. In at least one instance, the critics say, a fleeing murderer was able to escape to Mexico through a wildlife refuge because the Border Patrol was locked out. Environmental laws have “jeopardized the safety and security of all Americans,” says Rob Bishop, the Utah congressman who sponsored the bill that would exempt the Border Patrol from the laws along the northern and southern borders.

In a rare alliance, ranchers and environmentalists along the northern and southern borders have joined to condemn Bishop’s bill. John Ladd has been one of the most outspoken. “It’ll take them a month to wreck country we’ve spent 40 years trying to build up,” he said. “How are they going to watch over a 100-mile swath of border when they can’t guard it now? I’ve had people busting through the fence every day since Thanksgiving, 15 carloads since February. This waiver is just an excuse to tear up more countryside.”

More than one agenda is being served by the bill. At least 10 of the 17 organizations listed as supporting it are advocates of more motorized travel in parks and wilderness. Bishop is one of the most stalwartly anti-environmental legislators on Capitol Hill. The group Republicans for Environmental Protection—now known as ConservAmerica—gave his environmental voting record a minus rating on two of its past three congressional scorecards. “His voting record is usually one of the worst,” said David Jenkins, the organization’s vice president for government and public affairs. “He’s philosophically against public land protection.” Lynn Scarlett, deputy secretary of the interior under George W. Bush, says she believes that Bishop’s push for a border waiver has less to do with national security than with his desire to weaken environmental protection of public land. “The facts do not bear out their argument that federal land management has obstructed law enforcement,” she says. “But by cloaking their agenda as a national-security issue, the people for it may gain enough traction.”

Curiously, a bill sold as an anti-crime measure is being pushed at a time when crime rates in border communities have been lower than those of larger, more distant cities. El Paso has remained one of the safest cities of its size in the U.S., despite the horrific violence in neighboring Juarez. Moreover, the emphasis on policing remote sections of mountains and deserts along the border may be misplaced. A national threat assessment by the Justice Department recently pointed out that almost all of the cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin entering the U.S. comes in vehicles and railcars through urban ports of entry. “Most experts do not consider the Southwest border between [ports of entry] to be the most important point of vulnerability to [weapons of mass destruction] or other types of drugs and contraband,” the Congressional Research Service told Congress earlier this year.

That is not to say the borderlands are crime-free. From the days of Geronimo, renegades and outlaws have found a refuge in the Malpai. It gave cover to Apache holdouts long after the tribe had formally surrendered in 1886. William “Curly Bill” Brocius and Ike Clanton of OK Corral fame were among dozens of outlaws who found sanctuary in these mountains. Migrants and drug smugglers have been slipping through the canyons and passes for decades. Across the entire length of the border, ranchers frequently report thefts and break-ins. The desert is still the preferred pathway north for most foreign-produced marijuana, according to the Justice Department. Border Patrol agents and other government employees have been attacked. Two agents were fatally shot during the past decade. Another was run over and killed by a fleeing suspect. The circumstances of their deaths and other border crimes have made headlines around the country, none more prominently than the fatal shooting of Robert Krentz, a Cochise County, Arizona, rancher and member of the Malpai group.

Phil Krentz says that when his brother was shot, he had gone to help a migrant he thought was in trouble. The murder remains unsolved, though authorities suspect the killer was a drug smuggler who fled into Mexico. Krentz’s death galvanized congressional supporters of Bishop’s bill to expand the Border Patrol’s authority. In a letter urging passage of the 100-mile waiver, Bishop implied that Krentz’s murderer might not have gotten away if the Border Patrol had access to the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge through which the suspect escaped to Mexico. “His murderer chose to exploit vulnerabilities on federal land to traverse in and out of the United States,” wrote Bishop in a letter to House colleagues. “It is no coincidence that at this same location, the Border Patrol access has been limited by land managers who have literally locked out Border Patrol vehicles.” Bishop was wrong, according to the Government Accountability Office, which found that the Border Patrol had its own set of locks and keys to the San Bernardino Refuge. Moreover, Krentz’s neighbor, Wendy Glenn, says that her husband accompanied a federal law–enforcement agent through the refuge in pursuit of Krentz’s killer. “They had access,” she says. “The Border Patrol was in there. Warner was there with them, following the tracks from the kill site to the border. When Bishop came down here, I told him access wasn’t a problem.”

Bill McDonald, who owns another ranch nearby, says that authorities had no chance of catching the killer with or without access to the refuge. “The killer was back in Mexico before Rob Krentz’s body was found.”

Bishop’s proposed waiver of environmental laws is an ironic tribute to Krentz. He believed in conservation and, along with McDonald, was a member of the Malpai Borderlands Group. Like the Glenns, McDonald thinks waiving environmental laws would be damaging to lands that taxpayers have spent millions of dollars trying to protect. “I have to abide by the environmental laws. Why shouldn’t the Border Patrol have to?”

McDonald describes himself as a conservative Republican, an opponent of gun control and government meddling. But like many of his neighbors, he goes his own way when it comes to the border, where day-to-day experience more than ideology tends to shape people’s views. These ranchers aid needy travelers, regardless of their immigration status, help hunt down criminals, and show fresh Border Patrol recruits how to go easy on the land.

BY

This article originally appeared on The American Prospect.

The For-Profit Immigration Imprisonment Racket (Part 1)

February 22nd, 2013

Private companies with close ties to government agencies are standing in the way of progress

Immigration officials sought out undocumented immigrants to apprehend for minor crimes in order to boost deportation numbers, a trove of internal correspondence revealed last week. According to USA Today, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) employees were instructed to dig through DMV records for foreign-born license applicants, patrol traffic checkpoints and verify the immigration status of low-level offenders before their release from local jails – efforts that contradict the agency’s pledge to limit expulsion to “dangerous criminals,” and encourage racial profiling in order to meet what amount to quotas. “The only performance measure that will count this fiscal year is the criminal alien removal target,” advised ICE supervisor David Venturella in an email to field officers in April.

La Linea 2009

The dangerous intimacy between the immigration and criminal justice systems is fostered by executives with high stakes in the human consequences – people like Venturella, who, according to Grassroots Leadership, took a new job in July as Executive Vice President of Corporate Development at the GEO Group, the second highest grossing private prison company in the country.

Is Immigration Reform Finally Happening?

Immigration detention, it turns out, is big business. Industry giants like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) make a lucrative profit off of federal contracts to lock up undocumented immigrants waiting for their deportation hearings. Half of the roughly 400,000 people administratively imprisoned each year are held in private detention centers, and in 2012, the companies raked in $216 million and $208 million respectively from these agreements alone. Charged with minor crimes like shoplifting or traffic violations, detainees pose no threat to public safety yet can languish for months or even years in facilities that – due to cost-cutting measures – fail to protect them from abuse, provide adequate medical care, or ensure contact with family members, the Detention Watch Network reports. A 2011 investigation by Colorlines.com found that the children of parents swept into the detention system regularly end up in foster care.

The Obama administration’s record removal rates have forced many to re-enter the country without authorization in order to rejoin their families – a risk with dire repercussions owing to a 2005 program called Operation Streamline, which criminalized border crossing as a misdemeanor, or a felony for those with past deportations. These victimless offenses carry charges of up to six months or up to 20 years in federal prison (depending on the arrestee’s previous record), and the resulting overload pushed the Bureau of Prisons to depend more heavily on privately managed beds. In 2011, unauthorized entry and re-entry were the most prosecuted crimes in the federal judicial system, and the government contracted space with CCA and GEO Group for a combined revenue of nearly $1.4 billion.

GEO Group CEO George Foley makes no secret of his corporation’s stake in the boom, reports Business Insider. In a 2011 letter to shareholders, he assured them that “at the federal level, initiatives related to border enforcement and immigration detention with an emphasis on criminal alien populations … have continued to create demand for larger-scale, cost efficient facilities.” The escalating demand brought about by Operation Streamline has cost taxpayers $5.5 billion since the program’s inception – profits that flow straight into the coffers of the private prison industry.

As immigration reform gains momentum in Congress, enforcement and border security remain obstinate doctrine, while the idea of reducing our costly and inhumane reliance on detention and incarceration rarely enters the conversation. This is no accident – both CCA and GEO Group regularly lobby the House and Senate on immigration issues, and the industry has spent $45 million on lobbying and campaign contributions at the state and federal levels over the last decade. What’s more, members of the Gang of Eight – the architects of the Senate blueprint tasked with crafting a reform proposal – have significant ties to these companies. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) are top recipients of CCA and GEO Group funds, respectively, having received $32,146 and $27,300 in donations.

These relationships will require careful scrutiny moving forward. More importantly, those impacted by the immigration debate – like the Dreamers who disrupted a House hearing earlier this month – need to be part of the conversation. The CEOs who are getting rich by imprisoning undocumented immigrants are already being heard loud and clear in Washington. It’s long past time that the people most affected by their for-profit prison scheme get a voice, too.

By Andrea Jones
February 22, 2013 10:00 AM ET

Rolling Stones

Truck Driver Stands Up To Unconstitutional Checkpoint

November 2nd, 2012

A truck driver who passed through an unconstitutional checkpoint 30 miles from the Mexican border stood up for his 4th Amendment rights by refusing to answer questions in another example of how Americans are re-asserting their liberties.

A You Tube video shows the truck driver approaching a checkpoint manned by U.S. Border Patrol agents. The checkpoint is situated in Texas at least 30 miles from the border with Mexico. After a Border Patrol agent asks the man if he is has any passengers and is a U.S. citizen, the truck driver refuses to answer any questions, only asking, “Am I free to go?”

The truck driver asks if he crossed the border, who which the Border Patrol agent responds, “No, sir.” The agent repeats his questions and subsequently calls over his superior who starts to become visibly annoyed with the truck driver after he refuses to answer any more questions and pleads the 5th amendment.

“Do you have anything to hide, are you breaking the law right now?,” asks the Border Patrol agent, adding, “Are you hiding anything in there – tell me.” The Border Patrol agent is forced to back down, telling the man to be “more co-operative” next time he passes through the checkpoint.

“Is being co-operative giving up my rights?,” asks the truck driver as he drives away.

This is just the latest in a series of confrontations caught on video showing Americans standing up to 4th Amendment-violating checkpoints that are creeping further and further inside America, in some cases as much as 100 miles from the border.

Back in July, we reported on the case of Steven Anderson, who refused to show his papers at another Border Patrol checkpoint while traveling through California.

Since the checkpoints are situated far away from the Mexican border, they are clearly a violation of the 4th Amendment, which protects, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Although the U.S. Supreme Court, which once ruled that black people were slaves, has upheld these “interior checkpoints” as constitutional, the ACLU has dubbed the 100-mile area the “Constitution-free Zone,” noting that 2 out of 3 Americans live within this buffer zone – around 190 million people in total.

Not all Americans who refuse to have their rights violated have been as successful as the truck driver in the video clip. In 2008, retired San Diego social worker Vince Peppard and his wife had their car ransacked after refusing to consent to being searched.

Alex Jones has also encountered similar “interior checkpoints” on numerous occasions, including the incident documented in the video below.
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Lawsuit: Border checkpoint photo limits unconstitutional

November 2nd, 2012

A newly-filed lawsuit claims that a federal government policy limiting photography at border checkpoints and other points of entry to the United States violates the First Amendment.

The suit was filed Wednesday in federal court in San Diego on behalf of two human rights activists who claim they were briefly detained and had their photos erased after taking pictures of border crossings in California. The four local ACLU affiliates along the U.S.-Mexico border filed the case along with  attorneys from the law firm of Morrison & Foerster.

Border 090A policy of the Customs and Border Protection branch of the Department of Homeland Security prohibits photography of ports of entry without “prior approval” from a senior CBP official.

“This CBP policy and/or practice continues to be an impermissible prior restraint on speech and to chill, deter, and infringe [plaintiffs'] First Amendment right to freedom of speech,” according to the lawsuit “ASKINS-Complaint-pdf

Lawyers pressing the suit are attempting a kind of jujitsu against the Justice Department. The suit notes that in May the Justice Department issued a letter arguing that state laws limiting photography or recording of police are unconstitutional. “Recording governmental officers engaged in public duties is a form ofspeech through which private individuals may gather and disseminate information of public concern, including the conduct of law enforcement officers,” the letter said.

The issue of the right to photograph, and make audio and video recordings of police, has been a matter of contention in recent months in various parts of the country. A trend seems to be developing towards “recognizing such activity as constitutionally-protected, though the local cases tend to revolve around traffic stops or arrests.

In response to a POLITICO query about the suit, a CBP spokesperson said Saturday: “U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) cannot comment on ongoing litigation. CBP recognizes that travelers awaiting inspection at a port of entry will use electronic devices to communicate their status to family members, friends, or professional contacts. Due to security concerns, once a traveler begins the inspection process in the federal inspection station, CBP prohibits the use of these devices in order to ensure the safety of the CBP officer and the traveling public, and to protect against the unauthorized disclosure of information and the advancement of criminal activity.”Arizona Naco_2009

However, the new lawsuit stresses that the plaintiffs, Ray Askins and Christian Ramirez, were not in the process of crossing the border when they ran into trouble with CBP. People actually crossing the border have been held to have fewer rights because of the need to search people and goods entering the U.S.

Despite that distinction, if the suit is successful, it could also overturn the ban on use of cameras at customs and immigration facilities in U.S. airports. One powerful senator and avid photographer, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, has “insisted on the rights of the public to take photos at security checkpoints“. Those checkpoints are controlled by another division of the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration.

The new case has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Whelan, a Clinton appointee.

UPDATE (Saturday, 4:56 P.M.): This post has been updated with a statement from Customs and Border Protection.

By JOSH GERSTEIN |

10/27/12 4:10 PM EDT

Borderline Slavery

October 23rd, 2012

“Each year, thousands of people are trafficked within and across our borders to serve as sex slaves or un-free labor in U.S. homes, fields and factories. Many enter via our southern border with Mexico, after having been trafficked within or across Mexico from other parts of the Americas and beyond…enslaved migrant laborers are often seen simply as undocumented workers who are in the country illegally, while sex trafficking victims are merely prostitutes plying an illegal trade..”

The above passages were from a program backgrounder to a timely conference held this past week at the University of New Mexico (UNM) in Albuquerque: “Borderline Slavery:  Contemporary Issues in Border Security and the Human Trade.”

Sponsored by UNM’s Latin American and Iberian Institute and in cooperation with colleagues from New Mexico State, the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) and other academic institutions,  the event drew borderlands scholars, journalists, legal professionals and students.

In a series of presentations, panelists dug into the problem of human trafficking within the socio-economic contexts of massive immigration, globalization, drug prohibition, border militarization, and the War on Terror. And as conference participants learned, the parts can’t be neatly packaged into just a U.S.-Mexico box, but encompass long migrant threads from Central America, the Caribbean and elsewhere.

Dr. Tony Payan, professor of political science at UTEP and the author or co-editor of several books on border issues, laid out a series of questions and considerations he said researchers must address in order to disentangle human trafficking and not confuse it with traditional, cross-border human smuggling.

“We need to be careful with our research agenda,” Payan cautioned. “We need precision, clarification and definition about what (human trafficking) means.” As an example of “diluted” research, Payan said misconceptions had grown about femicides, or the killing of women based on gender and sexual violence, in Ciudad Juarez. “Not every death of every female human being is a femicide,” Payan maintained. “I think the issue of human trafficking is at that point, and we can do a disservice rather than a service to public policy.”

Currently a visiting scholar at Houston’s Rice University, Payan urged his colleagues to disentangle the causes, actors, measures, origins, routes and destinations of human trafficking, an activity which implies coercion and control over a human being.

Payan and Dr. Josiah Heyman, chair of UTEP’s sociology and anthropology department, department also spoke about the push towards new guest worker programs in the U.S.

Though critical of such schemes as a “kind of legal trafficking,” Heyman said guest worker programs present a dilemma for human rights advocates since formal labor supply systems controlled by governments do not imply the abuses and crimes associated with organized criminal networks yet still curtail worker mobility and independence.

Payan added that in the case of Mexico, the return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party  to power once again raises questions of corruption, patronage and benefit in the administration of any new guest worker program, citing as a historic cautionary tale the disappearance of the special bracero fund supposedly set aside for returning Mexican guest workers who were employed in the U.S. decades ago. He said possible political patronage in the granting of visas to new guest workers is an aspect that needs to be “thought of carefully.”

On a hemispheric note, Dr. Richard Schaefer, UNM journalism professor, depicted how Mexico has the two most “unequal borders” in the world,  sharing a northern one with 314 million people in the affluent U.S. and a southern one with 35 million people in poor Central America.  Schaefer, who has taken UNM students on trips to Mexico and Central America with the Cross-Border Issues Group to investigate conditions on the ground, stressed that the dominant nationalities of undocumented persons crossing the U.S.’ southern border shifted within the last three years, when Central Americans overtook Mexicans as the majority group.

“Today, many more Central Americans are coming relative to the Mexicans that are coming up from the south,” Schaefer said.

Heyman spoke about transformations along the migrant routes, highlighting the increased control of sophisticated criminal organizations. A kind of symbiotic relationship exists between transnational crime groups,  which must become bigger and savvier to flourish, and law enforcement agencies that demand bigger budgets and bigger bureaucracies to counter the growing crime groups. “The criminal organizations and the big state organizations feed off each other,” Heyman contended.

Splashed onto the scene, he added, are an assortment of “parasites on the border crossing process-” robbers, kidnappers of migrant groups and “an economic network of money collectors and exploiters on the Mexican side of the border.”

A pioneer scholar of U.S.-Mexico border militarization, Dr. Timothy Dunn of Maryland’s Salisbury University updated the U.S. border security expansion as well as the gradual merging of police and military functions on this side of the border. “Police are acting more like the military and the military are acting more like the police,” Dunn said.

Employing power point graphics, the former El Paso resident displayed a sharp increase in the availability and use of technological tools deployed along a 2,000-mile frontier. According to the sociologist, U.S. border security now has at its disposal seven drone aircraft, 650 miles of new fencing and walls, expanded infrared and video surveillance and assault rifles for Border Patrol officers.

Because of the prevalence of private land in Texas, the deployment of the military in training and operational exercises is more common in California, Arizona and New Mexico, all places where the federal government owns more land and doesn’t have to seek permission from private owners, according to Dunn.

In the conference keynote speech, Dunn underscored how the number of Border Patrol agents increased 479 percent from 2003 to 2011, reaching 21,444 personnel by last year, with 85 percent of them stationed on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The veteran researcher outlined different impacts ramped-up border security has yielded since the unveiling of Operation Hold the Line in El Paso in 1993.

Citing the American Public Health Association, the rerouting of migrants through remote, dangerous zones has produced a “public health crisis,” Dunn said, with at least 6,100 bodies recovered on the U.S. side of the border alone from 1994 to 2011. “The real number of bodies out there is probably much higher,” he was quick to add.

In Dunn’s view, other effects of the border clampdown include longer stays by undocumented immigrants, whose numbers increased from 3.5 million people to 11-12 million before decreasing to 10-11 million; greater physical and verbal abuse by Border Patrol agents; and a sharp increase in crossing fees paid by migrants to smugglers from the $500-$1,000 range in the 1980s to upwards of $2,500 nowadays. The border security complex,  Dunn insisted, “pushes people not only into the hands of human smugglers, but it becomes human trafficking.”

Asked by FNS how climate change plays into the bigger migration and security picture, Dunn said the Pentagon considers climate change a matter of national security and commissions reports. “They’re certainly looking at it in those terms,” he said. “They are trying to get a handle on that.”

The UNM event also examined new anti-trafficking laws in Mexico, the emergence of Houston as a center of human trafficking and the relationship between kidnapping and human trafficking. The closing remarks at the gathering were delivered by Dr. Cornell H. Menking, associate provost of international and border programs at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

The Duke City conference built on a 2009 event that was organized in cooperation with the United Nations, resulting in the publication of the book Borderline Slavery: Mexico, the United States and the Human Trade (Ashgate Press 2012).

Dr. Susan Tiano, UNM professor of sociology and director of the Latin American and Iberian Institute, told FNS she was more than pleased by the coming together of diverse minds to tackle an issue “whose time has come.” The information shared at the conference gave people the necessary knowledge to understand how “human trafficking is linked to our misguided border security and immigration issues,” Tiano said.

Tiano added that an energetic group of UNM students is helping build momentum on public awareness about the human trafficking issue, and the university anticipates hosting another conference in the fall of 2013, perhaps in a debate-style format around public policies connected to sex or labor trafficking-or both. “I’m extremely excited about the possibility of UNM becoming a vanguard in the scholarship of human trafficking,” Tiano concluded.

Not surprisingly, the meeting was interwoven with discussions on drugs and drug cartels and their associations or non-associations with human trafficking. The pervasiveness of the drug issue on both sides of the US-Mexico border was vividly illustrated after the reporter left UNM and boarded one of the city buses that go up and down Albuquerque’s  Central Avenue main drag. A grizzled man hopped aboard and headed to the back of the bus, loudly asking if anyone wanted to buy OxyContin, the synthetic opioid that is widely abused in New Mexico and the U.S. A woman asked the man if he had some for sale and he replied in the affirmative.

By Kent Paterson 2012