By Robin Reineke, BMC ’04
Last year the body of an unidentified man was found in the desert south of my home in Tucson, Arizona. He was one of the 184 dead immigrants found in 2011 and examined at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, where I work on a project to identify the dead.
This man sticks out in my memory because he was wearing the tattered remains of a T-shirt that read, “Los Gatos de Arizona,” a football T-shirt from The University of Arizona, where I am a graduate student.
There was my school’s T-shirt, covered in the reddish dirt of the desert and torn from the teeth of carnivores that had fed on this man’s body after he died. I felt a particular sense of outrage. And then I felt guilty. I felt more outraged than usual because I felt a sense of community with this man. Had he perhaps sat next to my friends at a football game? Did his kid attend the U of A? Had he grown up in Tucson? He is one of us, I thought, one of ours has gone through this gauntlet of a border and fallen pray to it.
And then I thought quickly, he probably just bought the T-shirt for a dollar at a street fair in Guatemala, and he’s not really from Tucson. I felt guilty. Why should it matter? If he had gone to the U of A would his death be worse? Would it be any less just than if he were a poor man from Guatemala immigrating for the first time? Is it really any different?
Emotionally, it is different. We feel more deeply for things and people that are familiar to us. But existentially, it isn’t different. Human rights violations can exist on a scale, from minor to major, but victims of human rights violations cannot. A death in the desert is a death in the desert, an unnecessary loss of life caused most immediately by a lack of some of the most basic human necessities—shelter from the elements, water, food.
But those dying in the desert are not being killed by the desert, they are being killed by neoliberal economics and U.S. border policy. Unfortunately, the national conversation about undocumented immigration has focused disproportionately on the individual “illegality” of immigrants crossing the border or overstaying visas in the hopes of building a sustainable economic future. This excessive focus on individual illegality has ignored what I call the “dominant illegality” of neoliberal international economics, where the commons of poor countries are privatized by transnational economic elites. Borders do not exist for corporations or the elites that run them. Borders are for the poor.
Between January 1st of 2000 and March 10th, 2012, exactly 2,010 human beings were found dead within the area of southern Arizona covered by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner. I start in 2000, because that is when the deaths in the area started to rise. From 1990-1999, the average yearly number of deceased border crossers examined by the office was 14. That yearly average jumped to 160 after the year 2000. What happened is often referred to as the “funnel effect” of U.S. border security policy. In the 1990s, border security measures passed under the Clinton Administration followed a strategy of segmented enforcement, whereby traditional urban crossing-points were fortified, leaving open remote expanses of land and sea.
The policy changes were enforced locally under the names “Operation Hold the Line” in El Paso (1993), “Operation Gatekeeper” in San Diego (1994), “Operation Safeguard” in Nogales (1995), and “Operation Rio Grande” in South Texas (1997). These policy changes created a funnel effect that pushed undocumented border crossers into remote desert and mountain areas, where they perished in high numbers.
Policymakers like Doris Meissner, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Commissioner from 1993-2000, have argued that they were following a strategy of prevention through deterrence. She has stated, “we did believe that geography would be an ally to us. It was our sense that the number of people crossing the border through Arizona would go down to a trickle once people realized what it’s like.”
Statements like these are belied by the fact that the deaths have continued in high numbers for ten years, without causing alarm among border security policy-makers. It is my opinion that they have not caused alarm because we, as the American public don’t demand change from our government on this matter. We accept the deaths. I think we accept them much in the same way that a certain part of me was more willing to accept the death of a first time, “illegal” immigrant than the death of a man who may have lived in my community for years.
There are those among the dead who have lived in our communities for years. I think of a man who lived in Phoenix with his wife and two kids who was brought here as a child. He was deported after being racially profiled by a traffic cop. As he was the primary breadwinner for the family and his wife was at home with a newborn baby, he decided to cross illegally back into Arizona to return to his job and his family. He was missing for months, during which time his wife and kids were evicted because they couldn’t pay rent. Finally, his decomposed body was found and identified. The family chose to have him buried in Phoenix, Arizona.
We need to hear these stories because they bother us, because they remind us that by allowing “illegals” to die on the border, we have created a system where our friends can die on the border too. But ultimately, this isn’t about the deadly nature of border policy. It is about the living, and who we define as fully alive and deserving of full rights as such.
In deciding whether or not to pass the plenary resolution to support undocumented immigrants who apply to the college, the Bryn Mawr community is faced with a choice between defending the rights of human beings and following along with a dominant national discourse that condones the distribution of rights based on flaky notions of deservingness. I would urge Mawrters to be wary of arguments that place human beings on a hierarchy of deservingness based on discourses of “legality.”
Laws are historically and culturally contingent, not born of universal moral truths. The episodes in American history that make us the most proud involve the successful abolition of laws that exclude human beings who, for one reason or another, were not previously seen as fully human. I hope that the Bryn Mawr community recognizes the seriousness of this resolution, and grasps this opportunity to once again, place Bryn Mawr firmly on the side of those fighting for civil rights.
Robin Reineke, Bryn Mawr ’04, is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at The University of Arizona. She has worked at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner in Tucson, Arizona for the past 6 years on a project to identify the 600 some human remains of believed-to-be immigrants who have yet to be identified.