Politicking the Border: The Deaths of 17 Migrants in an Overheated Semi Trailer Brought on a Bout of Political Hand-Wringing. but What Will Escalating Atrocities at the Border Mean for Long-Term Change to Enforcement Policies?

By Banks, Gabrielle | Colorlines Magazine, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Politicking the Border: The Deaths of 17 Migrants in an Overheated Semi Trailer Brought on a Bout of Political Hand-Wringing. but What Will Escalating Atrocities at the Border Mean for Long-Term Change to Enforcement Policies?


Banks, Gabrielle, Colorlines Magazine


The second time I tried crossing, we got lucky. We left that night at 6 p.m. It took 45 minutes of straight running to get across. I wore tennis shoes. Since it was flat, it was easier. There were three coyotes running with us. They tell you to wear dark clothes when you cross. I ran all right--I used to play soccer--but there was one woman, she was young but fat. She had two kids. They didn't make it. Some other women couldn't take the running, so the coyotes went back for them. And then we waited on the side of the highway for a van to come get us.

It was dark. We were all lying on the pavement close together until the van came at 9 p.m. We had to pile in on top of each other We couldn't move. There were 16 or 17 of us in there and two coyotes. Everyone was twisting around; some were pinned down by others. The driver was flooring it. After a while, the driver pulled in somewhere and left the van. We all stayed inside. Ten minutes passed before he came back. He was trying to throw the migra off our tail.

--Jorge, 16, a migrant from Santa Rosa, Oaxaca, who entered the U.S. in May 2003

I've only actually gotten into a full-blown foot pursuit once in my career. We'd drive by these places where the day laborers would gather. They can be a real nuisance because they end up peeing all over the place. And sometimes there's dope dealing. The neighbors are always complaining. The majority of them are illegal

We'd try to grab a couple of guys. Occasionally they'd be like, "Hey, here's my green card." And we're" like, "Ok, bye-bye." This one time we jumped out of the van and they started running. Unfortunately, I was wearing construction boots--back when I didn't know better. After that I wore my running shoes.

--Special Agent, Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Los Angeles County

Ever since the U.S. border migrated south in 1848, migrants have been heading north in search of work and sustenance. As more Mexicans and Central Americans trekked northward over the years, the U.S. began to set visa caps and seal off major corridors for vehicle and foot traffic. With each preventative measure, the journey to slip past the Border Patrol became more treacherous. Many border scholars say, when the news broke May 14, 2003, that law enforcement officers found the bodies of 17 would-be migrants in the back of an overheated semi in Victoria, Texas, it was the woefully predictable outcome of a century and a half of mounting tension. Nineteen Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran nationals died in total, making it the greatest loss of life in a human smuggling operation in modern history.

Law enforcement and government officials from across the political spectrum called the incident a tragedy, but no one dared to claim responsibility for a border policy gone horribly awry. Instead, Victoria became a prime opportunity for political posturing, an opportunity to set the tone for the next round of the immigration reform debate on Capitol Hill. Bob Wallis, Regional Director for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told CNN it was a "heinous, heinous crime." From Homeland Security in Washington, Asa Hutchinson, Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security, said, "This grim discovery is a horrific reminder of the callous disregard smugglers have for their human cargo. These ruthless criminals, who put profit before people, will be tracked down, apprehended and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law." Hutchinson and others in the Bush administration may paint themselves as the heroes in this scenario, and curry favor with legislators in time for the upcoming debates on immigration reform.

Avenging Ruthless Behavior

Much as the Bushies love to simplify things, the notion of "bringing the perpetrators" of north-south violence "to justice" is a bit perplexing. Who is really perpetrating, after all? Homeland Security deploys in excess of 10,000 patrol agents along the southwest border; arms them with heat-detecting scopes, night-vision goggles, ground sensors, 24-hour video surveillance, and guns; and in many areas, wards off would-be invaders with a 15-foot steel fence. …

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