was at approximately 9:00 AM on August 13, 1998 that Ralph Smith,
the Deputy Coroner for California’s Imperial County, received
the phone call. One hour and forty-five minutes earlier, a ranch foreperson
passing through a United States Border Patrol checkpoint on Highway
86 had informed agents that there was a group of people in trouble
in the desert about eight miles south of the road. Using an airplane
and some agents on the ground, the Border Patrol located the group
of 7 individuals, huddled together under a clump of salt cedar trees
about 25 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico boundary. But they were no
longer in distress. They were dead.
of the dead was Julio Cesar Gallegos, father of a two-year-old boy,
Julio Jr., whose photo the authorities found in his clutched hand.
Gallegos lived in East Los Angeles with his wife, Jackie. He worked
in the nearby City of Industry at a Chinese frozen food factory.
The 23-year-old was on his way home from a visit to Mexico.
to Smith’s report, Gallegos’s body, like the rest, was
mummified, and so severely decomposed that his eyes were destroyed.
There was no evidence on his body of any foul play. Photos showed
bodies that were pitch black, ones that looked like they had been
would reach 108 degrees at the height of the day in El Centro, where
Smith’s office and the local Border Patrol headquarters are
located. On the desert floor where Gallegos lay, it would be considerably
hotter. By 11:00 AM, as the coroner’s office was collecting
the bodies, it was already 120 degrees.
Julio Cesar Gallegos ended up dead in the scorched expanse of the
southern California desert is a manifestation of two paradoxical,
yet complementary trends in the age of the North American Free Trade
Agreement. The first involves the ever-more intense socio-economic
ties between the United States and Mexico (and beyond). The second
is a U.S. boundary enforcement apparatus along the international
divide with Mexico whose strength is rapidly growing.
Cesar Gallegos was born on September 14, 1974 in Juchipila, a town
of about 10,000 people that has many of the features one would find
in many small U.S. towns in the Southwest. Cowboy and baseball hats
are the headwear of choice for men and boys. As for women and girls,
the clothing styles are similar to those that one sees on many streets
in Southern California. Its population is, in many ways, far more
representative of the geographical diversity of the United States
than one would expect to find in any U.S. town of a similar size.
License plates from states like Oregon, Georgia, New Jersey, Nevada,
and California adorn local vehicles.
2002, the town’s annual fair featured, as always, a rodeo,
complete with bull riding and young cowgirls doing trick riding.
In this post-9/11 era, the fiesta included a public lecture on anthrax
and biological warfare.
of this seemingly mundane phenomena would be noteworthy were Juchipila
not located in the state of Zacatecas in Central Mexico. Mirroring
the migratory nature of the state as a whole, it is estimated that
the number of Juchipilans living in the United States exceeds the
population of Juchipila. They are scattered all over the United
States, the largest number of them live in Inglewood, a small city
adjacent to Los Angeles.
Gallegos paved the way for Julio, his youngest child, to travel
to Southern California. Now 82 years old and residing in Juchipila,
Florentino first traveled to California in 1937 as a teenager. He
spent most of his time working in the state’s agricultural
fields, canneries, and railroad yards, while typically returning
for a few months each year to his family in Mexico. Julio also wanted
to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Florentino Jr.
With the death of his mother, he perceived no reason to stay in
his sleepy hometown, one with little economic activity.
took Julio to Tijuana, where he bought a false green card. Florentino—by
that time he had long been a permanent resident of the United States—passed
through the official port of entry and Julio followed behind.
in Inglewood in 1993, Julio stayed with his half-brother, Jesús,
who had lived in the United States since 1965. Now a U.S. citizen,
Jesús owns his own home—in Inglewood—and has a successful
lawn-care business. He does much of his work in Beverly Hills.
another half-brother living in Los Angeles, Julio soon got a job
working at a traveling carnival—one that goes almost exclusively
to Latino neighborhoods in Southern California.
after he started working there, he met Jacqueline Murillo. Jackie,
a U.S.-born Mexican American, grew up in the Boyle Heights section
of East Los Angeles. In mid-1994, they started going out and got
married about a year later. In early 1996, Jackie gave birth to
their son, Julio Jr.
long thereafter, before Julio and Jackie had saved sufficient funds
to cover the costs of regularizing his immigration status—that
year’s federal tax refund would have given them enough—Julio
had to go back to Juchipila to take care of some personal matters.
That was in January 1998. He tried to return through Tijuana/San
Diego in July of that year, but matters along the boundary had changed
tremendously since the early 1990s when it was relatively easy to
cross without authorization. The Border Patrol apprehended him on
four separate occasions. So, along with his 16-year-old niece, and
a 20-year-old cousin, the “coyotes” (or smugglers), and
some other migrants, they went east to the desert and crossed into
few weeks later, the Border Patrol found Julio’s body—
along with those of his niece, cousin, and four others (two of whom
turned out to be the smugglers).
tragedy generated a good deal of coverage in the news media in Southern
California. As has become routine, the deaths elicited official
expressions of sorrow as well as outrage directed at professional
smugglers for allegedly leading migrants into deadly environments.
such official finger-pointing diverts attention from the fact that
the fatalities are the inevitable outcome of a lethal political
charade—one in which the U.S. federal government provides ever
greater amounts of boundary enforcement resources in full knowledge
that they will not significantly reduce overall levels of unauthorized
immigration, but will have increasingly deadly consequences for
migrants. It is conservatively estimated that between January 1995
and October 2003, over 2,700 migrants died while trying to beat
the enforcement net. Despite much-touted efforts by U.S. and Mexican
authorities to warn would-be migrants of the dangers of crossing,
and increasing search-and-rescue missions in hazardous areas, there
has not been a significant reduction in the death toll. Indeed,
crossing seems to have become only more dangerous, with June 2002
being the deadliest month on record in terms of the number of fatalities.
crossing-related migrant deaths have long occurred—the first
ones happening in the late 1800s when many unauthorized Chinese
immigrants died while trying to circumvent boundary enforcement
resulting from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act—there has been
a significant increase since the mid-1990s. This is when the Clinton
administration began to intensify boundary enforcement, promising
to restore the rule of law to the border region. It was a time of
economic recession as well as anti-immigrant bravado by Republican
politicians and many of their Democratic counterparts eager to curry
favor with an increasingly anxious electorate receptive to scapegoating
of the poor, non-white, and “illegal.”
a result, the number of Border Patrol agents rapidly expanded from
4,200 in Fiscal Year (FY) 1994 to 9,212 agents at the end of FY
2000. In Southern California alone, the number of Border Patrol
agents grew from 980 in mid-1994 to 2,264 agents four years later.
During the same period, the amount of fencing and/or walls along
the boundary in the region increased from 19 to more than 45 miles
in length, the number of underground sensors rose from 448 to 1,214,
and the number of infrared scopes grew from 12 to 59. The infusion
of such resources across the southern boundary undoubtedly has made
it more difficult to cross clandestinely—especially in urbanized
areas where the resources are concentrated.
officials predicted that the “territorial denial” strategies
embodied by Operation Gatekeeper in Southern California and similar
operations in the Southwest would discourage many migrants from
crossing into more urbanized zones. The concerted operations, they
promised, would push migrants into mountain and desert areas where
they would rationally decide to forgo the risks and return home.
although the strategy has pushed crossers away from urbanized areas
and curtailed short-term and local unauthorized migrants, it has
not significantly diminished the crossings by long-distance or long-term
migrants. A report by the U.S. General Accounting Office from
August 2001 found “no clear indication” that unauthorized
crossings have declined despite the massive infusion of enforcement-related
resources since 1994. Instead, migrants are relying increasingly
on costly smugglers and taking greater risks. As a result,
countless migrants are still successfully beating the enforcement
web. But many more are also dying.
the face of so many fatalities, U.S. officials express incredulity
that migrants continue to cross. As former Immigration and Naturalization
Service Commissioner Doris Meissner asked upon ending her tenure
in November 2000, “What drives people from one place to somewhere
else, taking all kinds of risks? It’s one of the fundamental
questions of our time.”
years earlier, Meissner had provided an answer to the question.
As she admitted to Congress in November 1993 while trying to sell
the benefits of free trade, “Responding to the likely short-to-medium-term
impacts of NAFTA will require strengthening our enforcement efforts
along the border.” In other words, the liberalization of Mexico’s
economy intensifies migratory pressures among those displaced in
the name of economic efficiency, which, in turn, requires an increase
in boundary policing.
addition to the migration induced by NAFTA-like forces, myriad reasons—ranging
from grinding poverty at home to the profound socio-economic ties
and growing inequality between the United States and its southern
neighbors—explain why unauthorized migrants continue to traverse
the U.S-Mexico boundary. At the same time, U.S. capital’s voracious
appetite for highly exploitable labor attracts undocumented migrants,
whose presence is widely accepted at the highest levels of society.
factors, combined with the will of unauthorized migrants to pursue
their basic human rights to work, to maintain their families, and
to have an adequate standard of living, make unauthorized immigration
inevitable. Increases in the boundary and immigration enforcement
budget will do nothing to change this. To pretend and behave otherwise
is to effectively sentence hundreds of migrants to death each year.
are vociferous critics of the boundary build-up—most prominently,
various immigrant and human rights organizations, some religious
bodies and a handful of academics—who highlight migrant deaths
as a reason why the current strategy is wrongheaded. But more often
than not they share some of the key mainstream assumptions that
underlie immigration control. As a result, they almost never call
into question boundary and immigration enforcement itself. To the
contrary, they have often explicitly affirmed Washington’s
“right” to regulate the country’s boundaries. Implicit
in such calls is that boundary enforcement, if it is to occur, should
not put migrants in mortal danger—at least, not to the extent
that it does currently. Hence, those who criticize the new strategy
for reasons of heightened migrant fatalities implicitly allow as
a potential solution a radical increase in resources dedicated to
boundary policing—the idea being that one could make the enforcement
web so effective that migrants could not cross the boundary without
authorization and put themselves in harm’s way trying to do
so. Similarly, they do not forestall intense policing in the country’s
interior as a substitute for boundary enforcement.
terms of Mexico (and, increasingly, much of Latin America), the
United States has helped to create the very conditions fueling out-migration,
while the political establishment and business interests have long
collaborated in various ways to recruit and employ undocumented
immigrant labor. Such factors, combined with the historic wrongs
associated with the conquest and dispossession of the land and peoples
of what is today the U.S. Southwest, obligates those of us in the
United States to embrace migrants from “south of the border,”
not repel them. At the same time, we need to appreciate that immigration
is often the result of the breakdown of political, economic, and
social systems, as well as institutionalized injustice. As such,
we need to work at home and abroad in solidarity with those who
suffer the consequences of such instability to redress this phenomena—especially
to the extent that the policies and practices of the rich and powerful
in the United States help bring them about. This would prove to
be a far more humane and effective method for addressing the myriad
factors that lead people to migrate than continuing to fortify the
territorial boundaries between “us” and “them.”
commitments incurred by historical injustices and concrete social
ties, there are even larger moral and political obligations. Given
the gross socioeconomic disparities and associated insecurity that
plague many countries, international freedom of movement is an absolute
necessity from a social justice and a human rights perspective.
How, for example, can one meaningfully have the human right to work,
to free choice of employment, if one does not have mobility (in
a legal sense)? And how significant is the human right to an adequate
standard of living if one does not have the right, through movement
across boundaries, to access the resources needed to realize that
standard? It is for such reasons that efforts to achieve a just
world must champion freedom of movement and residence for all peoples.
July 22, 2002, Jackie, Andrew, Julio Jr., Doña Maria (Jackie’s
mother), and Tino—along with other members of their extended
family—drove down to Tijuana. Catholic priests and volunteers
associated with Tijuana’s Casa del Migrante, a migrant shelter,
were also present. They were there to remember Julio Cesar—about
four years after he left Tijuana for Mexicali. On the wall, was
a cross with his name, joining many hundreds of other crosses memorializing
migrants who have died since the mid-1990s while trying to enter
the United States.
always feared that people would forget him,” his brother Tino
admitted after a brief, but very moving ceremony. “Now I know
that he is remembered.” Jackie cried as she thanked all those
in attendance for coming. After the ceremony, the volunteers from
Casa del Migrante paid their respects to the family. The first one,
a young woman, embraced Jackie, telling her that she had lost her
father only two years earlier.
so beautiful,” Jackie said afterwards in reference to all the
crosses, “that these people have made this memorial.”
watched as Tino played with her sons, picking each of them up and
throwing them in the air as they squealed with delight. Her look
was one of happiness and sorrow. “I wish they had a father
to do such things with them.”
even four at the time—had little idea why he was there. Julio
Jr., then in the first grade, remembers his father and still today
frequently invokes him. He already knows how to read. When he saw
the words “Julio Cesar Gallegos” on the cross, he asked
his mother, “Is my daddy here?”
is an activist and freelance photographer based in Poughkeepsie, New
York. Joseph Nevins teaches geography at Vassar College and is the
Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the “Illegal
Alien” and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary