Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid

Published by City Lights Books / Open Media Series | www.citylights.com

ISBN: 9780872864863 | 225 pages | $16.95 | Photographs by Mizue Aizeki

Excerpt from the book on ZNet: http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/17776

Joseph Nevins’ ZNet page: http://www.zcomm.org/zspace/josephnevins

(1) Can you tell ZNet, please, what Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid is about? What is it trying to communicate?


On one level, Dying to Live is about the life and death of one migrant from central Mexico, Julio Cesar Gallegos. It concerns how and why he left his homeland for Los Angeles in 1993, and his fatal attempt to cross the border once again several years later, this time in California‘s Imperial Valley. At the time, he was trying to rejoin his son and wife, then pregnant with their second child, in Los Angeles after having returned to his hometown of Juchipila, Zacatecas.


More extensively, the book is about the places that made up Julio’s life and death. While there are a number of books, and some very good ones, on migrant deaths, what they all have in common is that they say little about history and about geography. By geography I mean the nature of the places where migrants live and die, the connections and divisions between those places, and how they have come about. And the way they have come about to a large degree—especially to the extent that these places embody deep inequalities along the lines of race, class, and nationality—is through a great deal of violence and injustice. In this regard, Dying to Live explores that making of Juchipila, the Imperial Valley, Los Angeles, and the border region as a whole, and how they relate to one another, while situating them in a larger history of conquest, dispossession, and profoundly unequal political-economic ties. It these relationships, at the center of which is the U.S.-Mexico boundary and its practices of control and exclusion, that produced Julio’s death.


Finally, the book puts all this in an international context, one called global apartheid. This is a situation in which the relatively privileged and disproportionately white are generally free to travel across national boundaries and live wherever they would like or have the means to access the resources they "need." Meanwhile the relatively poor and largely people of color are typically forced to subsist where there are not enough resources to provide sufficient livelihood or, in order to overcome their deprivation and insecurity, to risk their lives trying to overcome ever-stronger boundary controls put into place by rich countries that reject them. In this sense, the more than 5,000 migrants who have perished in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands over the last fifteen years—Julio Cesar Gallegos among them—are part of a much larger phenomenon.


(2) Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?


In the mid-1990s, the migrant death toll in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands started to rise rapidly in the face of the dramatic enforcement build-up initiated by the Clinton administration. I wanted to write a book that challenged the mainstream framings of the deaths—as some sort of tragic accident, the fault of the smugglers (or "coyotes") for supposedly leading migrants into treacherous terrain, or the responsibility of the migrants themselves for making the "free" choice to make a risky and "illegal" crossing. Instead, I wanted to bring to light and challenge the structural factors and underlying ideologies that made inevitable unsanctioned migration and, by extension, migrant deaths, while putting a human face on the growing tragedy of migrant fatalities. In doing so, my goal was to put forth a radical human rights-inspired vision that champions freedom of movement and residence for all peoples.


While the idea for such a book first arose in the mid-1990s, it took many years to get on track. When I first learned about the case of Julio Cesar Gallegos as it hit the media in August 1998, it struck me for a number of reasons—not least because Jackie, his wife, was born in the United States and was thus a U.S. citizen. But, for a number of reasons, not least the sensitivity of the issue, I did not contact Jackie for quite a while.

Mizue Aizeki, the photographer whose photos are incorporated throughout, and I first contacted Jackie in early 2001 through the priest who had officiated the funeral mass for Julio. Jackie, who still lives in East Los Angeles with her and Julio’s two sons, immediately expressed interest and a willingness to meet with us.


The book could not have come about without Jackie’s strong backing and cooperation. Jackie was very supportive of the project from the outset. She saw the book as a way of helping to prevent future migrant fatalities, and of remembering Julio. Jackie facilitated our connecting with other members of Julio’s family, all of whom graciously received us into their homes to help with our research. Julio’s extended family—on both sides of the border—provided most of the information about Julio’s life and the specific events that led to his untimely death.

In addition to traveling to Juchipila and Los Angeles, we spent considerable time in the U.S.-Mexico border region (especially Arizona and southern California) to conduct research and to take photos related to the various themes of the book. These visits also led us to a lot of the historical literature that informs the contextual analysis that the book provides.


(3) What are your hopes for Dying to Live? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?


Like any author, I suppose, I’d like the book to be widely read and discussed. More importantly, I’d like the book to serve as a counter-hegemonic weapon of sorts in the ideological battles surrounding immigration and border enforcement. The book is not intended to convince nativists, hyper-nationalists, and racists to change their minds, but to challenge and push those who see themselves as generally pro-immigrant and pro-human rights, but yet still support some level of immigration and boundary enforcement. What I want readers to appreciate is that, in a world of deep inequality between countries, national territorial boundaries and their associated enforcement mechanisms of control and exclusion have profound implications in terms of how people live and die, and that they unjustly discriminate against people. Like racism, the nation-state system—or what we might call nation-statism—allows for double standards based on the assumption that some should have fewer rights because of where they’re from. I would deem the book a success if it pushes a significant number of people—how many I don’t know—to appreciate this and thus, more importantly, to change how they live accordingly.

I can’t imagine anything leaving me wondering if the project was worth all the time and effort. In undertaking it, I learned a great deal and met a lot of generous and inspiring people—migrants and their loved ones, and people working in organizations fighting against the myriad injustices that fuel migration and embody the boundary enforcement regime—on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico divide. At the same time, I was able to develop strong relationships with Jackie, Julio’s wife, and many members of their extended family. These relationships alone make the project worthwhile.

(4) In Dying to Live and subsequent op-eds by you published widely online, you discuss the issues of migration and borders from a human rights perspective and argue for an open border policy. Can you elaborate?

In the case of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations document enshrines a right to life, a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of yourself and your family, and a right to work under just conditions. Often the resources needed to realize these rights are not located in the place you are born or live. So you have to move. As such, it is widely recognized that limiting mobility—within countries—is both unjust and harmful to those denied. In the case of Rwanda in the early 1990s, for example, the U.S. State Department characterized that country’s obstacles to internal mobility and choice of residence as human rights violations. The World Bank opined that these obstacles "increased poverty by limiting options for the poor."

In the case of movement between nation-states, however, the injurious implications of limited mobility and residence across national boundaries are rarely noted. The UDHR, for example, the document affirms the right of exit from a country, but it does not enshrine a right of entry—except into one’s own country. The effect is to deny many across the globe some of the most basic human rights. It forces them to subsist where there are not enough resources to provide sufficient livelihood or, in order to overcome their deprivation and insecurity, to risk their lives trying to overcome ever-stronger boundary controls put into place by the countries of privilege that reject them. And if they succeed in migrating, they must endure all the indignities and hazards associated with being "illegal."

In a world of pervasive poverty, growing inequality, and widespread instability and insecurity, the power to move across national boundaries is tied to the ability to access resources needed to realize rights such as those enumerated above. It is for such a reason that Hannah Arendt spoke of "the right to have rights." If having human rights is part of being a human being, denying someone a "right to have rights" by disallowing them freedom of movement and residence—and thus a whole host of other rights—is to effectively deny their very humanity.


(5) In your June 20, 2008 interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! about Dying to Live (http://www.democracynow.org/2008/6/20/joseph_nevins_on_dying_to_live) you talk about Barack Obama, familiy reunification, and immigration policy. During his first few days in office President Obama has taken steps to shut down Guantánamo Bay detention facility and counter the Bush administrations policy’s on military tribunals, secret prisons and indefinite detention. Do you think we can anticipate such bold changes regarding immigration and borders as well?

At this point, the likelihood that we will see bold, progressive action from Barack Obama’s administration on matters of immigration and boundary is not good. There are three basic reasons why.

First, it is important to keep in mind that the dramatic increase in boundary and immigration enforcement that we’ve seen over the last few decades has been very much a bipartisan endeavor. While the most vociferous advocates have tended to be Republicans, the Democrats have typically followed along, and, in some case, have played leading roles. Indeed, it was Bill Clinton’s administration that initiated the explosive growth in the enforcement apparatus along the U.S.-Mexico boundary in the mid-1990s. In the case of Barack Obama, he voted in favor of increased appropriations for boundary and immigration policing while in the Senate, and even cast a vote in 2006 in support of building 700 miles of walls and fences in the border region. (He has since expressed regret over his vote.)

Second, two of Obama’s key appointments are cause for concern. One is Rahm Emmanuel, his chief of staff. Emmanuel has referred to so-called immigration reform as the "third rail" of American politics—in other words, something to be avoided because of the significant amount of political capital it requires. While he worked in the Clinton White House, Emmanuel reportedly played a key role in pushing Clinton to move to increasingly restrictionist policies along the border to get out in front of the Republicans’ war-on-the-border and anti-immigration parade as a way of undercutting any electoral gains they might garner. Janet Napolitano, Obama’s secretary of homeland security and the former governor of Arizona, is the other person. Although while she was governor of Arizona, she spoke out against building more walls and fences along the U.S.-Mexico divide (because she sees them as largely ineffective and as hurting U.S.-Mexico relations), she was the first governor to declare a state of emergency along the border, asking that the National Guard be deployed to assist the Border Patrol. Thus, her differences with her Department of Homeland Security predecessor (Michael Chertoff) are—to a significant degree—ones of form (criticizing the walls, for instance), not substance. Overall, she’s very much in favor of strengthening the boundary and immigration policing apparatus.

Third, given the economic downturn and the various priorities of the new administration, it is hard to imagine that Obama—even if he were ideologically disposed to doing so—would make the effort to bring about a significant de-escalation in the ongoing war on "illegal" migrants along the boundary and within.

Having said all this, there’s a good chance we might see a reduction in the workplace and community raids that exploded during the GW Bush administration—Obama has criticized them as disruptive and inhumane to families and communities. There might also be a reduction in the prosecutions of unauthorized migrants simply for having entered the United States "illegally."

Obama (vis-à-vis Bush) is no doubt more open to considering alternatives to the ugly status quo. But, given his ambition (for a second term) and his centrism, it will take a great deal of pressure from below to push the Obama White House to adopt progressive policies in the area of immigration and the border. In that regard, it is significant and inspiring that hundreds of activists demonstrated outside of the headquarters of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on the day following the inauguration, demanding that Obama declare an immediate moratorium on deportations and immigration raids. It’s a good beginning to what will likely be a long and difficult struggle.



Joseph Nevins is the author of Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the Illegal Alien and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary (Routledge, 2002) and, more recently, A Not-so-distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor (Cornell University Press, 2005). His writings have appeared in numerous journalistic publications, including The Christian Science Monitor, the International Herald Tribune, The Nation, Los Angeles Times, The Progressive, and The Washington Post. He is an associate professor of geography at Vassar College.

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