David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Treating the Border Like Bosnia
by David Bacon

SAN DIEGO (2/4/96) -Tijuana and San Diego are in different worlds.

When it rains on downtown San Diego, or the middle-class suburbs of California's third most-populous metropolitan area, the asphalt streets get shiny. The runoff is swiftly channeled down the storm drains, and spills out into the Pacific.

On the hills of Tijuana, just a few miles south, rain creates a particularly sticky kind of mud called "barra." Huge clumps stick to the feet of anyone who sets foot in it. Cars traveling down all the little dirt streets, where hundreds of thousands of Tijuanecos live, are immobilized. If they start to move down a hill at all, even at a snail's pace, they lose traction in the mud and slowly slide into another car, or a wall, or just a hole in the road. And there they sit until everything dries out again.

When it rains, the tens of thousands of workers who pour into the maquiladoras every day begin their trip to work with a long trek through the mud to the nearest paved road for a bus, or an even longer walk all the way to the factory. Most workers don't have cars anyway.

The difference between the one side of the border here and the other is the difference between poverty and wealth. As Eduardo Badillo, of the Border Region Workers' Support Committee (CAFOR), says, "a worker in Tijuana earns the same in a whole day's work that even an undocumented worker earns in an hour, just a few miles north."

Maria Ibarra works at Maxcell of Mexico. Her two sons also work in the border factories. They don't eat beef or pork, not because they're vegetarians, but because they can only afford chicken, and that only once a week at best. Most of the time, it's rice and beans.

In January a year ago, Mexican wages were slashed in half by the peso's devaluation. Hundreds of thousands of workers lost their jobs in the economic reforms. For Ibarra, who earns 35 pesos a day (about $5), the price of milk went from 7 pesos to 15 in the year that followed. A chicken now costs her three hours of work, a kilo of beans two hours, a kilo of sugar an hour-and-a-half.

Maxcell's profits, earned from paying pesos to workers in Mexico and selling tape cassettes for dollars in the U.S., went up when the dollar value of the peso was cut in half. But government-ordered wage increases for Ibarra only totaled 10% for the year.

"There's a lot of fear among workers in the factories here," she explains. "People believe that if they make a fuss about the wages, they'll lose their job, which is even worse. The managers tell us that the company expects us to be obedient and submissive."

Many teenagers, like her own sons, work in the factories. Just by looking at the people coming out of the plant at shift change, she estimates that as many as 40 percent of the workers on day shift are younger than 18.

"I asked one of the engineers at work once why the company wouldn't raise the wages," Ibarra remembers. "He told me that if we tried to get more money, the company would just move. They're just looking for cheap labor, he told me."

The border crossing on Tijuana's Otay Mesa is next to one of the largest concentrations of maquiladoras on the border. Here hour after hour, bus after silver bus, each bearing the Border Patrol seal, pulls into the customs and trade zone from the north. Each bus discharges a long line of people, mostly young men and women in jeans, t-shirts and tennis shoes. They slowly shuffle back into Mexico, in front of a line of soldiers in camouflage uniforms, automatic rifles posted at port arms.

For U.S. immigration authorities, these workers are the enemy.

Ironically, the Clinton administration, which has voiced the rhetoric of inclusion and appreciation for immigrants, is presiding over the largest militarization of the border between the U.S. and Mexico in modern history. In mid-January, it announced it was sending 350 regular U.S. troops to the border for the first time, as though we were at war with Mexico, or at least, with Mexicans. An additional 200 Border Patrol agents, 60 special agents, and 40 inspectors are joining them in San Diego and the Imperial Valley alone. Another 135 police and sheriffs will back them up, along with National Guard contingents already there.

In the world of the border, Mexicans line up on the south side of a huge, 12-foot tall, plate steel fence lit by searchlights, waiting to cross. It's as though the Constitution doesn't apply here - a zone where normal civil rights don't exist.

The new military model was even used against a caravan of computers bound for Cuba, organized by Pastors for Peace. As trucks and caravanistas approached the Otay Mesa crossing January 31, border guards and law enforcement from the FBI and at least seven other agencies attacked them. Border guards chased people carrying computers in their arms, wrestling with them, putting them in hammerlocks, throwing them in jail, and finally grabbing the machines themselves.

The symbolism isn't lost on ultra right and paramilitary groups. The militia movement has announced a new mobilization on the border to share the limelight. Right-wing groups, vowing to "Light Up the Border," made a similar concentration two years ago, and the Ku Klux Klan has camped out along the border for years.

According to Attorney General Janet Reno, the soldiers are here to guard us against workers, most of whom were caught coming back into the States, after going home to see their families for Christmas. To make this enemy appear more dangerous, in the media their migration is linked to drugs - anti-narcotic rhetoric is used as cover for more lawmen and troops.

Attorney General Reno says the policy is "aggressive and smart and will be effective." But just as Clinton told workers that NAFTA would reduce immigration, this gesture also appeals to the worst in people here in the U.S. - their fears for their jobs in an economy over which they have no control. And just as NAFTA's disastrous impact caused even more people, not less, to leave Mexico for the north, militarization of the border won't work either.

Draconian enforcement will fail because it doesn't recognizes mass human migration for what it is - a new international fact of life in an increasingly global economic system. There are measures which could reduce people's desire to leave their homelands to come to the U.S., but they challenge the assumptions and worldview behind U.S. anti-immigrant proposals, from both sides of the political fence.

According to the U.N., over 100 million people across the globe havebeen forced to leave their countries of origin, and live as immigrants elsewhere.The greatest number, 20 million, live in Europe, while 16-20 million live in Africa.North America comes in third, with 15-17 million.

Cathi Tactaquin, director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, says that about 1 million people enter the U.S. every year, and a quarter of that number leave. Yet today only about 8% of our population was born outside the country. In 1910 it was fifteen percent. But fueling anti-immigrant sentiment is a crucial difference. The immigrants of 1910 came largely from eastern and southern Europe - that is, they were white. Today, immigrants come mostly from Latin America and Asia, and Mexico in particular. They are Asian, Latino and Caribbean.

"Previous migrations to the U.S. came in spurts," Tactaquin says, "recruited to meet the labor needs of industry and agriculture. Now, whether it's here, Europe, or elsewhere, the migration of people has become generalized."

The movement of people has grown as the world's economic order has been deregulated by the governments and economic institutions who control it. TheEuropean Community removed barriers to moving goods and capital in Europe. NAFTA does the same thing between the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Japan and the countries of the eastern Pacific aren't far behind. Poor countries attract investment from rich ones by reducing wage levels, subsidizing the infrastructure foreign factories want, and cutting taxes and environmental restrictions. For corporations and institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, borders hardly exist.

In developing countries, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank impose austerity programs as the price for loans. When wages go down, unemployment rises, or prices for crops tumble, conditions may improve for investment, but people also leave their homes and seek survival elsewhere.

In the Dominican Republic, for instance, from 1980 to 1992 real wages declined 46%, under austerity policies designed by the IMF and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Kenneth Wilson, General Manager of Offshore Manufacturing Operations for Westinghouse Electric Corp., liked the various incentives the U.S. government offers companies to encourage investment in the Dominican Republic so much he told Commerce Department officials in 1988 that "so far as our corporation is concerned, I don't see any need to improve any of [them]."

In 1993 the Center for Economic Investigation of the Caribbean calculated the the minimum cost of living for a Dominican family of four at $276/month. The average wage paid by Westinghouse and other employers in Dominican free trade zones was $99.

In 1979, 17,000 Dominicans immigrated to the U.S. By 1992, the figure had jumped to 41,000.

Saskia Sassen, an immigration scholar at Columbia University, states that "immigration is partly an outcome of the actions of governments and major private economic actors in receiving countries. The responsibility for immigration is not exclusively the immigrant's."

Three years ago, the voices of the Clinton administration, Republican politicians, and the corporate boardrooms joined to call for the relaxationof restrictions on money and goods (at least those not bound for Cuba.) They got NAFTA. Now the same voices call for increased border enforcement, and for cutting SSI payments for elderly immigrants. Denying federal contracts to employers who hire undocumented workers, an act already illegal under employer sanctions, is now the subject of a presidential executive order. President Clinton unveiled it as a jobs program in his State of the Union address.

The president wants the army on the border. California Governor Pete Wilson believes immigrants shouldn't use schools or hospitals. The difference is only one of degree. The movement of money can't be stopped, they say, but people must be.

In fact, under present circumstances, the movement of people is unstoppable.Most immigrants leave home because economic survival has become impossible. And there is no sign whatever that U.S. financial institutions and the Mexican government intend to slow the economic reforms which have already forced millions to leave.

Proponents of anti-immigrant measures argue they are only directed at undocumented immigrants, although increasingly restrictions on social services are being proposed for legal residents as well. "The truth is," declares Lillian Galedo, director of Filipinos for Affirmative Action in Union City, "although we often don't want to face it, the reasons people leave the Philippines, for instance, without documents leave is same reason people leave with them. The economy of the Philippines cannot support its populace. This is true for immigrants from Mexico and most other countries as well. Whether it is thirst for a future, or hunger for food and survival itself, the pressure to leave family and home is often so great that it cannot be denied. These people are not strangers. They are our mothers and fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, and even our children."

The International Labour Organization and the U.N. High Commission on Refugees last year proposed much more realistic measures for dealing with the migration of people across borders. They advocate increasing the opportunities forlegal immigration to deal with the problem of illegal immigration. Militarizing the border with Mexico not only keeps people out, it keeps people in. How many workers will want to go home for Christmas next year? Many studies indicate that in relaxed border areas, many people prefer to live in one country and work in another, crossing the border every day.

The ILO and UNHCR call for supplying immigrants with realistic information about conditions in destination countries, to counter myths and illusions about the kind of lives immigrant workers actually face. It proposes programs to support migrants who want to return home voluntarily.

But in industrialized economies like those of the U.S. Europe and Japan, as dependent as they have become on immigrant labor, the most important measure is protecting the rights of immigrants themselves. Four years ago, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. It extends basic human rights without distinction to all migrants, documented or undocumented.

The Convention supports the right of family reunification, establishes the principle of "equality of treatment" with citizens of the host country in relation to employment and education, protects migrants against collective deportation, and makes both sending and receiving countries responsible for protecting these rights. All countries retain the right to determine who is admitted to their territories, and under what conditions people gain the right to work.

Predictably, countries which send immigrants favor the Convention, andcountries which receive them do not. The U.S. has not ratified it. The Convention takes two basic steps which still paralyze debate in the U.S. It recognizes the new global scale of the migration of peoples, and its permanence. And its starting point is the protection of the rights of people, especially those with the least power - immigrants themselves.

Jan Niessen, general secretary of the Committee on Migrants in Europe of the World Council of Churches, asserts that "campaigning for ratification could change the debate on migration issues, in countries where migrants are increasingly seen as people who are causing problems, instead of people who contribute to society but whose human rights are not fully secured."

Finding that reality in the middle of a U.S. election campaign is not easy. But the price for failure to recognize it will be very high. After the election, we will have to live with increasing economic inequality and racial hysteria, and a border with Mexico which feels like Bosnia.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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