Barrier to hope

The tragic story of a young migrant who died in the desert of the US-Mexico borderlands stands as a reminder of injustice along a stolen frontier


Dying to Live: A Story of US Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid
Joseph Nevins, photographs by Mizue Aizeki
2008, City Lights Books
255 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

WHEN Julio César Gallegos died from the extreme heat of the arid Imperial Valley in southern California with six other migrants from Mexico, you could say he was lucky.

Documents found on his corpse – which had been rotting alongside the huddle of other unfortunates under a clump of salt cedar trees, the photograph of his two-year-old son still clutched in his hand – allowed the border patrol to identify him.

But at least a third of the 350 documented deaths of migrants in the hostile US-Mexico borderlands every year are never identified, condemned to lie for an anonymous eternity in municipal “potter’s fields” beneath crude gravestones naming them only as “John Does”.

Gallegos was just 23 when he died from hyperthermia in 1998, a tragedy made only worse by the fact that he was trying to return to the home in Los Angeles that he shared with his wife, a US citizen who was eight months’ pregnant at the time.

Joseph Nevins has taken his moving story and transformed it into a powerful, multifaceted study of Mexican and Central American migration to the US that combines historical analysis with a graphic narrative account of the economic and social factors that perpetuate it.

He explores how the movements of workers and capital back and forth across a shifting, man-made frontier have shaped its economy and cities, and how amoral entrepreneurs have taken advantage of poverty and ambition to create corridors of human misery and vice across it.

Nowhere is a history that is both shared yet divided better represented than by Calexico and Mexicali, the Janus-faced settlement that straddles the border whose respective fire departments once paid little heed to. Today, Nevins points out, the border that marks the contemporary relationship between the towns provides a useful device for keeping down costs for Imperial Valley’s agro-industry. He writes:

“Reminiscent of South Africa’s dependence on ‘homelands’ for its workforce, the Imperial Valley today draws much of its manual labour from across the boundary. As of 1998, half of Imperial County’s total workforce of 40,000 lived on the Mexican side of the international line, in an around Mexicali. Seventy per cent of these boundary crossers worked in agriculture and made up 88 per cent of the sector’s workforce.” [p. 60]

Predictably, conditions are poor and those workers are paid less than the minimum wage or only paid for some of the hours they work. Growers insulate themselves from accountability for their legal violations by using labour contractors to hire workers for them.

Ethnic cleansing

Nevins examines the history and development of the border itself, and such inglorious historical episodes as the ethnic cleansing by Anglos that occurred in southern Texas in the early 20th century, in which up to 5,000 Mexicans may have been slaughtered.

He notes how the border enforcement regime was reaching its modern peak under President Bill Clinton at the time of Gallegos’s death, and traces the evolution of the discourse of separation that the border has nurtured, allowing Americans to blame a backward, lawless Mexico for the human traffic while strengthening their self-reflections on “Americanness” and minorities. As Nevins points out, migration has and always has had international causes, and immigration controls of the kind being practised by the US represent the culmination of a political-territorial cleansing process with its origins in ideas of race.

Nevins’ observations about this enforcement regime seem particularly germane at a time when the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition is pioneering a scheme whereby tens of thousands of people around the world can volunteer to patrol the border via the web using live feeds from hidden surveillance cameras, a move condemned by human rights campaigners for encouraging vigilantism.

The author’s analysis of the various ways Gallegos’s death was explained by the media and those around him – and who they blamed for it, from the coyotes who trade in migrants, to the farm owners of the Imperial Valley, to Mexico’s government itself – is enlightening. For it is here that Nevins touches on the single most important theme that must frame any reasonable discussion of the border “problem”: its very existence. The author writes:

“While many accounts express sympathy for migrants and actually assert that the enhanced boundary enforcement regime has funneled crossers into more arduous, risky terrain and led to an increase in deaths, what all these explanations share is what they do not discuss: by far the most important factor – that is, the very existence of US-Mexico boundary as a line of exclusion, and the agents that produce, police, and champion it and the associated category of ‘illegal alien’.” [p. 168]

As a reminder of the historical perversity of this line of exclusion and its place in history, Nevins includes valuable – and enlightening – maps as appendices that demonstrate how, in the 19th century, an expansionist and land-hungry US swallowed up large swathes of Mexican territory that extended a thousand miles north of the current border.

The author concludes with a powerful polemic that reminds us why we must tear down these artificial and illegitimate boundaries and allow migrants to find the same dream of a better life that so many Americans have had the privilege to live.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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