Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Migration & Refugees, Population

CHALLENGES 2005-2006: U.S. Builds Up Its Fences Against Migration

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Dec 23 2005 (IPS) - The United States was roundly criticised again this year for the continued hardening of its immigration policy, which is largely to blame for the death of about 300 migrants a year. But the criticism has not had any effect, and some observers predict even greater difficulties in 2006.

Governments, non-governmental organisations and experts in Latin America have long been calling on Washington to adopt an orderly immigration policy based on respect for human rights. Approximately 40 million people in the United States are of Latin American birth or descent. Of that total, an estimated eight million are undocumented.

But as in previous years, the calls have fallen on stony ground, while the flow of migrants continues.

Based on preliminary reports, more than 400,000 immigrants entered the United States this year without a visa, and around one million people were detained and deported in the attempt, Mexican government sources told IPS.

Most Latin American immigrants to the United States are from Mexico, which is also a transit country for emigrants of all nationalities headed for the United States.

In their attempt to get past border controls – which include thousands of armed border patrol agents with night vision equipment, trained dogs and unmanned aircraft – 324 Mexicans died in the border area this year, as of Dec. 15.

Many of the victims were trying to swim across rivers, cross deserts in extreme temperatures or travel hidden in sealed compartments of trucks and trains.

There have been close to 3,800 deaths in these circumstances since 1993, when U.S. immigration controls began to be beefed up.

As the year draws to an end, the U.S. House of Representatives has approved a bill to build 1,100 kilometres of new hi-tech fences along the 3,200-kilometre border with Mexico, and to make undocumented migration, now a civil offence, a federal crime.

The bill must still be approved by the Senate and signed into law by the George W. Bush administration, which may occur in the first half of 2006. “It would not be surprising if the new law fails, but that would only be a hurdle along the way towards toughening immigration policy that goes back to the early 1990s,” academic Tomás Vergara told IPS.

The Mexican government of Vicente Fox called the draft law “shameful” and asked Washington to put a stop to it. The governments of Guatemala and Venezuela, together with many human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and legislators from a number of countries, have joined in the request.

Mexico also announced that it is preparing a joint negotiating offensive with the governments of Central America to persuade Washington to adopt immigration policies that recognise the contribution of immigrants to the U.S. economy, rationalise the flow of migrants and respect human rights.

On the pretext of the war against terrorism, the United States, paradoxically a nation built by immigrants from many countries, remains deaf to every complaint from outside regarding its immigration containment policy, said the Mexican non-governmental organisation Sin Fronteras (Without Borders).

According to Jorge Chabat, an academic at the Mexican Centre for Economic Research and Teaching, Washington will further harden its stand on immigration in 2006. “This has gone on for many years, and for now there is no hope of a change,” he told IPS.

In May, the Real ID Act was approved by the U.S. Congress, which forbade issuing driving licences to undocumented immigrants, and provided for adding 112 kilometres to the metal and concrete security fences erected on its long southern border.

One month before the new law passed, a group of vigilantes who had come together in the Minuteman Project began to camp out along the Mexican border, to help detect the entry of illegal immigrants.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared his support for the Minuteman Project.

Furthermore, several initiatives similar to “Proposition 200” were tabled this year. Proposition 200 was an amendment approved in November 2004 in the southwestern U.S. state of Arizona during the presidential elections, aimed at restricting access to health services and education by undocumented immigrants.

Other anti-immigration initiatives, which have so far not been approved, have arisen in the states of Arkansas, Colorado and California.

Mexico and the United States have periodically held talks on migration since the early 1990s, but little has come of that effort.

In February 2001, after Fox and Bush had begun their respective terms of office, they met to discuss a migration agreement.

On that occasion, Fox stated that the time for empty promises was over and that concrete results would be achieved. On Sept. 9 of that same year he asserted that a migration agreement would be a reality before the end of 2001.

However, after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the United States concentrated on border security, bogging down the negotiations. Later, in March 2003, the U.S. invasion of Iraq without United Nations consent led to a marked distancing between the two governments.

Today, the possibility of reaching an agreement is remote, while the flow of migrants continues to grow.

Migrants inject much-needed cash into the Latin American and Caribbean economies through remittances to their families, but they also satisfy a voracious demand for cheap labour in the United States, in the agriculture, construction and service sectors.

In 2004, people from Latin America and the Caribbean living in the United States sent their families 45 billion dollars in remittances, twice the amount recorded ten years ago, according to the Social Outlook 2005 report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

These funds lift more than 2.5 million people out of poverty, the regional U.N. agency estimates.

A little over half of that total goes to Mexico and Central America, 31 percent to South America, and 14 percent to the Caribbean.

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