Monday, September 22, 2008

Catholic Church Respons to Plight of Migrants

Tightening the border has not resulted in fewer illegal entries, as the church responds to the plight of migrants crossing deadly deserts to the US.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

While Benedict XVI is showing his concern for the death of immigrants in the Mediterranean and has recently launched an appeal to the governments of the European Union, calling for “effective policies of protection and reception of all immigrant peoples, including those who come illegally,” on the other side of the ocean, the US Bishops have not backed down in the face of harsher policies from the US government, and a serious immigration situation that has existed for years on North American borders, mainly along the border with Mexico.

In the Opening Speech at the National Migration Conference that took place in Washington this past July 28-31, Cardinal Roger Mahony said that “our nation is passing through a dark moment in its history as regards to immigrants, refugees, and all other new arrivals to our land.” And making reference to Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, he continued: “I ask the two presidential candidates to open a civil debate on how to reform our immigration laws, in the name of justice and humanity. I invite all Americans to remember our common history of extraordinary immigrants who have contributed to the greatness of this country.”

Kevin Appleby, Director of the Office of Migration and Refugee Policy of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB), told Agenzia Fides that “beginning in the early half of the 90s, the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) has begun a ‘Blockade’ operation, with the goal of securing the US-Mexican border and blocking any illegal entries.”

The operation, which was later referred to as “Hold the Line,” was begun in September of 1993 on the border in El Paso, Texas, in an attempt to stop illegal immigration from Mexico. The operation called for 400 agents, vehicles, and helicopters along the 30-kilometer stretch of El Paso.

This strategy was soon adopted in other crucial crossing points. Between 1994 and 1998, several more operations similar to that of El Paso were carried out in the areas around Tucson, Arizona; San Diego and El Centro, California; McAllen and Laredo, Texas, with considerable funding from the US government, with the certainty that in this manner they would dissuade the illegal entry of Mexicans and “OTMs” (Other Than Mexicans), for whom Mexico is just a stepping stone on the way to a more prosperous America.

In order to establish systems of protection along the border zones, the State spent millions of dollars on installations of an ISIS (Integrated Surveillance Information System), that uses TV cameras, ground sensors placed throughout the desert, and other state-of-the-art electronic devices, instruments designed to transmit every movement along the border, using GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) and GIS (Geographic Information Systems). Thanks to the TV cameras, the system even manages to exclude false alarms that could occur from the movement of livestock or wild animals. In addition to these systems, there are several hundred kilometers of barriers built up along the border, armed with thousands of video surveillance devices.

In spite of this great effort, Donald Kerwin, Executive Director of CLINIC (Catholic Legal Immigration Network), told Agenzia Fides that “tightening security on the border has not stopped illegal entries. It has only made crossing the border more of a risk, one with serious consequences – sometimes even fatal ones – for the person who sets out on such an endeavor.”

CLINIC is a Washington D.C.-based Catholic association that offers assistance to immigrants, including formation and help in reuniting families, or with permissions for citizenship, or seeking refuge persecution, abuse, and violence. In a report published by the association in November 2001, entitled, “Chaos on the US-Mexican Border. A report on Migrant Crossing Deaths, Immigrant Families and Subsistence–Level Laborers,” they demonstrated the official statistics from the INS on illegal immigrants from 1994-2001. Although the facts show an increase in the number of illegal immigrants captured beyond the border and later returned to their countries, it also shows that the statistics have not taken into account the extremely high percentage of people arrested by Border Patrol, which in the days that follow make other attempts to cross the border, oftentimes successfully. Neither do the statistics show the repeated attempts, and therefore, the growing number of arrests only proves the existence of more Border Patrol agents, however the number of people entering the country illegally has not decreased.

The only statistics that have shown real increase is that of the number of victims reported, that is to say, those who die on their way to the country. The causes vary from dehydration and hypothermia, to other environmental problems, some of which continue to remain unknown. In rare cases, however always a possibility, those trying to cross may be caught in the line of fire from Border Patrol agents, in often debatable circumstances. It is just one more sign of just how weak and inefficient even the tightest surveillance tactics can be.

Appleby explains that the result is not that immigrants “give up trying to cross the border, but that they just face more dangers in doing so.” From the mid 90s up til today, “about 4-5,000 people have died in the desert; and the American legal system is completely unprepared in facing the emergency. In the last 15 years, they have spent billions of dollars on border control, but the number of illegal immigrants has more than doubled,” the USCCB representative remarked.
In general, Kerwin says, in spite of the fact that the US government has spent billions of dollars from 1994 up until now, “you cannot prove that the rate of entries has decreased in comparison to the number of arrests, much less say that the border control has been more successful.” If the goal was to stop illegal entries, the facts show that the attempts have failed.

The crime, Kerwin says, is the number of people who die. According to the association, the official statistics continue being faulty, because what is counted are the bodies that the desert doesn’t devour ahead of time, “swallowed up by the sand, quickly decomposed by the summer monsoons or the winter rains, eaten by coyotes or vultures.” The Director of CLINIC regretfully admitted that the statistics on their own “cannot perceive the chaos of a region that cannot be crossed without the real risk of death.”

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