How Immigration Reform Could’ve Helped Prevent The ‘Massacre’ Of 72 Migrants

Over the past year, amidst the heated immigration debate, immigration hawks have pointed to the violence taking place on the Mexican side of the border to argue that the U.S. isn’t ready for comprehensive immigration reform and should instead pursue a single-minded focus on border security. It’s probably only a matter of time before anti-immigrant lawmakers start pointing at the recent “massacre” of 72 Central and South American suspected migrants who were brutally tortured and killed by human smugglers in Mexico on their way to the U.S. as yet another reason to pour billions of dollars into immigration enforcement.

However, it’s actually the absence of immigration reform that contributed to their deaths and has helped propel the violence on the other side of the border. Just as the “insatiable demand” for illicit drugs in the U.S. fuels the bloody drug war in Latin America, heavy demand for and a steady supply of immigrant workers together with an outdated visa system that shuts most migrants out of the U.S. has fueled the profitable and violent human smuggling business.

Despite the poor state of the economy, the Global Consortium on Security Transformationwrote in May 2010 that “[t]he U.S. labor market has seen chronic shortages in some sectors for decades. As a result, “[i]t is no secret that much of the U.S. food processing and agricultural industries depend heavily on foreign-born (often illegal) workers for harvesting fruits and vegetables.” An aging population, low fertility rates, and rising education attainments and employment aspirations are amongst the factors that the study cites as contributing to the labor shortage in those sectors.

Meanwhile, few economic opportunities across Latin America creates an ample supply of workers who are more than willing to fill many of those jobs. However, irrespective of “good” or “bad” economic conditions, they can’t. The decades-old U.S. visa system that allows immigrants to enter and work in the country legally consists of static quotas that don’t respond to economic fluctuations.

Meanwhile, a focus on border security has made it increasingly difficult for migrants to enter the U.S. illegally. Yet it hasn’t stopped them from coming. Instead, it has increased the profitability of the human smuggling business and strengthened its ties with organized crime. In 2008, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, “[a]s U.S. border security has tightened, Mexican drug cartels have moved in on coyotes…the traffickers now use their expertise in gathering intelligence on border patrols, logistics and communication devices to get around ever tighter controls.”

Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez, chair of the department of transborder Chicana/o and Latina/o studies at Arizona State University, explains, “[n]ow, because of the so-called security needs of the border, what’s been created is this structure of smuggling in the hands of really nasty people who only treat the migrant as a commodity.” Along the way, migrants face rape, theft, physical and emotional abuse, and even kidnapping, torture, and death. Their own smugglers view them as exploitable cargo. If they make it to the U.S., they are cheap labor or trespassing “criminals,” depending on who you ask. Migrants like the 72 who were brutally killed in Mexico risk everything to attain the American Dream, but, somewhere along the line the humanity of their journey is lost.

Watch Amnesty International’s video on the risks migrants to the U.S. face:

Some well-meaning, free market thinkers would argue that an open border that allows for the free flow of labor is the answer. However, besides running the risk of being an economic and national security nightmare, it’s also politically impossible. Fixing the broken immigration system by creating a flexible number of opportunities for economic migrants to work in the U.S. without sacrificing border security

is a much more practical and realistic solution. Replacing old visa quotas with a system that responds to economic supply and demand would devastate the lucrative human smuggling business by allowing more economic migrants to enter the U.S. legally, rather than paying someone to smuggle them through. It might even significantly dent the illegal drug trade by freeing up resources that are currently being indiscriminately used to pursue non-violent economic migrants and dangerous drug cartel operatives alike. In the meantime, more border security means more human smuggling profits, more violence, more exploitation, and more migrant deaths onboth sides of the border.

Andrea Christina Nill

Reposted with permission from The Wonk Room.


  1. NYH says

    “However, it’s actually the absence of immigration reform that contributed to their deaths and has helped propel the violence on the other side of the border.”

    Andrea, that’s just silly. What caused those deaths is greed and violence, especially the greediness of business owners on both the Mexican and US sides of the border. Bill Clinton’s NAFTA gave rich Americans license to take advantage of poor Mexicans. The Mexican government already allows the Mexican rich (who own the government) to oppress Mexico’s poor. Whether or not the US lets millions more Mexicans into our country is not a factor in the economic and political reality that is hurting poor Mexicans, nor will it stop the violent human traffickers who murder those who trust them to help them sneak into the US.

    Mexico is overpopulated because the greedy Catholic Church pushed rampant reproduction for centuries, hoping to make more and more church supporters. Contemporary policies that encourage overpopulation include the Mexican economic stratification that relies on millions of struggling poor to be used as fodder for Mexico’s super rich.

    I wish liberals would stop blindly helping the “Masters of the Universe” (the super rich in both the US and Mexico) to oppress the poor of both countries. Pushing for more and more immigration from Mexico to the US simple cleans up some of the mess Mexico’s overpopulation strategy has caused, while degrading the lives of America’s poor and middle class.

    Think about it Andrea. Will it really help to rip open the gates between Mexico and the US? Or will it simply encourage even more overpopulation as Mexico’s poverty is temporarily relieved so the rich who run that country can sit back and make more money while we pay for the mess they’ve created?

    If you want to help Mexico’s poor, work to change the obscene economic disparity between the rich and the poor. But stop pushing for American taxpayers to take care of the millions of Mexicans who want to come here and suck our resources dry.

    We didn’t cause those murders, nor did our immigration policies. And letting millions more poor Mexicans move to this country (what you casually call “immigration reform”) will not prevent that kind of tragedy. Greediness and Mexico’s obscene economic disparity will still exist. That dynamic is what causes a tragedy like the one we just saw. Try doing something real about it, something besides complaining that having immigration limits is somehow the cause of that disaster.

  2. Marshall says

    We can not have open borders, too many bad things could happen. Name a major country with no guards on the borders? I do not want one of our enemies trasporting a nuclear weapon over our open borders and setting it off somewhere. I do not want this to happen to Mexico or anywhere else.

    The headline suggesting the US is to blame for the killing of 72 people in Mexico is vile. That is as bad as saying your child was killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and the child should have known better than to have been at that location, wrong!

    I think the chamber should put up a data base of temp jobs and let chamber members hire temp workers for those jobs. Finger print them and make it known that any overstaying would prevent future work permits.

    I like legal things and do not like illegal things, no matter what the subject. If you can get congress to pass an amendment to allow anyone to enter America at any time and any place,OK, but I warn you of the consequences. Do not have a problem with gay unions, making it legal to work in the red light district, and any other thing that does not create a victim. Drugs can create victims so I am not in favor of making drugs legal.

    My religion may not approve of some of the above. The actions that do not create a victim, my church may speak against to the faithful. The government can speak for the total to of us. If your actions do not take something away from another it can be OK under the law.

  3. Janet Liu says

    You make some valid points. Yes, a guest worker program would be helpful to people on both sides of the border. But ‘guest’ needs to really mean ‘guest’–as in: eventually you go home! not eventually you end up staying here.

    But another fact to keep in mind is that pay in industries like meatpacking has fallen drastically over the past 15 years, as the companies have availed themselves of cheap foreign labor. Is the US better off for having very slightly cheaper meat, while midwestern towns (including schools and emergency rooms) are flooded with problems produced by this exploited labor source? It’s hard to say.

  4. marie says

    Why is America so anti guest-workers, while we need them to harvest our crops? Without them the price for our fruit vegetables etc. will skyrocket.
    We could make a rule for the very few US citizens who are willing to work on the field to have first-opportunity. We could make a law that those guest-workers can stay only as-long-as they don’t start collecting welfare. They would have to return to their country when there is no work; unless they have saved enough during their working-time to bridge their expenses during the lay-off time.
    Their minor-kids should be able to go to school in USA and have access to medical care as long as the parents are here.
    Not willing to share our better living circumstances with those less fortunate Central-Americans is as bad as the very wealthy Americans who are nor willing to share more with the have-nots from our own USA.
    Keeping government and religion separate…, In our own personal life we can not call ourselves true Christians without contemplating on Jesus’ teachings to “love thy neighbor as thy-self”. This is what Christ added to the Jewish 10 commandments.

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