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Arizona Border Battle Heats Up

Geoffrey Boyce Apr 16, 2006

Sellz and Strauss, volunteers with the humanitarian No More Deaths movement, contacted two doctors and a nurse, who instructed them to bring the three men to Tucson for emergency medical care. Before they could reach medical care, however, U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested all five. The two aid workers were charged with multiple felonies and now face up to 15 years in prison and $500,000 in fines.

While the three men they rescued were returned to Mexico, they were fortunate to avoid joining the 415 women, children and men who died mainly from dehydration and heat stroke after crossing the border in 2005. July was the deadliest month on record for the Arizona-Mexico border, with 78 bodies recovered. These deaths are the result of saturating urbanized border areas with military-style enforcement, channeling traffic through remote and dangerous regions of the Arizona desert.

The arrest of Sellz and Strauss, as well as the plight of the immigrants they attempted to assist, dramatizes the national debate taking place in Congress, the media and the streets. Since early March, massive demonstrations nationwide have brought out millions of immigrants and their supporters in protest of federal legislation that will escalate border militarization, and criminalize and disenfranchise undocumented workers, their families and communities.

WAKING A SLEEPING GIANT

Last December, the House of Representatives passed The Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act (HR 4437), which would change the invalid status of an estimated 12 million immigrants from a civil violation to a federal felony. It would also potentially expand the definition of “alien smuggling” to include anyone who knowingly provides assistance to an undocumented immigrant.

The Senate has been debating offering some undocumented immigrants the possibility of citizenship, but failed to approve any bill before Congress recessed for two weeks on April 7. Proposed Senate legislation would have allowed immigrants here longer than five years to apply for citizenship provided they maintain constant employment, pay fines and back taxes, and learn English, but it would have also enacted many punitive measures (see article, page 3).

Introduced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (RWisc.), H.R. 4437 is essentially a wish list of measures proposed by anti-immigration groups like the Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform, NumbersUSA and the Center for Immigration Studies. These groups have been advocating for years to use the military to seal off the border with Mexico, enact a moratorium on all legal immigration, and round-up and deport all undocumented immigrants.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), these organizations are funded by U.S. Inc., a foundation that also provides resources to a number of vigilante groups and organizations such as California’s Save Our State and the Council of Conservatives, both of which are termed hate groups by the SPLC.

The House bill has produced unprecedented ire from immigrants and their advocates, provoking the unprecedented series of marches, student walkouts, and wildcat strikes since March.

Zoe Hammer, an organizer with the southern Arizona-based Border Action Network, is frank in her analysis of this bill. “People have called H.R.4437 the ethnic cleansing plan, it’s extremely racist, to make 13 million people felons and try and deport them.”

While attention has been paid to the threat to social service providers, the provision criminalizing aid to undocumented immigrants would more likely be applied to those who live and work with them, such as families and small businesses. H.R. 4437 would also intensify the militarization of the U.S.- Mexico border, the centerpiece of which is a 700-mile hi-tech security wall that would impact negatively communities that straddle the border, particularly indigenous ones, as well as migrants, animal populations and ecosystems.

Among immigrant-rights advocates, demands are expanding to full-scale legalization of undocumented workers, and an end to abuse and rights violations. Many advocates also note that some of the proposals to creating a “path” for citizenship are ripe for abuse. Requiring undocumented immigrants to have continuous employment leaves them vulnerable to unscrupulous employers who will essentially be given control over their legal status.

“What the community wants are real reforms, nothing short of legalization of all those who are in the country without documents and the mobilization will continue to grow until this is achieved,” said Margo Cowan, a volunteer lawyer with Arizona’s No More Deaths coalition.

THE MAINSTREAMING OF HATE

On April 1, 2006, the Minuteman Project (MMP) once again brought hundreds of volunteers to southern Arizona to monitor the border for undocumented immigrants. Although their numbers and energy appeared diminished compared to last year, the potential for violence is still real.

For more than a year Ray Ybarra, of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), has organized volunteers to monitor Minuteman activity in the field in order to document abuse. “The MMP have created a pathway to mainstream hate and a violent response toward immigration. They’ve made it acceptable to go out there with a gun and hunt human beings,” Ybarra said.

Minuteman organizers are spinning the pro-immigrant mobilization as proof of impending social disorder and the result of unchecked immigration.

“The government will soon see that allowing millions of illegals into the country has consequences. Do we really think these people, who are demanding rights they have no right to, will peacefully disappear when they are told to go home,” said MMP organizer Angela Marie “Bay” Buchanan. She is also the sister of Patrick Buchanan, a noted nativist and three-time presidential candidate.

Some prominent Minuteman organizers, such as Jim Gilchrist, have raised the specter of violence. On March 30, he told the Orange County Observer, “I’m not going to promote insurrection, but if it happens, it will be on the conscience of the members of Congress who are doing this. I will not promote violence in resolving this, but I will not stop others who might pursue that.”

For the most part, the relationship between this new anti-immigration movement and the nativist militia movement of the 1990s has been overlooked.

“I was on TV debating Bob Wright, the commander of the First Brigade New Mexico Militia and the new national director of training for the MMP,” Ybarra said. “In the late 1990s there’s no way a militia guy would be on TV to debate immigration and border policy. They’ve changed their rhetoric so that the media and politicians are better able to jump on board with an extremist agenda.”

Today, MMP organizers Chris Simcox and Gilchrist appear on national television and radio as guests of Fox News’s Sean Hannity and CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who has traveled to Arizona to champion their cause.

DEATH IN THE BORDERLANDS

Along the border there is a clear indication of the human costs of focusing on the issue of immigration as solely one of law enforcement. In 2004, the Arizona Border Control Initiative added hundreds of agents to the Tucson Border Patrol Sector, as well as electronic sensors, aerial drones and other military technologies. The increased use of helicopters forces groups of migrants to scatter to evade detection, making it more likely that will get lost and die. New helicopters were purchased, which, when used to scatter groups of migrants, leave individuals lost, isolated and subject to a terrible fate. In 2005 alone, 282 migrant deaths occurred in the Tucson Sector.

While many of the migrants crossing the border are seeking work, others are coming merely to reunite with family already in this country, including infants, children and the elderly, who are particularly vulnerable to sickness and predation. Because of deepseated economic and social factors driving immigration, the ongoing militarization of the border has done little to resolve the crisis.

In response, numerous organizations have sprung up along the border in Arizona as part of the No More Deaths coalition. In addition to advocacy and organizing, these groups engage in humanitarian assistance by bringing food, water and medical assistance to migrants in the desert. During the summer months, No More Deaths volunteers operate a 24- hour camp near the border from which they are able to patrol remote trails and roads in search of people in distress.

Around the country, thousands have rallied in support of Sellz and Strauss since their arrest. Under the campaign “Humanitarian Aid is Never a Crime,” more than 60,000 postcards have been sent to prosecuting U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton, calling on him to drop the charges. Thousands more have pledged to engage in the same activity for which the two volunteers face charges. Despite the public opposition, the U.S. government continues to move forward with the case, and a trial is likely in early summer.

Jessica Lee and Steev Hise also contributed to this article.