Approximately 250,000 Oaxacans migrate to northern Mexico or the United States each year, and close to 1.5 million live in the United States—a significant percentage for a state whose population is 3.8 million. Also, despite evidence of decreased cross-border migration, the economic pressure pushing Oaxacans to leave remains excruciatingly high: 17 years after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), 76% of the Oaxacan population lives in poverty.
These statistics and more were brought to life on a delegation I participated in with the organization Witness for Peace from October 4-12. We not only saw the massive push to migrate north, but also the myriad forms of resistance to this economic imposition from above: from people anchoring themselves to the rich and vibrant traditions in Oaxaca’s isthmus region; from communities, civil society organizations, and even the state government actively looking for economic alternatives to migration; and from an entire parrish in Matias Romero, which declared itself in solidarity with the mainly Central American migrants who pass through the small city heading north on the train.
Among the villains in the crosshairs of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) 2012 Fiscal Year budget are coyotes, the “smugglers” migrants often hire to help them enter the United States without authorization. No doubt their job will become more challenging in the face of a $57 billion budget that, the DHS boasts, will support an all-time high of 21,370 Border Patrol agents and 21,196 Customs and Border Protection officers, more than double the 2005 numbers. Since the majority of these agents will be placed along the U.S. Mexico boundary, this budget makes clear that the central goal of Obama’s immigration policies, like those of his recent White House predecessors, is to “secure our borders,” continuing to build the same security apparatus that coyotes continually learn how to evade.
Coyotes, U.S. authorities assert, are among the principal perpetrators of violence in the U.S. Mexico borderlands. They only care about money, we are told, and have a complete “disregard for human life.” They rob migrants and abandon them to their deaths. They are members of organized crime and drug trafficking networks, and perhaps even terrorist syndicates, so the official story goes.
These claims, repeated constantly by U.S. officials and regurgitated by the media, are rarely questioned, even among progressives. David Spener’s Clandestine Crossings, a highly captivating book of great significance and one of the first comprehensive studies of migrants and their use of coyote networks, however, directly challenges these stereotypes. This “discursive” fable, Spener contends, serves to “incite moral panic,” and thus to legitimate the continual pumping of money into border and immigration enforcement, one increasingly justified in the name of “homeland security.” (In the post-September 11, 2001 era, the U.S. Border Patrol presents its number one priority as the “detection, apprehension and/or deterrence of terrorists and terrorist weapons.”)
Five days after the earthquake in Haiti on January 12, an air force cargo plane flew one of the first missions of the U.S. military’s aid effort. The plane flew for five hours over the devastated country broadcasting the loud, prerecorded voice of Raymond Joseph, the Haitian ambassador to the United States, in Creole:
“If you think you will reach the U.S. and all the doors will be wide open to you, that’s not at all the case. They will intercept you right in the water and send you back home where you came from.”
The disembodied voice from the sky told Haitians, still stunned by the earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people, that U.S. immigration policy toward Haiti would remain the same as it has for decades. This was despite the fact that just a few days earlier, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had announced 18 months of Temporary Protective Services (TPS) for Haitians who had been in the United States before January 12, and that all deportations in process would be stopped.