Death in the desert
Aug 23rd 2007 | SASABE AND TIJUANA
From The Economist print edition
The impact of tighter border security
SASABE is the kind of town where half the pick-up trucks have four flat tyres and half have no wheels at all. Groups of migrants clutching plastic water jugs gather by the side of the road across from a brickyard, the town’s only industry. Teenaged Mexican soldiers man a checkpoint on the main, dirt road, a couple of miles from the border. They are, says one, just looking for drugs. At the border crossing, an hour’s drive south-west of Tucson, United States immigration officials wave through anyone who is well-dressed and who speaks good American, without even checking their documents.
The rest must head north-west through the tribal lands of the Tohono O’odham or north-east through the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge (see map). Both routes involve a three- to four-day walk through a stretch of desert that has become one of the busiest routes of illegal entry to the United States.
To the disappointment of Mexico’s government, George Bush has failed to deliver his promised reform of America’s immigration law. His aim had been to let an estimated 12m illegal migrants regularise their situation and allow greater numbers to enter legally. The United States is instead now tightening border security. At federal level, measures include the temporary deployment of 6,000 National Guardsmen and a permanent expansion of the Border Patrol, from 9,000 agents in 2001 to over 14,000. There have also been piecemeal local crackdowns. Arizona’s governor signed a law last month that, if confirmed by the courts, would levy stiff penalties against firms that knowingly employ illegal immigrants. One Arizona sheriff trumpets himself as “America’s toughest”.
The fencing in of urban areas such as San Diego and El Paso had already driven more migrants to cross the Sonora desert. As a result, the annual death toll of would-be immigrants more than doubled in the decade to 2005, to 472, according to America’s Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog. No More Deaths, an immigrant-rights group, reckons that 147 migrants have died in Arizona alone since the beginning of October.
Tighter security and greater risk may be acting as a deterrent. The Pew Hispanic Centre, a research group in Washington, DC, says the flow of migrants has probably been falling since mid-2006. Fernando Solana, of the Mexican Council on Foreign Affairs, a think-tank, speculates that the number crossing the border could have fallen by up to 30% this year compared with last. Merchants in Altar, an hour and a half’s drive south of Sasabe, where many migrants buy provisions, say that business is slower. A flop-house proprietor reports more return customers than before—deportees from Arizona who stay with him before trying to cross again.
And yet not everyone agrees that the regular annual flow of roughly 500,000 migrants is diminishing. And if it is, tighter security may not be the only reason. Mr Solana points to the sharp fall in housebuilding, and thus in demand for building workers, in the United States. Carlos Rico, Mexico’s deputy foreign minister for North America, notes that an earlier fall in the birth rate means there are fewer young adults in Mexico.
For decades, migration to America has been a safety valve for Mexico, which struggled until recently to create enough jobs for its young. Meanwhile, across the border, demand was strong for unskilled migrant labour in industries such as farming, construction and catering.
Much as he laments the American crackdown, Mexico’s new president, Felipe Calderón, has not taken up the fruitless campaign of his predecessor, Vicente Fox, to talk the United States into adopting a more liberal immigration policy. Elected last year on a promise to be the “president of jobs”, Mr Calderón is trying instead to persuade his Congress, where he lacks a majority, to approve reforms that would increase Mexico’s growth rate. If he succeeds, America’s crackdown might help the Mexican economy, by increasing the pool of available workers at home.
Nothing is certain however. If Mr Calderón’s reform bills get stuck in Congress, as those of Mr Fox did, the closing of the safety valve of migration may threaten Mexico’s political stability. And there are worries that stricter border security is hampering bilateral trade, which has boomed under the North American Free-Trade Agreement. At the Tijuana-San Diego border crossing, one of the busiest, vehicles wait up to three hours to enter the United States. There are no plans to expand the capacity of the checkpoints.