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July 2001, Volume 8, Number 7

INS: Border Deaths, Trafficking

In May 2001, 14 of 26 Mexican migrants attempting to enter the US died in a remote desert near Yuma, Arizona; the desert heat reached 120 to 130 degrees. Many immigrant rights groups blamed the INS, saying that stepped-up border patrols forces migrants into the desert, where some die. The survivors included one person later arrested as a smuggler; he could be sentenced to death.

Since 1998, 1,113 migrants are known to have died attempting to enter the United States from Mexico.

Interviews in Coatepec (a city of 75,000 near Veracruz) with families of some of the migrants who died revealed that some of the young men had been employed before setting out for the US. One earned $8 a day at local Coca-Cola bottling and Nestle plants, while others picked coffee for $4 a day. The survivors said they were headed for North Carolina, which has seen its population of Mexicans soar almost 400 percent in the 1990s.

US and Mexican officials issued a joint statement expressing "deep sadness and concern over the deaths," and blamed smugglers. The statement continued: "These tragic deaths highlight the pressing need for our governments to continue their work to reach new agreements on migration and border safety. Delegations from both countries met in San Antonio, Texas, June 6-8 ,2001 to discuss specific measures to prevent future occurrences of such tragedies and to promote safe and orderly migration." In mid-June 2001, the INS announced that additional surveillance helicopters and another 75 border and rescue agents would be added to patrols along the 350-mile US-Mexico border in Arizona.

Mexican President Fox denounced the smugglers: "These are hardened criminals who are deceiving and fleecing our people." Enrique Berruga, Mexico's undersecretary of foreign affairs, said in response to the migrant deaths that the four migration issues the US and Mexico needed to resolve were: (1) the documentation of migrants illegally in the United States; (2) the guest worker program (Mexico is suggesting that the current H-2A program be expanded from 45,000 to 250,000 a year); (3) increasing the number of immigrant visas available for Mexicans; and (4) reducing deaths of migrants attempting illegal entry.

Mexico has 75 Grupo Beta agents who patrol the Mexican side of the 2,000-mile border to warn migrants of the dangers of entering the US via deserts and to protect them from criminals; Beta agents arrested about 100 smugglers a month in 2000. The National Migration Institute plans to add 50 Grupo Beta agents, and says their charge is to "neither to help them cross nor prevent them but to orient them to the dangers."

Juan Hernandez, head of President Vicente Fox's new Office for Mexicans Abroad, is considering issuing 200,000 survival kits to migrants headed illegally to the US. He said "These migrants are heroes, and we are going to fight for them." Most comments noted that the survival kits would not save many lives, but discussion of the kits suggested that Mexico for the first time is assuming responsibility for protecting migrants headed to the US.

Hernandez also said that the guest worker proposal of Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX) is a "win-win. It's not just a safety valve for Mexico. I think people would be surprised how much this would alleviate the problems at the border." Hernandez noted that the Padrino - or godfather - program, in which wealthy Mexican-Americans agree to invest in job-creating partnerships in 90 impoverished, migration-prone micro-regions in Mexico, may reduce emigration pressures.

Humane Borders, a loose federation of volunteers from churches and immigrant rights groups along the border, continues to put water in desert areas near migrant trails in places marked by blue flags. The INS says that an adult needs one to two gallons of water each hour to walk in 120 degree desert heat; since a gallon of water weighs 7.5 pounds, few migrants carry enough. The INS fears that smugglers will tell migrants that they can simply follow the blue flags through the desert to interior highways.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors, the county that includes Tucson, voted to contribute $25,000 to Humane Borders. An April 2001 poll of 2000 residents on both sides of the border found that most residents favored a "freer" flow of labor.

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), meeting in Phoenix in June 2001, said that its top priority is to save the lives of migrants attempting to enter the US via southwestern deserts. LULAC said: "The Mexican government has identified 90 communities in Mexico where 90 percent of the Mexican workers come from. We want to see how we can promote economic development in these communities to create jobs. This way, they don't have to cross the border."

The New York Times on May 29, 2001 profiled Lalo Cervantes, a Long Island resident "responsible for bringing 50 men from Mexico City to Long Island." Most came from San Lorenzo Tezonco, a poor district in the southeastern section of Mexico City, and most crossed the border at Douglas, Arizona, using coyotes who were paid $75 a migrant to get them to Phoenix. The reporter accompanied a group of 10 migrants through the Arizona deserts and mountains, where they were picked up by a van, taken to Phoenix, and then driven to New York. Once there, the newcomers were hired at a day labor market that has become controversial because it involves men standing on street corners waiting to be hired.

Enforcement. The INS has a budget of $5.5 billion in FY01. About $2 billion of this budget is used for enforcement, mostly to cover the cost of 9,400 Border Patrol agents.

However, much less is spent on enforcement inside the US, such as at work places- there are 300 full-time INS agents to enforce employer sanctions. Joseph R. Greene, INS assistant commissioner for investigations, says that "There's a fundamental ambivalence in our nation over what to do about illegal immigrants who are living in our communities and who have become contributing members."

Greene noted that many states have begun to issue driver's licenses and other identification to illegal migrants, seemingly accepting their presence. Utah, North Carolina and Tennessee issue driver's licenses to illegal migrants, and other states are considering doing so in order to train and test migrants who will be driving in any event. Once a migrant has a valid driver's license, it is often easier to obtain documents that suggest the migrant can work legally in the US.

The Department of Justice's Inspector General in June 2001 criticized the INS for failing to properly escort criminal aliens out of the country, sometimes letting them fly alone on commercial flights, in a policy that the IG says puts: "the traveling public at potential risk because it [INS] does not consistently follow its own escort policy." About 21,000 of the 30,000 most dangerous criminals removed from the US in 2000 were sent by bus to Mexico.

The INS detains an average 20,000 foreigners a day. Most are convicted criminals who are appealing removal orders, but some are foreigners seeking asylum in the US. The INS opened its first center for families who apply for asylum in March 2001, the Berks County Family Shelter in Pennsylvania, which allows families to be together as they wait for decisions on their asylum applications.

1963 Convention. The US has promised to "seek full respect for, and compliance with, the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, especially as it relates to the right of nationals, regardless of their immigration status, to communicate with a consular officer of their own State in case of detention." Mexico and other countries believe that, if US law enforcement arrests a foreigner and does not offer the suspect access to consular officials, due process has been violated. US courts disagree.

President Vicente Fox of Mexico in June 2001 asked Oklahoma not to execute a Mexican convicted of murder because he was not told he had a right to contact the nearest Mexican consulate for legal advice after his arrest. Oklahoma officials said that "The real sticking point at this juncture is simply how much consideration to give the violation of the Vienna Convention," that is, whether to consider the failure of police to abide by the convention sufficient reason to change the man's sentence to life without parole. Mexico has the death penalty, but it has not been carried out for 50 years.

Arizona executed two Germans in 1999 who were not notified of their Vienna Convention rights, and Germany sued the United States in the International Court of Justice to seek reparations. If Germany wins, diplomats from other countries have said their governments would probably file suits as well.

Immigrant Visas. Most immigrants sponsored by US family members or employers must wait in queues for immigrant visas to become available. The US Department of State issues a report each month that lists the wait for an immigrant visa. For example, the wait for a first-preference family immigration visa, which is for unmarried adult sons and daughters of US citizens, was about 26 months in June 2001. Thus, those who applied in March 1999 received immigrant visas in June 2001.

The wait for second preference spouses and children of US immigrants was longer- about five years, meaning that those receiving immigrant visas in June 2001 had to have applied in September 1996. The wait for third preference visas-for married sons and daughters of US citizens--was also five years; they had to have applied in May 1996 to receive an immigrant visa in June 2001, and the wait for fourth preference brothers and sisters of US citizens was 11 years, they had to have applied in October 1989.

There are over one million applicants for immigration visas in the backlog.

The US operates an immigration lottery, giving out 55,000 immigrant visas a year to nationals of countries that have sent fewer than 50,000 immigrants to the US during the previous five years. About 13 million applications for the 2001 visas were received in 2000, and 90,000 were selected for further processing- many of those who apply do not have the required high school diploma, and thus cannot obtain an immigrant visa even if they "win" the lottery. Among the countries with large numbers of applicants selected for possible immigration visas in 2000 were: Ghana, 6,500; Nigeria, 6,000; Poland, 4,700; and Russia, 2,800.

The INS on June 1, 2001 launched a Premium Processing Program that allows applicants for work visas to get them after 15 days, rather than the usual 60 to 90 days, if they pay a $1,000 fee, plus the usual $110 processing fee.

Immigrants applying for citizenship can expect to wait, on average, six to nine months for the INS to adjudicate their cases. The INS adjudicated about three million visa requests and other petitions in FY2000, and granted citizenship to one million foreigners. The United States naturalized 5.7 million foreigners in the 1990s, more than double the 2.2 million naturalized in the 1980s and the 1.5 million naturalized in the 1970s. Since 1907, 18 million foreigners have been naturalized, almost a third of them in the 1990s.

The Legal Immigration Family Equity (LIFE) Act, signed into law December 21, 2000, included provisions that permit 440,000 foreigners in the US who challenged the INS' implementation of the legalization provisions of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act to become immigrants. Those benefiting from these LIFE "late-amnesty" provisions must have been in the US by January 1, 1982, and must have joined one of three class-action lawsuits-- Catholic Social Services, Inc. v. Meese, League of United Latin American Citizens v. INS, or Zambrano v. INS-- filed against the INS after the one-year general legalization program ended May 4, 1988.

Immigration Judges. The US has 219 immigration judges, including 54 in California. They make decisions on applications for asylum and consider appeals from foreigners the INS is seeking to deport. They are not part of the INS; they work for the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), a branch of the U.S. Justice Department created in 1983 to separate the adjudication process from the INS.

Several newspaper series have emphasized the importance of the particular character of the judge. For example, the probability of an asylum seeker obtaining asylum in the US depends largely on which immigration judge hears the case (Migration News, May 2001). Immigration judges received their first-ever ethics manual in June 2001, which instructs them, among other things, to be "patient, deliberate, dignified and courteous."

Most immigrants appear before immigration judges without lawyers in what is usually a futile effort to avoid deportation; in 90 percent of the decisions, the judge upholds the INS' deportation order. There are many stories of judges not listening to testimony, or being rude to those with little English.

The US Supreme Court in June 2001 upheld differential treatment in acquiring citizenship for a child of a U.S. citizen father as opposed to a child of a U.S. citizen mother. Children of U.S. citizen mothers automatically obtain citizenship, whereas fathers must apply for citizenship for their children if the mother is not a US citizen. The case involved a son born to a Vietnamese mother and a US citizen father; he committed a crime in the US, and the INS sought to deport him. To avoid deportation, he argued that he should be considered a citizen, because his father was a citizen. The court rejected his argument (Tuan Anh Nguyen v. INS).

James F. Smith, "Mexico's Grupo Beta Tries to Make Life Safer for Migrants," Los Angeles Times, June 17, 2001. Ginger Thompson, " Mexican President to Ask Oklahoma Governor to Halt Execution," New York Times, June 16, 2001. William Booth, "Water to Migrants Questioned," Washington Post, June 11, 2001. Ginger Thompson, "Village mourns Mexicans who died emigrating," New York Times, May 28, 2001. Charlie LeDuff, "A Perilous 4,000-Mile Passage to Work," New York Times, May 25, 2001. Christopher Marquis, "At Border, Fortification Conflicts With Compassion," New York Times, May 25, 2001.