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2005-07-14

Human Rights on the Border: A Debate on Undocumented Migration in Arizona

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Unauthorized patrol groups like the Minutemen are raising questions of who polices the U.S.-Mexico border. A new wave of anti-immigrant advocates in the Southwest and in Washington want a crackdown on undocumented migration. But the U.S. economy depends on migrant workers and migrants depend on U.S. jobs to support their families in Mexico and Central America. We host a debate on immigration. [includes rush transcript]

President Bush has called the unauthorized groups patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border "vigilantes." But California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger praised the so-called Minutemen and Texas Governor Rick Perry refused a proposal by Democratic state lawmakers to block the Minutemen from operating in that state.

Roughly 700,000 undocumented migrants enter the country annually and remain here. A recent RAND Corporation study found that immigrants to the United States inject about $10 billion a year into the economy. But the latest anti-immigrant backlash is latching onto the war on terrorism to renew a call for increased policing at the border.

Arizona Senator John McCain has supported limited amnesty for undocumented migrants already in the country in addition to increased border security. His bipartisan immigration reform bill would increase money for the border patrol. McCain spoke yesterday before the Senate.

  • Sen. John McCain, (R–Arizona)

Legislators in the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, led by Colorado Republican Tom Tancredo, also raise the threat of terrorism as a justification for more security at the border. But they oppose any amnesty plan and Tancredo’s opposition to any guest worker program puts him at odds with agribusiness and most of the Republican party. A growing strain of anti-immigrant sentiment on Capitol Hill uses cultural arguments against immigration that draw on previous measures like Proposition 187 in California, which would have denied basic services to undocumented residents, and English Only initiatives around the country.

Back on the border, the summer heat can be lethal to people trying to cross into the United States. An Arizona human rights group records the border deaths for May and June at 57 people.

Two aid workers were arrested on the Arizona border last weekend. Members of the Stop the Deaths Coalition were detained by border patrol agents while they were driving severely dehydrated migrants to a hospital. Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz were charged with obstruction of justice and aiding and abetting illegal immigrants in furtherance of their illegal residence in the country.

The question of who polices the U.S.-Mexico border has gained national attention through the activities of the Minutemen throughout the Southwest. Border Patrol officials in Arizona say the Minutemen and groups like them should not take on the role of professional law enforcement. There are dangers that the self-proclaimed patrols could trip sensors, disturb draglines and interfere with the normal operations of border control agents. Minutemen Jim Gilchrist says the group is "there to assist law enforcement."

In Yuma, Arizona, a group called the Yuma Patriots formed recently and now includes about forty people who patrol small sections of the border unarmed and call the Border Patrol when they site border crossers. Part of the border in Yuma is contained within the Cocopah Indian reservation and the Patriots initially attempted to operate within the reservation. The tribal council says it does not recognize the Yuma Patriots because they are not an authorized extension of the Border Patrol. Now the group engages in its activities outside the reservation boundaries.

  • Michael Scherer, writer for Mother Jones magazine. He has an article in the July/August edition of on the Minutemen operating in Arizona and Tom Tancredo’s immigration reform proposals in Washington.
  • Shanti Sellz, member of No More Deaths, an aid group that provides medical help to migrants in the border zone. She was one of the two people arrested by the border patrol last weekend while transporting severely dehydrated border crossers to a hospital.
  • Flash Sharrar, founder of the Yuma Patriots, an unofficial group patrolling the border for undocumented migrants.
  • Jose Matus, Yaqui ceremonial leader and border rights activist with the Arizona Border Rights Project.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: McCain spoke Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Mr. President, a dangerous state of lawlessness exists along the Southwestern border, and it’s becoming increasingly volatile. The federal government’s inability to stem the illegal traffic flowing across the border has shifted substantial financial and social burdens to residents of the border region. Recent action by Minutemen along the Arizona border provided the nation with an image of the frustration felt by many Americans. Border states are suffering from the immediate and downstream problems associated with illegal immigration. Our hospitals are burdened with enormous uncompensated costs, and so are our state and local law enforcement agencies. We simply need more manpower to protect the border in the near term.

I strongly believe that once we fix our broken immigration system, we will see the day that some of our border resources can be safely shifted to other priorities. Until then, Congress must have the will to take the action needed to reform our broken immigration system. We need to have a robust border patrol force hired, trained and on the job. While providing solid resources to state and local officials to insure the readiness of our first responders is imperative, the men and women serving in the border patrol are literally on the front lines in the fight to keep the terrorists out of our country.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator McCain, Wednesday. Legislators in the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus led by Colorado Republican Tom Tancredo also raised the threat of terrorism as a justification for more security at the border, but they oppose any amnesty plan and Tancredo’s opposition to any guest worker program puts him at odds with agribusiness and most of the Republican Party. The growing strain of anti-immigrant sentiment on Capitol Hill uses cultural arguments against immigration that draw on previous measures like Proposition 187 in California, which would have denied basic services to undocumented residents, and English-only initiatives around the country.

We’re joined today by a number of people in the country to talk about this issue. We start in our Washington studio with journalist, Michael Scherer, who has an article in the July/August edition of Mother Jones magazine on the Minutemen operating in Arizona and Congress member Tancredo’s immigration reform proposals in Washington. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

MICHAEL SCHERER: Thanks for having me, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. You have a piece called "Scrimmage on the Border: Vigilantes and camera crews amassing in the Arizona desert, but the real standoff is in Washington as fear of immigration invades the halls of Congress." What’s happening there?

MICHAEL SCHERER: On the border, you have what Senator McCain just described, really a situation that is unexcusable from a humanitarian perspective. Hundreds of people are dying every year in the desert. Thousands of people a day are being forced to walk 10-20 miles through a rather hazardous desert just to get jobs that President Vicente Fox in Mexico says they should be able to get, that American business says they should be able to get, that the President of the United States, George Bush, says Americans don’t want.

And in response, you have groups like the minutemen, which are essentially retired white people, largely, who have decided to play soldier on the border. They have largely conducted themselves recently with this media exposure well. They haven’t engaged the immigrants, but what they represent — the precedent they represent is hazardous. And there have been groups that have been actual vigilantes on the border detaining people. There have been allegations of people being beaten up when they have been detained by border patrol people. And so you have what really is a dangerous situation that Congress hopefully will deal with in a realistic way.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to ask you about some of those proposals in a minute, but I want to go to the border right now. The summer heat can be lethal for people trying to cross into the United States. An Arizona human rights group records the border deaths for May and June at 57 people. Two aid workers were arrested on the Arizona border last weekend, members of the Stop the Deaths Coalition, were detained by border patrol agents while they were driving severely dehydrated migrants to a hospital. Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz were charged with obstruction of justice and aiding and abetting illegal immigrants in furtherance of their illegal residence in the country. We are joined on the phone from Tucson by Shanti Sellz, who was just arrested. Welcome to Democracy Now!

SHANTI SELLZ: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: I first learned about No More Deaths last year, the organization, when I was speaking in Colorado Springs. And some of the students there had used their vacation to go to the border to join your organization to help migrants in the desert, to get them water, to help them to deal with their medical conditions. Can you talk about what happened to you, and why you were on the border?

SHANTI SELLZ: I spent about six months living on the border last year and was very unaware of the conditions down here, and after just living here, it’s hard to miss. It’s right in your face. And I — after seeing water bottles in the arroyo behind my house and witnessing people walking down the road, I was called to learn more about what’s happening and got involved with No More Deaths and started working in the camp last year, and then came back this year to do another summer of work.

AMY GOODMAN: So tell us what happened? How did you get arrested?

SHANTI SELLZ: Due to the criminal context of this investigation, we are unable by our lawyers to talk about the actual events of the day, but I can talk about what our organization does and what our protocol is. We give humanitarian aid in the form of food, water and medical assistance in the field to migrants who are crossing the desert on foot. Like you said, the conditions are extremely treacherous, as far as temperatures. I mean, it’s been over 100 degrees for over a month in the Arizona desert now, so — and people are walking. They’re pushed very hard in the night by their groups, moving very fast, and a lot of people we encounter have gone two-three days without any food or water.

If they do find water, a lot of times they’re drinking out of cattle tanks, brown water with green algae growing in it. Some people have stomach infections. They have been throwing up, they have had horrible diarrhea just from the conditions of walking in that intense heat for hours and days is extreme and so — and the blisters on people’s feet, too, is amazing. Just from the heat and from walking all day, and so we give medical treatment in the field, and we give food and water, and in emergency situations, we — in our protocol, we can medically evacuate people to area hospitals or medical facilities. And we have done that, and we’ll continue to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Why can’t you talk about your own case?

SHANTI SELLZ: Because it’s in the midst of it all right now, and we’re just in the beginning stages of how we’re going to handle it and what’s coming before us.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Shanti Sellz of No More Deaths, the organization. The question of who polices the U.S.-Mexico border has gained national attention through the activities of the Minutemen throughout the Southwest. Border patrol officials in Arizona say the Minutemen and groups like them should not take on the role of professional law enforcement. Their danger is that the self-proclaimed patrols could trip sensors, disturb draglines and interfere with the normal operations of border control agents. Minuteman Jim Gilchrist says the group is, quote, "there to assist law enforcement."

In Yuma, Arizona, a group called the Yuma Patriots formed recently, and now includes about 40 people who patrol small sections of the border unarmed and call the border patrol when they site border crossers. Part of the border in Yuma is contained within the Cocopah Indian reservation. The Patriots initially attempted to operate within the reservation, but the tribal council says it doesn’t recognize the Yuma Patriots because they’re not an authorized extension of the border patrol. Now, the group engages in its activities outside the reservation boundaries.

We’re joined on the phone by Flash Sharrar, founder of Yuma Patriots. We’re also joined by Jose Matus with the Arizona Border Rights Project, which works to protect indigenous peoples’ rights to cross the border. Flash Sharrar, can you talk about your organization, the Yuma Patriots, and what you are doing?

FLASH SHARRAR: Sure. We’re similar to the Minutemen, but you know, we’re very tired of people dying in our deserts. We’re tired of the medical expenses. We’re tired of the system, and we’re tired of the immigration system that is failing the American people and the Mexican people. The problem, and what most of the public doesn’t understand, is what is actually happening here. You have coyotes that are killing these people, rushing them at night. They are going — these people are going without food, without water.

America is under siege, not only by the Mexican people, but by terrorist groups. If America thinks that 9/11 was just a pastime, it’s going to happen again, and they’re going to come through the Southern borders of America. We do not have enough border patrol. Our government doesn’t seem to care. The President doesn’t care at all, because if he did, we would be protecting the American borders, not Syrian borders. Our boys need to come out of Iraq, come back to America and protect our borders.

There’s people dying. There’s diseases that were eradicated 40 years ago that are back. You’re talking polio, you’re talking leprosy, you’re talking whooping cough, tuberculosis at a rapid rate in our own hospital. We have cases of these not being reported to the news, because they don’t want the American public alerted about it.

The death toll on the border right now, in the last month, we have had nine people die. We have had a robbery in our town that killed six people. We have had — six months ago, we had a young man killed at a gas station, because an illegal alien took his vehicle. My son was robbed at gunpoint is what started all of this. America needs to stand up, protect its borders, and protect the Mexican people, because they’re being used. The Mexican people are being used. And it is terrible. It’s an atrocity.

AMY GOODMAN: Jose Matus is also with us, with the Arizona Border Rights Project. Your response.

JOSE MATUS: Well, my response to that is that there’s a lot of misinformation. There are no doubt people crossing the border that are with criminal intent, but the majority of the people coming through are seeking a better life and survival for themselves and their families. But, the issue also is placed on the economic policies that have historically dictated immigration policies and enforcement.

The [inaudible] of migrant labor is a reality of the American workforce, and the approach that these groups, civilian groups in the border area are promoting is something that — they should really look at the economic policies that the United States has been creating and that have displaced other workers in third world countries, and that is one of the big reasons why a lot of these people are coming across. NAFTA, for example, there was the recent uprise of the Zapatistas because of the loss of some of their land, and displacement of a lot of the farm — indigenous farmers in Mexico.

And that’s one of the things that the immigration policies have demonstrated over the past ten years with Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, Hold the Line in El Paso, Safeguarding in Arizona. It has not worked. It has failed. And the continued strategy of building more walls in the Southern border will create even more and more problems for border crossers and also give economic opportunity to the coyotes as — and other poyeros there are well organized now because of the border policies bringing in individuals from third world countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Flash Sharrar.

FLASH SHARRAR: Well, you know, the problem is is you have to come into this country correctly. And by doing so, you can get a job, you can get the proper documentation. The problem is is we are allowing illegal immigration, and that’s why these people are dying. America was based on immigration, but there was a way to do it. The worst part of it is is our own government is allowing this policy to fail, and that’s why these folks are being harmed. We looked at some percentages in every group that is trying to get across any border, it’s 10% that are violent, 90% that are not. We have migrant workers in our town, and we need these workers. We need these workers to pick our fields; the lettuce, we supply 85% of the lettuce during the winter for the entire United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me put that number to Jose Matus, 90% violent?

FLASH SHARRAR: Hello?

AMY GOODMAN: Jose Matus.

JOSE MATUS: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: 90% violent?

FLASH SHARRAR: No, no, no. 10% violent.

AMY GOODMAN: 10% violent, 90% not.

FLASH SHARRAR: Harmless.

AMY GOODMAN: Jose Matus.

JOSE MATUS: Yeah. That could be correct. However, going back to people coming in legally, the system needs to be looked at in acquiring a visa, because it’s very difficult. You are talking about $30 for a Mexican passport and then an additional $100 for an American visa, and an American visa is very difficult to obtain because of the requirements to obtain a visa goes from having 2,500 pesos in the bank, insuring that they’re not going to abandon their country. They need to have all kinds of documents that are necessary to obtain a visa, and thus, if they spend $100 fee, the chances of them getting that visa is very limited because depending on the process or the official at the American consulate, they may deny an individual a passport. On top of that, if one applies for a work visa, the one that is the — an additional cost as well as — they need to make sure that a company there is going to hire them, has a position that no one here in the United States qualifies for.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to end with Michael Scherer, the Washington correspondent for Mother Jones, who wrote "Scrimmage on the Border" about Prop 200 in Arizona, the legislation, and how it is seen in Washington. Very controversial legislation that was opposed by the senators of Arizona.

MICHAEL SCHERER: There are a number of proposals right now in Congress for how to deal with this problem, and they range from punitive measures, which I would categorize Prop 200 as being — that’s a proposition that denies government services to people who are in Arizona illegally — to measures that try and make legal those who are illegal in the United States, those who are here to work and are here to help their families back home and to start families in the United States. This debate, while everyone agrees there’s a problem here, there’s wide disagreement on how to solve it. And that’s going to be the issue coming up. One of the issues that comes up with this is the question of, you know, what America is and will become. Are we going to continue to be a nation of immigrants? Are we going to continue to invite millions of people, as we have throughout our history, to come to our country and to integrate themselves into the country and change the country as they arrive? Or are we going to say, 'Stop, we have filled up, we're going to just allow a trickle now; if you want to come work, you are not going to become citizens, you are just going to work for a few months and then we’re going to send you back to your home country.’

AMY GOODMAN: On that note —

MICHAEL SCHERER: That’s what we’re going to have happening in Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you, Michael Scherer, Mother Jones, "Scrimmage on the Border," your piece; as well as Jose Matus of the Arizona Border Rights Project; and Flash Sharrar, founder of the Yuma Patriots on the border in Arizona.

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