You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

Joseph Nevins on “Dying to Live: A Story of US Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid”

Media Options

As we mark World Refugee Day, Joseph Nevins traces the human tragedy of immigration across the US-Mexico border. His starting point is the story of Julio Cesar Gallegos, who died ten years ago in the scorching desert between California and Mexico. He was trying to be reunited with his wife and son in Los Angeles. [includes rush transcript]

Related Story

StoryJun 11, 2024U.S. Jewish Army Intel Officer Quits over Gaza, Says “Impossible” Not to See Echoes of Holocaust
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Events are being held across the country and the globe today to mark World Refugee Day. According to the United Nations, by the end of 2007, there were more than 11 million refugees worldwide and 26 million internally displaced people. It was the second year in a row the number had gone up after five years of falling.

We’re going to talk about refugees today — refugees, called “immigrants” in this country. Dying to Live: A Story of US Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid is the name of a new book by Professor Joseph Nevins. He’s a geographer. He’s a professor at Vassar College.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

JOSEPH NEVINS: Thank you, Amy. It’s a pleasure to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, your book is about Mexicans coming over the border. It’s a specific story and then goes much broader than that. But how would you fit this story into the idea of refugees?

JOSEPH NEVINS: Well, refugees, under international law, is actually a very narrow concept. It’s a concept defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention. And according to that convention, a refugee is a person who finds him or herself outside of his or her country due to what they call a well-founded fear of persecution, persecution on the basis of their membership in a particular ethno-racial, religious or national or social group or because of their particular political persuasion or political opinion. As such, they’re under threat in their country of origin, where they’re born or their country of habitual residence, and they have to — they feel compelled to avail themselves of the protection of a national government elsewhere.

As you said, there are about, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, about 37 million refugees. This does not include people who are not recognized, even though they have a well-founded fear of persecution. It does not include what are called economic migrants; they’re not referred to as “refugees.” It doesn’t include, as we talked about in the previous segment with David Helvag, the climate or ecological and environmental refugees. So there are huge numbers of people who are driven out of their homelands beyond — by factors that are beyond their control that aren’t included under the protections of the international refugee regime.

Just to take one example, we know that at least a few million Iraqis have been driven out of their country because of the disastrous US invasion and ongoing occupation. Yet the vast majority of these people find themselves in some sort of political legal limbo in places like Syria and Iran, in large part because countries like the United States aren’t willing to accord international refugee status. So while the United States is largely responsible for this refugee disaster emanating from Iraq, the United States, last time I checked, had only accepted a little under 5,000 of these people, allowed them to come to the United States to migrate legally.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to hear from one of them in a few minutes, but I wanted to ask first your use of language. You qualify what you write at the beginning of your book.

JOSEPH NEVINS: Mm-hmm. Well, one of the terms that we often hear is this term “illegal,” right? “Illegal alien,” or something like that. And this is a term that has been created by national governments as a way of criminalizing what I see and many members of the international human rights community and migrant rights community see as a basic human right — the right to migrate — if we take international human rights conventions seriously. And these conventions include rights such as the right to have an adequate diet, the right to have a job with a sufficient pay, the right to provide for one’s basic necessities. In many countries in the world, because of a socio-political situation, there aren’t sufficient resources, there isn’t sufficient stability for people to realize those rights, right? In order to access the resources necessary to realize those rights, they need to migrate. If you deny them the right to migrate, you’re effectively denying them the right to have those rights, right? So in that sense, international human rights becomes meaningless, if we don’t have a right to migrate.

AMY GOODMAN: And you chose the word…?

JOSEPH NEVINS: Well, I use terms like — I mean, there is no perfect word, but I use words like “unauthorized,” “undocumented” or “unsanctioned,” so I’m not sort of privileging the discourse of the state, which criminalizes migrants they don’t recognize.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us the story Julio Cesar Gallegos.

JOSEPH NEVINS: The book focuses on the life and death of Julio Cesar Gallegos, who died in the Imperial Valley Desert of California in August 1998. He was twenty-three years old. He was returning from his hometown of Juchipila Zacatecas, which is in central Mexico. He was returning from Juchipila to East Los Angeles, where his wife, Jacqueline Murillo, a US citizen, a Chicana, and his son were living at the time. Julio Cesar had been living and working in East Los Angeles since 1993.

When he first tried to cross the US-Mexico border in 1993, it was fairly — relatively easy to cross without authorization. But beginning in the mid-1990s under the Clinton administration, we saw a massive buildup in immigration and boundary enforcement. As a result, when he tried to return in 1998, after having to return to Juchipila to attend to some family emergencies, things had radically shifted. There had been a deep intensification of boundary enforcement. As a result, he had to travel through very arduous terrain, and ultimately it caused his death. He and six others were found under a salt cedar tree in the desert in August 1998. Their bodies were literally black, because they had putrefied and mummified as a result of the intense desert heat.

It received a lot — his death received a lot of attention in the press in California, in part because it was the largest group of bodies that had ever been found in California history and also because his wife was a US citizen, so it was somewhat unique in terms of migrant deaths.

That said, this is — his story is just one story of a much larger death toll. Since the mid-1990s, it is estimated that well over 5,000 migrant corpses have been recovered in the US-Mexico borderlands. The reason I use the word “recovered” is because there is certainly a much larger death toll, in that we don’t know exactly how many people have died, because of the vastness of the US-Mexico borderlands, the density of a lot of the vegetation, the remoteness of a lot of the areas, and the fact that, especially in the summer, bodies can break down, according to medical anthropologists, in about eleven days. You know, internal organs, skin can be completely eradicated; all that remains is the skeletal remains, and they’re often scattered by animals.

AMY GOODMAN: The way you begin your story, “It was a little after 9:00 a.m. on August 13, 1998, when Ralph Smith, the deputy coroner for California’s Imperial County, received the phone call. About two hours earlier, a ranch foreman passing through a United States Border Patrol checkpoint on State Route 86 had informed agents that there was a group of people in trouble in the desert about six miles south of nearby State Route 78.” Take it from there.

JOSEPH NEVINS: Right. And when they got there, again they found these seven bodies. And this led to a lot of coverage, again, in the —-

AMY GOODMAN: They looked charred.

JOSEPH NEVINS: The bodies looked charred, right. They were -— I’ve seen pictures of the body that the coroner has provided. Parts of the body were literally black because of the process of mummification or putrefication. In the case of Julio Cesar Gallegos, his eyes were missing, for example, as a result of this process.

AMY GOODMAN: He was found holding the son —-

JOSEPH NEVINS: He was holding the picture of his two-year-old son, Julio Jr. Some of his clothes were missing. Often what happens is migrants, as they’re going through the process of hypothermia, right, with excessive body heat, they lose control of their faculties, and they will often strip their clothes off. So, frequently, migrants are found naked or partially naked. There was no signs of malfeasance or anything like that. It was probably he or the other migrants that did that.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, now fit this into this bigger picture and where you think policy needs to be today.

JOSEPH NEVINS: Well, one of the goals of these various operations that the US government began instituting in the mid-1990s, operations such as Operation Gatekeeper in southern California, Operation Safeguard in southern Arizona, Operation Rio Grande in southern Texas, Operation Hold the Line in El Paso, the goals of these operations was to push migrants out of what they call the urban corridors into more remote, arduous terrain. And the thinking behind this was that once faced with this more arduous remote terrain and a far more difficult journey, most migrants would make, you know, a rational cost-benefit analysis and give up.

Well, that’s not what’s happened. While maybe a few people have done this, the vast majority have just decided to take the risk, because the forces compelling them to migrate are so great. As a result of this, while we’ve long seen migrant deaths, going back to the 1800s, when Chinese migrants were trying to get around the Chinese exclusion laws, the number of deaths and how people are dying -— well, the numbers have absolutely skyrocketed, and how people are dying has radically changed. We’re seeing people die much more due to environmental factors, excessive heat, most importantly, but in the winter, excessive cold. And again, as a result, the number of deaths has reached at least 5,000 over the last twelve, thirteen years.

Now, in terms of policy, I mean, in many ways, I think the system is fundamentally broken, because the problem is, is that in the political class, the dominant ways of seeing migrants and unauthorized immigration in the United States is to see it within a framework of law and order, in terms of national security, not in terms of human rights, nor in terms of the complex political and economic factors that are driving immigration. NAFTA, for example, the North American Free Trade Agreement, has played a significant role in helping to drive migration from Mexico, as it disturbs — as it destabilizes the agricultural economy and the rural sectors of the country.

AMY GOODMAN: How does it do that?

JOSEPH NEVINS: Well, NAFTA was sold to the US public in a variety of ways, and one of the principal ways that the Clinton administration and supporters tried to sell it was by employing sort of standard neoclassical economic theory. And what they said is, is that the rising tide of NAFTA will lift all boats. In other words, NAFTA will bring increased prosperity for people in Canada, the United States and, most importantly, in terms of immigration, Mexico. As a result of that, the pressures for people to leave, to migrate elsewhere, will be greatly reduced. That’s what they were saying publicly. Privately, or in less public spheres, they were saying something very different. Doris Meissner, who was the head of what was then the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, she testified to Congress —-

AMY GOODMAN: Her husband died in 9/11.

JOSEPH NEVINS: Right -— no, her husband died in a crash with Ron Brown in the former Yugoslavia. Right, he was on that plane with Ron Brown.

AMY GOODMAN: The former Commerce Secretary.

JOSEPH NEVINS: That’s right. She testified to Congress in November 1993, trying to persuade them to pass NAFTA, and here’s what she said. I’ll just read this. It’s a quote. “Responding to the likely short- to medium-term impacts of NAFTA will require strengthening our enforcement efforts along the border.” In other words, she’s saying the liberalization of Mexico’s economy would increase migratory pressures among those displaced in the name of economic efficiency. And most profoundly, this has been felt in the rural sectors.

A number of — a few years ago, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace — a team of researchers associated with the Carnegie Endowment did a study. And what they found was that between the years 1994 and 2002, about 1.3 million Mexican farmers or farm laborers had been displaced by a trade deficit that had been brought about most significantly by NAFTA. Right? So that’s 1.3 million people and their dependents who have been displaced by NAFTA in the larger process of neoliberalization which it represents.

Where do these people go? Well, they might try to go to Mexican cities, but the promise of NAFTA to greatly increase industrialization in Mexico never materialized. To the extent it materialized anywhere, it was in the border regions, but it didn’t materialize sufficiently. And at the same time, of course, many of these maquiladoras, the factories, are moving to China, so they end up coming to places like New York City, Oakland, California or rural areas of Wisconsin.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you, there’s an interesting piece by Nina Easton in Fortune, “Obama: NAFTA Not So Bad After All.” “The Democratic nominee, in an interview with Fortune

, says he wants free trade ‘to work for all people.’” She writes, “The general campaign is on, independent voters are up for grabs, and Barack Obama is toning down his populist rhetoric — at least when it comes to free trade.”

She goes on to say, “In an interview with Fortune to be featured in the magazine’s upcoming issue, the presumptive Democratic nominee backed off his harshest attacks on the free trade agreement and indicated he didn’t want to unilaterally reopen negotiations on NAFTA.

“‘Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified,’ he conceded, after I reminded him that he had called NAFTA ‘devastating’ and ‘a big mistake,’ despite nonpartisan studies concluding that the trade zone has had a mild, positive effect on the US economy.

“Does that mean [Obama’s] rhetoric was overheated and amplified? [He answered,] ‘Politicians are always guilty of that, and I don’t exempt myself.’

“Obama says he believes in ‘opening up a dialogue’ with trading partners Canada and Mexico ‘and figuring to how we can make this work for all people.’”

JOSEPH NEVINS: Yeah. It’s disappointing and at the same time hardly surprising. I mean, he’s ambivalent and ambiguous on a number of issues. So, for example, Obama says he’s against the war, and in fact he voiced opposition to the war prior to entering the US Senate, but he’s refused to vote against funding for the war. So what does that say, effectively, about his opposition to the Iraq war?

Similarly, around NAFTA, during the campaign, as you pointed out, he said some — made some strong statements critical of the agreement, now he’s somewhat backtracking. So this is an area of concern. At the same time, he has shown himself to be far better than, say, John McCain, who is one of the most sort of resolute so-called free traders in the Senate. Obama —- Senator Obama, for example, voted against the DR-CAFTA, the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement. On the other hand, in terms of the free trade agreement with Oman, he was in favor of that. So his position is open to contestation. But I think -—

AMY GOODMAN: And McCain on immigration in Arizona, where he is the senator?

JOSEPH NEVINS: Well, I mean, generally speaking, McCain — I mean, he says one thing around immigration — he presents himself as a moderate. Too many elements in the media are overly compliant in going along with that representation. The reality is something far different. I mean, if you look at McCain’s website, for example, on immigration and boundary enforcement, he presents the issue purely in national security terms.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about that word “security” and how it’s been used since 9/11 in referring to the border between Mexico and the United States.

JOSEPH NEVINS: Well, “security” is — it’s a user-friendly term, I mean, in the sense that it means almost anything to anyone, depending on who’s employing it. And in the case of the US-Mexico boundary, “security” has become the excuse for almost anything. While the term “security” was used prior to 9/11 to justify the buildup that began, for example, under the Clinton administration in 1994, 1995, it’s been employed to a far greater extent over the last few years.

And so, today, if you go to the US Border Patrol’s website, for example, the first thing they talk about, in terms of what their mission is, is to fight terrorism. Right? Now, what terrorists are crossing the US-Mexico boundary? There’s not been a single so-called terrorist caught crossing the US-Mexico boundary before or after 9/11, right? So that begs the question: what is the US Border Patrol doing? Well, the US Border Patrol, in the larger system, the larger Department of Homeland Security, of which the Border Patrol is now a part, are basically about — what they’re about is catching, for the most part, people who are looking for jobs, people who are trying to rejoin their families.

If I could just read one quote from the book, this comes from an article from Reason magazine. It has this incredible quote from a US Border Patrol agent, a Border Patrol agent who, by the way, is a media spokesperson, so he’s been trained by the US Border Patrol to present the best face. And here’s what he said to a reporter last year, quote: “We’re fortunate enough to be a country where there are lots of opportunities. And most of the people who we run into out here want to make that dream happen. Unfortunately, it’s our job to stop that dream. That’s what we do on an everyday basis.” So, on the one hand, the Border Patrol is saying, “We’re all about security. We’re fighting terrorism.” On the other hand, when you talk to the actual Border Patrol agents —- I mean, some of them buy into that rhetoric of security, but a lot of them understand in a very deep way what they’re actually doing, right, and that is, helping to deny people basic human rights, as this Border Patrol agent so eloquently said.

AMY GOODMAN: Continuing on electoral politics, both McCain and Barack Obama have voted to build the 700-mile wall along the US— Mexican border.

JOSEPH NEVINS: That’s right. At the same time, Senator Obama has flip-flopped a bit on that and is saying, well, he’s not so sure if he wants to build a Berlin-type wall in there or something like a virtual fence. But what he does agree with Senator McCain, and which is sort of the — and this is sort of the consensus across the Democrat-Republican spectrum, is that more security is needed. To the extent that there is a debate around immigration control and border control in the Congress, it’s one over how many additional Border Patrol agents should we have, how many miles of fences and walls should we have; it’s not calling into question of the basic war of immigrants that’s been taking place over the last few decades.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see a difference between Democrats and Republicans overall, Democratic administrations, Republican, from Carter on to Reagan and to Bush and to Clinton and to Bush again?

JOSEPH NEVINS: Well, what activists and people like Timothy Dunn, a sociologist who wrote a great book on the US-Mexico border called The Militarization of the US-Mexico Border

, have pointed out is that the militarization really began under Jimmy Carter, right, a Democrat. And the great intensification that we saw in the beginning of the mid-’90s began under the Clinton administration. In that sense, we don’t really see — I mean, there’s a strong consensus between the two political parties.

That said, at the margins, there are some differences. So, in the case of Senator Barack Obama, he’s been critical of a lot of the raids. He wants to see family reunification being more an important — have greater importance in the US immigration regime. I think we’d see a reduction in workplace raids and things of that sort. But, overall, I think he would continue, as would the Democrats as a whole, continue the war that we’ve been seeing.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of the media, people like Lou Dobbs, who is fiercely opposed to the so-called free trade agreements, NAFTA, but also extremely harsh when it comes to, well, what they call “illegal aliens”?

JOSEPH NEVINS: Right. Well, I mean, the role of people like Lou Dobbs has been devastating in terms of the basic human rights of migrants across the world, and specifically along the US-Mexico border. I mean, his show is basically a show about a war on migrants, despite his rhetoric when he comes on shows like Democracy Now! and says things to the contrary. He has played arguably the most important role of any single individual over the last few years in helping to fuel this criminalization, this marginalization, this, really, terror, regime of terror that’s been imposed on immigrant communities and border communities across the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think has to happen, Joe Nevins?

JOSEPH NEVINS: Well, I think we need a fundamental rethinking of the basic assumptions that underlie how we think about migrants, how we think about the US-Mexico border and our relations between the United States and Mexico and the rest of the world. As long as there’s a place called the United States and a place called Mexico, there’s going to be a boundar between those two places. That’s a given. What’s not a given is the nature of that boundary. That boundary can be a line of life, or it can be a line of death. It can be a line of inclusion, a line of connection and negotiation, or it can be a line of exclusion.

You know, in Nogales, Arizona, there’s a wall between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales Sonora, Mexico. And on the Mexican side of the wall, there’s some graffiti, and it says something to the effect: if you turn this wall on its side, it becomes a bridge. If you turn this wall on its side, it becomes a bridge. I think the goal of the immigrant and human rights community and border rights community has to be to turn these boundaries into walls — excuse me, into bridges, not walls. And that entails, in the long run, a radical rethinking of our vision of how we relate to immigrants. And at the fundamental core of this has to be a basic right to mobility in residence for all peoples, regardless of where they’re from.

AMY GOODMAN: Joe Nevins, I want to thank you for being with us on World Refugee Day. His book is called Dying to Live: A Story of US Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid. Joe Nevins is a professor at Vassar here in New York, Vassar College.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Next story from this daily show

World Refugee Day: US Criticized for Failing to Help Iraqi Refugees and Iraqis Who Aided US Occupation

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation