INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT NEUSTADT ON BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
Today's BuzzFlash at Truthout commentary is an interview with Robert Neustadt – a professor of Spanish at Northern Arizona University - who cofounded Border Songs, a group that supports saving the lives of migrants from Mexico who often perish from the harsh desert conditions trying to make it into Arizona. You can help the humanitarian efforts of providing migrants in scorching heat with water, food and support by getting a Border Songs double CD set from Border Songs. All proceeds go directly to the humanitarian group: No More Deaths/No Más Muertes (NMD) to provide volunteer assistance such as placing filled water containers in the Sonoran Desert.
MARK KARLIN: Why do so many migrants die trying to cross into the US through Arizona? Hasn't the US created border enforcement strategies that force people to cross through a broiling desert?
ROBERT NEUSTADT: Yes, there is no question that US government border enforcement strategies have resulted in an enormous increase in border crosser deaths. In 1994, the US government explicitly adopted a strategy called “enforcement through deterrence”, which was outlined in a Border Patrol position paper. The strategy was to seal off the easy-to-cross urban areas near El Paso, Tijuana and Nogales by building walls, ramping up Border Patrol presence, adding more sensors, technology, and recently, patrolling with drones, while leaving open swaths of remote, hazardous back country. By closing the urban areas where people traditionally crossed, enforcement pushes undocumented border crossers into desert and mountain terrain in Arizona (and Texas). This “funnel effect” is clearly a primary factor that results in migrant deaths, and has been acknowledged by everyone from policy makers to humanitarians.
During the early 1990’s, the number of border crosser deaths examined per year by the Pima County Medical Examiner in Arizona varied between 5 and 11. In the year 2010, following construction of almost 700 miles of wall and a huge increase in the number of Border Patrol agents and enforcement technology, they examined 225 human remains in the same office. I find it profoundly disturbing that most people have no idea of the scope of this crisis. These statistics are all readily available and confirmable, but you have to seek them out because the media does not cover the issue sufficiently. Since 1994, they have found over 7,000 human remains in the borderlands, the majority of these in Arizona, and this number only represents the number of bodies found! The actual number of border crosser deaths is almost certainly significantly higher though the bodies were never found.
Currently, the morgue in Tucson houses over 900 unidentified human remains of presumed border crossers. Marc Silver’s documentary film, Who is Dayani Cristal (with Gael Garcia Bernal, 2013) emphasizes the severity of the issue.
This situation is a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe, and US government border enforcement strategy is directly implicated in the dramatic increase in deaths. Even more disturbing is the fact that the number of undocumented border crossers has dropped precipitously while the rate of deaths has remained relatively steady. This means that the chance that someone will die while crossing the border has sky-rocketed, and this is a direct result of our efforts to “secure the border.” This is compounded by the fact that we have deported over two million people since Obama has been in office. Many of these people will attempt to cross to rejoin their families.
MARK KARLIN: How does the humanitarian group No More Deaths/No Más Muertes try to prevent the loss of life and provide compassionate care to the survivors?
ROBERT NEUSTADT: The mission of No More Deaths/No Más Muertes is “to end death and suffering in the Arizona/Mexico borderlands.” The primary causes of death in the borderlands are hyperthermia (heat stroke) in the summer and hypothermia (freezing to death) in the winter. The lack of water in the Sonoran desert is a major problem which leads directly to death and suffering. No More Deaths caches gallon jugs of water, as well as food and blankets, on trails that are frequented by migrants.
In addition, No More Deaths has a base camp in the desert that is staffed by volunteers 24/7, 365 days per year. They have a medical tent and offer food, water, first aid and medical care to anyone in need. No More Deaths also provides care for recently deported people on the Mexican side of the border. And they interview deported people and conduct research about abuse suffered by migrants while in custody of US Immigration authorities. In 2011 NMD published a report entitled Culture of Cruelty,
in which they documented approximately 30,000 cases of reported abuse. More recently, in 2015, NMD published a report entitled Shakedown, in which they detail how authorities take the money and possessions away from migrants when they are imprisoned and subsequently deported. In the desert, NMD aims to limit death and suffering. In Mexico, NMD works as an advocate for recently deported people and tries to help them recover their money, their belongings and their dignity.
MARK KARLIN: How do our current US border policies make refugees from Mexico and Central America prisoners inside their own nations?
ROBERT NEUSTADT: First and foremost, by not recognizing that they are “refugees.” The US government does not recognize people suffering from hunger and poverty as refugees. Migrants who cross the border without documents are usually fleeing abject poverty and/or extreme violence. San Pedro de Sula, a city in Honduras, is reported to have the highest homicide rate in the world. Gang violence in Central America has reached an unfathomable level, and hundreds of thousands of people have died in Mexico in recent years since former president Calderón declared war on the drug cartels. Nevertheless, you cannot qualify for asylum in the US because of generalized violence, you have to prove that you are individually targeted because of membership to a specific group.
Many people don’t understand why migrants don’t come to the US legally. For all practical purposes, there is no legal avenue for an indigent Mexican or Central American to come to the US. You need to own a house and have significant sums of money in the bank in order to get a visa. This is just not the case for the vast majority of undocumented people that feel desperate to come to the US to work as farm workers, maids, meat packers etc.—there is no “line” to join.
Ironically, we have also made undocumented people prisoners inside the United States. Before, the US built the wall and militarized the border, undocumented migration was cyclical. Migrants would come to the US to work for a period of time, then they would return to their families and return to work, back and forth. US border enforcement has made it so costly and dangerous for people to cross the border that undocumented people now rarely risk returning home to their families. Once living apart becomes intolerable, and once they raise the funds to pay a coyote (guide), undocumented people attempt to bring their families into the US. So, rather than keeping people from crossing the border, our policies have resulted in an increase in women, children and older men who risk their lives to cross the border to reunite with family, and in an increased percentage of crossing deaths.
MARK KARLIN: How did NAFTA accelerate the need for many Mexicans with limited economic means to cross into the US despite the risks?
ROBERT NEUSTADT: The North American Free Trade Agreement, which was signed in 1994, is the biggest single economic factor that caused undocumented migration from Mexico to the US to “explode.” Prior to NAFTA, Mexico was a corn exporting country. It is important to understand that corn is central to Mexican culture. This goes beyond the fact that tortillas are a food staple--according to the Mayan creation myth, human beings were made from corn. After NAFTA was signed, the US started exporting US government-subsidized corn grown by industrial farms to Mexico. Mexican farmers with small milpas (corn plots) could not compete. The price of corn dropped 75% and millions of small and mid-sized Mexican farmers lost their land. This rippled outward to those who processed corn, transported corn, made tortillas and ate tortillas. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we started constructing walls on the border the same year that NAFTA was signed.
Experts knew that NAFTA would decimate corn production in Mexico. They said that people could switch to fruit farming or that they could take factory jobs in maquiladoras (factories owned by US companies that were opened on the Mexican side of the border). The Mexican fruit industry could not compete with Chile, and after a number of years many of the maquiladoras closed on the border and moved to Asia to take advantage of an even cheaper labor force. Many of those who came to the border looking to work in maquiladoras then decided that it was in their best interest to cross into the US rather than return to their distant homes in southern Mexico where they could no longer sustain their families.
MARK KARLIN: Can you describe the tragic irony of the Native American Tohono O'odham indigenous nation, which straddles the Arizona border, being used by the Border Patrol to monitor and detain migrants making the perilous journey across the Sonoran Desert?
ROBERT NEUSTADT: The Tohono O'odham Nation, the size of Connecticut, is the second largest Native American Reservation in the United States, though very few people have heard of them. Like many native peoples in this country, their community is plagued with difficulties such as poverty, diabetes, alcoholism, drug abuse and gangs There are very few employment opportunities.. The temptation to make money from smuggling people or drugs across the Nation is enormous for people without other options.
As you mention, the Nation spans the US/Mexico border. The Tohono O’odham have the right to cross the “border” which bisects their land, but they need to have a tribal ID card. Many do not have a card, especially those from the Mexican side. Their culture is suffering because tribal members, particularly the elders - the reservoirs of traditional knowledge and ritual - are isolated from those on the opposite side.
The tribal government receives considerable help from the US federal government, including health care and housing. For this reason, they allow the Border Patrol unfettered access to the Nation. In the words of Tohono O’odham humanitarians, David Garcia and Mike Wilson, many O’odham, and especially the tribal government, do not want to “bite the hand that feeds them.” Additionally, many O’odham do not have documents, they were born in their homes, so they are subject to harassment by Border Patrol. It’s ironic when Border Patrol agents ask O’odham people to state or prove their citizenship status, especially when you realize that the O’odham are on their land, the place where they have lived for thousands of years. For a Border Patrol agent from Ohio or New York, a Tohono O’odham may look just like a Mexican. There have been cases of O’odham who have been accidentally deported! From this perspective, some say that the Border Patrol are the “invaders,” not the migrants.
Sadly, the Tohono O’odham Nation is the deadliest corridor on the border. Luis Alberto Urrea tells the true story of 14 men who died while trying to cross O’odham land in his gripping book, The Devil’s Highway. Tohono O’odham people would traditionally help and provide water to travelers; their name means “the desert people.” But since the tribal government does not want to bite the hand that feeds it, they forbid humanitarian groups such as No More Deaths and Humane Borders from providing aid on the Nation. To make matters even more ironic, many of the migrants who pass through the Nation are indigenous people from southern Mexico or Central America.
MARK KARLIN: You are co-producer of the “Border Songs” 2-CD set to raise money for No More Deaths/No Más Muertes. Can you detail what is in “Border Songs,” how the idea came to you and how much money the project has raised for direct support of saving lives?
ROBERT NEUSTADT: I started taking students from Northern Arizona University on field trips to the border in 2010, in fact I published an article about those trips in The UTNE Reader. My experience on the first field trip was so powerful that I came home and wrote a song called “Voluntary Return.” I played that song for my friend, singer-songwriter Chuck Cheesman, and he was moved. He already had a beautiful song called “Uphill (American Dream),” about an undocumented man in Chicago who mails money to his family rolled up in paintings. Chuck threw out the idea of making an album and donating all of the proceeds to No More Deaths. I thought it was the best idea I had ever heard.
Originally, we envisioned a small, local project. We put out a “Call for Songs” on the Internet and I got contacted by Ted Warmbrand from Tucson, who asked if we’d like to have Pete Seeger, who at the time was 93-years old, on the album. Then Ted also brought in Dúo Guardabarranco, a really important new song duo from Nicaragua, and Joel Rafael. At about the same time, Bill Carter contacted me and asked if we’d like to have Michael Franti, Amos Lee, Calexico, Sergio Mendoza and Giant Giant Sand on the album. By this time, we had a critical mass of important artists, so we invited other famous musicians like Sweet Honey in the Rock, Eliza Gilkyson and Tom Russell because they had songs we wanted to include.
As a university professor and director of Latin American Studies I also contacted writers, some of whom I knew, such as the Salvadoran poet Mario Bencastro, the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, Chicana writer Denise Chávez and the North American poet Margaret Randall. Bill Carter put us in contact with Charles Bowden. Everyone we invited enthusiastically embraced the project! We blended Randall’s poem with the work of a sound sculptor, Glenn Weyant, who plays the wall as a musical instrument. So our little project blossomed into a double cd, with 31 performances of music and spoken word about the border and immigration. It’s very eclectic, it moves between English and Spanish, spoken word and music, and it includes a wide variety of musical genres including folk, cumbia, corrido, blues, rock, Central American New Song, Americana and wall—always defending the dignity of human beings. We made 5,000 albums and we’re down to the last few cases. Soon we’ll be sold out, and will have raised $100,000 for humanitarian aid.
MARK KARLIN: How can the CD set be ordered?
ROBERT NEUSTADT: It can be ordered online. Each album purchased will send $20 directly to No More Deaths, which is enough to put 29 gallons of water in the desert! There are purchase links for two online marketers, CD Baby and Amazon.com, on our web site.
MARK KARLIN: No More Deaths/No Más Muertes is a volunteer organization in southern Arizona. What can other people concerned about the draconian US border policy do to change the nation's attitude toward and treatment of migrants?
ROBERT NEUSTADT: Well, my first answer is always to buy Border Songs and to gift it to your friends, colleagues and family! One of our goals is to raise money for No More Deaths and the other is to raise awareness by getting the album out there. There are a number of NGOs doing terrific work on the border (for example, the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, Derechos Humanos, Humane Borders, the Kino Border Initiative, Samaritans, the Sierra Club Borderlands Campaign) and all of them need donations. Talking about this stuff and getting the word out, on social media, for example, is really important. The Border Songs Facebook page shares lots of relevant articles. As I said before, I don’t think many people have any idea just how grave the situation is. Once we can raise awareness on a massive scale then, hopefully, we can make some political in-roads. In the meantime, I continue to put my energy into humanitarian aid because the political machine is deeply compromised by powerful economic interests.
MARK KARLIN: In the brochure that is provided with “Border Songs,” it is stated that, “Our government has spent billions of dollars to secure the border and, in so doing, has created environmental and human devastation.” How could that money be better spent aiding migrants in need?
ROBERT NEUSTADT: I don’t have all of the answers but it’s clear to me that our government is and has been on the wrong track for a long time. We’re currently spending $18 billion a year on border security and enforcement. Instead of sinking all of that money into enforcement, which doesn’t work and is causing untold death and suffering, why don’t we invest the money in the Mexican and Central American economies so that people don’t feel the need to migrate in the first place? And let’s be honest, our economy needs workers, so how about we allow people to enter legally with work visas?
Unfortunately, these questions have answers. The for-profit prison industry is making billions of dollars off of the criminalization of undocumented people. The border industrial complex is making billions of dollars building and maintaining walls, and selling drones, sensors, and security technology, boots, Billy Clubs, Tasers, guns, trucks, uniforms, you name it! The system is working splendidly for a group of people who are profiting, and I think that explains why we continue to expand this tragic border enforcement strategy.
MARK KARLIN: I have read that anti-immigrant vigilantes cut open water jugs left for migrants facing death due to thirst in the desert. I've also read that some other border residents object that No More Deaths is contributing to the debris and also “encouraging” migration. Your response on bordersongs.org is chillingly true: “That said, isn’t it preferable to find empty water jugs (i.e.,trash from water that may have saved a life or lives) than a corpse?” Given the harsh and xenophobic anti-immigration laws in Arizona, where you are located, some people don't care about the corpses, is that right?
ROBERT NEUSTADT: Only someone who hasn’t been to the desert and seen first-hand the expanse that migrants cross could believe that No More Deaths is encouraging illegal immigration. The desert is enormous and migrants are by no means guaranteed to find the water left by humanitarians. Recently, between 120 and 190 dead human remains per year are encountered in the Tucson Sector, so there is just no way you can call it an “easy” journey in spite of any aid provided. No More Deaths and other humanitarian groups, like Humane Borders, Samaritans etc., are just helping as many people as they can—simply put, it is the right thing to do. The issue of trash in the desert is a red herring. It’s a low tech solution to pick up the empty bottles, and No More Deaths picks up trash all of the time. I’d rather pick up a bottle than a corpse!
As for people in Arizona and elsewhere not caring about migrants dying, these people do exist. Humanitarians routinely find slashed water bottles; we included a picture of this in the Border Songs booklet. It’s profoundly disturbing to think that some people would prefer that an undocumented person die than potentially make it into the country.
In some instances, No More Deaths has caught Border Patrol agents on hidden camera destroying water bottles, and taking blankets (though their official policy is to not touch the water). That said, I think the number of people who believe that migrants deserve to die in the desert is very limited. Most people, frankly, haven’t thought about the issue carefully. They get manipulated by quick sound bites, like “Which part of illegal don’t you understand?” and “They’re trashing our environment.” They are misinformed about the economic contributions made by undocumented people in our country, about the fact that they do pay taxes and social security without benefitting from social security benefits. Undocumented workers are sustaining, not draining, our social security safety net.
Many anti-immigrant people swallow the fallacious “they take our jobs” argument. But I’ve had long conversations with Tea Party members and people with very conservative perspectives and ended up selling them a copy of Border Songs. We may argue about the causes and effects of illegal immigration, but in the end most people agree that no one deserves to die in the desert.