CVIndependent

Mon02242020

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

A month after being inaugurated, Gov. Gavin Newsom used his State of the State speech on Tuesday, Feb. 12, to make his strongest showing yet that Jerry Brown is no longer in charge.

He proposed scaling back two of Brown’s legacy projects—a high-speed train and a pair of tunnels to move water from north to south. He rescinded Brown’s deployment of California National Guard troops to the Mexican border. He voiced support for education and housing policies from which Brown stayed away.

All leaders want to distinguish themselves, so it’s no shock that Newsom is carving his own path. California’s last several governors took office vowing to right the perceived wrongs of their predecessors. Brown himself, in his first term, was a change agent.

But they were Democrats replacing Republicans, or vice versa. Newsom is the first Democrat to follow a Democrat into the California governor’s office in more than a century—and the friendship between the Brown and Newsom families goes back generations. That creates a challenge that other recent governors have not faced: Newsom must pay homage to the legacy of his predecessor while also establishing his own vision.

It’s not an easy needle to thread—as evidenced by Newsom’s response when asked if he is breaking away from Brown’s course:

“We’re building on a lot of the work that’s been done,” he said in a brief interview after the speech. “We’re just being more sober about it, more deliberative about it, more focused and more transparent.”

At this early stage in his governorship, here are five key ways Newsom is differentiating himself:

Border Patrol: Early last year, President Donald Trump asked border-state governors to beef up their National Guard troops along the Mexican border. Brown responded by saying California troops wouldn’t enforce immigration laws or “build a new wall.” But he agreed to add 400 troops, saying they would focus on combating transnational crime.

Newsom rolled back Brown’s order this week, reassigning most of the troops from the border to areas threatened by wildfire and illegal marijuana grows. Those remaining at the border “will focus on stopping criminals smuggling drugs and guns through existing border checkpoints,” Newsom said in his speech. “This is our answer to the White House: No more division, no more xenophobia and no more nativism.”

High-speed rail: Since his first stint as governor in the 1970s, Brown has advocated for a new high-speed train to connect northern and southern California. He took steps more recently to support the project by negotiating funding for it from California’s signature climate change program. “I make no bones about it,” Brown said last year. “I like trains, and I like high-speed trains even better.”

Newsom said Tuesday that he has “nothing but respect for Gov. Brown’s and Gov. Schwarzenegger’s ambitious vision.” But he derided the current plan for a train from San Francisco to Los Angeles, saying it “would cost too much and take too long.”

Instead, Newsom embraced a more limited rail line, from Merced to Bakersfield. He also announced a new chairman for the rail authority, Lenny Mendonca, and a plan to post rail spending publicly online, a step meant to hold the administration accountable for cost overruns.

Republicans, long opposed to the new train, welcomed Newsom’s tack. State Sen. Shannon Grove of Bakersfield, who will soon take over as the Senate Republican leader, thanked Newsom for scaling back the project and making spending on it more transparent. “That was very responsible,” she said. “I’m pleasantly surprised.”

Water: Newsom also wants to scale back Brown’s controversial plan to carve two massive tunnels through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to move water to Southern California. Instead, as he said during the campaign and reiterated in his speech, he wants to build one tunnel.

The idea was quickly embraced by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who said he’s “been skeptical of the two tunnel approach for a while. Rethinking it and retooling it makes a lot of sense.”

To help carry out Newsom’s vision, the governor appointed a new chair for the state water board, replacing Brown’s pick, Felicia Marcus, with his own: Joaquin Esquivel.

Education: When it comes to keeping track of how students are performing at California public schools, Newsom and Brown have very different views. Brown repeatedly rejected the idea of developing a database to track student performance over time, saying he disagreed with a focus on test scores and feared the data could be abused to support prejudice. Newsom is embracing a long-term student database as a way to measure which programs advance student learning.

“We need clear and achievable standards of transparency, more information sharing, and accountability for all public schools,” he said.

Newsom used the speech to announce his pick to lead the state Board of Education, naming Linda Darling-Hammond to the post. A former Stanford professor, she is an expert in teacher training and has chaired the state’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing for the last eight years.

Housing and homelessness: Tackling California’s extraordinarily high cost of housing—and the related epidemic of homelessness—was never a top priority for Brown. Even as he left office, he said he didn’t think there was much the state could do make homes more affordable.

Newsom wants to change that by holding cities accountable for building affordable housing. He already sued the city of Huntington Beach for not building enough, and said in his speech that he wants to meet with 47 other cities that aren’t meeting their housing requirements.

Newsom also announced that he is establishing a new commission on homelessness, to be led by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Alan has now lived in the Coachella Valley for 17 years, ever since he was 17 years old.

Even though he has always worked hard and played by the rules—at least the rules that aren’t stacked against him—he doesn’t want his last name used in this story. The reason: Both he and his wife are undocumented immigrants. They have a son, 10, who is a U.S. citizen by birth.

“Since President Trump has been in office, we have seen all the anti-immigrant statements and all the news coverage on TV of what’s happening,” he said. “We’ve been afraid to go out and go about our normal life routines, because if a cop stops us, they will call the immigration (agents), and we will be taken away.

“We’re very uncomfortable, and it is not easy for us to live every day. We always have to be looking behind our backs.”

The government under Donald Trump seems to be quite proud of such discomfort. On Feb. 16, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a news release stating that the agency’s personnel had arrested 212 individuals for violating federal immigration laws, and had served 122 notices of inspection to businesses in the Los Angeles area. On March 16, another ICE news release trumpeted the arrests of 115 individuals in San Diego and Imperial counties, again for violating federal immigration laws. On June 14, yet another ICE news release announced the arrests of 162 individuals in Los Angeles and surrounding counties, including 15 people in San Bernardino County, and 12 here in Riverside County.

Yet another ICE news release, from May 14, proclaimed that between Oct. 1, 2017, and May 4, 2018, Homeland Security had opened some 3,510 worksite investigations, and had made 594 criminal and 610 administrative worksite-related arrests. Compared to the entire previous fiscal year, ending Sept. 30, the number of investigations had more than doubled—and the number of arrests had quadrupled.

Anyone believed to be in this country illegally is fair game. “ICE does not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement,” ICE Director Thomas Homan said in a statement. “All those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.”

It’s clear: Not only is the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration violations intended to identify and remove convicted criminals from American society; it’s also designed to create a climate of fear in the daily lives of all undocumented immigrants—including many of our neighbors here in the Coachella Valley.

“The U.S. Border Patrol has jurisdiction over our streets and our community; that’s why immigration has always been a problem, and our community continues to be at risk,” said Luz Gallegos, the community programs director for TODEC Legal Center, an organization with offices in Perris and Coachella which seeks to empower disenfranchised immigrant communities, according to its website. “But what has changed lately is that a lot of the rhetoric is creating more fear, and all of the political division at the federal level is really impacting people at the grassroots level.”

This rhetoric has brought out a lot of hate—and it’s plaguing both undocumented and documented immigrants in our community, Gallegos said.

“We hear from students what they are going through in their schools,” she said. “Even kids are emboldened to talk on their hate, saying things like, ‘Go back to Mexico!’ and calling them wetbacks. We see that people now feel empowered to speak out about feelings they’ve carried their entire lives.

“Having grown up here for my whole life, as a child, we heard that the KKK would gather in Rainbow (in northern San Diego county), and we always feared the KKK growing up. Back then, we didn’t know who they were, because they wore robes and covered their faces, but now, you really know who these people are, right? People are coming out, and now we can really see where people stand.”


Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia represents the state’s 56th District, which includes much of the eastern Coachella Valley. He said the hatred being openly expressed toward immigrants ignores the valuable contributions they make to our community.

“It’s important to highlight just who we are talking about,” Garcia said. “We are talking about people who work in very significant and important industries to the Coachella Valley economy—folks working out in the farming fields of the eastern Coachella Valley who are putting food on people’s tables, along with the men and women who make up a large part of the hospitality and service industry that is essential to our economy in California. So we’re talking about just putting a face to the subject. These are the working people who help drive the economic engine of our region.”

Megan Beaman-Jacinto is an immigration-rights attorney, activist and candidate for the Coachella City Council.

“A lot of things that this president has tried to do against immigrants have not been able to proceed, like trying to end DACA,” Beaman-Jacinto said. (DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, allows some younger people who came to the United States without documents to stay and work legally in the U.S.) “But other things have happened—things like people being denied immigration benefits at higher rates now (than under previous administrations). And (President Trump) is trying to pass new regulations that will make it harder for even permanent residents to become citizens if they used certain public benefits, even legally, in the past.

“Every day, almost, there’s a new attack on immigrants—and the media’s exposure of that is definitely having mixed results. On the one hand, it’s great that people are finally seeing this and paying attention when they didn’t before. But on the other hand, for people who are personally impacted by it, it is really stressful to see all the time, everywhere you look. I went with some clients to a citizenship interview a few weeks ago in the immigration offices in San Bernardino. In that lobby, there are two TVs, and they’re always on CNN. So the whole time we were waiting there, it was like, ‘Trump says this about immigrants, and Trump says that about immigrants and this about the immigration department.’ … I’m thinking, ‘Well, at least my client is about to become a citizen,’ but who knows what other status everyone else in that room has? That’s really terrifying if you’re one of the people directly impacted, and it goes on nonstop.”

The nation’s immigration system has been broken for a long time, since long before Donald Trump became president. In fact, some immigration activists referred to President Barack Obama as the “deporter-in-chief” due to his administration’s high number of deportations.

However, the intensity of the rhetoric is indeed new.

“Now you get an administration that begins to utilize the state of fear—(saying) that illegal immigration is taking over, that illegal immigration is the reason for increases in violent crimes. … ‘They are rapists, murderers, etc., etc., etc.,’ Garcia said. “The fact that we still remain with no comprehensive immigration reform policy creates a huge level of uncertainty for a lot of people in this country, in California and in the Coachella Valley.

“I’ve got to imagine that this type of fear-mongering has disrupted our economy to some extent. Perhaps people are not presenting themselves for work. Perhaps the kids are not showing up at school. (There’s a) decrease in the number of people who want to access health-care services due to the concern that they may be ‘outed’ for being here undocumented. I would even argue that our public-safety services suffer, because the cooperation between our residents and law enforcement is impacted negatively. For instance, a victim of crime or a witness to crime, who might be here undocumented, might not be willing to cooperate with law enforcement. So it’s a very huge issue, and it goes back to the inability of a U.S. Congress and an administration to put together what would be a comprehensive immigration policy that would bring about certainty for the people in our valley, our state and in our country.”

Gallegos said she and her colleagues at TODEC have seen the damage this rhetoric is causing.

“There is a lot of fear out there, and (at TODEC), we believe that our role is to educate the community,” Gallegos said. “But that fear still exists, and it even impacts our local economy. We talk to the farmers in the east end of Coachella Valley, and they tell us they’re concerned that they are losing their workforce. The stores, like Cardenas, tell us that they’ve lost a lot of business because of this whole fear factor. It’s affecting our community and the local economy.”

The hyper-politicization of the immigration issue has also led to another type of fear—a fear of speaking out. The Independent reached out to numerous agricultural and retail businesses, and they all declined to go on the record for this story.

The same thing happened when we tried to talk to valley health-care providers about the effects ICE enforcements have had on immigrants seeking treatment and services: Only one person agreed to go on the record, and that was Doug Morin, the executive director Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine, an organization in Indio that offers no-cost health care to adults who are uninsured or underinsured. He said his clinic has noted a substantial and ongoing decline in patient visits since the Trump administration took office in January 2017.

“I would say we’re still 20 percent below the number of patient visits we had during the pre-Trump days,” he said.

The decline has continued despite a concerted effort on the clinic’s part that included hiring an outreach specialist to make door-to-door contact with underserved populations to assure them that both they and their personal information would be safe if they came to get medical attention.

“We even changed our fliers that we had out for patient recruitment,” Morin said. “They used to just say, ‘Your health is our number one concern,’ and now it says, ‘Your safety and your health is our number one concern.”


So … where do we go from here? After all, Trump’s four-year term is less than half over, and there’s no hint that his administration will ease up on either the enforcement actions or the rhetoric anytime soon.

“We tell community that ‘our faith will keep us strong,’” Gallegos said. “There are a lot of young people coming up who want to make change. They see how this uncertainty and fear is impacting their family, friends and (everyone’s) mental health, and they’re taking it very personally. We tell them, ‘We have to continue resisting—and the way you’re going to resist is go to school. Finish your high school; go to college; and be a professional. You will prove everybody wrong,’ and that’s what our kids are doing. They are people of character, with morals and compassion. It’s become personal to them.

“Most importantly, we tell them to make sure to vote because that’s the way you create change.”

Garcia said some actions can be taken on the local and state levels.

“It is a federal question, but you know, states have rights,” he said. “When we have an emergency in California—as we’ve seen in recent months with the fires, the droughts and other natural disasters—we have the ability to declare a state of emergency and have the federal government support that position via policy and/or resources needed to address that emergency. In California, I believe that the issue of labor shortages in very specific industries that are highly occupied by immigrants could be considered such an emergency. I think that in itself is reason to work as a state in addressing our labor needs. These labor shortages are having a significant impact on our local economy right now—and not addressing the immigration issue ties into this threat very closely.

“I made an effort this past year to exercise that states’ right and develop a working group (in the state Legislature), that would ultimately need the blessing of Homeland Security and the federal government, to put together a program that would bring certainty of legal status, allowing those California residents working in these critical industries to continue contributing to our economy. Also, it would address ways to ensure that people are being paid salaries, receiving benefits and having housing that are respectable by California’s high standards. Stabilizing the existing unpermitted workforce by removing their tremendous fear and giving them and their families some certainty would be the first objective, and the second would be to develop a framework that would allow for us to address the real labor shortages that exist for these industries. I just think there’s a better way to go about this than disrupting the economies of the country, state and the Coachella Valley.”

Garcia’s effort did not get very far; his Assembly Bill 1885 didn’t even make it up for a vote in a committee.

“It continues to engage a number of individuals in a dialogue,” Garcia said. “… Unfortunately, we had a lot of people who got stuck on the notion that this issue is a federal issue only. They would not look at it as an economic and labor-shortage issue in California, as well as a national food-security issue. You know, we feed a large part of the world, and if our agricultural industries see a significant decline, because we can’t get enough people to do the necessary work, then we’re looking at being dependent on other nations for our food and commodities, which should be a major concern for people from a security standpoint, a health standpoint, and because we would be supporting other countries’ practices of underpaying and undervaluing their workforces.

“So the bill did not move. Next, we introduced a resolution, (Assembly Joint Resolution) 34. The resolution took a strong position supporting the same principles we supported in the legislation, and it had bipartisan support built around a coalition of assemblymembers and senators from farming communities throughout the state. This resolution would send the message to Washington, D.C., about what California is thinking, and wanting to do, and we encouraged our federal counterparts to engage with us in this conversation. It was passed and sent to the governor’s desk. Resolutions are position papers. As a result, they are not as controversial as trying to set something in stone as a law.”

Meanwhile, Coachella Valley residents like Alan and his wife continue to live in fear.

“Thank God I haven’t had to go to the hospital or seek medical services of late, but if we had to, we would go to get medical help here. My son is attending school,” he said. “What upsets all of us the most is that we feel like we’re being held back, and we’re not able to move forward with our lives. (The federal government) now is putting all these obstacles in our way.”

Upper right—Immigration-rights attorney and Coachella City Council candidate Megan Beaman-Jacinto: “Every day, almost, there’s a new attack on immigrants—and the media’s exposure of that is definitely having mixed results. On the one hand, it’s great that people are finally seeing this and paying attention when they didn’t before. But on the other hand, for people who are personally impacted by it, it is really stressful to see all the time, everywhere you look. Below—“We talk to the farmers in the east end of Coachella Valley, and they tell us they’re concerned that they are losing their workforce,” said Luz Gallegos, the community programs director for TODEC Legal Center. “The stores, like Cardenas, tell us that they’ve lost a lot of business because of this whole fear factor. It’s affecting our community and the local economy.” Photos by Kevin Fitzgerald.

Published in Local Issues

The tacos dorados, Francisco Cantú tells me as we push through the turnstiles into Nogales, Mexico, are some of the best he’s ever had.

So we beeline through the bustling streets toward the small metal cart in search of the paper-wrapped stacks of crispy chicken tacos dripping spicy red salsa.

Cantú is the author of The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border, forthcoming this February from Riverhead Books. The book is a beautiful and brutal chronicle of the four years he spent working as a Border Patrol agent, and the years afterward, in which an immigrant friend, José, is deported to Mexico—and Cantú finds himself navigating border policy from the other end.

The book, his first, is already generating buzz; Cantú has received a Whiting Award in Nonfiction and a Pushcart Prize, and a section of the book recently aired on This American Life.

On this Monday, we’ve driven the 45 minutes from Tucson to Nogales, leaving my red pickup on the U.S. side, under the shadow of the 30-foot-tall wall that cuts through the city. We eat our tacos in a little city park. Cars stream around us, but the park itself is calm: Big cottonwoods with white-painted trunks arch over us. A few fallen leaves tick around us in the wind, as we talk about what a relief it is to slip into Mexico for the afternoon—feeling the slight shift in the rhythm of life, the tilt of our perspective.

Cantú wears yellow-rimmed glasses and has a sizeable mustache, his thick dark hair containing only a few strands of gray.

“When I first started coming to Nogales, I was in the MFA program and teaching a class to undergraduates,” he says. “I remember thinking how crazy it was that anything south of the border was not a part of their worldview.”

For Cantú, the border has always been a presence. Growing up in Prescott, Ariz., he was “close enough to it to have an understanding of it as a complicated place.” His own grandfather crossed as a child, just after the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution.

After high school, Cantú went off to American University in Washington, D.C., to major in international relations. He studied abroad in Guanajuato, Mexico, becoming fluent in Spanish. “There was always that tension between what I would read in books and what I would see when I went home or when I traveled to Mexico,” Cantú says. “My mind was always trying to connect what I studied with the contours of the place as I understood it.”

This tension eventually led him to join the Border Patrol.

“I wanted to bridge the gap between academic knowledge and real world, on-the-ground realities,” he says. But “the work ended up giving me a whole new set of questions, without really answering the ones I came in with.”

During his years in the Border Patrol, Cantú found himself increasingly haunted by the border’s violence—both of the drug cartels, and of the desert landscape itself. No matter the risks, the crossers kept coming. At night, he woke from vivid, terrifying dreams, grinding his teeth.

He was working on an intelligence field team out of El Paso when he learned that he’d received a Fulbright Fellowship. So he quit the Border Patrol and spent his fellowship year living in The Netherlands, studying rejected asylum-seekers who chose to live in the shadows after their visas were denied.

But it was his own country’s border that pulled at him. He came back to the desert. He applied to get his MFA in creative nonfiction writing in Tucson.

“I can’t tell you the gift I gave myself in choosing to be a writer and not a government employee or a lawyer or a policymaker,” he says. “I don’t have to rack my brain any longer for a solution. That’s not my job anymore.” Instead, he sees his job as deepening people’s understanding of the border.

“It’s always easier to pose the questions as black-and-white, to think about a person being someone who deserves entry into this country or not. But that doesn’t encompass the complexity of what goes on here,” Cantú says.

The conversation needs to start by acknowledging the aspects of our border policy that are causing humanitarian crisis, he says. According to the United Nations Migration Agency, border deaths jumped 17 percent between 2016 and 2017, despite fewer people attempting the journey. By early August, 96 bodies had been recovered in Pima County, Ariz.—where both Cantú and I live— alone.

“We need the courage to say, ‘That’s not acceptable,’ ” says Cantú. “We shouldn’t be weaponizing a vast, inhospitable landscape through our policy. Whether or not that’s intentional, it’s happening right now.

“It’s hard to really grasp the significance of somebody saying: ‘It doesn’t matter how hellacious this obstacle is, I will overcome it, for my family, for my work.’ No matter what version of hell you put at the border, people are going to go through it to the other side. That presents the question: Should we be then trying to make this more hellacious and more life-threatening?

“We could talk about this forever,” he says to me. “But should we get a beer?”

The bar he takes me to is called Kaos, a place he went once with a Mexican friend. Cantú never manned the Nogales border—in his work with the Border Patrol, he patrolled the remote desert west of here and worked out of intelligence centers in Tucson and El Paso—but to walk with Cantú in Nogales is to move with familiarity.

“If you want Bacanora,” he tells me, referring to a Sonoran mezcal, “I know a guy here who makes the best Bacanora. He’s in a shoe shop.”

Inside the darkness of Kaos, we pour a fat liter of cold Tecate into two plastic cups, while mariachis noodle on their guitars in the corner. As the man next to him shouts over the music, he apologetically translates for me from time to time—“His friends call him mofles! Like Muffler! I don’t know why”—and I watch his face, so open and kind, so appreciative of the place. I try to picture him as la migra, the border police.

“There are days when I feel I am becoming good at what I do. And then I wonder, what does it mean to be good at this?” writes Cantú in The Line Becomes a River. “Of course, what you do depends on … what kind of agent you are … but it’s true that we slash their bottles and drain their water into the dry earth, that we dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the border and set ablaze.”

I am not the first to wonder at the gap between what Cantú writes he has done, and his unyielding desire for a system that acknowledges the humanity of those who cross. He will later describe writing the book as a form of exorcism, an act that allowed him to atone, to make sense of his own involvement in what the border has become. It was an act that allowed him to see some of his experiences as complete, as over—even as he came to understand that, in other ways, some things are still ongoing, still a part of him.

Cantú twists back toward me. “Mofles says Tecate tastes better on this side!” he says over the music, with a wry smile. And I have to agree that it does.

On our way back to the United States, we still have room for tacos. We stop at a carne asada stand, where Cantú, laughing with the cocinero, gets the recipe. We eat as we walk, and at the last bend before the border, mopping taco juice from our fingers, we buy popsicles, paletas, for our wait in the border line: coconut for him, pistachio for me.

But the line is surprisingly empty, and we walk right through. We scan our passports; the Border Patrol agent takes a brief glance at them, and just like that, we cross the line into the United States—nonchalant, licking our popsicles, improbably powerful.

Headed north in late afternoon, I ask Cantú if driving through these green hills, across these big spaces, is different now that he’s patrolled them.

“It’s probably the landscape I know more intimately than any other,” he says. “I knew the name of every pass and peak out there, every mountain range and mile marker and wash.” He pauses. “But because of the work I did, it became impossible to drive through that landscape and think, ‘Oh, look how nice it is.’”

This land is not wild, he tells me, not in the way we like to think of it, with words like untouched and solace and peaceful. “All of a sudden, you have access to the knowledge that, 100 percent, there are groups of people right now that I cannot see walking across the same terrain that I’m looking across. There are scouts on a handful of these mountaintops that I’m looking at, that are watching everything, who are radioing people. There are human remains left undiscovered and unidentified.

“If you do this, you see the desert as teeming with this sort of human drama. And even if you go camping out there—you can totally still have the wilderness experience, can hike, and you will maybe never encounter anything other than sign of peoples’ passage. Because it’s so vast. But they’re out there.”

Katherine E. Standefer’s work appears in The Best American Essays 2016. She prefers cowboy boots. Follow @girlmakesfire. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Literature

When the Gang of Eight authoring the Senate immigration reform bill, which would be the first major overhaul since the 1980s, recently announced a new provision to create a “human wall” at the U.S.-Mexico border, tensions rose in D.C.

The move would double the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents and funnel more than $46 billion to border security in the Southwest. Since then, Arizona Sen. John McCain has said that the plans for a human wall might need to be tweaked, but an increase in border enforcement will continue to be central to the debate over this bill.

As deliberations continue, a new study for the American Sociological Review puts a new spin on the fundamental question of why there are so many (around 11 million) undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to begin with.

According to the new research, the danger of arrest and punishment at the border is not that big of a deterrent for many Mexicans considering whether to cross into the U.S. illegally. And as they weigh the decision, they have a lot more on their minds than just finding a better job. Many Americans assume that the decision to cross illegally is a purely economic one, since jobs in the U.S. often pay better. Yet values and social norms in the communities that Mexican immigrants come from may play a larger role in the decision to hop the border than previously realized. The study offers a gentle reminder—not to mention empirical evidence—that undocumented Mexican immigrants have the distinctly human trait of not being automatons.

“The view of would-be migrants as atomistic, utility-maximizing opportunists diverts our attention away from the complex and wide-ranging moral systems within which prospective migrants are embedded,” writes the study’s author, USC law professor and former Stanford research fellow, Emily Ryo.

Yet U.S. immigration policy in recent decades has been based largely on the premise that undocumented Mexican immigrants make decisions based solely on economics, Ryo says. Thus, the assumption has been that undocumented immigrants see any law as worth breaking—if it will help them earn a living. Yet a 2007 study shows that “incarceration rates for young men in the U.S. are the lowest for immigrants, especially for (first-generation) Mexicans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans—the groups that make up the bulk of the unauthorized population.” In other words, if these immigrants made decisions based solely on economics, they’d be breaking laws all over the place, even when they get to the U.S.—which they are not. Similarly, Ryo’s new work indicates that the premise that crossings are driven by purely economic factors just is not true.

Ryo found that in many communities across Michoacán, Morelos and Jalisco, when family or friends have attempted an illegal crossing before, subjects are three times more likely to attempt the journey themselves. An individual’s perception of the American justice system is also a big factor, though not in the way you might think: People who believe the system is unfair to darker-skinned immigrants are half as likely to have moral reservations about crossing illegally. Those who think the system is fair are 75 percent more likely to say they will not enter the U.S. illegally.

If Ryo’s research is accurate, U.S. policymakers could take a hint from it: Improving the reputation of our justice system could be one novel way to deter undocumented immigration. The more respect prospective immigrants have for the system, the less likely they are to try to break its rules.

The other suggestion that policymakers in Washington, D.C., might glean from Ryo’s work—and from what she says is a wider, growing body of research among academics—is that resources poured solely into apprehension at the border may not be the wisest allocation of tax dollars. (Last year, the U.S. government spent more on immigration enforcement than on all other main criminal federal law enforcement agencies combined.) U.S. investment in Mexican communities that aims to increase employment rates might be one way to deter the onslaught of attempted crossings—but not just because it may improve the economic situation in those areas. “It might make staying at home … a morally acceptable option for prospective migrants," because it could improve international perception of the legitimacy of U.S. laws, Ryo says.

Piecing together intriguing data like Ryo’s is one thing, but applying it to policy and making it politically palatable is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Tay Wiles is the online editor for High Country News, the site from which this was cross-posted. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Community Voices

Cochise Stronghold rises abruptly from the desert outside Tombstone, Ariz., a craggy nest of pink granite spires and domes. Rock-climbers like me flock to the area for its tall, coarse slabs, weird rock formations, epic sunsets and remote backcountry feel.

Although it’s never happened to me, many climbers I know have encountered tattered backpacks, energy bars with Spanish wrappers, clothing or migrants themselves, a group drawn similarly drawn to Cochise’s inaccessibility—but for obviously different reasons.

Increasingly, immigrants aren’t making it beyond secluded border areas like Cochise: New statistics released by the U.S. Border Patrol show that while fewer people are sneaking over the border than a decade ago, more are dying in the process. According to the National Foundation for American Policy, someone attempting to enter the U.S. illegally today is eight times more likely to die than approximately 10 years ago.

In the 1990s, stepped-up enforcement in border cities like San Diego and El Paso pushed immigration highways into remote parts of the desert, where, unprepared for the harsh environment or abandoned by their guides, many migrants died. (I highly recommend Luis Alberto Urrea’s fantastic book on this topic,The Devil’s Highway.) The problem has worsened as the Border Patrol has hired more officers and built more highway checkpoints between major cities, according to Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America, who analyzed the new data. In addition to staying out of cities, migrants are increasingly forced to walk further north of the border before being picked up to avoid roadside checkpoints.

For many years, Southern Arizona was the deadliest place to cross: In fiscal year 2005, nearly half of all migrant deaths occurred in Border Patrol’s Tucson sector. But the danger zone appears to have shifted to south Texas, where between October 2012 and February 2013 alone, 70 human bodies were found. (Here in California, the number of dead is actually decreasing—six known migrant deaths, total, occurred in fiscal year 2012 in the San Diego and El Centro sectors.)

Changing immigration demographics may partially explain the shift to south Texas. According to the Border Patrol, more non-Mexicans, mostly from Central America, are crossing, and because many hitch rides on freight trains that travel up the gulf coast, the Texas-Mexico border is most logical place to cross.

The crossing is becoming more violent, too, as increasingly remote human trafficking routes overlap with those of drug-smugglers. Sometimes, they’re one and the same: Meyer says human trafficking operations “are rarely mom-and-pop like before” because of how expensive and difficult the crossing has become, and are increasingly intertwined with drug operations. “Migrants are viewed much more as just merchandise,” she said, and smugglers, paid by the person and in a rush to avoid Border Patrol, frequently leave slow walkers behind.

In a March brief, Stuart Anderson of the National Foundation for American Policy offers a solution: Create more legal avenues for foreigners to work in the U.S. on a permanent basis.

“The current visa categories for agriculture and nonagricultural work are considered cumbersome and are only for seasonal work, not the type of year-round jobs filled by most illegal immigrants in the United States,” he writes. Anderson points to the Bracero Program, which helped Mexican farm laborers work legally in the U.S. during the 1950s. “When in 1954 enforcement actions were combined with an increase in the use of the Bracero program, illegal entry, as measured by INS apprehensions at the border, fell by an astonishing 95 percent between 1953 and 1959,” he notes.

Yet talk of immigration reform, to date, has focused more on getting high-skilled, high-tech workers into the country. And the immigration bill in its current form leaves out any discussion of how to make crossing safer, Meyer said, although previous reform proposals included a provision on studying migrant deaths. She'd like to see not just study, but more water caches and funding for the Border Patrol’s search and rescue team.

“You have all these people with no idea about what (crossing the border) really means,” she said. “They’re all exposing themselves so innocently to something that can be so harsh.”

Emily Guerin is the assistant online editor at High Country News. This is cross-posted from High Country News, and the author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Community Voices