Why they risk their lives at the border

Gillian Russom reviews Joseph Nevins' new book that traces why so many Mexicans make the journey across the border and why it is so dangerous.

JULIO CÉSAR Gallegos was one of the over 4,000 people who have lost their lives crossing the U.S.-Mexico border since 1995. He died in the Southern California desert in 1998, trying to return home to his pregnant wife and son after visiting his father in Zacatecas, Mexico.

Review: Books

Joseph Nevins, Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid, photos by Mizue Aizeki. City Lights, 2008, 225 pages, $16.95.

In his book Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid, Joseph Nevins uses Julio's story as a starting point for explaining the historical transformations that have brought about such a deadly state of affairs. Challenging the mainstream interpretations that place the blame for migrant deaths on immigrant smugglers (coyotes), or even on the migrants themselves, Nevins explores the long-term economic and political developments that have both compelled so many Mexicans to migrate to the U.S. and made the journey so dangerous.

"How and why Julio César Gallegos's body ended up on the scorched desert terrain of Southern California is the outgrowth of many factors, contingent and structural, incidental and historical," Nevins writes. A professor of geography at Vassar College, Nevins' focus is the politics of the land we live in: "While shaped to a significant degree by physical forces, geographic space is largely a social creation in terms of what is contained within it, how it is divided up and bounded, and how it is perceived and lived. It is thus a product of power relations and all the conflict--as well as cooperation--that they entail."

Looking out over the border wall between Tijuana, México, and the U.S. (Mizue Aizeki | Dying to Live)Looking out over the border wall between Tijuana, México, and the U.S. (Mizue Aizeki | Dying to Live)

Moving backward in time to understand what led to Julio's death, Nevins explores the histories of the Imperial Valley where Julio died; the U.S.-Mexico border; Julio's hometown of Juchipila, in a central Mexican region that has been the source of many emigrants to the U.S.; and Boyle Heights, the neighborhood of Los Angeles where Julio and his family lived.

Nevins first examines the "taming of the desert"--the process that transformed the desert of Southern California from an indigenous community of 22,000, which of course spanned what is today the border, into a major site for profitable agribusiness. This required eliminating the indigenous population, irrigating the Valley, importing workers from Mexico and Asia, and establishing systems of oppression that would keep these workers subordinate. The region was named the "Imperial Valley" to entice white settlers to take part in the grand project of Manifest Destiny.

In Chapter 3, we learn about the evolution of the U.S.-Mexico border "from a mere line on a map, to a powerful divide and associated set of practices of inclusion and exclusion."

Through an aggressive war to expand slavery, the U.S. acquired 40 percent of Mexico's territory in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. But there was no federal legislation restricting immigration into the country until the 1870s, and the U.S. didn't patrol its southern boundary until the 1890s. In 1902-1903, there were only three U.S. authorities on the entire California boundary.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

BUT AN increased need for immigrant workers grew in tandem with an evolving set of ideologies that would justify immigrants' second-class status. First there was the eugenics movement, which characterized immigrants as "diseased" and "unfit for citizenship." Then there was the fear of political radicals from Mexico ("the most Bolshevistic country in the Western Hemisphere," according to congressman John Box of Texas in 1928).

Then immigrants were blamed for unemployment during the Great Depression, followed by the Cold War hysteria that led to Eisenhower's "Operation Wetback" in 1954. Immigrants were again scapegoated during the economic downturn of the 1970s and the recession of the early 1990s. The "war on drugs" in the 1980s and the "war on terrorism" today have provided further pretexts for discrimination.

In order to promote these ideologies, the U.S. government has gradually strengthened the border to draw a line between "them" and "us," even if stopping immigration has never been the goal. The underlying logic of border enforcement, Nevins explains, "is not so much to stop migration, but to define the status of people--as subordinate--once they have arrived."

Moreover, restrictions on the movement of people have increased as restrictions on the movement of capital have been eliminated. In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which eliminated barriers to trade with Canada and Mexico, was passed, and so was Operation Gatekeeper, a massive increase in border enforcement that has claimed the lives of Julio and many others.

Also critical to the story are the "push" and "pull" factors that compel so many Mexicans to make the treacherous journey to the U.S. In Chapter 4, Nevins examines how the unequal distribution of land in Mexico along with a shortage of low-wage labor in the U.S. Southwest as well as policies like NAFTA have created a situation where migration to the U.S. is the only way to survive for millions of Mexicans. Today, 15 percent of Mexico's labor force is employed in the U.S.

Finally, Nevins places the U.S.-Mexico border in the context of global apartheid, a world system in which the privileges of an elite few and the poverty of the many are both increasing, aided by mechanisms of racial exclusion and "nation-statism."

Informed by the layers of history that Nevins uncovers, we can place the blame for the thousands of deaths on the border where it belongs: on a system of global capitalism that needs workers to cross borders but also needs to keep them oppressed and controlled.

Immigrants are not merely passive victims in this story. They have been leaders in building the labor movement throughout the 20th century; they have created multiethnic communities like Boyle Heights, where roughly equal numbers of Eastern European Jews, Japanese-Americans, and Mexican-Americans lived together in the 1930s; and, most recently, they have taken a stand in the immigrant rights movement.

Powerful photographs by Mizue Aizeki keep the humanity and agency of immigrants and their families at the forefront of this important book.

679 contributed to this article.