Fear Kills


It’s impossible to read this issue’s cover story, “They Die in Brooks County” (page 8), by Mary Jo McConahay without feeling a deep sense of sadness. McConahay writes of the hidden victims of illegal immigration: the unlucky and weak who die trying to cross the border. This is an old story. We will never know how many have perished over the years beneath the waters of the Rio Grande, or the Florida Straits, for that matter. But on the Texas border the situation has worsened. Tighter security is compelling the desperate to take greater risks in pursuit of the American Dream. McConahay details other victims as well. Brooks County, 70 miles from the border, is bankrupting itself trying to deal with the dead. And a way of life is disappearing as fear and the corruption of easy money transform a once-peaceful community. The “travelers” have passed through Brooks County for generations but there is a new desperation, greater numbers, and an undertone of violence. Mexico has long encouraged illegal immigration to the United States as a safety valve for its impoverished population. As the internal contradictions in Mexico grow more severe, the valve has been cranked wide open.

The sadness is exacerbated because there are no easy answers. The best evidence for this can be found in Washington, D.C., where no sooner had a bipartisan compromise on immigration been unveiled than it was beset by attacks from the right and left. The bill has something for everybody to hate. In what presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama has called “a radical experiment in social engineering,” the legislation would move traditional immigration policy away from family reunification toward a system rewarding education and labor skills. While it could potentially provide a path to legalization for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the country, it sets a high and possibly unattainable bar. The authoritarian wing of the Republican Party bellows that the bill amounts to an amnesty, and that it does not focus enough attention on securing the border. As of this writing, the Senate has already scaled back the bill’s guest-worker program from 400,000 to 200,000. (The White House estimates that employers may actually need as many as 1 million workers.) Every day the debate rages, the likelihood that the measure will pass grows slimmer.

It is hard not to worry about the consequences of Congress not acting to fix the deteriorating situation. If lawmakers fail to reach a compromise, the demagogues and fear mongers await. It will be all too easy to project the ills of society on the brown other?incomprehensible in their foreign dialect and forced by their legal status to live defenseless in the shadows. There is palpable unease in this country right now. We know that we have yet to fully pay for these past disastrous six years, whether it’s the hatred we are nurturing with our idiotic foreign policy or the massive amount of debt we’ve accrued. Fear sells. And in the mindless stampede it promotes, civil liberties inevitably get trampled. One only had to watch the Republican presidential contenders debate in South Carolina-each trying to outdo the other in his embrace of torture and indefinite detention-to understand how the lunatic fringe has wormed its way into the heart of America.

Perhaps the greatest sadness is for the loss of our humanism. Too easily we forget about the 12 million forced into furtive lives as second-class citizens. And worst of all, we overlook the ones who have perished, their bodies bloated and bones bleached by the sun in the desert of Brooks County.