Stay Out, Stay Alive

The INS hopes the mounting death toll of undocumented immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border will keep others out. Not likely.


Ruben Martinez
June 20, 1996 11:00PM (UTC)

CHERAN, Michoacan --

Jaime, Salvador and Benjamin Chavez-Munoz set out two months ago from this small Indian town in Michoacan's highlands for Watsonville, Ca., to pick another season's crops. They never made it. The pick-up they were riding in along with 23 other
undocumented immigrants catapulted off the highway in a high-speed chase with the U.S. Border Patrol. The three brothers and five others were killed in the crash.

The accident occurred on April 6, five days after the highly publicized beating of three undocumented Mexicans by Riverside sheriff's deputies. Before the end of that month there was another fatal accident involving a truck smuggling immigrants into California. On Father's Day, three Mexican nationals were found dead, apparently from dehydration and exposure to the Arizona desert sun. At least 14 others have been found dead in the California desert since the beginning of the year.

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As the toll mounts, the numbers begin to look like body counts from a battle front. A study by the University of Houston documented over 3,000 deaths along the border in the last decade, most of them immigrants who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande.

The Border patrol hopes the mounting body count will serve as a cautionary tale for immigrants across Mexico -- a kind of
symbolic deterrent. Late last month, it initiated a campaign called "Stay Out, Stay Alive" -- the equivalent of
hanging dead bodies like scarecrows on the border fence.

Maria Elena Chavez-Munoz, mother of the dead brothers, would rather no one left Cheran for the North ever again. "I don't want any mother to have to go through the pain I feel," she tells visitors in her one-room dirt-floor house. But for others here, the North, 1,000 miles away, still represents a chance -- albeit an increasingly dangerous one -- for life. "There's just no way to feed my wife and child here," says Wenze Cortez, Maria Elena's 19-year-old son-in-law, who is all set to make a break for the United States. "What's worse, this living death or dying trying to truly live?"

"Just days after the brothers were killed, a bus carrying 80 people left Cheran for the north," says Jose Luis Macias, a public school teacher here. Macias's own family is split between Cheran and "los United." The town's mostly unpaved roads are clogged with cheap and sometimes not-so-cheap cars brought back by immigrants after stints in the U.S., bearing license plates from California, Missouri, Illinois, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Washington and Pennsylvania.

Indeed, Cheran, population 30,000, would wither away without money from relatives working in the States. Mayor Salvador Campanur estimates some $3 million comes back from the North each year in "remesas" (money orders). Roughly half the town's families still live in dirt-floor adobe brick or scrap aluminum structures, but a good number of concrete-and-plaster two-story homes, crowned by satellite dishes, line the streets.

Sergio Velasquez, an attendant at the only gas station in
town, first went north at age 16. Now 22, married and with a
daughter, he built a modest home from money he earned picking tomatoes in Mississippi, tobacco in North Carolina, watermelon in Kentucky. As a youngster in Cheran, he dreamed of owning his own bicycle. Only in the U.S. was he able to afford a second-hand one. "At least I had that one luxury, something I could call my own. Once you've tasted the fruits of your work, it's difficult to let that go."

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The Chavez-Munoz brothers' tombstone is an elegant, five-foot high
miniature of a white twin-steepled church set on a slate-gray slab --
paid for by donations that have trickled in from relatives, friends and strangers ever since the news of the accident arrived via one of the town's two long-distance public phones.

Now the family is being pressured by the local loan-shark who lent the brothers about $1,200 for the trip. "It's an insult to the dead," cemetery worker Ramiro Payeda says. He falls silent as a blast sounds from the engine of a bus grinding along the highway, headed north. Another chance to die. Another chance to live.

) Pacific News Service


Quotes of the day

There's something happening here...

"Something is going on here that's beyond politics. A lot of people have tended to draw the conclusion that we cut taxes in the 1980s, and the rich got richer. Here we've increased taxes in the 1990s, and they still got richer."

-- Bruce Bartlett, Senior Fellow at the conservative think-tank National Center for Policy Analysis, on a Census Bureau report showing that the income gap may have widened faster under Clinton than under Reagan. From "Income Disparity Between Poorest And Richest Rises," in Thursday's New York Times.

...what it is ain't exactly clear...

"My wife was here six days last week, and she'll be back next week, and she does an outstanding job. And when I'm elected, she will not be in charge of health care. Don't worry about it. Or in charge of anything else. I didn't say that. It did sort of go through my mind. But she may have a little blood bank in the White House. But that's all right. We need it. It doesn't cost anything. These days, it's not all you gave at the White House -- your blood. You have to give your file. I keep wondering if mine's down there. Or my dog. I got a dog named Leader. I'm not certain they got a file on Leader. He's a schnauzer. I think he's been cleaned. We've had him checked by the vet but not by the FBI or the White House. He may be suspect, but in any event, we'll get into that later. Animal rights or something of that kind. But this is a very serious election."

-- Bob Dole, on the campaign trail, in Bakersfield, Calif.


No internal split at Sierra Club

Environmental organization's executive director responds to Salon story

Mark Dowie's article on the Sierra Club's new President, Adam Werbach, captures Adam's spirit admirably -- but Dowie cannot seem to bring himself to admit that an organization can change, evolve, and renew itself without a bitter internal split, and with leaders old and new collaborating to define the new direction.

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During the past three years, under the leadership of Michele Perrault and Robbie Cox, Adam's immediate predecessors, the Sierra Club has dramatically streamlined its national governance structure, initiated a major project to strengthen the community outreach capabilities of its local chapters and groups, and decisively shifted its focus towards organizing and energizing the American people to act on their environmental values through the democratic process.

The American people are committed to protecting our nation's
environment for our families and our nation's future. It is the job
of a grassroots democratic organization like the Sierra Club to inform
an energized citizenry so that elected politicians are held accountable to the environmental values of the American people, not
the selfish narrow agendas of their campaign contributors.

Carl Pope

Executive Director

Sierra Club

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Ruben Martinez

MORE FROM Ruben Martinez

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