A Pan-American Nightmare: Rising Violence against Migrants

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This past August, the horrific massacre of 72 Central and South American migrants in northern Mexico brought to the world’s attention the daily violence and exploitation suffered by migrants on their way to the United States.  There is no question: migrants in their journey to jobs and loved ones in el norte confront unimaginable dangers and abuses, as chronicled in the recently released documentary The Invisibles.

While far from an isolated incident, the scale and barbarity of August’s mass kidnapping and murder demanded an immediate response. In the weeks that followed, we saw the head of National Institute of Migration step down and President Calderón unveil his Comprehensive Plan to Prevent and Combat Migrant Kidnapping. However, so far, these steps have proven to be more symbolic than substantive, leaving attacks against migrants to continue largely unabated. Earlier this month, as reported by IPS, a train carrying migrants traveling through Oaxaca and Veracruz was attacked and 20 migrants were kidnapped.  The recent rescue of some 100 Central American migrants being held by human traffickers in a banana plantation in southern Mexico is, of course, a positive development. But in a country where 98 percent of crimes go unpunished, few expect a successful prosecution of those responsible.

It’s no surprise then that migrants and advocates aren’t waiting around for the Mexican government to take action. In early November, 13 members of the Network of Committees of Migrants and Relatives of Honduras (Red COMIFAH) arrived in Mexico City to bring attention to the 800 Honduran migrants who have gone missing in Mexico on their journey to the United States. Along the way they have been searching for those who have disappeared; and so far they’ve found one person and have information on others.

However, Mexico isn’t the only place where migrants face grave dangers. Despite a decrease in U.S. border crossings, migrant deaths set a record in Arizona this past year with 252 bodies discovered in the Arizona desert. The wall, as well as an increase in border patrol presence, has forced migrants to cross over more remote and treacherous terrain, and the consequences have been deadly.

On top of this devastating human toll, these policies are costing our society precious resources in tough economic times. Billions have been spent on border enforcement, including $1 billion wasted on a virtual fence that doesn’t work. Without an immigration overhaul tied to labor demand (and addressing economic disparity in migrants’ home countries) migrants will continue to come to the United States in pursuit of economic opportunity and a better future.

No doubt, we have our work cut out for us at home—including fixing our broken immigration laws to make sure that migrants have safe, legal channels to enter the United States to fill jobs and be reunited with loved ones. But, we need President Obama to work on both sides of the border to prevent violence against migrants—and to ensure that those who do abuse and exploit migrants are held accountable. Until then, we fear that the tally of migrants who are exploited, sexually assaulted or suffer needless deaths will continue to rise.

To read the letter that LAWGEF and 25 other faith, labor and human rights groups sent to President Obama urging him to take action to prevent violence against migrants on both sides of the border, click here

Earlier this month, government representatives from around the world convened in Mexico to discuss issues of migration at the Global Forum for Migration and Development. This type of dialogue between countries is important, but while politicians talk, migrants are dying. The Mexico City archdiocese understands the urgency for action and recently called on the Mexican government to protect Central American Migrants in Mexico. “How is it possible,” the archdiocese demanded, “[that] the Mexican government is not able to come up with better strategies for preventing this human drama from taking place on our southern border? Why is it that our lawmakers have not lifted a finger to address this problem that has existed for years and is getting worse?”

It’s time for the U.S. and Mexico to each take a hard look at how their policies perpetuate violence against migrants—and then together move forward to end this human rights crisis. Politics aside, it is the right thing to do.

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