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Thursday, July 10, 2008 | Violence creates refugees, millions of them. We see daily body counts from the war in Iraq, but rarely do we read about the 4.7 million refugees caused by the war, many of them now straining to get into Europe through Greece and Italy. The great refugee fluxes in the world today — from Iraq, Colombia, Sudan and Zimbabwe, like those a few years ago from Kosovo and Rwanda — are caused by wars and violence.
One other great immigration flux is from Mexico into the United States. Though primarily caused by economics, Mexico’s escalating civil war between government and drug mafia has added to it. Hundreds of police are among the 4,400 Mexicans killed in drug violence in the 18 months since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the cartels. The cartels are going after top police commanders, aiming at panicking the people and paralyzing the government.
This adds to the rush to the border, and arrests are up — more than 9,000 illegal crossers were arrested and charged in March alone, an all-time monthly high. Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff calls his “Operation Streamline” along the border “a striking success. Once the migrants get prosecuted,” he says, “they stop coming again.”
Or do they? A report for UCSD’s Center for Comparative Immigration Studies puts things in perspective. Under Streamline, the goal in the high-traffic Tucson sector, notes Wayne Cornelius, center leader, is 100 immigration prosecutions per day. Even if achieved, those prosecutions would represent only 5 percent of migrants apprehended in the Tucson sector — to say nothing of migrants not apprehended. The report contains this statement from a migrant named Briseida, 24, from Oaxaca:
“The Border Patrol told me the first time, ‘If we apprehend you a second time, we’re going to put you in jail for two weeks. If we apprehend you a third time, it will be a month; the fourth time, three months. You could be in jail for up to a year.’ I told them, ‘Well, I just have to cross.’ No matter what, the majority of us Mexicans are going to keep trying.”
“It’s entirely premature for Chertoff to claim that Streamline is responsible for a decline in apprehensions since mid-2006,” says Cornelius; “not enough migrants have been penalized in that way to make such a difference.”
Operation Streamline also puts a large burden on the U.S. prison system. Because we are jailing so many people for non-violent crimes, led by illegal immigration, (followed by marijuana possession and DUI) the U.S. incarceration rate has reached 1 of every 99 adults, by far the highest in the world. With 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has a quarter of its jail population. The average cost per inmate is $24,000, most of it falling on the states. “We aren’t really getting the return in public safety from this level of incarceration,” comments Susan Urahn, director of a recent report on jails for the Pew Center on the States.
Based on over 3,000 interviews with Mexican migrants from four different Mexican states, Cornelius’ data show that there has been no change in the success rate of would-be crossers since Streamline went into effect. Neither more arrests nor the border fence, which began in 1993, has deterred migrants from crossing the border, a tendency bound to increase as Mexico descends deeper into drug-related violence. Only a policy aimed at creating jobs in Mexico and denying jobs to illegal migrants from Mexico will be effective.
Mexican migration is different from the other great migratory waves because its historical cause has not been violence. The worst crisis in this hemisphere is caused by Colombia’s civil war. With some 500,000 refugees clustered along borders with Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Panama, Colombia’s problem is the world’s fourth worst, ranking behind Iraq, Sudan and Zimbabwe.
Unlike Mexico, the Colombian government — as it showed again last week with the daring rescue of 15 hostages — has the upper hand. Mexico’s police and army have a history of corruption and collaboration with the mafia unknown in Colombia. Many of the hundreds of Mexican police killed recently have been targeted — and even murdered — by other police. A few years ago, Mexico’s top anti-drug czar, Army Gen. Jesus Gutierrez, was arrested and convicted for being a ring-leader of one of the leading cartels.
The migrant problem in Europe dwarfs anything in the Americas. The Aegean, Adriatic and Mediterranean Seas are crisscrossed permanently by coast guards from Greece, Italy, France and Spain in an attempt to stop the exodus of refugees from conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan. Iraqi and Afghan refugees passing through Turkey pay hefty fees to local passers to land them on Greece’s Aegean islands. Athens reported last year picking up 10,000 refugees from the islands of Lesbos, Samos and Chios, closest to Turkey, three times more than the year before.
Italy has established a huge migrant camp at Lampedusa, once a sleepy tourist island halfway to Tunisia. Today, Lampedusa is Europe’s major refugee depot, with hundreds of people arriving from Africa daily. Italy has drawn criticism from the U.N. Refugee Agency for failing to distinguish between refugees and migrants, and for returning planeloads of people weekly to Africa without giving proper hearings to establish if they are legitimate political refugees.
It is sometimes a fine line between economic migrant and political refugee. The United States, for political reasons, has determined that all migrants from Cuba to Florida are political refugees but failed to accord the same right to all Nicaraguans and Salvadorans arriving during the Central American wars of the 1980s. Mexicans are currently all rejected as economic migrants, but that could change as violence escalates in Mexico.
The Europeans are better equipped to deal with migrants because of their identity card systems. No work papers means no work. In the United States, ID cards should be a priority for the next president. The McCain-Kennedy immigration bill included an ID card provision, but John McCain, as born-again conservative, now rejects it. Barack Obama supports the idea, creating the ironic situation of supporting a bill that one of its co-authors now opposes.
James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Submit a letter to the editor here.