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The Story of Julio Cesar Gallegos
I t was at approximately 9:00 AM on August 13, 1998 that Ralph Smith, the Deputy Coroner for California’s Imperial County, received the phone call. One hour and forty-five minutes earlier, a ranch foreperson passing through a United States Border Patrol checkpoint on Highway 86 had informed agents that there was a group of people in trouble in the desert about eight miles south of the road. Using an airplane and some agents on the ground, the Border Patrol located the group of 7 individuals, huddled together under a clump of salt cedar trees about 25 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico boundary. But they were no longer in distress. They were dead.
One of the dead was Julio Cesar Gallegos, father of a two-year-old boy, Julio Jr., whose photo the authorities found in his clutched hand. Gallegos lived in East Los Angeles with his wife, Jackie. He worked in the nearby City of Industry at a Chinese frozen food factory. The 23-year-old was on his way home from a visit to Mexico.
According to Smith’s report, Gallegos’s body, like the rest, was mummified, and so severely decomposed that his eyes were destroyed. There was no evidence on his body of any foul play. Photos showed bodies that were pitch black, ones that looked like they had been charred.
It would reach 108 degrees at the height of the day in El Centro, where Smith’s office and the local Border Patrol headquarters are located. On the desert floor where Gallegos lay, it would be considerably hotter. By 11:00 AM, as the coroner’s office was collecting the bodies, it was already 120 degrees.
How Julio Cesar Gallegos ended up dead in the scorched expanse of the southern California desert is a manifestation of two paradoxical, yet complementary trends in the age of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The first involves the ever-more intense socio-economic ties between the United States and Mexico (and beyond). The second is a U.S. boundary enforcement apparatus along the international divide with Mexico whose strength is rapidly growing.
Julio Cesar Gallegos was born on September 14, 1974 in Juchipila, a town of about 10,000 people that has many of the features one would find in many small U.S. towns in the Southwest. Cowboy and baseball hats are the headwear of choice for men and boys. As for women and girls, the clothing styles are similar to those that one sees on many streets in Southern California. Its population is, in many ways, far more representative of the geographical diversity of the United States than one would expect to find in any U.S. town of a similar size. License plates from states like Oregon, Georgia, New Jersey, Nevada, and California adorn local vehicles.
In 2002, the town’s annual fair featured, as always, a rodeo, complete with bull riding and young cowgirls doing trick riding. In this post-9/11 era, the fiesta included a public lecture on anthrax and biological warfare.
of this seemingly mundane phenomena would be noteworthy were Juchipila
not located in the state of Zacatecas in Central Mexico. Mirroring
the migratory nature of the state as a whole, it is estimated that
the number of Juchipilans living in the United States exceeds the
population of Juchipila. They are scattered all over the United
States, the largest number of them live in Inglewood, a small city
adjacent to Los Angeles.
Florentino Gallegos paved the way for Julio, his youngest child, to travel to Southern California. Now 82 years old and residing in Juchipila, Florentino first traveled to California in 1937 as a teenager. He spent most of his time working in the state’s agricultural fields, canneries, and railroad yards, while typically returning for a few months each year to his family in Mexico. Julio also wanted to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Florentino Jr. With the death of his mother, he perceived no reason to stay in his sleepy hometown, one with little economic activity.
Florentino took Julio to Tijuana, where he bought a false green card. Florentino—by that time he had long been a permanent resident of the United States—passed through the official port of entry and Julio followed behind.
Arriving in Inglewood in 1993, Julio stayed with his half-brother, Jesús, who had lived in the United States since 1965. Now a U.S. citizen, Jesús owns his own home—in Inglewood—and has a successful lawn-care business. He does much of his work in Beverly Hills.
Through another half-brother living in Los Angeles, Julio soon got a job working at a traveling carnival—one that goes almost exclusively to Latino neighborhoods in Southern California.
Soon after he started working there, he met Jacqueline Murillo. Jackie, a U.S.-born Mexican American, grew up in the Boyle Heights section of East Los Angeles. In mid-1994, they started going out and got married about a year later. In early 1996, Jackie gave birth to their son, Julio Jr.
Not long thereafter, before Julio and Jackie had saved sufficient funds to cover the costs of regularizing his immigration status—that year’s federal tax refund would have given them enough—Julio had to go back to Juchipila to take care of some personal matters. That was in January 1998. He tried to return through Tijuana/San Diego in July of that year, but matters along the boundary had changed tremendously since the early 1990s when it was relatively easy to cross without authorization. The Border Patrol apprehended him on four separate occasions. So, along with his 16-year-old niece, and a 20-year-old cousin, the “coyotes” (or smugglers), and some other migrants, they went east to the desert and crossed into California there.
A few weeks later, the Border Patrol found Julio’s body— along with those of his niece, cousin, and four others (two of whom turned out to be the smugglers).
The tragedy generated a good deal of coverage in the news media in Southern California. As has become routine, the deaths elicited official expressions of sorrow as well as outrage directed at professional smugglers for allegedly leading migrants into deadly environments.
But such official finger-pointing diverts attention from the fact that the fatalities are the inevitable outcome of a lethal political charade—one in which the U.S. federal government provides ever greater amounts of boundary enforcement resources in full knowledge that they will not significantly reduce overall levels of unauthorized immigration, but will have increasingly deadly consequences for migrants. It is conservatively estimated that between January 1995 and October 2003, over 2,700 migrants died while trying to beat the enforcement net. Despite much-touted efforts by U.S. and Mexican authorities to warn would-be migrants of the dangers of crossing, and increasing search-and-rescue missions in hazardous areas, there has not been a significant reduction in the death toll. Indeed, crossing seems to have become only more dangerous, with June 2002 being the deadliest month on record in terms of the number of fatalities.
Although crossing-related migrant deaths have long occurred—the first ones happening in the late 1800s when many unauthorized Chinese immigrants died while trying to circumvent boundary enforcement resulting from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act—there has been a significant increase since the mid-1990s. This is when the Clinton administration began to intensify boundary enforcement, promising to restore the rule of law to the border region. It was a time of economic recession as well as anti-immigrant bravado by Republican politicians and many of their Democratic counterparts eager to curry favor with an increasingly anxious electorate receptive to scapegoating of the poor, non-white, and “illegal.”
As a result, the number of Border Patrol agents rapidly expanded from 4,200 in Fiscal Year (FY) 1994 to 9,212 agents at the end of FY 2000. In Southern California alone, the number of Border Patrol agents grew from 980 in mid-1994 to 2,264 agents four years later. During the same period, the amount of fencing and/or walls along the boundary in the region increased from 19 to more than 45 miles in length, the number of underground sensors rose from 448 to 1,214, and the number of infrared scopes grew from 12 to 59. The infusion of such resources across the southern boundary undoubtedly has made it more difficult to cross clandestinely—especially in urbanized areas where the resources are concentrated.
U.S. officials predicted that the “territorial denial” strategies embodied by Operation Gatekeeper in Southern California and similar operations in the Southwest would discourage many migrants from crossing into more urbanized zones. The concerted operations, they promised, would push migrants into mountain and desert areas where they would rationally decide to forgo the risks and return home.
But although the strategy has pushed crossers away from urbanized areas and curtailed short-term and local unauthorized migrants, it has not significantly diminished the crossings by long-distance or long-term migrants. A report by the U.S. General Accounting Office from August 2001 found “no clear indication” that unauthorized crossings have declined despite the massive infusion of enforcement-related resources since 1994. Instead, migrants are relying increasingly on costly smugglers and taking greater risks. As a result, countless migrants are still successfully beating the enforcement web. But many more are also dying.
In the face of so many fatalities, U.S. officials express incredulity that migrants continue to cross. As former Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner asked upon ending her tenure in November 2000, “What drives people from one place to somewhere else, taking all kinds of risks? It’s one of the fundamental questions of our time.”
Several years earlier, Meissner had provided an answer to the question. As she admitted to Congress in November 1993 while trying to sell the benefits of free trade, “Responding to the likely short-to-medium-term impacts of NAFTA will require strengthening our enforcement efforts along the border.” In other words, the liberalization of Mexico’s economy intensifies migratory pressures among those displaced in the name of economic efficiency, which, in turn, requires an increase in boundary policing.
In addition to the migration induced by NAFTA-like forces, myriad reasons—ranging from grinding poverty at home to the profound socio-economic ties and growing inequality between the United States and its southern neighbors—explain why unauthorized migrants continue to traverse the U.S-Mexico boundary. At the same time, U.S. capital’s voracious appetite for highly exploitable labor attracts undocumented migrants, whose presence is widely accepted at the highest levels of society.
Such factors, combined with the will of unauthorized migrants to pursue their basic human rights to work, to maintain their families, and to have an adequate standard of living, make unauthorized immigration inevitable. Increases in the boundary and immigration enforcement budget will do nothing to change this. To pretend and behave otherwise is to effectively sentence hundreds of migrants to death each year.
There are vociferous critics of the boundary build-up—most prominently, various immigrant and human rights organizations, some religious bodies and a handful of academics—who highlight migrant deaths as a reason why the current strategy is wrongheaded. But more often than not they share some of the key mainstream assumptions that underlie immigration control. As a result, they almost never call into question boundary and immigration enforcement itself. To the contrary, they have often explicitly affirmed Washington’s “right” to regulate the country’s boundaries. Implicit in such calls is that boundary enforcement, if it is to occur, should not put migrants in mortal danger—at least, not to the extent that it does currently. Hence, those who criticize the new strategy for reasons of heightened migrant fatalities implicitly allow as a potential solution a radical increase in resources dedicated to boundary policing—the idea being that one could make the enforcement web so effective that migrants could not cross the boundary without authorization and put themselves in harm’s way trying to do so. Similarly, they do not forestall intense policing in the country’s interior as a substitute for boundary enforcement.
In terms of Mexico (and, increasingly, much of Latin America), the United States has helped to create the very conditions fueling out-migration, while the political establishment and business interests have long collaborated in various ways to recruit and employ undocumented immigrant labor. Such factors, combined with the historic wrongs associated with the conquest and dispossession of the land and peoples of what is today the U.S. Southwest, obligates those of us in the United States to embrace migrants from “south of the border,” not repel them. At the same time, we need to appreciate that immigration is often the result of the breakdown of political, economic, and social systems, as well as institutionalized injustice. As such, we need to work at home and abroad in solidarity with those who suffer the consequences of such instability to redress this phenomena—especially to the extent that the policies and practices of the rich and powerful in the United States help bring them about. This would prove to be a far more humane and effective method for addressing the myriad factors that lead people to migrate than continuing to fortify the territorial boundaries between “us” and “them.”
Beyond commitments incurred by historical injustices and concrete social ties, there are even larger moral and political obligations. Given the gross socioeconomic disparities and associated insecurity that plague many countries, international freedom of movement is an absolute necessity from a social justice and a human rights perspective. How, for example, can one meaningfully have the human right to work, to free choice of employment, if one does not have mobility (in a legal sense)? And how significant is the human right to an adequate standard of living if one does not have the right, through movement across boundaries, to access the resources needed to realize that standard? It is for such reasons that efforts to achieve a just world must champion freedom of movement and residence for all peoples.
On July 22, 2002, Jackie, Andrew, Julio Jr., Doña Maria (Jackie’s mother), and Tino—along with other members of their extended family—drove down to Tijuana. Catholic priests and volunteers associated with Tijuana’s Casa del Migrante, a migrant shelter, were also present. They were there to remember Julio Cesar—about four years after he left Tijuana for Mexicali. On the wall, was a cross with his name, joining many hundreds of other crosses memorializing migrants who have died since the mid-1990s while trying to enter the United States.
“I always feared that people would forget him,” his brother Tino admitted after a brief, but very moving ceremony. “Now I know that he is remembered.” Jackie cried as she thanked all those in attendance for coming. After the ceremony, the volunteers from Casa del Migrante paid their respects to the family. The first one, a young woman, embraced Jackie, telling her that she had lost her father only two years earlier.
“It’s so beautiful,” Jackie said afterwards in reference to all the crosses, “that these people have made this memorial.”
Jackie watched as Tino played with her sons, picking each of them up and throwing them in the air as they squealed with delight. Her look was one of happiness and sorrow. “I wish they had a father to do such things with them.”
Andrew—not even four at the time—had little idea why he was there. Julio Jr., then in the first grade, remembers his father and still today frequently invokes him. He already knows how to read. When he saw the words “Julio Cesar Gallegos” on the cross, he asked his mother, “Is my daddy here?”
Mizue Aizeki is an activist and freelance photographer based in Poughkeepsie, New York. Joseph Nevins teaches geography at Vassar College and is the author of Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the “Illegal Alien” and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary .
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
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BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
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VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; convention @adc. org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
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NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
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LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
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