clap clap blog: we have moved

Monday, May 19, 2003
Pete Hamil makes the excellent point that the best point of comparison for the trailer full of dead undocumented migrant workers might be the Irish immigrants who died on illegal passages to America 100 years ago. We figured out what to do about that problem, and we can figure out what to do about the issue of Mexican workers. In short: immigration reform.

Once upon a time, they'd have all been Irish. Their names would have been Liam or Seamus or Bridey instead of Jose and Maria and Panchito. Instead of trailer trucks, the Irish traveled in what were soon called coffin ships, jammed together in the deepest bottom decks, the air stained by the odors of excrement and urine and death. They died of hunger and thirst. They died of typhus. They died trying to get to America.
So when I read about those 18 Mexicans and Central Americans who died on the side of a road in Victoria, Tex., in a sealed trailer with New York plates, jammed with almost 80 other human beings, I hear the Irish pleading for a chance at life. I hear them begging for water and scraps of food for their children. I hear them praying. I hear their shallow breathing as the air runs out. I see them pounding in the dark, fetid air against sealed hatches, desperate to see the sky.

For the Irish are the true ancestors of last week's immigrant dead. The bones of those long-dead Irish, like the bones of so many Africans forced through the Middle Passage, are scattered now upon the vast floor of the Atlantic. Today, nobody knows their names. But we do know how they got to those unmarked graves - and why.


And the dreadful truth is this: It didn't need to happen. We have known for years that the policies governing migration from Mexico are irrational, humiliating and dangerous. Americans who want to go to Cancun simply show up at the airport and get a tourist card on the airplane. Mexicans can't do that. I've seen thousands of them lined up at the American Embassy in Mexico City, waiting for hours to go through the legal process of obtaining a visa to go to the U.S. Some eventually give up. Some go alone to the border. Each year, hundreds die making the crossing.

In February 2001, President Bush met in Mexico with Mexican President Vicente Fox, and an accord on a more rational immigration process was high on the agenda. There were followup discussions among American and Mexican bureaucrats. There was much talk that many undocumented Mexicans who had been living for extended periods in the U.S. would be legalized. There were discussions of new short-term work permits for Mexicans, a means of eliminating the coyotes from the process.

All that ended after 9/11. There was no record of terrorists crossing our border with Mexico as there was with the Canadian border. But the attempt was being made to seal both borders. All discussion of normalizing the status of Mexicans inside the U.S. ended. The Mexicans felt betrayed. In the runup to the war in Iraq, Mexico made clear that it could not be counted on as an ally at the United Nations.

Maybe it's worth pointing out that the corrolary to the "America should always have been aware of terrorism and 9/11 did nothing to change its actual status" argument is that since 9/11 didn't really change anything all of our previous policy initiatives should have continued unabated. (Except the Israel one of course, which was less a policy initiative and more a policy nap.)