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July, 2004

Dying At The Border And Beyond
By Domenico Maceri

It's a deadly ritual. Every year several hundred undocumented workers die on the US-Mexico border as they attempt to enter our country, looking for minimum wage jobs. Although some of these people come from Central America, most of them are Mexicans. For those who make it across the border, the dangers are not over. A recent study by the Associated Press found that Mexican workers in the US are four times more likely to die on the job than US-born ones.

Because of its size, California is the state with the highest number of Mexicans who died on the job. According to the Associated Press, 725 Mexican workers lost their lives at the job site between 1996 and 2002 in the Golden State. Some of these victims were as young as fifteen years of age.

Yet, the death rates in California are lower than "new destination states" in the west and southern part of the country.

Ironically, as the American workplace is increasingly becoming safer, the death rates of Mexicans in the US are rising. From the 1990s to the present, Mexicans were about 30% more likely to die on the job than US-born workers. Now the figure is 80%, according to the Associated Press.

The deaths are accidental. Mexican workers die cutting tobacco in North Carolina, cutting beef in Nebraska, felling trees in Colorado, trimming grass in Las Vegas, and falling from scaffolding in Georgia. However, deaths are concentrated in agriculture.

Even compared to other immigrants, Mexicans are twice as likely to die on the job.

Why? Are Mexicans working in the US less safe than other workers?

Mexicans are willing to accept just about any job and ask few questions. This is particularly true if legal papers are lacking. They may be placed into jobs with little training or unsafe equipment. If they don't speak English or are in the country illegally, they are more likely to die on the job.

Job safety is not a primary concern for companies employing Mexican workers. Workers desperately need the job and the company needs the work done. Workers are considered disposable. If employers are found guilty of having broken laws, the US government may prosecute them. Yet, very little of that is happening. Limited resources and shortages of bilingual officials make it difficult to deal with the situation effectively.

Part of it may have to do with the fact that the victims' families fear bringing legal actions, especially if the immigration status is questionable. Fear of being deported forces people to keep quite.

The Associated Press study did not distinguish between documented and undocumented Mexican workers. Yet, in all likelihood, those without papers are in the greatest danger of losing their lives while working.

The dangers of dying on the job have received little attention. In the case of crossing the border illegally, both the Mexican and American governments have tried to point out the dangers. Yet, the lure of American jobs is almost too irresistible.

The huge disparity in wages between Mexico and the US is such an enticing force that people make the risky journey. Even minimum wage jobs in the US pay about ten times more than lot of jobs in Mexico. In one hour of work, someone can make as much as a full day's work in Mexico.

Imagine if Canada's salaries were ten times what they are in the US. Also imagine that there is not too much work available in the US. Would you make the journey north?

It's easy to blame people who cross the border illegally and say that even accidental deaths are their fault. Yet, the tragedy is that deaths can be prevented. Raising safety standards for all workers should be a priority. However, with a Republican president and Republican majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate, the focus is on supporting companies rather than workers.

Immigration reform is absolutely necessary so workers from Mexico can come to our country legally and receive the adequate protection US workers receive.

In January of 2004, President George Bush made an immigration proposal and several months later Congressional Democrats introduced their own immigration plan. While neither proposal is perfect, both address some key issues and could eventually save lives.

Unfortunately, given the highly charged emotional issues surrounding immigration and the likelihood of a close presidential election, it's highly unlikely that Congress will act. So people will continue to die as they cross the border and even when they obtain US jobs.

Domenico Maceri ([email protected]), PhD, UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA. His articles have appeared in many newspapers and some have won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications.



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