Monday, April 29, 2013

Choi: The Death of Arizona, 1990-2013

The death of Arizona: 1990-2013
Hailey Choi
29 March, 2013

Immigration has been a constant in United States history and there has always been an immigrant workforce in the American working class. In the nineteenth century, for example, an explosion of immigrant labor from Europe—first northern and western Europe, and then southern and eastern Europe—came to cities like New York and Chicago for new economic opportunities. Meanwhile, various immigrant populations moved to the U.S. West, with the Native Americans and Chinese serving as the first large immigrant workforces and then Japanese, Hindus, and Filipinos following after them. In the late 1800s and early 1900s Mexicans migrated to the United States in greater numbers, and today Mexican-origin people remain a major part of the agricultural labor force in the U.S. West and Southwest. This paper will focus on Mexican immigration to U.S and specifically the state of Arizona in the modern period of 1990 to 2013. Though arguments exist against this Mexican immigrant workforce for taking jobs away from Americans, there is evidence that points to the contrary—that immigrants are an important part of the U.S. working class because they are actually providing a labor force where there is a shortage of willing American laborers. However, in Arizona, immigration has come with a price for Mexicans. With various immigration restrictions put in place by NAFTA, the economic disparity between the U.S. and Mexico, and heightened border security, those immigrants without documents seeking work in the United States face more dangerous and isolated migration routes, which has resulted in many deaths in the Arizona desert.
Many U.S citizens hold a negative view of undocumented Mexican immigration to the United States because they believe these immigrants are taking jobs meant for Americans. For example, in West Virginia, although they have a lower rate of immigration than other states, a poll in December of 2005, Survey showed that 60 percent of respondents believed that “immigrants take jobs away from Americans”.1 Yet this is because of U.S. employers, who are eager to pay undocumented immigrants cheaper wages and give them priority over American workers who would demand more in terms of wages and working conditions. The 2006 documentary film “Crossing Arizona” shows how certain U.S. citizens have tried to fight back and urge politicians such as Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo to tighten the border and prevent further illegal immigration.
Arizona, a state that lies along the southwestern border of the United States and Mexico, has become one of the most popular points of entry for undocumented Mexican immigrants in the past two decades. During the decade of the 1990s, when approximately 80-85% of the half million Mexican migrants moved into U.S without documents, the foreign-born population in Arizona was 245,823.2 However according to US immigration, during 1990 and 2000 Arizona gained almost 380,000 immigrants including both legal and illegal migrants from all other nations. 3 In the year 2000, there were approximately 283,000 unauthorized immigrants, an increase of 222% since 1990 according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).4 During the first decade of the 2000s the foreign-born population in of Arizona jumped to 271,974. 5 Today, the total immigrant population of Arizona is 856,663 making it the state with the eleventh-largest immigrant population.6
There are two main factors that have pushed Mexican immigrants to enter the United States unauthorized and risk their lives by crossing the dangerous Sonora Desert of Arizona. First, there is tight border control in other regions of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. “Operation Hold-the-Line” in El Paso in 1993, “Operation Gatekeeper” in San Diego in 1994, “Operation Rio Grande” in South Texas in 1997, and “Operation Safeguard” in Tucson sector in 1999 all contributed to immigrants being forced to use different and more dangerous migration routes in order to escape border authorities.7 In effect, the heightened militarization of the border has not stopped immigration from Mexico and it has only funneled it through more dangerous paths and places, including Arizona’s Sonora Desert.
The other factor motivating migration is the economic situation between the United States and Mexico. In Figure 1, although both countries’ GDP per capita is increasing, the disparity between the two countries is also increasing. Furthermore, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, hourly wages in Mexico (measured in U.S dollars) were 5.70 in 2009 and 6.48 in 2011. In contrast, hourly compensation in the U.S was 34.19 in 2009 and 35.54 in 2011.8 This lack of an adequate living wage in Mexico and the economic attraction of U.S. wages encourage Mexican migrants to try to cross the border to earn more money.
Another significant reason that Mexican migration to the U.S continues to happen is the institution of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, in 1994. Negotiated between the U.S., Mexico and Canada, NAFTA made many workers in the agriculture lose jobs in Mexico. This was because the tariff barrier between the U.S and Mexico was removed, making U.S. agricultural imports into Mexico much cheaper than Mexican-grown crops themselves. This impacted smaller farms in Mexico because they produced far less than U.S. farms that are highly mechanized.9 In contrast to the U.S. where the farming population is less than 2%, Mexico has a considerable farming population and the majority of these people lost their jobs due to NAFTA.10 According to the World Bank, after NAFTA was negotiated in 1994, the GDP per capita of Mexico in current U.S dollars dropped down to 3,107 in 1995 and 3,547 in 1996 compared to 4,650 in 1994. In addition, the total unemployment of Mexico increased to 6.9% in 1995 and 5.2% in 1996 compared to 4.2% in 1994. Therefore it is not just Mexico that is responsible for modern immigration, but the United States as well for being a major trade partner and negotiator in NAFTA.
As unauthorized migrant workers join legal migrant workers in the U.S. working class, many residents of the state of Arizona assume that Mexican migrants are taking jobs away from Americans who deserve them. Likewise, in other states, politicians like Colorado Republican Representative Tom Tancredo insist that immigrants are “taking jobs that Americans could take”.11 However, one can argue that this statement is false. Today, immigrants are accepting most of the jobs in agriculture, a sector of the economy in which there is a shortage of American workers. In the case of Arizona, Mexicans began to migrate to Arizona from the early 1990s to get jobs in the area of “construction, copper, citrus, cattle and cotton”12 In addition, Sectoral Share in Arizona, 2011 data shows that agriculture GDP is 0.9% in Arizona which is the lowest percentage among other sectors and employment is 1.3%.13
In addition to the disturbing stereotypes and xenophobia exhibited by some U.S. citizens toward unauthorized Mexican migrants, another disturbing trend has been the growing numbers of migrant deaths in Arizona’s Sonora Desert as they attempt to cross into the United States. Sonora desert is dangerous because of scorpions, rattlesnakes and up to 120°F temperatures in the summer.14. Mexican migrants die while crossing the border because of long exposure to heat and dehydration during the daytime, and hypothermia during the cold nights.15The number of migrant deaths increased dramatically in the decade of the 2000s and continues to increase. According to the Arizona Daily Star, the approximate number of migrants who have died attempting to cross the U.S-Mexico border is 77 in 2001, 147 in 2002, 196 in 2003, slightly decreased in 2008 as 189, but increased to 249 in 2010 again. The majority tends to be men (85%), and people between the ages of 20-29 made up 25.9%, or one-fourth, of recorded migrant deaths.16
U.S citizens view these Arizona migrant deaths in different ways. The documentary film “Crossing Arizona” feature humanitarians who insist that the human rights of migrants, no matter if they are authorized or unauthorized, entitle them to water stations along their journey. On the other side of the debate, many people argue that offering humanitarian aids stimulates further migration, and they support those politicians who insist on tighter border enforcement. Some groups, like the Minutemen, have even become vigilantes and voluntarily serve as a kind of “border patrol” force for the state of Arizona.
The issue of immigration has consistently been debated throughout U.S. history every time a new immigrant population gets absorbed into the American working class. During the Great Depression of the 1930s Mexicans and Mexican Americans alike were deported for being one of the biggest perceived immigrant “threats” and a drain on welfare relief. In modern times, we are again seeing this targeting of Mexican-origin people as “aliens” and the ones to blame for taking Americans’ jobs. As the U.S. government tightens border security even further through laws such as SB 1070 in Arizona in 2010, it will lead Mexican migrants from the Sonora desert to even more perilous areas and the vicious cycle of history will continue.
Figure 1.
1 John B. Judis, “Border War: The fight over immigration is a fight over identity,” The New Republic Magazine, January 16, 2006.

2 Steven A. Camarota, “Immigrants in the United States, 2010: A profile of America’s Foreign-Born Population,” Center for Immigration Studies. Last modified August 2012,

3 Immigration to Arizona,”

4 Ibid.

5 Steven A. Camarota, “Immigrants in the United States, 2010: A profile of America’s Foreign-Born Population,” Center for Immigration Studies. Last modified August 2012,

6 Ibid.

7 Stephanie Lawrence and John Wildgen. “Manifold Destiny: Migrant Deaths and Destinations in the Arizona Desert.” Growth and Change 43, no. 3 (2012):482-504.

8 “International Labor Comparisons”, Bureau of Labor Statistics,

9 Stephen W, Hartman , 13

10 Whitaker, Julie, 370.

11 John B. Judis, 16.

12 John B. Judis, 16.

13 “Industrial Composition”, Arizona Indicators, last modified January 5, 2013,

14 Stephanie Lawrence, John Wildgen, 483.

15 Whitaker, Julie, 366.

16 Stephanie Lawrence, John Wildgen, 483.

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