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Immigration and Human Rights
on the U.S. / Mexico Border

Part 3: The Needs of Agribusiness

Interview with Roberto Martinez
San Diego, California
Roberto Martinez is director of the U.S. / Mexico Border Program, an immigration law enforcement monitoring project of the American Friends Service Committee. In 1992, he became the first U.S. citizen to be honored as an International Human Rights Monitor by the international human rights organization Human Rights Watch. He has been a Chicano civil rights and human rights activist for the past 20 years. This interview was conducted in 1997 in San Diego by Nic Paget-Clarke.

Soldiers: U.S. and MexicanRoberto Martinez

In Motion Magazine: So why are they spending money to put troops on the border then?

Roberto Martinez: This is political grand-standing by people like Traficant, and Hunter (U. S. Rep. R-San Diego), and Bilbray -- any one who wants to become president or who wants recognition. They are responding to a non-existent crisis.

In Motion Magazine: It takes a lot of money to put 10,000 troops on the border.

Roberto Martinez: That's right. That's part of the problem. But the real big problem is these troops were not trained for immigration or interacting with civilians. They were trained for battle. For combat. For search and destroy. The boy is an example. They left that boy out there, after they shot him. He laid out there for 20 to 30 minutes bleeding to death. They didn't have any first-aid on them. They didn't have any medics with them like they do in combat. They had to wait for the Border Patrol to call the paramedics. By then the boy had bled to death. That's the kind of people they are going to have out there on the border.

In Motion Magazine: There's a conflict between the Border Patrol and the troops?

Roberto Martinez: Supposedly. It's kind of mixed. On the one hand the Border Patrol know the soldiers are out there and they haven't said anything. On the other hand, and this is ironic, the one leading the campaign against putting the military on the border -- and I've got faxes here from the El Paso area, Congressman Silvester Reyes from El Paso -- used to be chief Border Patrol agent for the Border Patrol in El Paso. His brain child was that hold-the-line operation. He's leading the fight against putting the military on the border. He even states on his press release that the shooting of the boy shows they are not trained for that. What you are going to have on the border is military troops trained for combat, for war, to kill -- not to help or save.

In Motion Magazine: Why has the Mexican government replaced their police with soldiers?

Roberto Martinez: Because of corruption and abuses by the judiciales. You can't trust them. They are bought out easily by the drug traffickers and allowed to move freely around. The assassinations tell you that, right and left. Anybody who starts complaining or protesting or investigating the cartels, they are eliminated.

In Motion Magazine: There seems to be a lot of shooting going on in Tijuana these days.

Roberto Martinez: Incredibly. They haven't seen anything like this. I haven't. I've lived here all my life and I've never seen anything like this.

In Motion Magazine: What's with these cross-border shootings? Usually coming from Mexico.

Roberto Martinez: The suspicion of the Border Patrol and the U.S. attorney is that they are probably drug traffickers. However, they caught one guy and they say he's ex-judicial. They found him with firearms -- it's illegal to own firearms in Mexico. They found him with illegal firearms, and shells, similar to those that were found along the freeway that there was shooting from. It's hard to say.

In Motion Magazine: How many instances have there been?

Roberto Martinez: I think since May 17, there's been about six (2 month period).

In Motion Magazine: Shooting at the Border Patrol?

Roberto Martinez: Specifically at the Border Patrol.

Filling a Need for Labor

In Motion Magazine: So, there's people moving across the border for work. There's a struggle for control of drug trafficking in Tijuana. What else is going on?

Roberto Martinez: There's people wanting to join up with their families here in the U.S. I've interviewed a lot of them and they have jobs waiting. There's a need there and they are filling it. It's about jobs and family unity. One person pay get a job at the meat-packing company in Iowa, and they get calls from over there saying they need people. People even are going to Hawai'i. There's a big movement of legal workers from north county being recruited to Hawai'i. The young Hawaiians don't want to work in the fields anymore, planting and picking pineapples. They are moving up, going to college, more lucrative jobs, less dirty. So there's been been recruitment of farm workers from Carlsbad, Encinitas to go work in Hawai'i. They get free transportation, free housing, everything they need. There isn't a state right now where there aren't undocumented workers. There's a need for them.

The growers, if they had to comply with fair labor laws of the state of California, pay a minimum wage and benefits, vacations, everything they pay a U.S. citizen, they'd go broke. Here they have farmworkers that they can work as many hours as they want, or as few hours as they want. They don't pay them benefits, vacations, sick leave, insurance, medical, nothing. They just work by the hour, that's it. If they don't like it, even if they are legal workers, they are fired and replaced by an undocumented worker. You drive around north county especially along Camino Real and see day laborers often by the hundreds, waiting for work. Undocumented, and documented.

It's estimated there's at least 14,000 farmworkers in San Diego county. There's areas where you can see big groups of day laborers standing out on the corner waiting for work. Unfortunately a lot of the growers are closing shop and moving down south into Baja California, Mexico, to Rosarito. There's a big valley down there where they grow tomatoes and strawberries as year-round crops. That's where a lot of them are going. They get their labor from Oaxaca and Chiapas, all the poorer parts of Mexico. They've got huge camps where the conditions are just appalling. Comparable to what we have in some parts of north county, the migrant camps where people live out in the canyons.

In Motion Magazine: So even within Mexico there's a worker flow?

Roberto Martinez: Exploitation of the indigenous.

Discrimination in Immigration Enforcement

In Motion Magazine: Looking at immigration into the U.S. as a whole, is there discrimination in the application of the laws? A lot of people came here from the old Soviet bloc. How did they fare?

Roberto Martinez: They've assimilated. We have a double standard here. Let me give you another example. We have a long unprotected border with Canada. It's twice as long as the Mexican border -- it's almost 4,000 miles long. You don't see steel walls like we have here. You don't see stadium lights like we have here. You don't see National Guard. You don't see thousands and thousands of Border Patrol agents. You don't have Operation Gatekeeper, yet thousands of undocumented workers from Europe, Canada, from Ireland cross that border. I have Irish human rights counterparts that I've worked with up in the northeastern states that tell me that when the Border Patrol raids construction sites they take only the people who have brown skin. They tell me there are dozens of illegal Irish working on a construction site, but they don't ask them for their papers. If you are a white European immigrant you can assimilate a lot easier than somebody with brown skin who stands out. That's the racist part of immigration law.

If you get on the Amtrak here and head for Los Angeles, the Border Patrol gets on the train. The only ones they are going to question are Mexican, people who look Mexican.

In Motion Magazine: They question people on trains?

Roberto Martinez: Oh yes, for a long time now. I ride the train to L.A. They not only get on the Amtrak, they get on the trolley here going back and forth to Tijuana. They get on the buses. They are all over the place. At the airport, the bus station, they are everywhere. I see them all the time. I see them questioning people.

I had one person call me, a businessman from Tijuana who was here legally, with a visa, at the airport, and he was reading a magazine. An agent came up to him and said "Let me see your papers". "Why?" "Where were you born?" "Mexico, but I have papers." The businessman asked why did you question me. He said because you are reading a Spanish language magazine. He was so furious. But we have always been the ones who are stopped, for generations, because we are Latino or Mexican.

Part 4 - From Taking Lands to Building Triple Fences

  • Police Powers
  • "Even before 1848, lands were taken away ..."
  • Triple Fences Along the Border
  • Human Rights

Published in In Motion Magazine September 14, 1997.