Culture of Risk

Lynnaire M. Sheridan makes a compassionate case regarding the plight of undocumented immigrants

Undocumented immigration—posing real economic and security concerns for the United States—is a legitimate subject for reasoned debate. However, there are lots of people who become enflamed over the topic, exploding like hand grenades at the thought of anyone from Mexico placing even one unsanctioned toe on American soil.

What makes their reactions so extreme? Some seem chronically pissed off about life in general; others appear to be motivated by self-righteous conviction, made doubly self-righteous by their inability to see a situation from more than one perspective. And, of course, some are simply ethnocentric crackpots.

"I Know It's Dangerous": Why Mexicans Risk Their Lives to Cross the Border is unlikely to help anyone with their underlying anger issues, but it does have the potential to expand hearts and minds about this complex and seemingly intractable problem. Written by socio-cultural researcher Lynnaire M. Sheridan, this empathetic book examines the "culture of risk" that has developed along the border, and places the experiences of a number of Mexican migrants against a background of concerned voices.

Sheridan cites a number of reasons why Mexicans migrate illegally to the U.S., including family and social pressures, medical needs, educational opportunities, the promise of citizenship, tradition and the opportunity it affords many young Mexican men for adventure and identity development. However, the biggest cause is economic, reflected by the billions of dollars that Mexican migrants send home annually. The flow of undocumented workers into the U.S. won't subside, as long as there's such an economic disparity between the two countries.

An irony that's generally missed by anti-migrant fanatics is that Mexican workers also make a large contribution to the U.S. economy, playing a vital role in the labor force and, Sheridan reports, generating enough tax revenue to offset the services they use.

Starting in the early '90s, Sheridan tells us, when anti-immigration sentiments reached a virulent crescendo (and especially after Sept. 11), the U.S. considerably tightened its southern border—chiefly around urban areas, hoping that the difficult terrain of remote regions would dissuade potential migrants. However, she writes, unauthorized immigration hasn't slowed down. Instead, crossing is now much more hazardous, and consequently, migrants often remain in the U.S. for longer periods of time.

Many of the migrants Sheridan interviewed have been coming to the U.S. since the '80s and '90s, and while none have experienced serious physical or psychological traumas, they report that crossing has become increasingly problematic. Many are now living permanently in the U.S., and, Sheridan learns, cross-border family networks are a significant aid to migrants, helping them get established in the U.S. and, more importantly, secure safe and reliable coyotes to facilitate border passage.

Sheridan writes that while the Mexican government sees unauthorized migration as an economic "safety valve" and appears more interested in placating the U.S. than actually solving the problem, it has established programs to help migrants. However, she says, Mexican media and activist groups have done a great deal more to draw attention to the migrant's plight.

Perhaps the most strident voices come from artists and musicians. Sheridan focuses on the grimly provocative art along Tijuana's border wall that warns—with its blood, crosses, skulls, coffins, skeletons, dismembered bodies and crucified migrants—that the American dream may very well be a lethal illusion. She also examines the music of two of Mexico's most popular bands, Los Tigres del Norte and Molotov. The ballads of Los Tigres often tell humanizing stories of faith, suffering and death along the border, but the rock band Molotov's scathing indictment of racism, hypocrisy and political collusion in their song/video "Frijolero" has the power to blast a hole in even the most fortified presuppositions. With its depiction of George W. Bush and the devil hugging former Mexican President Vicente Fox as oil barrels and bombs rain down like pernicious confetti, "Frijolero" leaves little doubt about the rage that many Mexicans feel toward the U.S. and their own government.

While there are no solutions forthcoming from this book, it does affirm that greater understanding can lead to deeper compassion.

"It is sad," says Patricia, a migrant from Irapuato, "because I didn't come to steal from this country, but to work, to get ahead. ... You endure a lot to reach this country."

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