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JUST AWARDS. Fact: 205 people died crossing the U.S./Mexico border in the Tucson corridor in 2003. The number of people who died trying to scramble over the Berlin Wall in its nearly 30-year history totaled 287.

Fact: Only 2 percent of worldwide immigration takes place here in the United States.

Fact: The $14.5 billion that immigrants send back to Mexico is more than that generated from both tourism and sales of oil and gas in that country.

Isabel Garcia rattles off these statistics with an alacrity that belies comprehension, particularly when you attempt to match a human face with some of the numbers.

But Garcia--who is co-chair of Tucson's Coalición de Derechos Humanos, director of the Pima County Legal Defenders Office and a staunch advocate for immigrants and migrants since 1976--hasn't got time for me to wrap my brain around the details. She's on a mission to get the word out about the plight of people crossing the border.

"Prior to the mid-'90s, people coming to Tucson from Mexico didn't contract with a coyote. But since Operation Gate Keeper launched in San Diego, and Operation Hold the Line came about at the El Paso border, it's not accidental that people would have to pay a smuggler to get across with any success. Border Patrol knows that there will be deaths of migrants. It's immoral and unconscionable to me that they just turn their backs," says Garcia.

"In terms of people traffickers, it's as lucrative as drug trafficking. But the guy moving drugs isn't punished as severely," adds Garcia.

Interestingly, the drug trafficker is at greater risk for economic loss.

"You lose a drug load? The losses are huge. You lose some people? They just get deported. You can traffic them again," Garcia points out. "If they survive."

The laws come down hard on the humans being trafficked, not those doing the movement. "It's migrants themselves who suffer. They end up being indentured to the coyotes to work off debts," says Garcia.

The mission of Derechos this week is to honor human rights workers in Tucson who address the plight not only of migrants, but of many kinds of downtrodden people. They've chosen to honor them around the Day of the Migrant, which falls on Dec. 18. In July of this year, the United Nations passed a treaty that establishes binding standards on the treatment and human rights of documented and undocumented migrant workers and their families. Ironically, the United States refused to be a signatory, despite 24 other countries signing on.

"The robber-baron era isn't gone; it's just relocated. Trade agreements have exacerbated migration. But without migrant labor, the United States wouldn't be the economic leader that it is today. Globalization affects every detail of our lives. My favorite toy from childhood, the Etch a Sketch, manufactured in the Midwest since its inception, has just shifted its operations to China to take advantage of cheaper labor. The level of exploitation is horrendous there."

Garcia says one of the built-in struggles is coming up against other well-intentioned activists.

"We've spent two thirds of our time trying to convince our own allies what the issues are. Environmental groups used to blame migrants for the degradation of the desert. Now, with coalition work, with explanations, they've joined us. Labor is on our side. I think there are budding coalitions. We just had a teach-in. It's all helping."

She adds, "We're all up against the politicians who favor building a 250-mile wall at the border. We're up against Homeland Security."

It's a strategic move to award various progressive organizations, which Derechos Humanos is doing this week.

"We decided to award within 10 different categories that include human rights, yes, but also youth organizations, women and LGBT groups and faith-based projects," explains Garcia of the upcoming ceremony.

"Remember that back in the '80s and '90s, civil rights work was narrow and didn't include immigration issues. Derechos Humanos formed in 1993 to broaden the scope here in Tucson. Now, for the first time, we want to celebrate those who're doing similar thinking around human rights for migrants coming into this country. This community has distinguished itself and I'm so proud of everyone we're awarding."

The honors go out to Barbara Lewis of Tucson's Urban League, Christina McVie of Defenders of Wildlife and Kristen Felan of Wingspan Community Center, to name a few. But awards are also given to public officials who struggle for justice amidst governmental bureaucracy, such as Rep. Raul Grijalva, Councilman Steve Leal, Vice Chairman Dale Philips of the Cocopah Nation and Carlos Flores Vizcarra of the Mexican Consulate.

"In all this celebration, we can't forget the unknown hero, the migrants. Nearly a third of the 205 people who died this year were never identified. Their families are still waiting to hear from them," says Garcia.

"One of our projects is to get an identity database established and to pressure Mexico to pay to send the bodies back to families. It's a Band-Aid, yes, but you have to start somewhere."

The Corazón de Justicia Awards dinner takes place at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 19, at Inn Suites Hotel, 475 N. Granada Road, and is sponsored by Coalición de Derechos Humanos and the Alianza Indígena Sin Fronteras. Dinner costs $30 per person. Make your reservations by calling 770-1373.

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