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Border Monument No. 1

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Bordering the Future

There is a place just west of El Paso where the Rio Grande, after flowing south from its headwaters in the Colorado Rockies, quietly slips through a pass in the mountains and then starts to snake its way southeast toward the tiny town of Boca Chica, on the Gulf of Mexico, 30 miles east of Brownsville and 1,254 miles away from this inauspicious spot.

The Texas-Mexico border's westernmost beginning is tucked behind one of El Paso's oldest smelting plants, across a creaky wooden bridge beneath a railroad trestle and then east along a gravel path bounded on one side by the river and on the other by the carved-out mountainside. It is marked by an 11-foot masonry obelisk in a concrete slab the size of a large dining room table. A metal strip runs the width of the slab, delineating the international boundary--which is a bit disconcerting, because the river flows to the north while you stand on the south side, still in the U.S.

You can straddle both nations here, a foot in each, and read the well-worn plaque that has long since been covered by graffiti. The text reads:

This is Border Monument No. 1, the first of 258 such obelisks that dot the desert borderlands all the way to the Pacific, some 698 miles westward. Mexico lies to the south, about three feet away, just beyond an improvised wall of rocks piled a few inches high. The rest of Texas lies to the east, its most distant point farther away from here than the last border monument, which sits outside San Diego, California.

From here eastward, there's no need for monuments. The Rio Grande serves the purpose, defining the border as it ripples through countless dams and irrigation ditches, a stretch of concrete channel, plus two huge reservoirs, before spilling into the Gulf.

At Border Monument No. 1, however, it is almost possible to believe that the line between the U.S. and Mexico "is never wider than a river."1 Almost.

The Rio Grande, known on the Mexican side as the Rio Bravo, seems docile at this turning point. In fact, 844 undocumented immigrants have died between here and Brownsville from 1993 to 1996.2

In the past decade, the number is probably as high as 3,000, according to an ongoing study by the University of Houston.3 About 72 percent were drowning victims, belying the river's placid origins. The remainder were hit by cars or trains after crossing, succumbed to dehydration in the arid desert, froze to death in the frigid mountains, or were murdered by smugglers and common criminals who prey on the most vulnerable.

Others have perished, too, their bodies washed downstream and disfigured by the water's grim current or decomposing in the brush, never to be recovered.

Only 14 of the Texas counties directly on the border have their own medical examiners. The others depend on justices of the peace, who try their best to identify the "floaters," as immigrants who drown while trying to cross the river are known locally. In Mexico, officials of the different states are charged with investigating and documenting the deaths. All work diligently. But autopsies are rare, resources are limited, and few medical investigations ensue. Many bodies, including growing numbers of women and young children, are never identified--and many families never learn the fates of their loved ones.

These border deaths pose troubling questions. Are stepped up U.S. patrols in high-volume areas redirecting would-be illegal immigrants to remote areas, where the dangers from unpredictable river crossings or sheer lawlessness are greater? Are the immigrants themselves--who, after all, have chosen to break the law by trying to cross without benefit of documents--to blame?

In mid-1998, the U.S. and Mexican governments announced they would be launching a public safety initiative to warn potential crossers of the many dangers. Included in the initiative are posted warning signs, expanded first-aid and search and rescue capabilities, and the creation of a telephone hotline that relatives of missing immigrants can use to notify Mexican officials. But human rights advocates, while welcoming the new campaign, feared it would not completely stop the attempted crossings that all too often end in tragedy.4


1 Robert Miller, "Mexico's Role in U.S. Education--A Well-Kept Secret," Phi Delta Kappan (1995).

2 Michelle Mittelstadt, "Initiative targets border safety," Austin American-Statesman (June 17, 1998).

3 University of Houston, Center for Immigration Research, 1997.

4 Mittelstadt, "Initiative targets border safety."