Undocumented Immigrants and the Tragic Palmview Rollover

By Nick Braune

On Monday April 9 in La Joya, a small town in the Rio Grande Valley, a siren signaled a van to pull over. Afraid of being arrested — the van was carrying undocumented immigrants — the driver sped away and soon lost control of the vehicle, causing a rollover accident with one dead and 17 people injured. The very next day, in close-by Palmview, another van rolled over and the results were worse, described as “horrific” by those who saw the bodies — nine people were killed and others badly injured. (The seats in the van had been removed and there were 18 people squeezed into it; consequently, when the rollover tore open the door, many of the passengers were thrown from the tumbling vehicle.)

These events have hit the heart strings of many Valley residents. Crosses were painted on the roadside. Little alters were set up with gifts for the departed, reports The Monitor, with “dozens of candles, stuffed animals and a picture of Jesus Christ. A bowl of animal crackers with a cup of milk and cinnamon sat beside a rosary.”

La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), an advocacy organization founded by Cesar Chavez, held a vigil there. They mourned the lost lives and the endless other tragedies caused by America’s failed, narrowly conceived, immigration policies.

I called Martha Sanchez, a LUPE leader. “Our vigil was a way to grieve, to show our humanity,” she said.

Sanchez and I discussed how everything about these rollovers was depressing. The driver of the van in which nine people died did survive and was arrested, but this brings no feeling of recompense. True, someone hired him to do something endangering others, but he was only 15 years old. As one internet commenter said, the youngster must have been in a total panic when he heard the siren behind him, with all manner of conflicting messages screeching at him from people inside the van: “Let’s get out of here,” Stop the car.” “Turn,” “Go straight.” The youth was way over his head and the tires had no treads. (Apparently the van had several problems.) Probably some prosecutor wants to try the kid as an adult, condemning him to decades in prison, but that won’t solve anything. It will just add more sadness.

The Monitor’s coverage through the week was sensitive and informative, but I wish they had probed the Border Patrol and the Palmview police about their pursuit policies. (The Border Patrol says there was no pursuit.) The articles, enamored of law enforcement drama and arrests, let the local sheriff weigh in that he sees few problems with pursuits and thinks law enforcement is important. I asked Martha Sanchez about the current enforcement policies. She said LUPE has expressed concern about various Border Patrol practices in the past. “So, when we heard that two vans in two days had rolled over, with immigrants dying in car chases, we wondered whether this shows some change in enforcement policy or simply shows more immigrants coming. It seemed like too many happenings…too quickly. Is something different? Is the Border Patrol upping the ante so to speak? We don’t know. A Border Patrol press conference is coming up and we’ll be there.”

I also criticize The Monitor coverage for uncritically repeating police lingo, for instance, constantly conflating two different issues: stopping drug trafficking and stopping undocumented immigration. (Similarly, by the way, Governor Perry has ordered three military “swift boats” with mounted machine guns, for Highway Patrol use on the Rio Grande, to stop drug trafficking and illegal immigration.)

Let’s save lives with real immigration reform.

[This piece appeared first in “Reflection and Change,” Mid-Valley Town Crier, 4-17-12]

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