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Deadly crossings


The angry fallout in Mexico over the recent fatal shooting of a Mexican migrant by a U.S. Border Patrol agent is only the latest incident causing tension between the two countries. Stepped-up U.S. border security efforts and proposed legislation mandating tougher punishment for illegal border crossers have also angered Mexican government officials who correctly point out that the measures are excessively punitive and will not stop migrants seeking readily available jobs in the U.S.

Without an accompanying migration plan and a much-needed guest-worker agreement between the two countries, more deaths are likely along the increasingly violent 2,000-mile border. Beefed-up U.S. security measures have driven migrants to attempt crossing more remote and dangerous terrain and to pay smugglers who sometimes leave them to die in the desert or who shoot at U.S. border agents who get in the way. Two agents were shot last year, as were two migrants. The violence hurts both countries.

The most recent shooting occurred as 18-year-old Guillermo Martinez Rodriguez breached the metal fence separating Tijuana and San Diego. U.S. Border Patrol officials say he was a known smuggler who threw a large rock at a border agent; the agent, they say, shot Mr. Martinez in self-defense. Mexican authorities say Mr. Martinez was shot in the back from 16 feet away as he retreated to the Mexican side of the border.

While most migrants are not violent, attacks on border agents by smugglers, particularly drug smugglers, are not new. Last year, there were 218 attacks on U.S. agents working along the San Diego border, up from 112 in 2004. Meanwhile, 473 migrants died attempting to cross the border last year. Drug smugglers and coyotes who sneak in migrants have grown more desperate and violent, forcing U.S. border authorities to respond more aggressively. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff visited San Diego last week and vowed his department would crack down on migrant smugglers.

Mexican government officials filed a formal diplomatic complaint about the shooting to the United States. They allege hostility toward migrants is rising and blame it on the harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from members of Congress and the inconsistent immigration policies of the Bush administration. Border agents, too, have complained of waging a losing battle against migrants trying to cross the border repeatedly.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has assured Mexican authorities that the U.S. will investigate the shooting. Meanwhile, Congress could alleviate recurrent crossings by nonviolent, job-hungry migrants by supporting President Bush's calls for a comprehensive guest-worker program that would allow migrants to legally work in the U.S. for up to six years. By doing so, lawmakers might also cut into the lucrative people-smuggling trade and reduce the level of border violence.

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