Human Rights Defender Enrique Morones

“They’re chasing these people to death. If this was the Canadian border you wouldn’t see this — no way” — Enrique Morones

At midnight on March 20, 1998, US-Mexican dual citizenship became available for the first time; at 12:01 a.m. on March 21, Enrique Morones petitioned for the status. In June of that year Morones became the first dual citizen of Mexico and the United States. His documents were presented to him personally by President Zedillo in a ceremony at the Mexican National Palace.

The status and the honor are entirely appropriate: throughout his forty-seven-year life, Enrique Morones has divided his heart and his soul between San Diego and Mexico. For over twenty years Enrique Morones has been an effective and vocal human rights defender for people in need on both sides of the border, and for nearly that long he has been a regional and national advocate for border activists and organizations.

For this work he has received many honors. But he has also received many threats on his life. He has been vilified by opposing politicians and news outlets. He has been shunned by potential business clients. And he was dismissed from the job he was born to do.

He is now a full-time advocate for Mexican immigrants to the USA, for the Hispanic community in and around San Diego, and for the human rights of all Latinos.

  • * *

Enrique Morones’ father grew up in Mexico City, moving his family to San Diego in 1954. He worked for Aeromexico during the day and at a market at night to earn enough money to pay for a quality education for his five children. His wife of fifty-four years, who came from the Mexican town of Culiacan, instilled an appreciation for Mexican traditions and culture in the family, who still speak only Spanish at home. Enrique was the first member of the family to be born in the USA

Morones grew up in the working class San Diego neighborhood of Golden Hill. He attended St. Augustus High School, where he won the silver medal for academic achievement and became one of the finest long-distance runners in the USA. In 1979 he graduated from San Diego State University and in 2002 earned a master’s degree in executive leadership from the University of San Diego.

A devout Roman Catholic, Morones draws his philosophy of servant leadership in protest and action to alleviate individual suffering from the example of Jesus Christ. Another early and continuing source of inspiration is his grandfather, Luis N. Morones, one of the founders of the labor movement in Mexico. His other exemplar is the late farm labor leader Cesar Chavez; Morones chairs the annual San Diego area tribute to Chavez.

Throughout his life Morones has divided his time and attention between Mexico and San Diego, which lies less than fifty kilometers from the Mexican border. Now the seventh largest city in the United States, San Diego has a population of 1,264,600 , of which twenty-four percent is Hispanic. The city encompasses nearly 800 square kilometers and has more than one hundred kilometers of Pacific coastline.

The fastest growing minority in the USA, Hispanics are close to becoming the majority population in California. Some small towns in central California’s agricultural heartland are now over ninety percent Latino. The Hispanic population of the USA may already equal the number of African Americans. The projected numbers for the year 2010 predict 190 million Latinos in a total US population of 570 million people.

  • * *

Many recent undocumented immigrants to the San Diego area work as manual laborers and service employees. To save money on housing, many camp out in nearby canyons. In 1987 Enrique Morones founded Border Angels to provide these individuals and families with food and water.

Over the years, Border Angels has expanded its mission to include setting up and maintaining a series of stations in the desert border areas that separate Mexico from the Southwest United States. Each station is composed of a cross or light or other marker, six gallons of water, food and clothing. Border Angels now has over 600 active volunteers; with ten other groups they maintain over 1000 stations. Morones himself still makes regular deliveries to desert stations. The US Border Patrol is neutral on the aid stations. Morones has secured promises from border agents that they will not remove the contents of the stations or stake them out to apprehend migrants.

For decades, Mexican immigrants and migrants entering the United States without permission or documentation have chosen to cross the border on the coast near San Diego. Entering illegally has always involved risk: immigrants are misled or abandoned by smugglers called coyotes; they may be apprehended and treated badly by US Border Patrol agents; they may drown or be struck while crossing a freeway. But until 1993 crossing the border near San Diego brought immigrants a relatively short distance over mild terrain in comfortable weather to a major US city.

In 1994, however, the USA launched Operation Gatekeeper, a program of blocking and redirecting immigrant flows from Mexico. The program began with the building of a wall on the border between southern California and Mexico as well as increased surveillance by US Border Patrol agents. The wall consists of three parallel fences and a high-speed road. The fences are five meters high and cannot be climbed. They are set forty meters apart with the land between them denuded. The wall runs twenty kilometers from the Pacific to Otay Mesa, a town southwest of San Diego. Completion of the project will cost about $60 million.

For eight years, Enrique Morones has been a leader of the opposition to Project Gatekeeper. He points out that the existence of the wall demands that individuals and families intent on crossing the border do so under far more difficult circumstances. The wall forces migrants to traverse 6000 foot mountains where temperatures below freezing are likely for half of the year, or deserts with forty-five degree centigrade heat and ten meter sand dunes. And hundreds of immigrants have drowned trying to swim across the All-American Canal, a wide aqueduct.

Since the wall went up, 2650 people have died trying to enter California or Arizona, about one person per day. Half these deaths have been from exposure in the desert, most of those from heat stress, a long and excruciating event. As always, women and children are the most vulnerable.

Morones believes that Operation Gatekeeper was never intended to restrict illegal immigration, but to make it less visible and thereby less of a political liability. The strategy is to “redirect” migration traffic away from border cities and into the most remote, difficult, and dangerous terrain between San Diego and Brownsville, Texas, more than a thousand kilometers to the east.

Predictably, making illegal crossings more difficult and dangerous has done nothing to affect the flow of immigrants. In 1999, the American Civil Liberties Union and the California Rural Assistance Foundation filed a petition with the Organization of American States, charging that the US Government had failed to live up to its obligations by taking measures to maximize the physical risks accompanying immigration. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, briefed on border deaths during a visit to Mexico, called the situation “shocking”.

Since Operation Gatekeeper began, fewer than a dozen employers of undocumented workers have been prosecuted. In fact, only two percent of the enforcement work-hours of the Immigration and Naturalization Services are devoted to identifying employers suspected of hiring undocumented workers.

Christian Ramirez, coordinator of border programs for the American Friends Service Committee says, “The fence creates a space of impunity for the Border Patrol. Within the fences there are no witnesses to human rights violations”.

Morones says, “This fence gives the wrong message and it is hypocritical. The USA tells Gorbachev to take down their wall, and here our President has his”. Morones considers it part of his advocacy work to bring the notions of international civil rights norms and protections to the border area in general and to the behavior of the Border Patrol in particular. There are approximately 10,000 Border Patrol agents in the USA; 3500 of those are assigned to the San Diego area. The Patrol has the lowest standards for entry-level employment (which includes carrying firearms) of any official US law enforcement agency.

Morones advocates and provides models for the training of Border Patrol agents in cultural diversity and human rights. He urges law enforcement officials to remember that the rights of people on the border should not be based on whether or not they are US citizens, but on the fundamental and universal rights of all men, women, and children.

Morones has also worked at the border between Arizona and Mexico. In Douglas, Arizona, he confronted vigilante groups organized to “hunt” immigrants. Says Morones, “You could feel the racism in the air”. He met with the Governor and the state attorney general, promising a boycott of Arizona if the state did not provide better protections on the border.

Morones has hosted several fact-finding missions to the border by international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch. On March 13, 2001, Gabriela Rodriquez Pizarro, the UN Special Rapporteur for Migrants, visited the border at San Diego. She was greeted by banners and crosses bearing the names of nearly 2000 immigrants known to have died between there and Brownsville, Texas.

  • * *

Morones’ advocacy has not been limited to border issues. The city of San Diego intends to erect a bronze statue of former mayor and California Governor Pete Wilson. Wilson was re-elected as Governor in large part because of his unqualified support for a ballot initiative called Proposition 187, which called for cutting services to undocumented immigrants, including health care and education. The initiative passed a popular referendum but was subsequently struck down by US courts as unconstitutional.

The proposition and the politicians like Pete Wilson who promoted it became anathema to the great majority of California’s Hispanic population. Morones has blocked the installation of the statue and leads the opposition to prevent it from ever being erected. Morones has said,

We cannot forget what he did with Proposition 187, how he divided the mainstream community from the Latino community and how he portrayed us like we were from another planet….When I see Pete Wilson, the first thing I think of is racism.

In 2000 Morones was selected by the Government of Mexico to monitor the Governor’s election in the state of Chiapas and the elections in Mexico City that led to the presidency of Vicente Fox. He now participates in Fox’s Institute of Mexicans Abroad, advising on legal issues relating to immigration. In this connection Morones is attempting to persuade the Mexican consulate in San Diego to take a more active role in protecting immigrants.

In 2001 Morones proposed a Casa Mexico pavilion to join similar country-themed educational centers in San Diego’s Balboa Park. He pointed out that most of the centers in the park represented European countries. After two years of proposals, rejections, and compromises, Casa Mexico was established in November of 2003.

Five days a week Morones hosts a radio program in Spanish that provides the Hispanic community in and around San Diego with information and advice on immigration, health care, education, and legal issues. Morones dedicates each of his radio programs to someone who has died while crossing the border. He appears often on US television and radio advocating for the human rights of Mexican immigrants and by extension all immigrants and economic migrants.

  • * *

Morones has had his share of recognition. In 1996 and 1997 he served as president of the San Diego County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which supports Latino businesses. In his two-year tenure he increased the number of member businesses from 100 to 850. He has been named one of the 100 most influential Latinos in the USA by both Latino Impact and Hispania Business Magazine. February 25, 1998 was declared Enrique Morones Day in both the city and the county of San Diego. He has won the Chicano Federation Community Service Award, Mexican Tourism’s “Amigo de Baja” Award, and the Mexican Government’s Foreign Affairs Award.

More often, however, Morones’s advocacy has made him the object of abuse and retaliation rather than honors and recognition. For his work on border and immigration issues, Morones has received many death threats. For example, once while he was appearing on a television interview, a caller left a message on his home telephone: “I’m watching your TV show and I want to tell you that I think all Mexicans should die, especially you”. Morones’ answering machine captured the message and the caller’s telephone number. However, when Morones contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), they claimed they could not offer assistance because the caller had not mentioned Morones’ name. They did offer the gratuitous and disquieting observation that, “The ones you have to worry about are the ones who don’t call”.

He has been in other uncomfortable positions such as the visit to the taping of his radio show by a man wearing reflector sunglasses and a provocatively patriotic hat who simply glared at him and took notes. After addressing a meeting of the San Diego City Council on Latino opposition to the Wilson statue, Morones received a call saying that he was being followed and should stop his criticism of Wilson.

Morones has been severely criticized by politicians and journalists for what some see as providing encouragement to illegal immigration. His Casa Mexico project was nearly derailed when the approval committee confronted him with a dossier of his past political activities. Because of his advocacy and prominence, Morones has lost many potential business clients. Even business people who support the issues he advocates have second thoughts because they know that his first commitment is to those issues.

But no threats or ostracism or danger cuts as deeply as Morones’ experience with the San Diego Padres baseball team.

In the United States, two institutions, largely out of self-interest, have played leading roles in breaking color lines and eliminating racial segregation: the military and sports. In 1994, the major league San Diego Padres baseball team was struggling to survive when it came under new ownership. After a series of letters and meetings Morones persuaded the owners that they could contribute to racial progress, build a new fan base, and become financially sound by doing one thing: embracing the Latino devotion to baseball.

In September of 1995, Morones joined the Padres organization and established the Department of Hispanic Marketing, the first such office in major-league baseball. He had enormous success in bringing professional US baseball teams to Mexico, and Mexican fans to San Diego. Over the course of six years, Morones increased the Padres’ annual game-attending Latino following from 50,000 to 600,000 fans. In November of 2000, Morones was named Vice-President of Hispanic and International Marketing, becoming the first and only Latino vice-president in the Padres organization.

Then suddenly on October 30, 2001, Morones was fired and his position eliminated.

The firing was a devastating blow to Morones. A life-long fan of the Padres, he felt that being part of their organization while working to meet the needs of the Hispanic community in his hometown was the job of a lifetime. In the end he received no appreciation or recognition for his accomplishments. His reputation as a “troublemaker” prevented him from securing similar employment while his commitment to border issues made him unwilling to leave San Diego. With the Padres he had earned in excess of $100,000 per year; now he is heavily in debt.

After Morones was fired, the outcry in the Hispanic community was immediate, loud, and long. Newspaper columns, editorials, radio and television coverage blasted the Padres, but to no avail. The organization reneged on its promises to provide scholarships and build ball fields in Mexico. The team continues to lose its Latino fan base and its connection to the Hispanic population.

Writing in Hispanic Vista, the Latino commentator Luis Valdivia said,

The list of ‘firsts’ for Enrique Morones and his department is impressive. Never before had a major league team in any sport established a Hispanic marketing department, or opened a retail store outside the United States, or sold tickets at a discount outside the US, or facilitated transportation of fans across a border, or held a series of official games in Mexico, etcetera. And I do mean etcetera. The man should write a book.

Morones has compensated by plunging even more deeply into his advocacy and activism. He emerged as a leader of the opposition in San Diego to the recall of California Governor Gray Davis and the subsequent election of conservative actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He increased his level of involvement in preventing deaths on the border. Border Angels began building houses in Tijuana, donating goods to Casa del Migrante, and holding protests at prisons where immigrants are held.

In January of 2002, Morones and his volunteers began establishing cold-weather stations in the Cleveland National Forest, a mountainous area sixty kilometers to the east of San Diego. Each site is marked by a bright blue flag and a battery-powered red light. Each station contains blankets, sleeping bags, food and water. Morones has plans to set up similar stations in Yuma County, California and in the area around Tucson, Arizona.

In March of 2002, Morones established and became chair of the Border Commission, created to pressure the Mexican and US Governments to implement a more humane regimen on the border. Among its recommendations is the cessation of high-speed chases by Border Patrol agents and investigations into the cause of every death on the border.

  • * *

The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders states in article 12 that “everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to participate in peaceful activities against violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

Article 12 further states,

The State shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the present Declaration.

Morones is currently president of Puentes Latinos, which represents Mexican businesses and organizations seeking access to US markets and sources of funding. His clients include the professional baseball team in Tijuana, the Hispanic Ad Council, and a Latina health care clinic at the University of California San Diego.

However, at the age of forty-seven, Morones finds himself alone, living in a two-room apartment. His advocacy and effectiveness continue unabated and he is sure that he “has done the right thing”, but the personal costs and sacrifice have taken their toll on him.

Morones understands that the wall and the Border Patrol are only symptoms of the fundamental difficulty: the US and Mexico have not found an effective and humane strategy for addressing undocumented immigration. Although Mexico’s economy is growing stronger, it cannot hope to compete with the allure of the USA.

Businesses in the USA need, encourage, and exploit less expensive immigrant workers. US consumers are unwilling to give up cheap prices, even on luxury goods, that would allow fair compensation to immigrants. And the farther one gets from the border area, the less concern there is about Mexican immigration. The issue rarely surfaces in national elections.

Referring to the history of the Southwest as Mexican until it was seized by the United States in 1848, Morones, says, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us”.