Border Songs

How do you keep illegal immigrants from Mexico out of the U.S.? The Department of Homeland Security has been looking for the answer in a song, finds Bill DeMain.

For years, the Department of Homeland Security has been trying to fix a pesky leak in the southern border of the United States.

Despite 18,000 patrol guards and an expensive arsenal of fences, trenches, dogs and motion-controlled cameras, they've failed to stop Mexican immigrants from illegally crossing over. Of the 12.5 million illegals living in the U.S. in 2007, 57% of them came from Mexico.

Recently, the DHS hit on what promised to be a creative solution to the problem: cautionary songs designed to convince the migrants to stay home.

They hired Elevación, a Hispanic jingle company in New York, to write and produce a five-song CD, entitled Migras Corridos. "Migra," the derogatory nickname that Spanish-speaking people give to immigration agencies, was chosen to throw listeners off the scent. "Corridos" is a traditional genre of Mexican ballad that celebrates the adventures of rebels and outlaws.

The songs wrap upbeat, peppy music full of guitars and accordions around harrowing stories of hapless border-crossers: A worker suffocates while hiding in a tractor trailer container. A mother is raped by coyotes. A man dies of thirst in the desert.

Avoiding any mention of punishment, the songs focus on the dangers and social repercussions of illegal border crossings.

A few sample lyrics:

"To cross the border / He put me in a trailer box / There I shared my suffering / With another 40 immigrants / I was never told / This was a trip to hell"

from "El Respeto" ("Respect")

"After some hours Abelardo opened his eyes / And in the middle of the cold night discovered his dead cousin by his side"

from "El Mas Grande Enemigo" ("The Biggest Enemy")

"Before you cross the border / Remember that you can be just as much a man by chickening out and staying"

from "Veinte Años" ("Twenty Years")

Acting like a demographic-conscious record label, Elevación targeted Migras Corridos to 25 radio stations in six Mexican states with the highest count of U.S.-bound émigrés. Of course, they didn't reveal who was behind the music. Initially, the stations played snippets of the bouncy death tunes as public service ads. But then, something funny happened. Listeners began calling in to request the full versions.

Not only have the songs have become hits, but one is reportedly up for a music award this year. But will they achieve their goal in discouraging more illegal crossings? It's been difficult to measure so far, but the DHS has cited a steady decline in deaths and rescues along the border over the last four years. They attribute this to an overall softening of their approach, dissuading rather than threatening immigrants (of course, the lack of jobs in a lousy U.S. economy could also be responsible for the declining numbers of illegals).

Regardless, the DHS has commissioned Elevación to cut a follow-up album, as well as another project tailored to scare off Central American illegal immigrants. They maintain that the purpose of the songs is "to educate and save lives".

If other countries with illegal immigrant problems adopt these musical crackdown tactics, it could give a whole new meaning to "crossover hits."

Cross on over to, the home of great music on the interpipe.

View Comments