I wrote this in about 2007. It originally appeared in my zine Spandrel #2. It was before the unattended migrant children that came through in the summer of 2014, before the Tea Party halted all useful talk about our immigration system, before the cartels and the murders got really bad. It has since been published in an e-book. Some of the stuff in the essay (like the minimum wage) is out of date.
The drive south is cold and windy, because the heat doesn’t work and because a crash dented the passenger side of the VW bus, and as a result there’s gaps in between the windshield and the frame of the car for the wind to whistle in through. I huddle in a slightly sheltered corner, staring at what I can see of the scrubby Arizona landscape in the light of the bus’s headlights. Jason, driving the VW, tells me about the tunnels that run under the highway we’re driving on—drainage ditches that stretch under four lanes of blacktop. There are probably people down there right now, he says, waiting out the night, hiding from the Border Patrol. It’s cold. A bad night for crossing the border.
Between 1810 and 1850, the Underground Railroad in the American Southeast smuggled between 30,000 and 100,000 slaves to freedom in the American North and Canada. Escaped slaves moved alone or in small groups by night, assisted by a select few who knew the route. They didn’t know the way, had often never seen a map, but they journeyed through hundreds of miles of hostile territory, dodging authorities, bounty hunters, and dogs. They risked dying of hunger and exposure, and all for the smallest chance that they might find freedom at the end of the line. As many as two out of three didn’t make it.
Today in the American Southwest, there is a different kind of Underground Railroad. Immigrants from Mexico and Central America pay money to guides to bring them across the border. Migrants who cross the border have a long walk with a choice between the rock—the mountains—or the hard place—the desert—over which to cross. It’s a five day walk from the border to Tucson, and it’s impossible to carry enough supplies with you to get yourself there.
Jason and I pull into a roadside campsite in Nogales, about 100 yards on the Mexican side of the border, next to a customs station where we’re spending the night. I am introduced to Miguel, the gangster who controls this part of the border. Everything that crosses the border in this town illegally—drugs, guns, tropical birds, people—crosses because of him. He knows the gringos, the federales, the Border Patrol. I imagine that very little happens that he doesn’t know about or doesn’t want to happen.
When I meet him, he is a mild-mannered, quiet-looking Mexicano who is shorter than me, wearing jeans and a coat that look like they came from Wal-Mart. I try to reconcile him in my mind with the Al Capone character that’s been described to me, and I can’t.
Migrants pay coyotes roughly $2,000US to cross the border (or about $20,000 Mexican). Minimum wage in the United States is $5.15 an hour. In Mexico, if a person is making about $10US a day they’re doing pretty good. Most people have help crossing the border from friends and family who are already here.
Migrants pay $2,000 to cross the border. How far into the country they come depends on the coyote and on how much the migrant pays. Migrants aren’t always knowledgeable about US geography, or living in the open, and they don’t have maps. There have been incidents of migrants dropped in Tucson and told they were in Phoenix, or within walking distance of Miami. Unconfirmed reports of migrants dropped in the Mexican desert and told they were in Arizona.
They break limbs jumping off freight trains. They die of exposure, dehydration, or hypothermia. They drink bad water in the desert. They come equipped with nothing but what they can carry and their own considerable determination. They get caught by the Border Patrol and deported, and return and get deported again. And still they come.
There’s an underground network to crossing the border, but unlike the conductors on the Underground Railroad, the coyotes are motivated by money, not by their conscience, and not all of them can be trusted.
It’s a bad night to be crossing the border. I shiver in my sleeping bag and I can’t sleep. Maybe it’s the cold, maybe it’s the coffee I drank before we left Tucson, maybe it’s the floodlights that we’re sleeping under, or maybe it’s the fact that I’m under this cold Mexican sky, with federales on one side and Mexican gangsters on the other, and I’m separated from my home by a fifteen-foot high wall of steel and barbed wire and heavily armed men with Black Hawk helicopters, humvees, and guns.
Before dawn, unable to take the cold anymore, I crawl out of my sleeping bag and pull on my jeans and shoes and coat. Someone has built a fire, and as I hop out of the van, Jason comes over and meets me. Four of the people at the fire—a man, a woman, and two small kids—are part of a larger group who have huddled all night in a nearby ravine, waiting for the signal to try the border. The other four men who have arrived are coyotes who brought the woman and her kids up to get warm. These coyotes, Jason assures me, are some of the good ones.
With all this in mind, I approach the fire. The woman—who is my age or even younger—looks at me for a moment, her eyes dark and exhausted. Her kids look maybe three and five, and are wrapped in a sleeping bag that Jason took off his bunk. We exchange no words. The coyotes ignore my presence completely. They are young men, again perhaps my age, and are engaged in a raucous and enormously funny conversation that I don’t understand because I don’t speak Spanish. One of the coyotes goes out of his way to stand between me and the fire, blocking me from the warmth, moving to the left to block me again when I move to the left to move away from him. I think about saying something, about moving forward so he can’t move sideways without stepping in the fire, but ultimately, I say nothing. You don’t belong here, he’s telling me not so subtly, and I can’t in all confidence say I disagree.
The sky in the east has started to lighten when there’s an invisible signal from somewhere and the woman and her kids leave the fire to make their try for the border. The coyotes at the fire don’t go with them. At the critical point, the border itself, the coyotes don’t go with the immigrants. The woman and her kids will meet another coyote on the other side.
The coyotes hang around until full daylight, when a semi-truck piled high with bales of hay driving past our camp fails to clear a power line. The telephone poles are pulled askew, there is a loud crackling noise, a lot of cursing in English (from me and Jason) and Spanish (from the coyotes), and the truck continues on, leaving the power lines dangling just low enough to snag any car that comes down the road. Jason goes to tell the federales (the wing of Mexican law enforcement that is sort of a combination Border Patrol/FBI) and the coyotes take off. Some policemen come, and someone that looks like an electrician, but they wander around and talk and then drive away, leaving the power lines dangling across the road.
In 1961, East Germany began construction on what was not, they insisted at the time, a wall. Tired of the drain on their economy because of East Germans leaving the Soviet Bloc every day to go to work in higher-paying West Germany, and frustrated by the 2.5 million people who had defected in the sixteen years since the end of World War II, the Wall put an effective halt to travel between the democratic and communist halves of Berlin. Any East Berlin citizen who tried to cross the wall was killed by the East German guards, and in the Wall’s twenty-eight year existence, probably fewer than five thousand souls managed to cross it illegally. The Wall was guarded with booby traps, armed guards, watchtowers, anti-tank tetrahedrons, and self-firing guns to keep people on the Communist side. Far from being the idyllic system of government that the Communists claimed, it turned out that they had to forcibly contain their citizens to prevent them from fleeing. When the Wall came down in 1989, symbolically reuniting Berlin, it was seen as a victory for freedom and democracy, and one of the final blows to the Soviet system.
Also in the 1960s, when the Berlin Wall was going up, American soldiers were fighting Communism in the backwater jungles of Indochina. Fighting to keep Korea and Vietnam from falling into the control of guerilla fighters, the Americans strafed the jungle and tore it down to build army bases and camps. After clearing land for airstrips, however, the ground was still too soft for planes to land, so the jungle was paved with corrugated iron sheets that could be picked up and moved to wherever the planes needed to land.
In 1975, when the American presence in Vietnam ended, one of the things that the Americans packed up and took with them was their iron landing strips. Ten years later, after the victory of democracy in the West and the end of the Cold War, the United States decided to build a wall of their own in an effort to stem the economic stress that immigration puts on rich countries when people flee from their poor country. To build it, they brought the sheets of iron they’d used to try and defend democracy in VIetnam and divided the sky with them, then lined it with barbed wire and armed guards. The Border Patrol uses the same unmanned aerial vehicles, motion sensors, infrared detectors, radar, and wireless communication systems that the US Army is using in Iraq. The fence cut towns in half and separated families. Whether they have actually decreased illegal immigration—as the Berlin Wall succeeded in doing—is another question entirely.
There was a time not so long ago, Jason tells me, when the “wall” was just an eight-foot-high chain link fence. People crossed to go to work in the morning, then went back to their homes at night. Illegal immigration was common, but few people stayed in the United States for long periods. People played volleyball games using the fence as a net. Then the wall went up, fourteen feet of steel and barbed wire. It pushed migrants trying to cross the border into rural areas (and increased mortality rates drastically) and forced them to stay in the U.S. for longer periods, since crossing the border is more dangerous and more expensive than it used to be.
The wall is peppered with graffiti and murals trying to give border crossers a taste of what they’re in for. There is one portrait of a migrant worker on his knees, about to be shot by a man looming over him with a gun. The caption says “Arizona.” A dollar sign with wings. La frontera es grande porque estamos en sus rodillas (The border is big because we are on our knees). Deporte la migra (Deport the Border Patrol). Si yankee es un terrorista.
Jason and I leave the roadside camp in early morning to go get breakfast supplies for the deportees who will be arriving soon, driving along a road that runs parallel to the border. On our way into town, we also pass a cemetery, which is a riot of color and flowers and decoration. Ribbons are laced through the fences around the family plots. There are silver pinwheels several feet across spinning over tombstones. Mexicans apparently take good care of their dead, and though this is utterly unlike any American graveyard I’ve seen outside of New Orleans, the colorful graveyard somehow makes me feel less like a foreigner.
Deportees are dropped off just this side of the border, usually thirty or forty at a time, regardless of where in Mexico they’re actually from (and, sometimes, regardless of whether they’re from Mexico at all). They carry everything they own with them and shuffle flatfooted because the Border Patrol takes everyone’s shoelaces (and does what with them?). We give them food, which is far from fancy—tortillas and beans, or Wonder Bread and baloney—but the deportees take it anyway. Jason and another volunteer named Ramón have medical training, and they circulate amongst migrants who have been hard hit by the desert or have gotten hurt along the way. I hand out sandwiches for a little while, and then circulate among the crowd, explaining in my broken Spanish that I have sheets with the addresses of shelters in the area for folks who have nowhere to sleep tonight and small, wallet-sized card with the phone number of the Mexican consulate and an explanation of the rights people have in the United States, be they natives, citizens, immigrants, or deportees. A few take the shelter lists, but everyone wants the consulate cards. Everybody wants to know their rights. I hand them out as fast as I can, trying to explain what they are and practicing my one decent Spanish phrase: “Mi español está muy mal. Lo siento.”
They don’t say much to me. They’re tired, it’s obvious that I don’t speak much Spanish, and I can’t imagine that their experience with the American Border Patrol has left them with much energy or motivation for trying to make new friends with the random American chick who’s greeting them. They rest for awhile, eating and talking and drinking hot coffee, and then they gather their bags to go, raising their hands in farewell. Adios. They walk south into Mexico. Jason tells me that most will cross the border again; he knows one man who has been deported eight times now. If you’re from one of the southern Mexican states, it’s easier to try the border again than it is to try and get home.
One of the volunteers at the camp—a Mexican who was deported and stayed here, at least so far—takes a break between busloads and crouches on his heels some distance away and smokes a cigarette. He sits on top of a small rise, his back to me, staring out at the fence, the Border Patrol, and the scrubby hills of los Estados Unidos. I ask him, later, if he wants to go back to the United States, and a smile flashes across his face. “Sí.”
In this rhythm, the morning passes, waves of deportees and border crossers interspersed with periods when there’s no one at camp but the volunteers. Jason tells us about the history of this camp and what they’re trying to do, and shares stories of border crossers he’s met. We talk about New Orleans and Louisiana and the loss of the coastal wetlands on the Gulf Coast. We tease Ramón about secretly being a woman. We watch the federales chase a man who left his car and whatever illegal item was inside of it and make a run for it—back into Mexico, oddly, not out of it. One of the volunteers shakes his head on hearing that the man fled south. “If he ran into México, he not going to make it,” he says matter-of-factly. “He a goner.”
We spend the morning there, and then it’s time to go, to get in line at la frontera and be interviewed by the Border Patrol. Much to Jason’s surprise (and mine too, given the hippie van we’re in) we are not searched, and thanks to the federales’ willingness to take bribes and let cars cut in line, we get through the border in less than an hour. And then we’re back in the States, which of course looks exactly like Mexico until we’re about five miles over the border and we come upon a Holiday Inn and a Conoco station that’s filled with white people who look like they want to visit Mexico but don’t want to stay overnight there. Something in my head relaxes, because now I’m back on my side of the wall, and even though this side really isn’t any less dangerous than that one, simply by virtue of language and long habit I feel more able to cope with this side. I don’t know if it’s like this for the migrants, if, in spite of their determination and obstinacy and their persistence in getting on our side of the wall, they don’t feel a tiny sigh of relief when they find themselves back on their side of it.