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Day 2: East to Tucson

The border contradiction
State within a state

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The border contradiction

NOHELIA AND I stop to pick up some food for the road at a grocery in North Park, and a shopper walks by wearing a bright yellow T-shirt with big letters begging to be read. "No amnesty for illegals," blares the 20-something's shirt. In smaller type, it says, "Protect our nation's borders and enforce the laws of our land."

Nohelia's jaw drops. Though she lives in San Diego, she's never seen anyone in the city bold enough to wear such racist ideas--literally--on their sleeve.

The right-wing Web site that sells the T-shirt revels in its contempt for undocumented workers and the exploitative work conditions that so many must endure.

"Although he's not real happy about having to run our 'no amnesty' shirts," reads the Web site's description of how the shirt is produced, "he doesn't want to get fired, so our immigrant happily cranks the press and churns out these bright yellow gems all day long. Sometimes 18 hours nonstop, without lunch or a break."

But even this demagoguery acknowledges the fact that the U.S. economy depends on immigrant labor. The 20-something brat in the grocery store who was wearing the sweatshop shirt no doubt bought produce picked by a migrant laborer. Construction contractors, restaurants, janitorial firms and landscaping companies all rely on the 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S.

This summer and fall, the stepped-up militarization of the border and immigration sweeps have left big growers throughout California struggling to find enough migrant workers. In one of the top three pear-producing counties in the state, about a third of the pear crop rotted on the trees because only 450, instead of the usual 900, workers arrived for the seasonal harvest.

This is the contradiction at the heart of the anti-immigrant agenda. Big business depends on a steady supply of low-wage labor, and the oppression and criminalization of undocumented workers guarantee this. The constant threat of deportation makes it a necessity for workers to accept work on any terms--and very difficult for them to organize against or even complain about sub-minimum wages and unsafe work conditions.

But the political logic that drives Republican conservatives toward such an intense focus on the "war on illegal immigration" has begun to come into conflict with the economic needs of big business.

The political strategy of whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment may win over some voting blocs in the midterm elections--especially important to Republican candidates given voter pessimism about Bush's handling of the war in Iraq, high gas prices and stagnant wages.

But building massive border walls, increasing the number of Border Patrol agents, stationing troops on the border, installing sensors and flying unmanned drones all cost money. And to the extent that these measures are successful in restricting undocumented immigration, big business is starved of the low-wage labor supply their profits depend on.

Enter the Democrats, smelling an opportunity to counter the Republicans' election strategy.

One, pander to the soft racist vote by insisting that it's necessary to be "tough on immigration"--after all, undocumented workers have broken the law and can't be rewarded with amnesty.

Two, persuade the biggest growers, meat processors and hotel and restaurant chains that their political contributions in this election cycle are best spent on Democrats, not Republicans, by promoting the one thing they most want--a guest-worker program that will allow them a steady stream of low-wage workers.

And three, appeal to Latin voters, too, by proclaiming that the Democrats are paragons of tolerance and sanity--or, in any case, the best we could really hope for.

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State within a state

HEADING EAST along Interstate 8--a lonely stretch of highway that delivers us into Arizona's unforgiving desert heat--we marvel at the sudden appearance of illumination, cutting through the nighttime darkness. It's approaching midnight, and we're on the outskirts of Yuma, Ariz.

As we approach the stadium lights, Nohelia passes up her "permanent alien" papers to me in mechanical fashion, surrendering to the reality that she will now be transformed from an honor student, community spokesperson and bride-to-be into a potential "illegal."

Eric speculates about what these lights could be: "A prison, a high-school?"

No, it's an immigration checkpoint. Eric, who lives in Chicago, grows agitated by this in-your-face racial profiling, the legalized system of checkpoints and interrogations that are a daily staple of life in the American Southwest. For me, having lived all my life in the Southwest, this has become routine.

Being lighter-skinned, with my facial features revealing no sign of my Mexican ancestry, I am accustomed to the tyranny of checkpoints--assured by a history of safe passage because of my obvious membership in the European race.

Nohelia's passage is less certain. While her wit, wisdom and humanity would otherwise earn her canonization, her indigenous features and brown skin make her the suspect of a fictional crime.

While I calmly endure the deep gaze and probing questions of the Border Patrol agent, who looks for any twitch in my eye to give me away, I'm sure Nohelia's pulse quietly races, since she is already guilty by association.

As the agents survey our vehicle, bathed in a funnel of light, we can't help but appreciate the combination of surrealism and violence that is unfolding around us.

Our lane is flanked by two agents standing in front of giant "port-a-fans," designed to create tiny air-conditioned outdoor oases to ensure the agents are as comfortable as possible. "Caution: Dogs at work," reads the sign on the driver's side, while agents aim flashlights at us like weapons.

This is Eric's first checkpoint, and he is astonished at the process. He makes the comparison to the internal pass system under South African apartheid to find a framework that can make sense of it.

In the 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial profiling of potentially undocumented peoples is constitutional, although in practice, the subtext is "Mexicans only"--one of the only "inclusive" practices toward Mestizos in a long and checkered history of subjugation and segregation.

These checkpoints are landmarks--historical monuments to conquest--and designed to remind people like Nohelia that her right to breathe on this side of the border is temporal, and not to be taken for granted. It's also to remind us all that nothing is sacred and absolute when it comes to our rights. This state-within-a-state--the phalanx of checkpoints and armed silhouettes--follows us all along our border journey.

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