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Day 3: Nogales and Tucson

Border crossings and border crosses
Last stop on the green line
A desert testimonial

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Border crossings and border crosses

WE'VE MADE our way to Nogales, Ariz., the site of our first crossing to the Mexico side of the border. On the U.S. side, buses with Wal-Mart línea scrawled on their windows beckon Mexican shoppers to board for the short trip to the retailer.

The border wall that separates the Arizona Nogales from the Mexico Nogales is a symbol of border politics. Under the constant gaze of U.S. Border Patrol agents perched on the hills above, we walk along the wall. Crosses commemorate the lives lost. Some bear names--Frankie Silva and Rodrigo Lopez--while others say simply desconocido. Unknown.

Colorful graffiti adorns much of the wall here. "Power to the people" in English, and Deporten a la migra in Spanish. But the words that speak to the gnawing feeling I've had ever since arriving in California are: "Fronteras: Cicatrices en la tierra." Borders: Scars on the land.

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Last stop on the green line

"¡ME CHINGARON aquí!" pleads a young passerby with a neatly shaven head and spotless "south-side" football jersey--annoyed less with his current "statelessness" than with the person on the other end of his shiny silver cell phone. A U.S. Border Patrol bus has just arrived from the Tucson processing center and unceremoniously unloaded its cargo onto the roadway about 150 yards from the border crossing.

A slow-moving mass takes shape on the winding road. Ten bleary-eyed members of a family from Querétaro, led by a diminutive matriarch with dirt-encrusted shoes and water lines below the knee of her denim jeans, march past me towards the Migrant Help Center. The station is a nondescript white tent situated at the end of the strip that returns them to Mexico and uncertainty.

The silent marchers, wearing expressions that alternate from fatigue to bitter frustration, seem to fall into a fear-induced daze as they pass under the giant "Nogales" sign. It is the sudden realization that the last hours, days, weeks or years al otro lado are now memories--and that they are refugees, economic and otherwise, once more.

Looking down over the ravine that separates Nogales from Nogales, we are able to get an eagle's perspective of la línea at this common crossing point. There are the omnipresent la migra vehicles, a National Guard encampment and batteries of stadium lighting that cut a hot, white line across the exposed earth.

To the east of the ravine is a lonely stretch of road, running across a causeway linking the two sides. It is this road that serves as the point of deportation for migrant crossers rounded up in internal raids from Escondido to Casas Grandes, Ariz.--processed and tagged with "voluntary deportation" orders and dumped unceremoniously by bus.

This is the last stop on the "green line," the extensive system of immigration restriction that amounts to a legally sanctioned program of discrimination against Mexican and Central American migrants.

The Migrant Help Center is a nickel-and-dime operation, run by an umbrella human rights organization called No More Deaths based in Tucson and staffed by a crew of activists--gringos and mexicanos--each with their own story to tell. What they lack in technology and a sterile medical environment, they make up for in selflessness, good humor and deep concern for the displaced crossers.

The group provides water, food and basic health treatment to those who want it. They also document cases of abuse, harassment and deprivation, and distribute leaflets that map local migrant shelters and other available services.

Between the times when they provide for deportees, they gather around and tell stories, smoke cigarettes and enjoy each other's company. As I speak to them, I notice the glances down the road, waiting for the next busloads.

I learn from the aid workers that it is not uncommon for people to have nothing more than whatever they had with them at the time of their arrest and detention. Some have crossed still carrying grocery bags, having been plucked from their daily lives during raids on markets and shopping centers.

The coordinator of the Migrant Help Center, Maryada, tells us of an occasion where members of a quinceañera (a festive party held on a young adult's 15th birthday to celebrate coming of age) were rounded up and deported--still wearing the tropical-colored party dresses, now tattered by the experience.

Other crossers included a pregnant woman with her children--picked up off the streets and deported while her husband sat at home waiting. Mariachi band members and young children who speak only English have also made the journey along the dark road.

As Maryada explains, "We very regularly come across people who have not just been verbally abused, but physically abused...Some people still freshly wincing in pain and have marks from being beaten."

Often, the abuse is at the hands of border agents. She says it is also not uncommon for hospital patients to be dumped into their laps, groggy and still bearing medical tags and IDs.

Maryada can't help but scoff when we ask about the success of the efforts to "close the border." The most determined, she explains, cross daily, sometimes right under the nose of the gringo military machine. Coyotes regularly dig holes under the fence, and the occasional valiente will navigate the array of obstacles directly, thwarting the multi-million-dollar sensors by crawling on their belly.

For a few, deportation is an inconvenience. A cell-phone call away is another coyote and another chance en el norte. For others, it represents the destruction of their hopes and dreams. For the penniless migrants--often indigenous or from the interior, with nothing left to offer for passage and no primos who "know someone" or owe them a favor--the burden of capture weighs heavily.

For the family of 10 we see on the road, it is a long trip back to Querétaro--and back to saving centavos for the next try in a year or two. The matriarch--separated from her husband in Atlanta and four months pregnant with his child--will have to postpone her reunion. She tells her story to Nohelia while Maryada treats the blisters on her feet.

As I look across the faces of the travelers, I see a thousand different stories--loved ones left behind, painful months of separation, and the more immediate concern about the whereabouts of tonight's meal.

The family disappears under an overpass heading south, the somber scene is etched into my mind. While I dwell on speculations about their future, I'm suddenly shaken out of my daze. "Two more buses!" shouts one of the aid workers. Maryada says her farewells and goes to the road. We drive off to el norte.

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A desert testimonial

TO COUNTER the 21 anti-immigrant "field hearings" held across the U.S. by members of Congress this summer, the Tucson-based Coalición de Derechos Humanos (Coalition for Human Rights) is holding its own hearing on August 17.

The three-hour event will include testimony from more than 20 activists, lawyers, experts and advocates for border crossers, immigrant workers and indigenous peoples. With U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) heading up the panel of experts that heard them, the testimonials captivate the room with their raw emotion.

Police have set up a huge security perimeter around the building. We learn that before we arrived, Russ Dove, a member of the local anti-immigrant Border Guardians, entered the meeting hall to disrupt the proceedings. After insulting people in the room, he was asked to leave and finally arrested by Tucson police. Dove became notorious this past April when he burned a Mexican flag during one of the massive pro-immigrant protests in Tucson.

The hearing gets underway, and one of the first presenters is Gloria Mitchel, the aunt of Juan de Jesús Rivera Cota. She sobs as she recounts the circumstances that led to her 16-year-old nephew's murder by a U.S. Border Patrol agent on May 11, 2005. A hushed silence falls over the packed auditorium.

Jesús decided to come to the U.S. in search of work to help support his family. He was driving a truck with five other young men and had just crossed the border when they saw dusty tracks ahead. The travelers panicked and turned around. Suddenly, a Border Patrol vehicle appeared on the road, blocking their way.

According to the Border Patrol, the officer shot and killed Jesús because the truck appeared to be barreling toward him without slowing. But Gloria says this couldn't be true because he was shot from behind, not from the front. The bullet that killed him entered through the back of his head and exited through his eye.

"My nephew Jesús moved to the U.S to help his mother and sister, after his father left his family," Gloria said in an interview after the hearing. "He felt the responsibility to fend for his family. He came here to work. His death has had a big impact on his family because he was the sole provider for his mother who was disabled--she only had one leg and walked with a cane--and also provided for his sister who had three children and another on the way...

"With one paycheck, he wasn't able to make enough to feed five people, plus himself [in Mexico]. That's the reason that people leave--and we are treated like criminals and are killed."

Other experts at the hearing testify about labor rights, indigenous rights and the growing environmental crisis caused by U.S. corporations running toxic maquiladora operations.

Yendi Castillo, a Pima County public defender, speaks about the changes she has witnessed since she began representing immigrants in federal court. "Will we allow the continuation of our government to pay for private corporations to profit from Constitutional violations?" asks Castillo, explaining that the average sentence for an undocumented immigrant in Tucson has grown from 10 days in 1998 to 30 days today.

"Once in court, the 'criminal alien' is not a person, but a commodity...Generally, defendants are not being housed in government-run prisons. They are increasingly held in private-run prisons with stockholders, where the principal incentive is profit..."

"Two of my clients have died while in prison," says Castillo, her voice tightening and tears filling her eyes. "Both of these men were healthy when they got to prison. How do you quantify the loss of their lives?"

Everyone in the auditorium feels Castillo's raw emotions. We are especially moved by the solidarity she expresses with others who face similar circumstances in different parts of the world.

"Currently, Lockheed, Northrup Grumman and Raytheon are competing for a contract to develop a high-tech border for $2.5 billion," Castillo says. "This is the technology of war--we're talking radar, we're talking sensors, we're talking drones. This is what we are seeing in Palestine."

Yendi isn't alone in this observation. Several speakers make a similar identification with the plight of the Palestinians--a shared sense of the burden of living under the violence of occupation and a stubborn refusal to be worn down by the occupier's hostility to the occupied's language, culture and even existence.

After the hearing, we go out for a late-night dinner with about a dozen of the main organizers and speakers at the event. We sit across from Leilani, a 17-year-old high school senior who's half-Native American and half-African American. She was one of the many volunteers who made the event a success. Her activism began a short time ago--with this spring's pro-immigrant protests--but her assessment of the world and her role in it has developed quickly.

"Our generation has seen a lot--from Katrina to the war in Iraq to the big protests this spring," she explains. "We are waking up."

She quickly produces pages of e-mails exposing the links between the Border Guardians, their racist congressional candidate Joe Sweeny and various white supremacists. "I've got a target on me." she says. "Whenever they see me, they say, 'Hello, Leilani.' But I'm not going to stop what I'm doing."

About 2,000 of the 3,000 kids in her high school participated in the largest of the walkouts for immigrant rights, which happened almost every day during one week in April. Students from six or seven Tucson high schools marched downtown for joint demonstrations of many thousands.

The memories and inspiration of those days seem to fuel everything about Leilani, from her rapid speaking style to the intensity of her drive to keep up the fight, no matter the intimidation.

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