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Day 5: Tucson and Sasabe

Reclaiming a stolen past
South to Sasabe
The staging ground
History's gateway

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Reclaiming a stolen past

PIERCING THE Tucson skyline, the white adobe steeples of a towering Catholic Church reclaims la tierra for Arizona's Spanish-Indigenous past.

We were told that the meeting is at a white Catholic Church, so we are immediately drawn to the most impressive one. We soon find out this isn't it, so we move on. It becomes apparent that several of these rustic churches--now squeezed between strip malls and other trappings of urban living--form the silhouette of the old pueblo.

We finally locate Santa Cruz Church several blocks further south. It is here that we find a meeting in a courtyard, with the participants taking refuge from the heat under a corrugated tin canopy.

This is a gathering of ex-braceros organizing to tell a story that has been buried for 40 years. The grassroots coalition, called the Alianza Braceroproa (Bracero Workers Alliance), is seeking both dignity and withheld wages robbed from them in their youth.

They are a few of the more than 4 million workers who were brought from Mexico as "temporary workers" to labor in the fields (and occasionally on the railroads) from 1942 to 1964. Set up to satisfy a labor shortage during the Second World War, the bracero program quickly evolved into a semi-permanent fixture in the countryside.

The meeting has brought together men and their wives from both sides of the border, from Phoenix to Hermosillo. They had established roots across the region, but are now being pulled back together by the desire for closure and the hope of passing their lessons on to the next generation of Mexican workers looking north.

At stake is the disappearance of an estimated $1 billion to $3 billion (including interest) in bracero wages into the coffers of U.S. and Mexican banks--hard-earned dollars that have never found their way into workers' hands. Under the bracero program, U.S. authorities deducted 10 percent of the migrant workers' wages and placed them in savings accounts, which were supposed to be given to the farmers upon their return to Mexico.

Designed as a way to "entice" them to return home, the money trail passed from Wells Fargo Bank and Union Trust Company of San Francisco to the Bank of Mexico and then to the Banco de Credito Agricola in Mexico--and into oblivion.

Under the program, workers were brought in and dispersed directly to growers and tied to them for the duration of their contract, stripping them of their freedom of movement. Government oversight amounted to using la migra to police unruly workers while ignoring the increasingly criminal farm labor conditions.

By creating a group of workers deprived of democratic rights, the growers hoped to drive unions into permanent exile from the fields. Having absolute control over their workers, with little or no government oversight, encouraged agricultural capital to degenerate more into a class of gangsters--with immigration agents as muscle.

This corrupt relationship reached its pinnacle with the theft of bracero wages--used by U.S. banks to rack up short-term interest and likely siphoned by their Mexican counterparts into personal accounts (in Switzerland or back to the U.S.). Like then, braceros are still finding ways to resist. Weathered, wizened and still favoring pains as old as the crimes committed against them, they congregate and plan.

Since the late 1990s, the ex-braceros' movement has grown, holding hundreds of meetings, protests and marches to bring attention to their cause. In 2004, more than 1,000 stormed the Guanajuato ranch of Mexican President Vicente Fox to demand the return of their money.

During the mass marches of May 1, 2006, dozens of braceros joined other protesters in shutting down the northbound lanes of the Tijuana-San Diego border crossing--effectively closing the port to the sparse traffic that failed to heed the call to boycott.

Taking seats at the back of the group, we see a young woman addressing the group seated atop a picnic table. Violeta, who hardly appears older than a college student, is a bespectacled organizer who was won the respect of the braceros through her impassioned commitment to their cause.

Despite her thin frame, a powerful voice resonates above the rows of sun-parched cowboy hats. Each sentence is punctuated with a forceful "Uh?" (a Mexican colloquialism equivalent to ¿verdad?).

True to the Mexican tradition of "testimonials" in working-class politics, the men periodically break out in story to illustrate history. The most painful memories are not the sore backs, swollen hands or pesticide-filled lungs, but the indignities suffered at the border and in the fields--from having their heads shaved and being "de-loused" with gas like animals at the border, to being treated like slaves by bosses who saw them only as expendable workhorses.

These images from a stolen past are seared into the collective memory of the bracero, experiences they recall with the most precise and vivid detail. It is this message they are especially interested in communicating to the next generation of workers, especially as a new bracero program is being discussed by rich men in Washington who have likely never had to work a single hard day in their lives.

"¡Hay que luchar!" (We have to fight!), concludes one of the men, and the rest of the group nods in agreement.

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South to Sasabe

THERE'S A game that Kat Rodriguez plays when she makes the drive from Tucson, where she staffs the office of the Coalición de Derechos Humanos, to Sasabe, Mexico, one of the most active staging grounds for migrants making the final push over the border through the Sonoran desert. Kat keeps a running total of the number of Border Patrol vehicles she sees moving along the two-lane highway that connects the 60 miles between Tucson and Sasabe. The most she's ever seen in one trip is 34.

Kat has accompanied lots of people curious about border crossers to Sasabe--especially reporters and elected officials. "I took a delegation of elected officials from New Jersey down to Nogales," she explains, "and there's a hill where you have a great view of the land with the fence, this scar, running through it.

"Suddenly, this guy runs out, leaps up on the fence and is running along the top of the fence, and he jumps into Mexico. There's a Border Patrol vehicle sitting at the top of the slope. And these elected officials are stuttering, aren't they going to do something about that?"

Kat laughs at the idea that a Border Patrol agent would care about someone crossing to the Mexico side. "What would they do about it?" she asks. "This guy is going back--besides the agent would have to get out of his air-conditioned car into the hot sun."

I ask Kat why someone would cross to the Mexico side in such a fashion. Her reply encapsulates an entire worldview that goes with living on la línea. "We're bicultural, we're from both sides," she says. "Maybe he lives on both sides, maybe he needed to go buy something, and he didn't want to go through the line.

"That's the thing that people don't get. We don't recognize that border in the way that they want us to. You don't just draw a line and tell somebody to pick a side. It's like asking somebody to cut their body in half and pick which side they want. You don't live without both of the sides."

Kat interrupts herself. "Is that 10 and 11 or 11 and 12?" she asks as two more Border Patrol vehicles pass us going north.

"We're Tejano, we're from San Antonio," she continues. "My family is from the same land in San Antonio that we've always been from. We never crossed. I don't have relatives in Mexico. My family doesn't have a history of immigration.

"We never 'came' to this country, we were already there, we were where we are. The border literally crossed us, and we were assimilated. And I say 'assimilated' because we were told not to speak Spanish. My parents didn't teach us Spanish because they were told not to.

"So I had to learn it at school, and in my job, I learned a lot of Spanish, of course. People forget that there are millions of us who are Tejanos and Chicanos, and we never 'came' anywhere."

Kat's story starts Nohelia, who grew up on both sides, from Mexicali to San Diego, thinking about her friends and family. For them, the border represents an annoyance, or even a barrier, but one that fails at its purpose of separation.

"In San Diego, there's a lot of people who cross the border daily," says Nohelia. "To go to school, to work, to shop. A lot of my friends have to cross the border on a regular basis. So even after school, they're not staying in the U.S. They have to go back to Tijuana and make that trek the next day and the next and the next."

Kat asks why people cross to go to school. "Are they U.S. citizens?" she wonders. "Some of them are U.S. citizens," Nohelia replies. "Or people like me--we had relatives or friends who had homes in the U.S., and we borrowed their address and went to school in the U.S."

We pass through an internal Border Patrol checkpoint as we're heading south on Highway 286. Kat says they may tell me to stop taking pictures, but we'll just play dumb. She almost seems eager for them to see me, welcoming the opportunity to defy, even in this small way, the regime of militarization and border enforcement.

In the end, they don't see me snapping photos. It's just as well. I don't have anything to hide, but I'm not eager to find out if the agents are as unfriendly as they look.

I ask Kat if the five vehicles at the checkpoint should add to the running total, but she says that's cheating--they have to be moving. And just as she says that 15 and 16 pass, going the other direction.

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The staging ground

KAT'S STORIES make the time fly right by, and we're arriving in Sasabe, crossing over la línea, and rumbling through the dusty streets of Sasabe, Mexico. It takes just a couple minutes, and we're already on the edge of town heading towards a colonia--one of the hundreds of neighborhoods that have sprung up along the U.S.-Mexico border, with few to no services like electricity or water.

Residents of this colonia eke out a living making bricks or collecting and selling scrap. And coyotes use the area as a staging ground for crossers. The coyotes, or guides, demand huge sums--$1,500 to $3,500 per person--to take people across the border.

The inherent dangers and illegality have turned border crossing into a huge underground economy, which even legitimate businesses cater to. As we melt under Sasabe's sun, a huge Pepsi truck pulls up to stock la tiendita (little store) with beverages that will undoubtedly sustain someone across days of walking through the desert.

Kat explains that some will walk 70 miles over three days--almost all the way to Tucson. Others walk about half that, make it to a safe house, then get picked up and taken to Phoenix.

But the coyotes invariably lie about how long it will take. They say it'll take eight or 10 hours, or just a day, because they are competing with one another to land "clients." Truth in advertising is hard to come by, especially on the border. "But it's not the coyote who gets the money," says Kat. "He's just a pawn. The money is going to a few big bosses."

The first group of would-be crossers we approach is from the southern Mexican state of Veracruz. There are about 10 who shift nervously as we approach.

Kat has a stack of "Know your rights" cards that she hands out when she goes to Sasabe. The cards, written in Spanish, of course, explain the rights that people have if they are picked up by Border Patrol--the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney and the right to a deportation hearing. But, the card suggests, if it's your first time crossing, and you don't have any possibility of legal entry, it's better to agree to "Voluntary departure" rather than go to a hearing, which could carry serious consequences.

The group from Veracruz is waiting for their coyote. This evening, they will try to cross for the third time. They've arranged to work off their debt to the coyote once they arrive in the U.S., which gives a sense of just how vast the border-crossing economy is. It's likely that they already have a number to call when they arrive to line up work--an arrangement of indentured servitude in the "land of the free."

The next group we talk to is from Chiapas, which lies on Mexico's southern border with Guatemala. The group of 12, most of whom are friends, each paid 675 pesos (about $65) for a bus ride to Sasabe.

They answer our questions with clipped phrases. They say they're not too nervous, but the anxious smiles give them away. They are all between 18 and 25 years old. They say they are bound for California and are willing to work anywhere--in a field, a factory, whatever.

And they say that if they are apprehended, they will certainly try to cross again.

For several years running now, the Border Patrol has apprehended more than 1 million people a year. Agents apprehend about 700 each and every day in the Tucson sector--all of whom end up being dropped in Nogales, where we visited the Migrant Help Center two days ago.

It's impossible to say how many individual people are behind these statistics, because some will make it across on their first or second try, while others won't until their sixth, seventh or eighth try. But one thing is certain--none of the border militarization and enforcement measures will succeed in discouraging people from trying, so long as the demand for labor remains higher in the U.S. than in Mexico.

Wayne Cornelius is the director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California-San Diego, and in early August, he testified at the field hearing in San Diego. "My research findings," he said, "based on highly detailed, face-to-face interviews with 1,327 migrants and their relatives in Mexico during the last 18 months, support earlier research showing that tightened border enforcement since 1993 has not stopped or even discouraged unauthorized migrants from entering the United States."

What's more, Cornelius continued, the enforcement measures have the consequence of forcing migrant workers who would prefer to return to Mexico after coming to the U.S. and earning money for a while to adopt a different approach.

"With clandestine border crossing an increasingly expensive and risky business, U.S. border enforcement policy has unintentionally encouraged undocumented migrants to remain in the U.S. for longer periods, and settle permanently in this country in much larger numbers," he said.

Border enforcement is worse than ineffective, however--because it has had the intended consequence of stirring up anti-immigrant sentiment. By focusing on the crossers instead of the social forces that impel people to cross, politicians of both parties legitimate anger at "the illegals." Border militarization allows this drama to play out at the national and local levels.

At the local level, forcing immigration into more desolate areas puts small towns and communities right in the path of huge migratory flows. Kat points out that this has the effect of overwhelming small hospitals with cases of dehydration, hyperthermia, hypothermia and more.

"The federal government is forcing all this migration through here, but the federal government doesn't give any money to the local hospitals," she says. "So some people start resenting the migrants. But who should we be blaming?

"It's the federal government that should be helping local governments with the cost, especially the border hospitals in Bisbee and Douglas. They can't handle the increased traffic anymore. People scapegoat immigrants for bleeding off our health care system. But they're not recognizing that this is an intentional process that's taking place.

"And no one asks the question why the migration itself is happening--what's displacing people. That would mean we would have to re-evaluate NAFTA and CAFTA and all these free trade agreements that have been the real forces behind migration."

At the national level, politicians from both parties have turned border militarization into a "national security" issue--as if the great mass of would-be gardeners, busboys, field hands and assembly-line workers looking to send money to their loved ones are about to launch a wave of "terrorism."

As Kat puts it, "Terrorism and immigration have nothing to do with each other, but most of America right now has that in their head. The media pushes that forward, and nobody questions that. And I blame our supposed friends in Washington, the liberals, for letting it get to the point where migration and terrorism are even thought of as the same issue. How the hell did we get to this point?"

Kat tells us that she's relieved that both comprehensive "reform" bills--Sensenbrenner and McCain-Kennedy--failed to get through Congress this year. "I'm glad nothing passed because it was all horrible. McCain-Kennedy had some good pieces in there, but it also had some horrible stuff."

Living in a border state with Janet Napolitano, a Democratic governor, Kat is no stranger to the political game. In a letter to her "supporters," she recapped some of her accomplishments. "We were the first to deploy the National Guard to assist at the border and have been relentless in our pressure on the federal government to do its job," she said, sounding straight out of the land of the Minutemen. Napolitano also talks of successes in deploying new technology to detect "illegal immigrants and drugs on our highways."

"We got her in," Kat laments. "She would not have been elected without people campaigning for her, and then she forgot about us. She declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard. It's a political move. People say that she and Bill Richardson, the Democratic governor of New Mexico, have their eye on Washington. She's as conservative a Democrat as you can be. She knows she's got the left already, and so she's pandering to the right. She figures who the hell else are we going to vote for?

The same dynamic is at work in California, says Justin. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger resisted the idea of declaring a 'state of emergency' on the border, says Justin, "even though he also says he 'salutes' the Minutemen. But the speaker of the assembly, Fabian Núñez, says we should call for a state of emergency in California. And he's a Democrat, a traditional 'liberal' Democrat."

These debates are more than just debates for people living on the border, says Kat. "For a lot of folks from Washington, it's a line in a bill," she says. "But to us, it's an actual wall that we're going to have to literally live and die with.

"I've had people from D.C. say to me that we've got to be 'realistic'--that nothing is going to pass without some measures regarding national security and enforcement, that you've got to be able to give something up to get something.

"But what they don't understand is what they're willing to give up is us. We're the sold-out piece. Forgive us for kicking and screaming all the way to the fire, but we're going to do it. And on top of that, we're being sacrificed for nothing because these measures aren't going to change anything unless you address the national migration issue and get to the roots of it."

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History's gateway

AS WE drive along the highway through Pima County, Ariz., the pristine surroundings and majestic mountains lull me into a time warp. It is through this valley that some of the first Spanish expeditions pushed into el norte, seeking gold, converts and fertile lands.

It is also where the Pima Indians fought to preserve their ancestral lands and culture from the cross-bearing conquerors, beginning a 500-year struggle of resistance that continues to this day.

This corridor, a geographic gateway that links Arizona to Sonora, still absorbs the migrating expeditions from Mexico--although now it's Mexico's poor and displaced who are following in the footsteps of previous generations.

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