Days 1 to 3: San Diego to Nogales

July 22, 2011

The U.S.-Mexico border is more than just a boundary that separates two countries. But what else it represents depends on who you are. U.S. politicians, corporate executives and right-wing vigilantes see one thing. The millions of workers and poor across Central and South America see something else.

In August 2006--a few months after the immigrant rights mega-marches of that year--Socialist Worker's Justin Akers Chacón, Eric Ruder and Nohelia Ramos traveled from San Diego/Tijuana to El Paso/Ciudad Juarez and back to speak with activists, immigration experts and migrant workers. Their day-by-day account of the journey appeared in the September 29 and October 6, 2006, editions of SW. Here we publish the first section of their journal.

Day 1: San Diego

Bienvenidos to the border | Eric

National borders are both real and artificial.

Along its border with Mexico, the U.S. has built walls, installed electronic sensors, stationed National Guard troops and financed a small army of Border Patrol agents who patrol la línea 24/7. These physical reinforcements give the border an imposing presence in the lives of everyone who lives near it.

But in San Diego, where conversations between friends move easily between Spanish and English, where the music drifting through the streets changes from the polka norteño beat to bass-thumping hip hop, where taquerías and burger joints compete for attention on every street corner, everyday life mocks the border. Commerce, culture and people spill over it in every direction.

At any time of the day or night, a line of cars and people waits to cross from Tijuana into the U.S.

Countless motivations send people from one side to the other. There are U.S. citizens of Mexican descent returning home to the U.S. after visiting family members on the other side, there are Americans whose work takes them across the border, there are Mexicans with one-day shopping visas, Americans in search of affordable dental work, and on and on.

Near the main border crossing in Nogales, Ariz., the border fence leaps out from the surrounding landscape
Near the main border crossing in Nogales, Ariz., the border fence leaps out from the surrounding landscape (Eric Ruder | SW)

Of the 500 million people officially admitted to the U.S. each year, 60 percent enter by crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Every year, about 90 million cars and 4.3 million trucks cross. Every day, about $683 million in trade is conducted along the U.S.-Mexico border.

At the San Diego-Tijuana crossing along, some 14 million people enter the U.S. annually--an astonishing number considered alongside San Diego's population of 1.2 million.

Tomorrow, Justin, Nohelia and I will drive east along the border--through the towns of Tucson, Nogales, Sasabe and Douglas in Arizona; reach El Paso/Ciudad Juarez for two days; and then head back to San Diego and spend some time in Tijuana and among farmworkers in north San Diego County.

Tonight, I'm going with Nohelia to the weekly immigrant rights coalition meeting in San Diego, but first I drop Nohelia off to do some door-to-door canvassing in City Heights, a predominantly Latino neighborhood on San Diego's north side.

Papers paranoia | Nohelia

As we pull up, Eric notices six cop cars in the space of a few blocks. Yes, I explain, they're everywhere in this neighborhood. They set up checkpoints to ask people for their papers.

Since May 1, the San Diego Police Department (SDPD) has increased its presence in this multicultural community. The local office of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) reports that police are setting up checkpoints to interrogate drivers randomly.

Failure to present a driver's license is grounds for an immediate citation, but simply carrying a driver's license may not be sufficient to avoid the heat. The AFSC notes that citations from the SDPD are cross-referenced with the federal government's immigration enforcement database when a person's record shows repeated offenses due to citations from illegal crossings.

The events of 9/11 legitimized this form of racial profiling to include immigrants. But this is also a backlash against this spring's immigrant rights protests--aimed at intimidating, criminalizing and frightening immigrant communities into submission.

The debate over whether and how to crack down on undocumented workers is sharpening in cities and towns across Southern California. Historically, municipalities have allowed their police departments to cooperate with the INS (which, since it has come under the Department of Homeland Security, is now known as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE).

The constant fear that you may be confronted by police demanding proof of citizenship produces a sort of "papers paranoia" in the community. Either you have it or you don't, and if you do, you must carry it with you at all times.

It is hard enough to have to face interrogations at border crossings or when confronted by police, but with the passage of anti-immigrant local laws, more and more Latinos are confronted more and more frequently with the demand for proof of citizenship.

In Escondido, Calif., a new law will fine landlords a $1,000 per day per occupant for renting apartments to undocumented immigrants--meaning that landlords not only can, but must, demand citizenship papers before renting to Latinos.

But there are also local communities moving in the opposite direction. The mayor of National City recently announced that he wants to declare this town in the southern part of metropolitan San Diego a "sanctuary city"--meaning that city funds will not be used to enforce federal immigration laws.

Sí Se Puede--San Diego's citywide immigrant rights coalition--is gathering signatures in support of the National City mayoral initiative with hopes of launching a similar campaign in San Diego.

Home Depot despots | Eric

It's one of the countless clear cool evenings that descend on San Diego year-round, and Nohelia and I are walking into a small art gallery where Sí Se Puede meets.

Most of the meeting deals with the sanctuary city campaign and the details of an upcoming forum. But sandwiched between all the organizational decisions is an item that brought smiles to the faces of everyone in the room.

Joaquin explains that the San Diego police yesterday arrested one of several Minutemen who was harassing day laborers at the Home Depot at Fairmont-Mission Gorge--a welcome reversal for those who usually bear the brunt of police harassment.

The Minuteman began by harassing an activist, calling her "fat," then repeatedly shoved her and told her she should go to a "fat farm." The bigot also lashed out at other activists with epithets such as "beaner supporters."

The cops told the Minuteman to back off several times. Then an African American couple drove up, and the Minuteman began harassing them, apparently thinking that they were there to hire day laborers.

When an altercation broke out, the police finally stepped in to arrest the Minuteman--but incredibly (or perhaps not so incredibly), they also cited the African American guy.

The other Minutemen, not at all accustomed to police arresting a fellow bigot, were so stunned that they began shrieking about the arrogance of the "communist cops" arresting their compatriot.

The smiles at the meeting were more than just satisfaction at a Minuteman getting his comeuppance. There was palpable hope that maybe, just maybe, this arrest would alter the usual pattern of abuse--perhaps forcing some doubt into the heads of the Minutemen, sapping their confidence just a little bit, and therefore easing the lives of the day laborers by just that much.

In an e-mail, Gail Perez, a professor at the University of San Diego, described the typical scene outside the Home Depot: "If anyone would like to see what it was like in Mississippi or Greensboro, N.C., in 1960, they should volunteer as human rights observers at a Home Depot...[to monitor] the obscene display of racial hatred put on by the Minutemen...

"There you can experience a flag-carrying patriot scream obscenities in your face and watch these same 'heroes' deprive the most vulnerable of people--day laborers--from making enough money to eat.

"It really is just like the '60s. You can watch the Minutemen chat up the police and the armed guards from Home Depot, and watch as they do nothing to make these people refrain from chasing cars and potential employers all over this 'private property' parking lot. If you are a human rights observer, though, you will be relegated to a distant strip of sidewalk.

"While this circus seems to be a sideshow to the immigration policy debate, it should be remembered that this race-baiting and harassment is preventing many, many workers from getting work. As one man said, 'We don't work, we don't eat.' In addition, the Minutemen were screaming threats at ANY car that drove by and that they perceived to be driven by an 'illegal'--in other words, anyone who appeared to be Latino...

"Our communities should take a coordinated stand against the despicable behavior I witnessed. The level of cowardice of these people who attack the most vulnerable people in the city is truly horrible. Let us be silent no longer."

Day 2: East to Tucson

The border contradiction | Eric

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.

State within a state | Justin

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.

Day 3: Nogales and Tucson

Border crossings and border crosses | Eric

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.

Last stop on the green line | Justin

"¡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.

A desert testimonial | Eric and Justin

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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