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Commentary :: Civil & Human Rights

Exodus: Border-Crossers Forge a New America

In America

The birds can no longer be trusted. Our government suspects a duck or a goose, perhaps that rare swan, will bring plague to our shores. The ice is melting, also. The polar bears are fated to die, the seas are guaranteed to rise and flood our coasts. The skies have mutinied and new monster winds whip off the ocean. We've already lost one city and there is concern about future storms. We worry about nuclear weapons that are not controlled by white people. The government eavesdrops on many people and says this is necessary for our protection. The enemies can be anywhere and appear as almost anything.

The boy sits by the road on a dirt embankment in Arizona about four miles north of the Mexican border. His clothing is dark, his shoes casual. He wears a cap and a daypack. He is the face of yet one more official enemy. And he is lost and afraid. He's been trying to flag down Border Patrol vehicles but he says they pass him by. He is 17 and afraid to give his name. He is afraid of the desert. He is afraid to talk of the coyote he hired. He is not afraid of the Border Patrol, but he cannot seem to get the agents' attention.

The night before, he left Sásabe, Sonora, a small Mexican town of several thousand less than 10 miles away. He was hauled along the fence to the west and then started walking north in a group of about 30. A chopper with searchlights appeared in the dark, his group scattered and he could not find them again. A 26–year–old woman from Chiapas died near this spot last summer, one of the 400 or 500 who now perish each year crossing the border in this new version of the Middle Passage. But he knows nothing of that. What he fears is the desert of night that he just endured.

His father paints houses in Florida and knows the boy can get work. So he has brought his son north from Veracruz and guaranteed a smuggler $1,700 for his passage to Florida and then in the darkness all went wrong.

The boy wonders if his coyote will return for him. I tell him, Not likely.

He wonders if he can make a phone call using Mexican money. I tell him, No.

I point north to an Indian village just 500 yards away. I give him 20 bucks and say, Go there, give them the money, they will let you call your father in Florida. Most likely, the boy will be picked up by the Border Patrol, dumped back in Mexico, and tomorrow or the day after that join a new group of migrants, probably with the same smuggling organization, and move toward his future, again.

Mesquite clots the land here and a hundred people moving 50 yards away would be invisible. On the ground by the highway are clumps of one–gallon water bottles marking where coyotes picked up migrants. Nearby trees lining the arroyos hide temporary camps where men and women and children waited for rides.

Thirty years ago, I was in almost this exact spot with an old Indian man who still raised crops in the desert by capturing the summer rains, a tactic called ak–chin. At night he'd sleep in his field on a cot. He had ropes racing out from beside his bed and linked to suspended tin cans he'd rattle in the darkness when he heard coyotes –– the real and native canines of the desert –– come for his squash and melons. (Like humans, coyotes are omnivores.) Now that old man is dead, his field abandoned, and no one does traditional agriculture here. The tribe has moved on to welfare, casino gambling, and smuggling illegals and drugs.

One day, after I left that old man, I found two Mexicans wandering in the desert with gallon jugs of water. They had been walking toward farm work in the upper Altar Valley. But they'd been crushed by the summer heat and looked at me with broken faces. I put them in my car and drove them almost a hundred miles there without a thought. Now, I won't drive a frightened boy 500 yards to a phone because I'm worried about getting busted by the Border Patrol and facing huge legal expenses.

Depending on the sector of the line, an estimated 10 or 20 percent of the Mexicans moving north give up after being repeatedly bagged by the Border Patrol. Or they do not. On the line, all numbers are fictions. The exportation of human beings by Mexico now reaches, officially, a half million souls a year. Or double that. Or triple that. What is for certain are the apprehensions by the Border Patrol (during one week this April, agents caught 12,434 people in the 262–mile Tucson Sector, for example). And that any reduction of poverty in Mexico takes two forms: the exportation of brown flesh to the United States, and the money those people send home to sustain the people, la gente, whom their government ignores.

Everything else is talk. And bad talk.

There are no honest players in this game. People cut the cards to fit their ideology. More Mexicans come north than either government admits. They do take jobs. (They say Mexicans take jobs Americans refuse to do. This is probably true in some instances. But in the mid–1960s slaughterhouse workers earned twice the current wage for their toil. Now such jobs are held by Mexicans.) They do commit crimes. And if the arrival of millions of poor people in the United States does not drive down wages, then surely there is a Nobel Prize to be earned in studying this remarkable exception to the law of supply and demand.

They are no longer migratory workers. And it is not seasonal labor. The people walking north all around me are not going home again. This is an exodus from a failed economy and a barbarous government and their journey is biblical.

And all the solutions in political play are idiocy. Worker permits? Demand at this moment is certainly the 12 million illegals in the United States today, and it climbs each year by maybe a million more. Open the border? Mexicans would be trampled to death by Asians storming up the open route and, also, by other Latin Americans, those folks the Border Patrol calls OTMs, Other Than Mexicans. Build a wall? The border consists of 1,951 miles of desert, mountains, and scrub, a zone legally traversed by 350 million people a year–the busiest border in the world. Employer sanctions to make illegals unemployable? Fine, then Mexicans go home and Mexico erupts and we have a destroyed nation on our southern border and even greater illegal migration. In 1910, the Mexican Revolution ripped apart a nation of 15 million souls. One out of 15 died. But 892,000 fled to the United States. Now there are 108 million Mexicans. Do the math.

There are piles of studies on these matters, studies that prove illegal migration benefits the United States, studies that prove it does not benefit the United States, studies that show it enhances the GDP or has little or no contribution to the GDP. There are plans to manage this migration and plans to stop it dead in its tracks. There are proposed solutions. And, of course, there are claims that we don't really need a solution, because mass migration is natural for a nation of immigrants and as American as apple pie.

But in the end, you don't get to pick solutions. You simply have choices, and by these choices you will discover who you really are. You can turn your back on poor people, or you can open your arms and welcome them into an increasingly crowded country and exhausted landscape.

I think this country already has too many people and that the ground under our feet is being murdered and the sky over our heads is being poisoned. I find these beliefs pointless when I stand on the line.

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