The officer leans over the window. “Sir. Can I see your driver’s license?”
A normal enough, though irritating, scenario for most of us. But from within the cab of the vehicle emanates an unbearable heaviness—the driver is Mexican, he doesn’t speak English. What begins as a routine traffic stop shifts to a search for immigration papers and, for many, a one-way ticket to the other side of the US-Mexico border.
I know this because one Friday night last January my friends Alfredo and Miguel were picked up for driving an unregistered car outside the Supersave discount food store in Española, New Mexico. They were placed for the weekend in what was then called Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) hold at the Santa Fe county jail, and on Monday, before they could even contact the local immigration-rights group, each was given a hearing that lasted less than two minutes, and they were bused to the border.
When government agents escorted them over the Santa Fe Street Bridge to Ciudad Juarez, the time was 10:00 p.m., the temperature, 36 degrees. Having just left a mid-winter warm spell in the north, they were wearing only thin nylon shells for coats. Having just wired most of their week’s earnings home to their families in Sinaloa and Chihuahua and spent the rest on groceries, they arrived in Juarez with zero dólares.
Deportation is the predictable result of any arrest for violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act. According to the 2000 Census, the United States is home to between 6 and 9 million undocumented people, and while Mexicans represent between 39 and 55 percent of this population, 90 percent of those arrested for illegal entry are Mexican nationals.
Migration from south of the border has flowed in a steady stream for as long as there has been a wealthier nation to the north, but numbers increased dramatically in 1994 after the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Touted for its potential to raise the standard of living of Mexicans by providing an explosion of new industrial jobs, NAFTA has actually had the opposite effect.
Work in the corporate maquilas—factories that popped up to take advantage of lax labor and environmental regulations—typically pays US $1.20 an hour. According to a study by the Center for Reflection, Education and Action in Hartford, Conn., to support a family of four with such salaries would require five workers.
Also, as US tariff-free, corporate-grown agricultural products like corn and wheat poured into Mexico, over 1 million campesino families were driven off their lands from the competition. Since NAFTA’s January 2003 phasing-out of protective tariffs on coffee, 600 farms collapse each day. The World Bank describes Mexico as “one of the most inequitable economies in Latin America;” the average urban dweller subsists on $1.90 a day; in the countryside $1.30.
As a result, every year since 1994—by boat, underground pipeline, or desert trek—increasing numbers of Mexicans have been risking life and limb to enter the United States to find work. As Miguel puts it, he came north because back home people ‘cannot even afford to buy toilet paper.” At this point, the third largest source of national income, just behind tourism and the illicit drug trade, is money sent home by migrants.
And for those migrants who are undocumented, deportation is a daily threat. Miguel has been sent back eight times, Alfredo more than 20. His most spectacular deportation was an INS-sponsored airplane ride from Sierra Vista, Ariz., 229 miles to El Paso, Tex., and then—as if Juarez, across the border from El Paso, were not far enough from Sierra Vista—607 miles farther south to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Upon arriving at the airport, Alfredo called his employer-patron in Phoenix and, using money he wired, hopped a bus to Agua Prieta where he began the journey north all over again.
The lesson? The urge to save loved ones from starvation is irrepressible. The meaning of the word machismo comes into stark focus. Rather than the modern emphasis on insecurity-laced male bravado, the term originally meant the act of taking care of one’s family, and with their do-or-die dedication, Alfredo and Miguel present perfect examples of this quality. “For every barrier that’s set up,”Alfredo says, “there’s a way around it.”
Case in point: When he and Miguel found themselves mounting the bridge to Juarez, they were already plotting their return. They hitched a ride west to Agua Prieta, where Alfredo has family. It was the weekend of February 1: not a good time to cross. President Bush had just aimed his “weeks-not-months” ultimatum at Iraq. North Korea was hauling its stockpile of nuclear fuel rods out of storage, and eight European countries had signed on to go to war alongside the US. To boot, rumor had it that the Bush administration was considering closing the border completely. No one in, no one out—except for roundups and mass deportations, like in the 1930s. Border patrol officers were nervous and on edge.
The way around this new edginess was to trek up through the Arizona desert via an extremely treacherous route near Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and—along with 38 fellow hopefuls, mostly small farmers from the states of Chiapas and Michoacan, as well as from Guatemala and El Salvador—this they accomplished.
In today’s environment of heightened fear of terrorists, though, the Bush administration is attempting to make the trip even more difficult. In June 2003, the Department of Homeland Security’s reconstituted INS, the Bureau of Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement (BICE), beefed up the “sealed-border” strategy that had been implemented, curiously, since NAFTA’s initiation.
Beginning in 1993, massive budgetary increases laid the ground for the new effort. The INS bank account swelled from $1.5 billion in 1993 to $4.2 billion in 1999 to $6.3 billion in 2003, and the number of agents inflated from 980 in 1994 to 2,264 in 1998 to more than 9500 this year. Programs like Operation Gatekeeper (1994), Operation Safeguard (1995), and Operation Rio Grande (2001) turned the region into what Jennifer Allen of Southwest Alliance to Resist Militarization calls a “war zone” with “solid steel walls, stadium-style lighting that dots the landscape, 30-foot tall surveillance towers, underground surveillance towers, underground surveillance equipment, and armed military troops.”
The new BICE initiative, Operation Triple Strike (OTS), adds another 200 agents beyond the extra 385 already hired in 2003, making the border army the second largest federal law enforcement agency in the US, with more agents than the FBI. OTS also increases surveillance with the addition of two new helicopters to Arizona’s fleet of nine. In keeping with the current lunge to dismantle civil liberties, OTS legalizes anti-immigrant raids in the interior—in neighborhoods, bus depots, and work sites—and sanctions racial profiling of passengers at airports.
Under the guise of preventing the injustices of human smuggling and saving migrants’ lives, the strategy of sealing the border and slashing civil liberties, in effect, ups the ante on the possibility of deportation—and pushes determined machos and machas alike to more lethal crossing routes and into the hands of more repressive smuggling rings.
The good news is that to salve the immense human suffering that has erupted since the implementation of NAFTA, Arizona human rights workers and faith-based groups have begun to provide water tanks in the desert and offer shelter, telephone access and roving medical assistance.
Grassroots organizing to challenge the politics of US policy at the border is also mounting. Speaking to the 2001 United Nations Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, activists from the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR) in Oakland, Calif., demanded that the US abide by the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, to which it is a signator. NNIRR also called for the right of displaced persons, asylum seekers, trafficked people and migrants to move freely across international borders. Perhaps most dramatically, the organization pushed the boundaries of the accepted, “individual-choice” conception of “migrant” by highlighting “the interconnections between globalization, displacement and migration.”
Meanwhile, on July 8 Alfredo and Miguel’s friend from Sinaloa, Eduardo, made his final telephone call to us in Española. He was in Nogales, Sonora, about to launch north. In hopes of passing below the hypervigilent radar of the border patrol, Eduardo was planning to walk for three nights and two days through the treacherous Arizona desert in temperatures upwards of 110 degrees.
As a near-full moon rose into the night sky of July 12, Alfredo and Miguel took off to pick him up in Phoenix. They chose the northern route, hoping to skirt detection by avoiding Albuquerque and Interstate 40, making their way instead through the less-patroled Navajo Nation. They were driving a 1986 Cutlass Supreme— with an outdated license plate.
Chellis Glendinning is a psychologist and writer. Her latest book is “Off the Map: An Expedition Deep into Empire and the Global Economy.”