TUCSON Like many other southern Arizonans, I am deeply grateful to the few dozen vigilantes calling themselves Minutemen who set up camp along the Arizona-Mexico border last month. That few people around here were much impressed with a bunch of retirees in camouflage playing soldier, and that there turned out to be almost as many reporters as patriots on the ground, was irrelevant: We were just thrilled by the publicity. We've been trying to get the rest of the country to notice what's going on down here for years.
U.S. immigration policy has turned the Arizona desert between Tucson and the border into a nightmare zone of suffering, death, destruction and terrible ironies, and the people who live here are sick to death of it. Human beings, fragile desert and a whole way of life are perishing, and no one out there seems to care.
For example: Ten days ago, the U.S. Border Patrol rescued 77 "illegal entrants" stranded in a barren stretch of desert 20 miles west of Tucson. After walking for five days, they'd overpowered their coyote (people smuggler), taken his cell phone, called 911 and written "Help" in big letters in the sand. Temperatures were in the 90s, and the group had run out of water the day before. Four people were taken to the hospital by ambulance for hyperthermia and dehydration; two stopped breathing while being examined. The story was so familiar, though, that the morning paper didn't bother to run a follow-up.
The first thing to understand about the border is that the immediate problem isn't so much the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who flood into the United States from Mexico every year. It's our government's response to them. While President Bush and others are trying to shape a realistic, orderly guest-worker program, one that would be more humane and presumably free up law enforcement to chase smugglers and terrorists, policy on the ground is to keep everyone out.
From a free-market point of view, this movement of people looks like a classic example of the law of supply and demand. Mexico is poor, overpopulated, intensely corrupt and has a nearly limitless supply of cheap, willing labor. Thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement, competition with inexpensive American corn has ruined tens of thousands of small Mexican farmers, while many of the light manufacturing plants just south of the border that drew so many northward a decade ago have moved operations to Asia. People are going hungry.
The United States, on the other hand, is rich and needs workers who will take jobs Americans don't want, for lower wages than Americans will accept. (Try this thought experiment: Imagine suggesting that your teenager take a summer job picking melons for 12 hours a day in California.) If, by magic, the Minutemen's dreams were granted overnight -- if the border were sealed and the estimated 11 million people living in this country illegally were deported -- America would most likely be unrecognizable, and not in a good way. Crops would rot in the fields, bathrooms would stay dirty, mothers of small children would be stuck at home. America is addicted to cheap labor, and withdrawal is beyond contemplation.
Still, we maintain the pretense that we don't want a docile underclass of workers coming into the United States, and we keep trying to catch them as they cross an increasingly policed border.
The militarization of what had been a fairly porous border started in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan's "war on drugs," but began in earnest in 1994, when the Border Patrol mounted Operation Gatekeeper and started building a fence between San Diego and Tijuana, eventually closing the entire California-Mexico border except for one small, environmentally sensitive gap. Then Operation Hold the Line at El Paso and Operation Rio Grande further east shut down most of the Texas border. These changes did not stop the traffic; they simply funneled it into New Mexico and Arizona.
Operation Safeguard was implemented here in Arizona in the border town of Nogales, where a fence went up dividing the American and Sonoran sides of town and diverting migrants out into the desert. The theory on our side seemed to be that no one would be desperate enough to try to cross 50 waterless miles of the Sonoran or Chihuahan desert on foot.
This supposition has proved to be wrong. The Border Patrol's apprehensions between Oct. 1, 2003, and Sept. 30, 2004, in the Tucson sector totaled 491,771, or 1,347 per day, but the population of undocumented immigrants "has been growing robustly during most of the period of 'concentrated border enforcement'," according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. The crossing has not become impossible, just more expensive and dangerous. Since 2000, more than 750 migrants have been found dead in the Arizona desert, according to county medical examiners. And from January 1995 through May 2004, more than 2,600 people have died along the whole border -- roughly one death per day, 10 times the rate before operations began. These are just the documented deaths. No one knows how many more lie out there unknown, unrecovered and unrecoverable -- after skeletons bleach in the sun long enough, cows and other animals eat them for the calcium.
Driving around the spectacular country south of Tucson, it's hard to get your mind around the drama taking place just out of sight. A precarious trail along the slopes of the Baboquivari Mountains to the southwest, for instance, became a popular route last year because it's so hard to patrol. Looking up at the shining white scopes of the National Observatory on Kitt Peak, at the towering sacred monolith of Baboquivari Peak further south, it's hard to believe that dozens of human beings could be risking their lives on those rugged slopes even as you watch. Anyone who takes a bad fall along that trail is unlikely ever to be found.
The strategy of driving border crossers out into the wilds has also been hell on the people who live north of the line. Ranchers' land has been covered with trash, their fences cut, livestock scattered, water tanks fouled and property destroyed. Some have given up and left, but it's hard to sell out because people already know about the trouble. Residents of small, isolated towns have been faced by sudden buildups of equipment and personnel. The Border Patrol set up a "Special Operations" base over the ridge from the tiny settlement of Arivaca without informing inhabitants that 10 large trailers, 10 to 30 trucks, generators, stadium lights and night operations involving helicopters were about to become a feature of their lives for the foreseeable future.