Cops, Coyotes and the Politics of Stupidity

By Luis Alberto Urrea
Sunday, May 27, 2007

The most cutting-edge domestic issue facing the United States today is the crisis of illegal immigration. The outrage of open borders has led to the current invasion -- something never before seen in U.S. history, something that could mean the end of our American way of life. You can be compassionate, but you need to stand firm.

Columnist Owen Arnold sums it up nicely: "Along the 2,300 miles of Mexican border, aliens of every color and character are constantly looking for cracks." He puts the vexing issue of border enforcement in clear focus, citing the recent addition of 300 Border Patrol agents to the corridor that runs between San Diego and Brownsville, Tex.: "That's only one man to every eight miles, so you can discount him if you have a nice bomb-throwing uncle you want to bring in via Mexico."

At last! Somebody is saying what has to be said. Call Lou Dobbs and get this man on CNN.

Oh, wait. I got confused. Arnold wrote those words in April 1938.

Immigration is a handy political card trick; it has always been possible to distract the American public, a large conglomeration of displaced aliens, with the threat of large conglomerations of displaced aliens. In 1868, the first Border Patrol was mounted to chase the Chinese out of the gold fields and off the rail lines; it kept Great-Grandpa's mind off Reconstruction and that pesky Indian problem. In the early 1950s, "Operation Wetback" rounded up all those Mexican produce-pickers we'd brought in after we put our Asian agricultural workforce in internment camps, then had to let them out. Hmm. I wonder what we have going on today that might require inflamed posturing from cynics and carpetbaggers.

There is as little wisdom from pundits as there is from politicians. Rhetorical flourishes and racial profiling solve nothing, accomplish nothing except to cause inflammation. We are plenty inflamed but little informed. How many times have Americans heard the term "illegal"? How many times has the law being broken been explained? We all know what a "coyote" is, but have talking heads spelled out the difference between civil law and criminal law? Yon illegal immigrant -- have I likened thee to a speeding ticket?

Tom Tancredo, the anti-immigration Republican congressman from Colorado, can't explain immigration law, though he did look into banning Spanish-language books from Colorado libraries. Mexico hasn't made an effort to educate its public, either -- it doesn't want to stop them from sending home $20 billion in remittance money every year. Secure borders? If you want to hear anti-immigrant rhetoric, go to Mexico's southern -- and impoverished -- border and see how the people there feel about all the Hondurans and Salvadorans gushing in. Illegal immigration is not a genetically programmed racial trait. It's about the money.

The United States' last hearty anti-immigrant movement was called the Know-Nothing Party. That was a century and a half ago. Today, it's the same as it ever was. More than 300 entrants die every year on the U.S.-Mexico border for lack of knowledge. Nobody knows how many die in the jungles to the south. On the frontier, we worship the god Moloch. The sacrifice of peasants brings us great blessings.

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If you want to know what's happening, you have to get on the ground, listen to people who have nothing to gain by feeding you misinformation.

South of Tucson lies one of the epicenters of immigration's convulsive temblor. A town called Arivaca has lately been in the news because the vaunted Homeland Security "virtual fence" has run into resistance there. You'd think that spy towers watching for wily Mexicans would be welcomed by the generally conservative population of the Arizona desert. But desert rats know Big Brother when they see him, and they have asked why the cameras and sensors are pointing at them and not at Mexico. This story is developing, and promises to be rich in ironies if the citizens feel betrayed.

Even farther south lies the Mexican burg of Sasabe, Sonora. Believe me when I tell you that Sasabe is now a cliche. It was an astonishment until reporters discovered it. Now, Lisa Ling trudges dutifully through the Sasabe scrub filming a report for "The Oprah Winfrey Show." But before its 15 minutes of media rapture, Sasabe was a dangerous funnel for "illegals" coming in from deeper Mexico and beyond. It is flanked to the west by a vast former cattle ranch said to be manned by narco cowboys who used to appear in the desert in their white Jeep Cherokees and hold their AK-47s out the windows to let you know they didn't like you poking around.

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