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.
* * *
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.
Here, back in the good old days of a couple of years ago, I had the occasion to hang out with Mexican immigration cops -- the elite, sometimes notorious Beta Group. Make no mistake, Beta was a brilliant law enforcement idea: inviolable Mexican cops, safeguarding the border. But Moloch is a jealous god, and the flow of sacred gold could not be interrupted. In Sasabe, the cops weren't allowed to carry weapons. They were also decked out by the government in brilliant day-glo orange vests, so the bad guys could see them from, oh, 20 miles away.
I know that the idea of Mexican cops can send shivers down Americans' spines, but you need to know that these officers were warm, generous and professional. They agreed, for example, to take us to the open field where the immigrant vans dislodge their occupants, but only if I promised to run as fast as I could if the machine-gun boys started to drive in our direction. The cops liked me because I was born in Tijuana. They thought I could escape with my life while the narcos were busy shooting at my reporter friends.
As of 10:30 in the morning, the vans hadn't shown up yet. I asked my Beta companion where they were. "Oh, smugglers sleep late," he said. "They don't get to work till after 11." And, sure enough, after 11 o'clock, the vans began to appear.
Each one disgorged 27 to 30 people. This, in a desert devoid of anything but some adobe ruins and a tin shack where two abandoned immigrant girls who worked for the local water mafia were selling old plastic milk jugs full of hose water for 10 times the going rate. I asked my friend how many people came through this spot. "Well, I don't know what happens after six at night," he said. "But last Friday, between 11 and 5:30, we counted 137 van loads." Smugglers sleep late, but they work hard. They put in seven-day weeks, 137 van loads every day of the year.
We retreated to the police station, a cinderblock cube with overflowing garbage cans. The commander sat at his desk, looking as dapper as Andy Garcia. His men watched him watch me, and when he laughed, they laughed. When he glowered, they looked at the floor.
I told him I had never seen anything like the parade of vans in the desert.
"Nobody has," he said.
It's bigger than we realize, I said.
He replied: "Undocumented immigration is the second-largest source of income to the Mexican government. First, petroleum. Second, immigrants' remittance money. Third, tourism."
What about the narcos?
He paused. Then he smiled. When he laughed, his men laughed, too.
"Okay," he said, "illegal immigration is the third-largest source of income to Mexico."
How do we solve this problem?
"There is no solution," he said. "Because there is no problem. Illegal immigration is not a problem. It is something else. It is a phenomenon. When faced with something like this . . . Biblical . . . exodus, all we can do is observe. You don't solve a phenomenon, you surrender to it in awe."
* * *
Juanito might have passed through Sasabe. The officers there are rotated around the border -- he certainly might have met my friends from the besieged desert station on his way back to Mexico. You see, Juanito thought he was a U.S. citizen until he got arrested for some bad barrio behavior in California and found out he was a Mexican. His parents had never told him he wasn't born in the United States. Not only did he go to prison, but when he got out, he was deported.
Like all good Americans, he wasn't going to let Big Brother keep him from his San Diego Padres or good jobs or his girlfriend. No, he scraped together all his money, worked like a dog in Mexico and borrowed money from relatives. Being a California kid, he wasn't going to go to any Sasabe desert and risk dying in the brutal Arizona sunlight. He found a friendly coyote in Tijuana and paid him $2,500 for a ride north.
If you believe you're an American, it's not hard to banter with the border guard -- after all, you can talk the talk, quote the hip-hop, complain about the governor and name your street and city. And he got through. And he got his ride north. Way north. All the way to the Canadian border.
He looked around for a job until he found the perfect employer. True, he is undocumented, but his bosses needed to save money, just like anybody else. He works as a gardener at a U.S. Border Patrol station.
* * *
Now consider the strange case of a certain young man enraptured by America's greatest export to Mexico after remittance money: La Jip-Jop, a.k.a. rap. He wanted to become a rapero, and he learned his "rolas" and freestyle technique in Mexico City. But if you're going to be a great rapper, there's really only one place to do so -- the United States. However, "the long lines of legal immigrants waiting for visas" we hear about in the media held no hope for him or anyone like him. That Lou Dobbsian long line of legality is strictly for people with college educations, careers and bank accounts -- not raperos, burger cooks, chicken pluckers or tomato pickers. This young man jumped one of the largely imaginary border fences and made his way through the undocumented underground to Los Angeles. There, he discovered that to be an American hip-hop star, you need to speak English. He enrolled in language school, where he had the amazing good fortune to meet a fellow rapero visionary from El Salvador.
The men studied hard, as their dreams were on the line. And they formed a band that is becoming known on the West Coast. If you knew its name, you could watch their videos on YouTube right now. They're touring, and they're headlining shows. It's the American rock 'n' roll dream for a new millennium. There is one minor catch, though: This young rapero has suddenly realized that if he becomes more famous, he will be found out and deported. It is a moralist's conundrum: If your dream comes true, it holds the seeds of your downfall. What will he do?
* * *
Ask. Seek. You will find that the number of crossers in the Arizona sectors is dropping -- but it isn't hot news to hear that fewer are coming. Why are there fewer crossers? The joke on the ground is that there's nobody left in Mexico. You can look at peripheral stories and form a true picture for yourself -- last fall the Pacific Northwest's strawberry crop rotted because the workers did not appear. Something is happening, America. The paradigm, as paradigms tend to do, continues to shift. Being know-nothings works to the advantage of those few who do know and want us to do their bidding. Perhaps this is what the Mexican consul in Tucson meant when he said to me, "The entire border is ruled by one thing: north and south. And that is the politics of stupidity."
Luis Alberto Urrea, a novelist and poet,
is the author of "The Devil's Highway."