"The Border" (May 1992)
Immigration, drugs, and law enforcement. By William Langewiesche
"The Border, Part II" (June 1992)
The environmental, economic, and social consequences of the fact that Mexico is our neighbor. By William Langewiesche
The helicopter rises high up, very high, heading first toward the ocean, then into the sun, inland.
On one side the suburbs of San Diego, California's second largest city, the last one before the border crossings at San Ysidro and Otay Mesa, where 30,000 pedestrians, 65,000 cars, and, in all that crowd, hundreds if not thousands of people without papers attempt to pass through every week.
On the other side Tijuana, its Mexican twin city, more widespread than I had imagined—grayer, too, dirtier. Endless parking lots that look like cemeteries, the flames of rubbish heaps on the outskirts of the city. Cars so dusty they seem to be dried-out chunks of mud. Rare dapples of color—an old colonial house, the remnants of a zocalo—that are all that survives of the quaint little village that numbered barely a few dozen houses a century ago.
And between the two sides, dividing the shore, the stockade fence that, seen from the sky, looks like a long black sheet of metal eaten away by rust. It is lined with a sort of barred grille, not very high, which on the Mexican side has been spray-painted with skulls; one panel of the fence is inscribed with the names of those who have died trying to cross. To my great surprise I see that the fence extends just a hundred or so feet into the ocean and that its other end stops abruptly, less than fifteen miles inland.
How come? I ask the pilot. Less than fifteen miles for a border that's 2,000 miles long? Is this the famous separation, the scar, the border between two worlds, the wall of shame and death, that American left-wingers and Mexican human-rights NGOs compare to the Iron Curtain?
"Well, yes," he replies. "There's no need for more. Nature takes over the job soon enough—you'll see …"
A cloud of dust lifts up at that instant. A whirlwind of red earth clashes with a whirlwind of white earth, which blinds us and causes the helicopter to sway. "If you need to throw up, tell me," he shouts through my headphones. "Don't be shy, tell me—I'm the one who gets landed with cleaning up later."
When visibility returns, I discover below us a landscape that has been virtually transformed—first marshes and then, very quickly, bare mountains and hills. No more ranches. No more maquiladoras, those American-funded factories that use Mexican labor and have migrated to Mexican territory, hugging the border. The river becomes a thin stream and then disappears altogether. Little white crosses, from time to time, on top of hillocks. The dry, parched land, which looks now like scales, now like huge brown slabs. The scorching heat that comes in through the door. Not one bridge to cross the steep ravines. We are over the Imperial Valley desert, which does truly seem to serve as a natural barrier.
The pilot, at my request, begins to descend for a closer look, and to approach the linea, visible on a GPS display. He explains that the Mexicans will react immediately, and, if we get too close, will order us, over the radio, to resume our altitude.
Same attempt, farther north. Silence this time. We hover for a while and then circle around and observe our black shadow rolling over the scorched plateaus.
Another helicopter appears, which for a second I think is coming to accompany us back to the base. But that's not the case: it's a helicopter from the Border Patrol, taking over from a patrol SUV that found a group of Mexicans looking for a nighttime passage up a dried-out riverbed—but this happens on the Mexican side, and thus out of the Border Patrol's jurisdiction.
How many people are out there who, like those Mexicans, are preparing for the great leap into the unknown?
How many kids ready to brave the SUVs, the helicopters, and then the desert to escape poverty?
We won't see any more of them during the remaining two hours of our flight.
We'll see other SUVs, winding their way over invisible dirt tracks, or parked like wild animals lying in wait and gathering their strength before they pounce—but no more potential travelers.
But the numbers are there. There are, I know, hundreds of thousands of people every year who entrust their fate to unscrupulous "coyotes" who take their money and then sometimes abandon them halfway. There are hundreds of people who, here in the desert, die the most inhuman of deaths, dehydrated, their skin burned, their brains cooked, burrowing into the searing sand to find a cool place to die. Faced with these two kinds of borders, one has to wonder if it might not have been more rational, more effective, and on the whole more humane to lengthen the fence—and if so, why is it not done?
Money? The prohibitive cost of construction that would extend for more than 2,000 miles, from San Diego to Brownsville? It's hard to say if that would cost so much more than the thousands of new gatekeepers they've just been authorized to recruit, or more than the radar and the infrared or seismic detectors provided by the Pentagon that are designed to reveal suspicious movements.
Image? The negative publicity that a continuous iron fence would generate for a country that Thomas Paine said should be a land of asylum for all humanity? Perhaps. But that, too, is not so definite. For the image of those border patrols, supported by organizations of citizens, which expend so much energy, imagination, and science to organize a hunt for illegal immigrants, is certainly no better.
So I wonder if there isn't, above all, an unconscious perversity in the current arrangement, a Mexican-American version of "The Most Dangerous Game." I wonder if there isn't in this very incompletion an implicit, and cynical, way of saying to the Mexican prey, "Go on—give it a try. I'll give you one chance; try to find it, and if you find it, take it."
Or, even more perverse, it is the hypocrisy of a system that, as everyone (in California and elsewhere) knows, needs these illegal immigrants. They are the fuel for its economy, and its very lawyers—in principle its most zealous guardians, the star players and standard bearers, who, like the former congressman Michael Huffington, seem to be the most hysterically intent in their public speeches on reinforcing border patrols and crackdowns at the border—are in general the first to be caught red-handed hiring illegal immigrants themselves, for their own private use. A cunning system, then, that gives itself a way of having them without wanting them, and thus of controlling both the flow and the cost of this Hispanic proletariat that is as necessary as it is undesirable.
I don't like any of these explanations. And yet …
And then: "What do you say to the Mexicans you arrest when they accuse you of being a tejano, a traitor to the race, a false friend?"
Angel Santa Ana stiffens. The chubby face of this young officer of the San Ysidro Border Patrol suddenly becomes purple.
"I am an American," he replies. "An American first of all. And I'm doing my duty as an American."
Then, regaining his composure: "It's true that by ending the fence they're only encouraging people to keep going and to take horrible risks …"
He points out on the wall behind him a yellow metal sheet that looks like a highway road sign and on which are simple pictures representing a snake, a man drowning, a sun, and steep mountains, accompanied by the warning ¡Cuidado! ¡Zona peligrosa! ¡No arriesgue su vida! ¡No vale la pena! in big black letters.
"It's also true," he continues, "that a part of me understands these people. I have a kind of admiration, or at least sympathy, for them. That's what I tell my men when they arrest one of them. I order them to listen, to talk with them, and especially to sympathize, since we have so much to learn from these heads of families who have taken such risks to come to this country. But at the same time, what do you want me to do? You have to obey the law. And I'm here to uphold the law. Come on, vamonos, I'll take you into the field …"
I look at him at the wheel of his SUV, winding his way over the scorched road that runs alongside the fence. He is frowning, his face tense and serious, watchful, the look of a lawman in the process of turning into a hunter.
When we stop, twenty miles farther on, surrounded by mountains, I observe his demeanor: a scout on the lookout for his prey. "It's a science," he explains, "tracking down illegal immigrants. The golden rule is never to have the sun behind you. But if I keep it in front of me, if I'm facing the sun, then nothing can escape me. The smallest trace of a footstep in the dust, the slightest rustle of grass, alerts me—I know all the signs!"
I listen to him tell me stories of the thousand and one tricks of these people he knows so well—no one in the world knows them better than he does, Angel Santa Ana, whose own family was here, he hints, a generation ago, maybe two, crossing the same border, feeding the same dreams, and taking the same terrible risks that filled him with admiration and sympathy. I listen as he, strong with the twofold knowledge acquired from family memory and the U.S. Border Patrol Academy, tells me about all the ruses of these poor people he is hunting today just as, probably, his own people were hunted before. A child chained beneath the chassis of a car. A woman acrobat who managed to press herself into a space under the hood. A tunnel that began under a billiard room in Mexico and ended up in the stairway of a house in Arizona—that takes years! These people have an incredible imagination! But we know all the tricks they can dream up, and that's why, in the end, we're the ones who win out …
What does win out here? Sympathy or law enforcement? The sensitivity of someone who's been through all this, and who can't hide the obscure tenderness that seizes him when he arrests an illegal immigrant who reminds him of his parents? Or is it the other reflex, also classic, which consists in closing the door behind him precisely because he's been there, and doing so with even more spite because he knows all their tricks? Hard to say. I suppose both possibilities are true, and that each case depends on the circumstances. I also suppose that there is in the situation itself the source of a thousand crises of conscience, when officers, shattered, torn apart, no longer know if they should serve their family or their country. But I'm certain about this: if you put all these questions aside; if you overlook the psychological aspect; if you make an effort, above all, not to think for even an instant about the death and the suffering that are the real cost of these fine phrases, in order to consider only the superficial effects of the arrangement, two elements emerge.
By recruiting only agents who speak Spanish, or those willing to learn it—by choosing a form of positive discrimination that in a country like France would be unthinkable—you demonstrate that Hispanics can hunt other Hispanics, you emphasize that la Raza is neither a unit nor a tribe, and, paradoxically, you put a wedge in American communitarianism.
And by allowing people like Santa Ana to suggest to the desesperados of Tijuana that merely wanting to be American isn't enough (for that, in the end, is what they are doing); by making them spell out that America has to be earned, and that American citizenship is not a gift but a conquest; by setting them up as guardians of the terrible Stations of the Cross their own people have already followed, in tears and blood, not one stage of which can be skipped over today, perhaps they are also maintaining, no less paradoxically, the ancient forms of a desire for America that is as old as the country.
For I see two patterns of immigration in California—and, I believe, in the United States today.
The Korean, Armenian, Iranian, and Chinese immigrations, which maintain newcomers in established economic and cultural cocoons that merely communicate with other cocoons and no longer generate the desire for integration so pervasive in past eras.
And then this kind, the Hispanic kind, which places its participants in a situation that is structurally not so different from that of immigrants of long ago, who, once they had passed through the filter of Ellis Island, once they had let themselves be deloused and examined to verify that they weren't syphilitic, still had to endure a generation of labor and sweat before they deserved to be truly American.
At that time it was "First papers, then sweat." Whereas today it is "First sweat, and later on, if all goes well, papers." But the structure is there. And along with it, this invariant of "becoming American," which is complicated, painful, caught in the patience and frenzy of things, solitary, for a long time uncertain. In Europe newcomers often arrive with a sense of entitlement. In America newcomers take nothing for granted. For them, America is a place that must be earned.