Flashbacks April 2006

Tales From the Borderlands

Articles by Eric Schlosser, William Langewiesche, and Jack Miles shed a human light on the debate over the Mexican border
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In recent weeks, citizens and policymakers alike have turned their attention to the porous Mexican-American border. Fears of terrorist attacks have led to a bipartisan call for heightened vigilance at America’s southern entry points. Meanwhile, lawmakers are puzzling over how to handle the millions of illegal Mexican immigrants already living and working in this country. A selection of Atlantic articles lends a human dimension to these debates, moving beyond the realm of political jargon and highlighting the ongoing struggle of many Mexicans to gain entry to what they see as the Promised Land.

In the first installment of his two-part story “The Border” (May 1992), William Langewiesche offered a firsthand account of the conditions in two towns on either side of the divide: El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. He met Narendra Gunaji, a sixty-one year old man who, with a Mexican counterpart, essentially managed the borderlands along the Rio Grande. Gunaji, an Indian-born civil engineer appointed by the Reagan administration, had a group of 270 men working below him. Their impossible task was to secure a section of the border by monitoring the 1951-mile tract of the Rio Grande that flows from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

Physically, Langewiesche explained, crossing the Rio Grande is easy—at times immigrants even use large truck tires as flotation devices and stepping-stones across the river. Along one 500-mile stretch, villagers living in adobe houses move freely from one side to another, and no one pays them any mind unless they wander too far into the modern world.

Langewiesche also surveyed a section of the border in San Diego marked by a fence that, though it was intended to keep illegals out, clearly posed very little obstacle:

In places the fence is new, and reinforced. Not everyone is athletic enough to go over the top. Enterprising Mexicans dig holes underneath it, and charge a dollar for each passage. Along older sections they also hack right through the steel. I watched a woman squeeze through a gap, careful not to tear her dress.

The region, Langewiesche emphasized, is difficult and unappealing:

It is grimy, hot, and hostile. In most places it is ugly. The U.S. side is depressed by the filth and poverty in Mexico. On the Mexican side the towns have become ungovernable cities, overrun by destitute peasants, roiled by American values. The border is transient. The border is dangerous. The border is crass. The food is bad, the prices are high, and there are no good bookstores. It is not the place to visit on your next vacation.

But the border is also, he noted, a powerful symbol—no longer one of division but, ironically, one of inextricable entanglement:

The border is no longer remote and no longer a buffer against our chaotic southern neighbor. Quite the opposite: growth on both sides of the border has physically bound the countries. Mexico’s problems inevitably become ours.

In “A Bold Proposal on Immigration” (June 1994), Jack Miles looked at the question of California polling in light of the influx of Mexican immigrants. He considered a proposal by Jorge G. Castaneda, a noted Mexican intellectual, that illegal Mexican immigrants should be given voting rights in California. Castaneda’s argument rested on the notion that taxation without representation is fundamentally undemocratic. Miles quoted from one of Castaneda's writings:

[B]y the end of the twentieth century, the richest state in the world will have a terribly skewed political system, with a foreign plurality that works, consumes, and pays taxes, but does not vote, run for office, organize, or carry much political clout.
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