Books May 2006


The ominous push and pull of the U.S.–Mexico border

With an estimated 11-to-1 manufacturing wage differential between the two countries (some experts put the agricultural wage gap at twice that), why is anyone shocked by what’s happening? “You’re looking at the biggest story of our lives,” Bowden told me over dinner. “This is the largest cross-border human migration in history.” Though rarely, if ever, posed in those terms, the staggering numbers tend to bolster Bowden’s sweeping vision. Something like 15 million to 20 million migrants have crossed into the United States over the last two decades. An equal number are expected to do so in the next twenty years. “People aren’t coming here as much as they are leaving a cratered economy,” Bowden said. “The only way you’ll stop Mexicans coming to the U.S. is if you lower American wages to the same level as Vietnam. Someone worth maybe $100 a month in Mexico who comes to the U.S. becomes a human ATM machine. McCain-Kennedy, Kyl-Cornyn?” he said, referring to the hodge-podge of current immigration-reform proposals. “It’s all bullshit. What we’re seeing is something right out of the Bible. This is an exodus.”

That’s certainly the deep emotional impression I come away with as Solchaga and I depart Altar. An hour up the road back toward the border, all vehicles are stopped at a checkpoint run by Mexico’s orange-and-blue-uniformed Grupo Beta. Created last decade under U.S. pressure and with some American assistance, the Beta teams were intended to be elite Mexican immigration police that would work in tandem with the U.S. Border Patrol on the other side, to stanch the human flow. Then reality intervened. The Beta teams instead went into business, running their own lucrative shakedown schemes on the migrants. A few years ago, the Mexican government simply disarmed the Grupo Beta and reorganized it into a sort of community-assistance force for the migrants—seemingly a mix between the Automobile Club and the Eagle Scouts.

On our way up from Altar to the Beta checkpoint called El Tortugo, Solchaga and I count thirty-one vans coming the other way. Something like 900 crossers have been delivered to the border in the previous hour. Now, at the Grupo Beta roadblock, the vans coming behind us are arriving every three or four minutes. As each one arrives, two Beta officers unload the passengers and gather them by the side of the road for a short lecture—sometimes two or three vans’ worth at a time. “However long the pollero told you it will take, it will take longer,” says officer Julio Cesar Cancino. “If they told you it will be a two- or three-day walk, they lied. It will take longer.” He advises them, in the event they get scattered, to look for the blue flags that demark water stations set up by American religious activists. Or to look for the red lights on the radio towers on the Mexican side of the border. “Whatever you do, don’t run. The migra,” he says, referring to the Border Patrol in Mexican slang, “isn’t there only to arrest you, but also to help you. If you’re in trouble, if you’re lost and out of water, or if your pollero abandons you, go to them for help. But don’t run. And don’t reach for your pockets.”

Like the girl that Solchaga had warned earlier in the day, these groups of crossers don’t quite know what to make of this advice. They don’t know whether to trust fellow Mexicans in uniform. Isn’t endemic corruption one of the reasons they’re leaving Mexico, after all? They shuffle their feet and stare down at the ground, or off into the middle distance, and don’t look the Grupo Beta officers in the eye. When asked, they quietly tick off their home states: Oaxaca, Veracruz, Puebla, Chiapas, Michoacán. And they aren’t shy about their destinations: Los Angeles, Phoenix, Houston, San Bernardino, Portland, New Jersey. Bowden is right. An exodus, indeed.

Rural, lightly educated, some of them indigenous people who speak only broken Spanish, they wouldn’t be able to tell a McCain from a McGillicutty. They don’t know, nor do they care, how much the Border Patrol has been reinforced in the past decade, how many millions have been spent in the past five years on new border fences, sensors, stadium lighting, infrared scopes, remote-control cameras, Black Hawk helicopters, and even unmanned aerial drones that will track them—or at least will try. (Almost $430 million has been invested since 1997 in border technology systems. But a recent audit by the Department of Homeland Security estimated that fewer than 1 percent of the sensor alerts have led to arrests. Most of the alarms are set off by passing trains and cows, producing a massive waste of time. Radar systems that are used to find tunnels under border walls have proved just as ineffective. The longest known tunnel—2,400 feet, near San Diego—was discovered, in late January, because of a tip, not technology.) What difference does it make if this or that House committee has marked up one or another bill, or if Lou Dobbs is back on CNN bloviating about “broken borders,” or if some gringos calling themselves Minutemen have camped out in lawn chairs on the other side? All the migrants know is that the young man sitting with them in the van has vowed to get them to the promised land, and that’s where they’re going. They’re aware that the next three or four or more days will be tough—though few know just how tough. But the choice is, maybe, between working a cornfield for $4 a day in the south or picking grapes in the north for $60 or $70. By nightfall, all of the travelers will be moving across the border. The Grupo Beta officers, however, will be withdrawing. As has always been the case, the migrants will be on their own after dusk. “We leave at dark,” Officer Cancino tells me. He points to the myriad bullet holes in the twisted road sign reading EL TORTUGO. “After that, it’s way too dangerous.”

Making the crossing ever more dangerous seems to be about the only tangible result of U.S. border policy in the past decade. In 1994, the Clinton administration—fearing the political repercussions after the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 passed in California—implemented a “prevention through deterrence” border program. One after another, the traditional urban crossing points, near San Diego, Nogales, and El Paso, were simply blockaded and more or less shut down. Military-sounding campaigns like Operation Gatekeeper, Operation Hold-the-Line, Operation Safeguard, and Operation Rio Grande didn’t do much to keep the migrants out of the United States. But driving them away from border cities got them—for a while, at least—out of the news. Historic and decades-old human streams were rerouted from California and Texas and funneled into the relatively unpopulated, inhospitable terrain along the Arizona border. Out of sight. Out of mind. Again, for a time.

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Marc Cooper is a contributing editor of The Nation and a senior fellow at the Institute for Justice and Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.

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