Tales From the Borderlands

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.

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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.

Castaneda's argument is a powerful one, Miles conceded, and has many merits, but allowing illegal residents to vote, he argued, would be antithetical to American ideals: "if California were to accept his proposal," he wrote, "the state would be saying, in effect, that on so crucial a matter as the prerogatives of citizenship its relationship to Mexico counts for more than its relationship to the United States."

Perhaps more important than figuring out what to do about illegals once they have arrived, he suggested, is figuring out how to seal the border more effectively. Immigration advocates, he noted, rely on the assumption that the border simply cannot be sealed and then argue that the many aliens living in America's midst deserve citizenship and rights. But a mass amnesty for illegals like that enacted in 1986 will never happen, Miles posited, unless Americans feel they have regained some control over their borders.

Until Americans have some assurance that a new mass legalization will not function as an incentive, they will never vote for it... What is required is ... that control be so firmly and clearly re-established that decisions on admittance to the country—and admittance to the voting booth—will be at the discretion of the American host and not of the foreign guest.

A more intimate portrait of Mexican migrant workers can be found in Eric Schlosser’s award-winning 1995 article about strawberry workers in the fields of Southern California. He described both the hardships the workers face and the strength of their will to overcome those hardships—aspects of their story that are sometimes overlooked in political discussions.

Schlosser also outlined some of the cold, hard facts. Agriculture, he observed, is the largest industry in California. And its most profitable sector is what are referred to as “high-value” farm crops: those obtained through cheap labor made possible by the covert exploitation of millions of illegal immigrants. After visiting some of the farms and speaking with owners, managers, and migrant workers, Schlosser expressed serious concern about the implications:

Driving back to my motel, I thought about the people of Orange County, one of the richest counties in the nation—big on family values, now bankrupt from financial speculation, unwilling to raise taxes to pay for their own children's education, unwilling to pay off their debts, whining about the injustice of it, and blaming all their problems on illegal immigrants. And I thought about Francisco [a migrant worker], working ten hours a day at one of the hardest jobs imaginable, honest work, and sleeping on the ground every night for months so that he could save money and send it home to his parents.

We have been told for more than a decade to bow down before "the market." We have placed our faith in the laws of supply and demand. What has been forgotten, or ignored, is that the market rewards only efficiency. Every other human value gets in its way. The market will drive wages down like water, until they reach the lowest possible level. Today that level is being set not in Washington or New York or Sacramento but in the fields of Baja California.

Jonathan Perez