More Walls Won't Work in My Neighborhood
New America Media, Commentary, Miriam Davidson Posted: Jun 20, 2007
Editor's Note: Though border security remains a top issue in Washington, its impact falls hardest among those who live along the U.S.-Mexico border, where the zeal to close the border exacts a human toll. Freelance journalist Miriam Davidson is the author of Lives on the Line: Dispatches from the U.S.-Mexico Border (University of Arizona Press, 2000).
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Everybody, it seems, agrees on the need for more border security. Everybody, that is, except people who live here.
To be sure, there’s plenty of seal-the-border sentiment in Arizona, particularly around Phoenix, where half the state’s population lives, and among rural whites. But the closer you get to Mexico, and the more day-to-day life is affected by security provisions, the more people living here understand that “sealing” the border (whatever that means) is a fantasy.
To begin with, the border is not a line but a region—thousands of square miles of empty, open territory. Talk about bridges to nowhere—what about walls out in the middle of nowhere?
Punctuating these vast wild spaces are densely populated cities where it’s not easy to tell who belongs and who does not.
Take my neighborhood. I live in a working class section of central Tucson, a city of one million located about 60 miles north of the border. I would say my neighborhood is about half Mexican—and by that I only mean people who are monolingual Spanish.
Most of the guys who work at the little landscape business across the street are Mexican. I see them walking to work at dawn, carrying their lunch boxes. Most of the young families in the trailers on the next block are Mexican. The guys in the apartment complex behind the back fence who listen to ranchera music and have cookouts on weekends are Mexican. The old vaquero who walks around in cowboy boots and hat selling his wife’s tortillas and tamales is Mexican. He is pleased to hear my four-year-old speaking Spanish. “My own grandson can’t talk to me,” he laments.
I ask you, which of these people are legal and which are not? Who’s to know, who’s to say? For those who fear a Mexican invasion, I have news. They’re already here. They were here before there was a border. And they’re going to be here for a long time to come.
A friend, Sandra, is from southern Sonora and has lived in Nogales, Mexico for most of her life. Her four children and her large extended family also live along the border. Like millions of others, they have crossing cards that enable them to go anywhere they want in the United States. They are not supposed to work while they’re here or stay more than 60 days, but some do. Some come and work for a while and go home. Some come and stay.
One of Sandra’s sons has found work here in Tucson as a roofer. He’s moved his family to an apartment on the south side of town and enrolled his kids in school. The oldest was recently named student of the month. Even though Arizonans voted overwhelmingly to cut services to illegal immigrants last year, Sandra's daughter-in-law is taking free English classes and her grandchild attends a Head Start program.
At first I thought, this guy should keep his family in Mexico. But now I think, if he wants to work his butt off for $400 a week so his kids can make it here in the land of the free, more power to him. Those are the kinds of people we need. Besides, no border security provisions would keep someone like him out. He’s connected, rooted in this region. He can cross the border anytime he wants. He’s still making payments on his house in Mexico.
It’s the pobrecitos who don’t know anyone, the ones from Southern Mexico, who end up out in the desert. They are the ones suffering so much under the current crackdown.
Since the 1980s, continuous road and wall construction, manpower build-ups, and deployment of an array of high-tech lights, cameras, and sensors have pretty much closed off migrant routes through populated areas, driving people out into the countryside and greatly increasing their risk of death by exposure or violence. The numbers are telling. Twelve years ago, there were no migrant deaths in Arizona’s deserts. Last year there were 169.
Church groups have responded to the crisis by setting up water barrels and way stations, just as they provided sanctuary for Central Americans in the 1980s. Signs proclaiming “Humanitarian Aid is Never a Crime” sprouted up all over town after two young activists were arrested for transporting migrants. One of our neighbors, an elderly white lady, has one.
The crackdown has also done damage to the delicate border environment. Migrants have left trash and the Border Patrol has carved roads. Wall construction has been especially controversial. Currently, plans for 150 miles of fencing along the Rio Grande face opposition not only from environmentalists but from engineers who say building the fence along the river poses a serious flooding threat.
Here in southern Arizona, the Border Patrol is building a virtual fence, though one not virtual enough for nearby residents. A minister friend tells me that nine video cameras are going up on 100-foot-poles in Arivaca, an area southwest of Tuscon. Having attended a recent town hall meeting there, my friend reported that even though Arivaca is a politically conservative area, “People were upset. One guy said, ‘I don’t want someone watching me when I take a piss in my backyard.’ There was talk of flooding the area with dog-walkers and bird-watchers. People don’t like being spied on, ” said my friend.
Then there is the part of the crackdown that most affects, and irks, locals--the checkpoints. Usually, it’s a bunch of agents standing around in the blazing sun, waving people through, while a couple of dejected Mexican migrants wait nearby for a ride back to the border. One day coming back from Rocky Point (Puerto Penasco) in Mexico, the closest beach to Arizona, we spent half an hour in line at a checkpoint while gung-ho types went through every car as if we were Al Qaeda. Ironically, this was after we’d practically been waved through at the border.
The Border Patrol has ballooned in size since the 1980s, and there are plans to double it to more than 30,000 agents. I worry about what all these new agents will be doing. We’ve already reached the point of diminishing returns. Lately, migrant arrests are down 10 percent in the Tucson sector, after holding steady for years. As former Congressman Jim Kolbe once told me in reference to Border Patrol funding, “It’s like stuffing foie gras down a duck.”
Speaking of Kolbe, many locals are also upset that his successor, Gabrielle Giffords, has already caved in to pressure for a permanent checkpoint on the highway to Nogales that Kolbe, a native of the region, resisted for years. Kolbe was no liberal—some of the most conservative residents along the I-19 corridor oppose the permanent checkpoint. They see it as a deterrent to business, resulting in more hassles for law-abiding people and more drug and migrant traffic in their own areas. (They say they want migrants stopped at the border, which the Border Patrol acknowledges is impossible.) The temporary checkpoints may work fine as a deterrent, which is all checkpoints are anyway, though no self-respecting smuggler who knows the area would be caught in one.
Nevertheless, it’s immaterial whether or not these expensive security measures are effective. The checkpoint will be made permanent, the virtual fence will go up, more walls will be built, and the Border Patrol will continue to expand, because here on the border, political theater and symbolism matter more than reality.
One morning last winter, Sandra came up to visit. She took a shuttle van from Nogales, one of the many that take Mexicans to and from Tucson. The packed van was stopped at a checkpoint. As Sandra and others bundled up against the cold and got out, the Border Patrol man joked, “You guys look like Talibanes!” They all laughed.
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