“Don’t touch it!” Don Barnett shouted.
The former Cochise County, Arizona sheriff’s deputy was acting as if I’d reached for the stuffed polar bear in his living room. For a second, I wondered if my arm might have moved without my conscious command. I’d been writing for hunting and fishing magazines, even though I wasn’t a hunter myself. Was the atavistic urge to go for the kill contagious? But when I looked down, my arms hung by my sides. It was Don who was on a hair-trigger.
My good old gal cred as a Field and Stream writer was the reason I’d been able to talk my way into Don’s doublewide outside Bisbee, Arizona. The brothers had become wary of reporters after making headlines for a 21st-century variation on the most dangerous game: hunting down migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. The brothers, sometimes accompanied by Roger’s wife Barbara, spent their weekends riding around Roger’s 22,000-acre ranch, most of it land leased from the state of Arizona, armed with semi-automatic rifles and night vision goggles. The official-looking patches on their jackets were indistinguishable from those worn by Border Patrol agents except for the words “Patriot Patrol,” unreadable by non-English-speakers. “Humans, the greatest prey on earth,” Barnett had explained to a reporter from London’s Independent in May.
Unfortunately for the Barnetts, unlike polar bears, humans do not go quietly. Several of the migrants who had been “detained” by the Barnetts have brought civil suit, claiming the brothers had been both violent and verbally abusive. These legal actions came after federal, state, and county prosecutors had refused to prosecute despite calls by human rights activists. Tensions were rising as Arizona and other border states struggled to assimilate a wave of migration many were calling Biblical, not only because of its magnitude but also because of the human suffering — and death — trailing in its wake.
Half an hour ago, when I arrived at Don’s gate, ignoring the warning signs about Rottweilers, I hadn’t seen his “most dangerous game” remark yet, so I’m not sure what made me mention Field and Stream. Perhaps it was my association with the magazine, but Don’s politeness belied his fierce reputation. He offered me a Coke with ice, and we chatted about the border situation and his family’s involvement in it, until he changed the subject.
“I have to show you something,” he said. “You’ll appreciate this.”
As I followed Don to the back of the trailer, I realized that we were miles away from any other people. He opened a door and air conditioning clamped an icy hand on the the back of my neck. I couldn’t come up with a plausible excuse to bolt, but I could barely bring myself to walk in. My feet felt like concrete.
So when I saw the stuffed grizzly bear rearing on his hind legs, I was flooded with relief.
“Wow,” I said.
“That’s nothing,” Don said.
Striding over to an enormous mound, he swept its blanket off with a flourish. The polar bear’s fur had a slightly waxen look.
My biggest trophy, Don explained.
Your biggest trophy so far, I thought, smiling sweetly.
The border’s lawlessness has always been part of its appeal. But beneath the jaunty norteño music and the horse races, there is squalor, cruelty, and most of all, corruption so pervasive it produces a crushing sense of no exit. Case in point: the Barnett brothers, who are behaving with impunity that would not be tolerated in most developed nations. But people on the Arizona side of the line are reluctant to criticize them, not only because of the region’s small-town clubbiness, but because they, too, feel threatened by the astonishing increase of people crossing the border.
Last year, more than a million migrants—Mexicans and Central Americans, mostly—entered the U.S. illegally. In an attempt to stop the influx, the Clinton administration put in place an initiative called Operation Gatekeeper, which increased security in border cities. But floodlights and SUVs did nothing to discourage people fleeing poverty. Instead, the migrants avoided the cities. Led by their paid guides, known as coyotes, or polleros, they went deeper into the desert.
That was when they started dying.
Yolanda Gonzales Galindo was nineteen years old. She came from Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, a state known for its Zapotec rugs and tropical beaches. Lush and green, southern Mexico is a world of indigenes, Catholic churches filled with the incense smell of burning copal, and water—lots of it. Few people could conceive of the rigors of crossing a desert.
Led by her coyote, Galindo walked for four days through the six-million-acre Sonoran desert wilderness that includes Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Barry S. Goldwater Bombing Range. The average rainfall is 9.5 inches, but the rain falls mainly in the fall and winter months. By May, the desert is approaching the hard, dry season, with temperatures over 100 degrees.
When she could no longer walk, Galindo found shelter under the sparse branches of a Palo Verde tree. She gave the last of her water to her daughter. The eighteen-month-old child watched her mother die.
This happened at the end of May, a few weeks after Roger Barnett’s interview in the Independent.
In July, Rosalia Bacan Miranda assured her parents that she wouldn’t meet Galindo’s fate. Miranda was thirty-three. She lived in a Mexico City colonia with her two children, Carlos, 5, and Ana-Laura, 11. Miranda explained that she had arranged to cross in a safer location, near Agua Prieta, Sonora, the sister city of Douglas, Arizona.
She died August 3. Her daughter, Ana-Laura, thinking her mother had fainted, left her brother Carlos to watch her. Eleven-year-old Ana-Laura walked to the nearest road and waved down a passing truck.
Not that long ago, Mexico was a country of campesinos, with 80 percent of the population living in rural areas. Now those proportions are reversed. Eighty percent of Mexicans live in cities now, many of them in colonias, shantytowns, on the outskirts of Mexico City or Monterrey, or border towns like Ciudad Juarez and Agua Prieta.
While the demographic shift might have happened anyway, there is little doubt that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) made it happen faster and harder. After NAFTA went into effect on Jan.1, 1994, Mexican agriculture was decimated, particularly small farmers whose crops could not compete with corn produced more cheaply by U.S. agribusiness. At the same time, NAFTA turbocharged development of maquiladoras, factories that make products for U.S. companies or their affiliates.
Previously, many Mexican-owned businesses had paid workers more than maquiladoras. After NAFTA, these companies went bankrupt in droves, unable to compete with transnational corporations.
The trends changing the U.S.-Mexican border were global. By 2000, maquiladoras were closing, unable to compete with Asian factories that paid even lower wages. In the U.S., the economy was booming. With so many workers already living close to the border, migration to reached new highs. This, too, was a result of rapid globalization. In the past decade, human migration reached its highest rate in human history, even allowing for population growth. The drivers? Economic globalization and, increasingly, climate-related ecological collapse.
Globalization was not a new phenomenon: in 1817, the economist David Ricardo came up with the theory of comparative advantage, the notion that individuals and societies should concentrate on goods they can produce most efficiently. Contemporary economists have preached the same doctrine. Over the past twenty years, subsistence farmers have been urged to stop growing for their family, and concentrate on a single crop to sell: cotton, coffee, wheat.
But what happens when prices of coffee, or cotton, or wheat plummet on the world market?
Whether they are African cattle herders, Mexican corn farmers, or Americans fleeing the Rust Belt, they do what they have always done, what people and animals always do. They load their truck. They buy a plane ticket. They crowd onto a leaky boat bound from Dakar to the Costa Brava.
Leni Vegali Gonzalez Perez looks like any teenager you’d see giggling with her girlfriends at the mall. But in her serious moments, Leni, although she is only seventeen, has a gravitas that belies her years. Her story reveals some of the forces behind the border’s mass migration, including a groundswell of change deep within Mexico.
It’s been more than a year since Leni left her home in Chiapas. Like Oaxaca, the state just to the west, Chiapas is home to many of Mexico’s indigenes, or Indians. People tend to think of the post-NAFTA period in terms of politics in the U.S.; the effect of free trade on American jobs, the influx of foreign-made goods. But the 1990s were a period of ferment in Mexico, too, much of it hopeful.
Chiapas was where Mexico’s second revolution began. The Zapatista uprising led by Subcommandante Marcos, the handsome ex-professor and poet, began in 1994, just as NAFTA was taking effect. The Zapatista message was firmly anti-globalization. One of the movement’s enduring ironies is the romanticization of the region’s Mayan culture by the educated urbanite Marcos. But the message was timely. For a few years, images of Marcos, his features hidden by a black ski mask, were as iconic as Alberto Korda’s classic photograph of Che Guevara.
The Zapatista movement was didn’t succeed in overthrowing the government, but the movement increased the pressure for democratic reform, eventually helping to elect an outsider as president. In 2000, Fox, a 6’6” former Coca Cola executive, became the first candidate in 71 years to defeat the entrenched and corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
Young people like Leni felt the excitement. Determined to make a better life for herself, Leni overcame her parents’s objections and left for the north with a group of friends. In Agua Prieta, she lived with people she knew from her church at home. After working for a few months in a maquiladora, she grew accustomed to the border’s faster pace and decided to cross the line. She contracted with a smuggler who also came from Chiapas. He promised to take her to Florida, where she could work in the fields picking tomatoes.
The official Border Patrol line these days is that smugglers—called coyotes or polleros—are the real criminals on the border. They mistreat their “human cargo” and sometimes kill them. But Leni tells a different story. Sure, she said, if you hire a coyote who’s standing by the border fence soliciting strangers, you’ll probably get a bad one. But if you use word of mouth, you’ll do better.
Leni set out in May, the same month that Yolanda Galindo tried to cross. Her band of migrants left Agua Prieta at five in the afternoon, charting their course by the mountain called La Virgen that rises abruptly from the flat desert valley near Douglas.
Leni was the only woman with a dozen men, but she felt safe, because everyone came from Chiapas. For six nights, they walked. During the day, they hid under trees and slept. Caminemos mucho, mucho, mucho. We walked and walked and walked, Leni said.
On the sixth day, the migrants ran out of water. They made it to San Simon, a tiny outpost near Interstate 10, near the border of Arizona and New Mexico. They had walked nearly 80 miles.
Two of the men went to ask for water. “They got it from a gringo, it was a rancher,” Leni said.
After drinking, they rested, not suspecting that the man who had given them water would turn them in. But soon the Border Patrol arrived, some on motorcycles and others in SUVs. The officers took them back to Agua Prieta.
A week later, Leni tried again. Led by the same coyote, she traveled with the young man who is now her husband. The Border Patrol caught them after only three days. La Migra dropped them off in Ciudad Juarez, across the line from El Paso, Texas.
The next week, they crossed a third time. “We were like hard-headed dogs,” Leni said.
A third time, they were picked up. The only good part, said Leni, was that they didn’t owe the coyote any money. The deal was that he got paid only if they crossed successfully.
Not long afterward, Leni discovered that she was pregnant. She and her boyfriend married, and decided to stay in Agua Prieta until the baby was born. But the young couple still dreamed of life in the U.S. When their daughter was a month old, another woman died trying to cross the border. Antonia Mendez was from Oaxaca, the state just west of Chiapas. She was exactly Leni’s age.
Now Leni stays home and cares for her baby while her husband works in a sushi restaurant in Agua Prieta. They plan to go back to Chiapas in January. Leni’s done the arithmetic in her head. She doesn’t think it’s not worth it to cross the border, especially with a child. She wants to see her family. She misses the smell of wood smoke and copal, and the tortillas made by hand from the denser, more flavorful corn that grows in southern Mexico.
“On the border, death seeks you out,” she said.
If Leni does go back to Chiapas, what will her life be like? Mexico is changing, and fast. Mark Krikorian is executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., an anti-immigration think tank that has come under fire from the Southern Poverty Law Foundation for its ties to far-right nativist groups. But organizations like Krikorian’s sometimes serve a purpose, illuminating the issues that lie beneath the political stalemate on immigration.
Krikorian said that Mexico’s industrialization is the big story, not the transitory burst of affluence U.S. corporations gained by sending jobs overseas. Industrialization, Krikorian said, invariably brings with it the pressure to immigrate.
“People from poor, isolated rural areas don’t leave because they don’t have the means. Immigration comes from areas that are developing and becoming connected to the world economy,” Krikorian said.
In the beginning, anti-immigration groups have focused on illegal immigration but recently organizations like the Center for Immigration Studies have been attacking the country’s legal immigration system, trying to limit the ability of family members, students, and workers to come to the United States legally.
Reform proponents agree that the legal immigration system is part of the problem, although they disagree with Krikorian about solutions. Legal immigration rarely receives the attention given to illegal border crossing, yet it is a deeply broken system, a patchwork of politically motivated and cumbersome requirements that often result in painful separations between family members.
But immigration groups are divided on a fix. Many large civil rights organizations insist on an all or nothing approach that includes a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million people living illegally in the U.S. Others believe in an incremental approach focused on the low-hanging fruit, including a more humane, streamlined approach to family immigration and work visas.
With reform stalemated, there seemed to be no effective way to deal with the onslaught after the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect.
The town of Bisbee, a little more than twenty miles from Roger Barnett’s ranch, became a hippie enclave in the 1970s. As tensions have risen, the underground railroad set up to help people fleeing from death squads in Guatemala and El Salvador two decades ago was reactivated. People open their homes to shelter migrants, and help them on their way to jobs in the meatpacking industries of the Midwest or the agricultural fields of Florida and California.
Even in Douglas, there are a handful of people who are willing to criticize the Barnetts and speak out in defense of the migrants. With his ruddy face and cowboy hat, Jerry Bohmfalk looks like the Marlboro Man but talks like the well-traveled corporate consultant that he became after earning his Ph.D. at Texas A&M. Ten years ago, like many Douglas natives who left to seek their fortunes in the wider world, he came home. Now Bohmfalk consults via Internet, does a little ranching, and helps keep his uncle’s saddle shop going in downtown Douglas near the historic Gadsden Hotel.
On his ranch, the migrants—Bohmfalk calls them “economic refugees”—pass through quietly, on foot, and don’t bother him.
“I’m not sure why people are mad at ’em,” Bohmfalk said. “I think they’re mad at ’em because they’re poor.”
He called militarization on the border “just another Band-Aid,” adding, “Let’s fix this problem. Let’s not let it fester. People are getting killed for this, and it’s not worth it.”
Many people on the border face a dilemma, torn between human sympathy and fear for their own safety. But at least one of those people voiced support for a policy that nobody in an official position even dares mention: open borders.
Richard and Renee Puzzi live in an 1800s-vintage ranch house with wraparound porches that would be a real estate agent’s dream—except for the location. Their ranch is so close to the border fence that there has been a nearly constant stream of people crossing in the night. Richard Puzzi said that one group of migrants hung his dog to stop his barking.
Although Richard and Renee tell me they’re angry, they also feel compassion for the people they’ve encountered. On one memorable night, Richard, a firefighter, used his emergency medical-technician training to help a migrant woman who went into labor on a nearby highway. He says he’s not sure what to think anymore. He wants to protect his family from drug runners and polleros, but he feels for the migrants.
Renee says she understands both her husband’s anger and his compassion.
“I’ve seen women outside the house with babies, too. I want to help them, but I’m afraid. What do you think they should do about this?” she demanded.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Really, I don’t. You’re in a better position to judge. What do you think?”
“If they’re gonna continue this, just open the border,” she said wearily.
Mexico’s newly elected president, Vicente Fox, has apparently arrived at the same conclusion. Soon after his election, Fox reportedly broached the subject of opening the border with President Clinton and several U.S. presidential candidates. Fox was told, in no uncertain terms, that an open border between the U.S. and Mexico was a non-starter.
As anyone who grew up there will tell you, until the last ten years or so, the border was open—unofficially. For those who are daring enough, that freedom still exists.
Over the last few years, dozens of casa de huespedes, or guesthouses, have opened in Agua Prieta. Photographer Terry Moore and I visited one for a group interview arranged by Mark Adams, a young minister from Douglas who has reached out to the immigrant community. More than a dozen men crammed into the hotel lobby.
They’re not going hungry in their hometowns, most admitted. But if they eat, they cannot buy clothes or do anything else to better their lives, and marriage becomes the extra expense they cannot afford. So they come to the border to better their lives. It is the American Dream, only Ellis Island has been replaced by a fence.
After the formal interview, in which all of the men categorically denied that they were going to try crossing the border, a bearded, intelligent-looking man wearing a black T-shirt approached me. He could have been mistaken for an L.A. record company executive, but he wasn’t.
With a raffish grin, he confessed that he had two girlfriends in Mexico: one back home in Guanajuato and one in Agua Prieta. He had fathered three children with three different women in America.
“I crossed the first time when I was 12,” he told me. “I’ve been crossing the border more than 20 times. But never was it hard like it is right now.”
“I tried to cross last night,” he said, holding out a bloodied hand.
“Are you going to try again?”
“Of course,” he said. “At this point, my life is in both countries.”
Terry, the photographer who was working on this story with me, approached. He was accompanied by a young boy with dark eyes and a slight, pointed chin who had been listening to our conversation in the hotel lobby.
“Tell them what you told me,” Terry said. “I asked if you were the son—hijo—of the owner of the hotel, remember?”
The boy shook his head yes. He remembered the question. Terry nodded, encouraging him.
“I’m not the owner’s son,” the boy said in Spanish. I’m here with my brother.”
“Why are you here?” I asked. A heaviness invaded me as I waited for him to answer. I knew what he would say.
“I’m crossing tonight,” the boy said softly.
“How old are you?”
Once años, he said.
The American West has always been the land of fresh starts. There is a romance to it, but the romance has a dark underside. Many dyed-in-the-wool Westerners are descended from the country’s second wave of settlers, Welsh-Scots-Irish immigrants fleeing famine and British oppression, and later, the South’s devastation after the Civil War. The economic inequities between the rural West and industrialized East feed feelings of disenfranchisement and resentment.
The positive side is that the West remains a place where people consider themselves egalitarian. These are men of the people, and every single one of them will deny that he’s a racist, including the Barnetts.
When I visited with Don Barnett, who had followed his brother into the sheriff’s department, he told me that he felt that he and his brother, and their neighbors, were the ones being attacked. They were the Davids, not the Goliaths, Don said. Migrants were vandalizing his brother’s ranch. They left gates open, allowing cattle to stray onto neighbors’ lands. On several occasions, an 8,000-gallon water tank necessary to keep cattle and pets alive in the blistering heat has been emptied. Cattle took sick from eating disposable diapers.
Barnett denied that he and his brother had ever drawn their guns. But a series of civil lawsuits and complaints brought against the Barnetts contained testimony that indicated otherwise.
One lawsuit included allegations that on March 7, 2004, Roger Barnett not only drew his gun, but kicked a woman who was hiding from him and his dogs under a bush, stepping on her right calf while shouting: “Get up, bitch!” In another incident in June, Roger Barnett allegedly grabbed a woman by her hair, and stuck a pistol against her ribs. In July, Roger Barnett, accompanied by his wife and three dogs, was accused of hitting a woman, and forcing both her and her companions to take off their shoes and walk barefoot in the desert. Don Barnett does not seem to have been present on several of these occasions, but on one, testimony indicated that he arrived late, but got his licks in by kneeing an immigrant in the stomach.
In 2006, a civil case against the Barnetts resulted in a victory for the defendants. A jury ordered Roger Barnett to pay $98,750 to a family of Mexican-Americans—including two girls, 9 and 11—whom he terrorized after he found them hunting on his ranch two years previously. The jurors found that Barnett had fired a round from his AK-47 into the ground near where the children were standing, shouting obscenities and calling the family “ignorant Mexicans.” These were American citizens, and they were on land owned by the state of Arizona and leased by Barnett, where hunting is legally permitted. In 2009, a suit brought in federal court by the The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund resulted in a $77,804 judgment against Roger Barnett.
In 2000, when I arrived at Don Barnett’s trailer, Roger and Don, and, on occasion, Roger’s wife Barbara, had already drawn their weapons on several occasions, according to documents filed by the Border Action Network as a response to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In one of these incidents, when they reportedly forced two vehicles to pull over, and “arrested” the passengers, Barbara Barnett allegedly waved her gun around while her husband called the people “garbage.”
In a 1999 incident, Roger Barnett had called a film crew to videotape a roundup of migrants. The press lionization of the Barnetts presents a moral conundrum that was largely ignored at the time. To what degree was the media responsible for encouraging the Barnetts’ activities? Every reporter on the border had the same complaint: they found it nearly impossible to sell stories about migrants dying in the desert. Cowboy vigilantism was the New New Thing, more marketable to jaded editors than the same old story about poor Mexicans enduring hardship in their quest for a better life. Only when Luis Alberto Urrea published his powerful nonfiction book, The Devil’s Highway, in 2004, did that begin to change. By then, the migration had ebbed, and the far more violent drug trade had taken its place.
When I visited Don Barnett in his Bisbee trailer, the damaging details of the Barnetts’ behavior were still largely unreported. Don replaced the blanket on the polar bear and we went back to his kitchen. I put my empty Coke glass in the sink.
“Want to know what I think?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, turning back to face him.
“We should invade Mexico.”
“Sure. They’re invading us! Think about if the U.S. owned Mexico, all the natural resources, all the oil. Then maybe the U.S. corporations could take over instead of the president of Mexico stealing all that money.”
Beneath his well-trimmed mustache, Don Barnett flashed me a winning smile.
“The U.S. already owns Mexico,” laughs Jose Matus, when I repeat Don Barnett’s contemporary version of Manifest Destiny. Matus is executive director of Tucson-based Derechos Humanos, a human-rights group. “It’s going on right now, as we speak. So Barnett is way off on that, because it’s been happening for years. For centuries.”
The United States may not actually hold title to Mexico, but U.S. corporations doubled their investment between 1993 and 1999. The trade agreement not only eased the way for maquiladoras, but also set up new laws to facilitate the exploitation of Mexico’s natural resources: oil, timber, and minerals. Gringos were allowed to buy land for the first time, and beachfront condos quickly urbanized the country’s coastlines. The free trade agreement permitted the sale of communal farmland, the death blow to the ejidos, the communal farms created after the Mexican Revolution, which had been a revolt against aristocratic landowners.
These so-called “reforms” enacted swift change in in Mexico. But the U.S., despite its larger economy, is also affected, and the long-term effects of NAFTA may be damaging here, too. Free-trade critics say that NAFTA accelerated the shift from a high-wage manufacturing to a low-wage service economy in the United States. The statistics are dramatic: The U.S. had a $1.7 billion trade surplus with Mexico in 1993, but by 1998, the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico was $22.81 billion.
In Douglas, just over the line from booming Agua Prieta, boarded-up storefronts tell the story more vividly than any numbers. Hard times in the U.S. border states are nothing new, but since NAFTA, unemployment has reached Third World levels. In Douglas, unemployment reached 17 percent in 1999, up from 13 percent in 1990.
These days, the aboveground Douglas economy is fueled by Agua Prieta residents crossing the line to shop at the new Wal-Mart. The town’s real economy is smuggling, but the dirty money is frictionless, moving through Douglas and away, apart for the rakeoffs to money-laundering operations. And as Douglas has declined, Agua Prieta has thrived, the gated mansions of narcotraficantes a stark contrast to the dingy houses on the U.S. side of the border.
Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever, the real problem is not how far Mexico is from God, but how far the U.S.-Mexico border is from Washington, D.C.
“What’s really unconscionable to me,” Dever said, “is that anybody at that level would sit down and plan to push this problem into a rural area that has the least capacity to deal with it. But California and Texas have much larger congressional delegations than Arizona does.”
Larry Dever grew up in St. David, a largely Mormon enclave between Tucson and Douglas. The ruddy-faced sheriff joined the department in 1976, and served alongside Don Barnett. But while Don Barnett left - or was forced to resign, according to some - Dever moved up the ladder. His trademark white cowboy hat and reasonable manner caught the attention of the bestselling mystery writer J.A. Jance, who gave him a sex change and used him as the model for her protagonist Joanna Brady.
Dever took it in stride. He’s equally amused by the questions from European reporters who think he’s a character from an old Western movie. What does rile him, he says, is having an international law enforcement problem dumped on his sheriff’s department.
“This is a result of a failed policy of the INS. I have been very vocal about it. I’ve gone to Washington. I’ve even gone to Mexico City. They don’t have a control strategy that does anything but move this problem from one place to another. Anybody who thinks these people are going to pack up and go home doesn’t understand that they have no home to go back to.”
A recent trip to Mexico City put the problem in perspective for him, Dever said. “These enormous shifts of cultures and people are happening all over the world,” he said.
The sheriff’s attitudes would harden later, when one of his friends was murdered on a remote ranch. According to the story, the tracks leading away from the man’s house led south to Mexico. After his friend’s death, Dever became strongly anti-immigration.
Dever died in 2012, after crashing his pickup truck on his way to a hunting trip in northern Arizona. Authorities found that Dever’s blood alcohol level was enough to impair him, and he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. At his funeral, Sen. John Kyl called the sheriff a real-life “Gary Cooper or John Wayne playing the good guy.”
Dever’s frustration was embodied in Doris Meissner, Commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Meissner was a typical Clinton appointee: rational, well-educated, liberal but tough when it counted. Meissner acknowledged that stepped-up enforcement in California and Texas had created “a funnel effect,” squeezing migrants through Arizona. This wasn’t in dispute; in 1999 and 2000, the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector had the highest rate of apprehensions in the Southwest.
She admitted that stepped up enforcement in cities, the initiative called Operation Gatekeeper, was funneling migrants into the desert, resulting in the record death toll. She expressed surprise at the policy’s unintended consequences. People in Washington D.C. hadn’t believed that anyone would so willingly brave the harsh, arid conditions of Arizona and California deserts, Meissner said.
But she stopped short of taking official responsibility for the deaths and pledging to change the policy. The commissioner was in town for a different reason entirely: to announce a new initiative aimed at apprehending migrants at airports and safe houses in Phoenix and Las Vegas.
The name of the initiative was “Operation Denial.”
In the desert, the Border Patrol is everywhere. They hunt for migrants hard up against the the line in the dark, their high-end SUVs padding through the deep arroyos like panthers. Gone are the days of thumping wetbacks with black Maglite flashlights. Or nearly so. They give us candy when they stop us on the highways. They say, “Thank you, ma’am.” The public-relations has become more sophisticated, but the cat-and-mouse goes on. The hunt is eternal, it is surreal, it is meaningless. The people keep coming. They just keep coming.
A U.S. Department of Commerce official, who asked not to be named, summed up the U.S. stance: The border will not be opened until there is economic parity between the U.S. and Mexico. The administration estimates that this will happen in 20 to 30 years. But, on background, the official agrees with people on the border, who believe it will take 50 or 100 years—or maybe forever.
What about now? I ask. What can we do now? Status quo, the official told me. Anything else would be too dislocating. “For one thing, the gardens in California would go to heck,” he said, with a little laugh.
But on the border, the need for reform is too pressing to ignore. A federal official who works on the border talked about the critical role that undocumented workers play in the U.S. economy. We need the unskilled workers Mexico provides to manicure our golf courses, cut our meat, and pick our vegetables. Let’s make them legal and put them to work. He doesn’t dare say this on the record.
Not long ago, the AFL-CIO took the revolutionary step of endorsing a path to citizenship for the country’s estimated 12 million undocumented workers. The people who cross the border aren’t the enemy; they’re the next generation of union members.
Immigration reform will come eventually, but for now, there is a sense of futility. You hear it from the Border Patrol officers who see the same faces again and again, and you see it in the lives of people addicted to the border: the drug runners, the crooked Customs agents, the reporters who can’t stop investigating corruption. All of them, including Leni and her daughter, the Border Patrol officers, even the Barnetts, whose anger has drawn them into the most dangerous game, face historical forces beyond their control.
We all do, now.
Driving home, through the smoke-colored valley between Douglas and Tombstone, I run over a snake, another migrant trying to reach the next best place.
The snake’s conga movement is caught in stop-time. Too tired to feel guilty, I think about stopping the car to see its colors before they fade.
But I’m exhausted and I’m driving fast. I’m going home, but I’m always in a rush, it seems, and it might be anywhere I’m rushing to, anywhere at all.
Originally published in High Country News. Revised and reprinted in Byliner.
But I’m exhausted and I’m driving fast. I’m going home, but I’m always in a rush, it seems, and it might be anywhere I’m rushing to, anywhere at all.
Originally published in High Country News in 2000. Revised and reprinted in Byliner, 2013.
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