Looking Beyond the Wall: Encountering the Humanitarian Crisis of Border Politics

As momentum builds for even further border militarization, the humanitarian crisis along the border with Mexico continues to divide immigrant families and claim lives.


| May/June 2013



Border With Mexico

There have been fences along the border with Mexico for more than a century. They just weren't designed to keep people out. The federal government didn’t start putting up pedestrian fences until 1990.

Photo By Wonderlane

On a crisp, cold November night, under a blanket of stars, we huddle by a fire. The steel border wall glows in the moonlight. Coyotes howl, bark and yip. Some students don’t sleep that night. They lie awake, their nerves on edge. Before coming on this fieldtrip, we had read voluminously about the border. Now, camping within sight of the wall, many feel anxious in this unfamiliar environment. 

We’re here as part of a class I teach at Northern Arizona University. Our plan is to explore, from a multitude of angles and perspectives, the 2,000-mile border that divides Mexico and the U.S. Having read about the border, watched films, and discussed and analyzed immigration policy in terms of cost and effectiveness, we’re on a five-day fieldtrip to explore both sides of the divide.

The next morning we walk across the border to Nogales, Sonora. No official asks to see our passports. We realize we have entered Mexico from the sign—Welcome to Mexico—and then visit an aid station for recently deported people. I approach a group standing in the shade and ask if they will share their experiences with us. An indigenous woman, her face scratched, her clothes dirty and torn, declines to speak. Fighting back tears, she gestures that, emotionally, she is not capable of talking. I invite a man in the group to speak. He says that he wants to ask us a favor. “If any of you become Border Patrol agents, please don’t abuse migrants. We’re not criminals, we just want to work and support our families.” On hearing this, Ruth*, the woman who couldn’t speak before, interjects that she does want to say something.

She had been apprehended after four terrifying days in the desert. There was a sign in the cell: “If you are thirsty or hungry, or in need of medical assistance, notify a Border Patrol agent and you will receive assistance.” She states that she did not receive help, only a cup of juice and two packages of peanut butter crackers. Her feet were so blistered that she was unable to walk until yesterday. Ruth has four children that she had left with a neighbor in an impoverished village in Oaxaca, nearly 1,500 miles to the south. She has no idea how, or if, she will get home. Ruth’s children don’t know where she is or what has happened—she doesn’t want them to worry. I look up at my students and see tears streaming down their faces. In the spring, Ruth will try to cross the border again to cut lettuce in California. She says she has no choice. She has no money, nothing.

A student calls me over to talk. He almost didn’t come on the trip because he didn’t have the money to apply for a passport. A big guy, normally laughing and kidding, Corey feels he has been called to this place. “My mother gave me $100, I have it in my pocket. I don’t need this money. I want to give it to this woman so that she can return to her kids in Oaxaca.”

We meet other recently deported people at Grupos Beta, an aid station run by the Mexican government. One man tells us that he has been vomiting for four days, he cannot keep down any food or water. He doesn’t know what to do. A couple tells us, in perfect English, that they had lived in New York for 15 years. They had returned to Mexico to see a dying grandmother, and hired a coyote (guide) to get back into the U.S., who told them that they would have to walk for only one hour. Border Patrol apprehended them on their fourth day in the desert. They were deported to separate cities, the wife to Nogales and the husband to Matamoros. To disorient migrants, and break their connections with smugglers, Border Patrol divides groups (though supposedly not families) and deports them to a different city than where they crossed. This couple, with children, had only recently found one another.

geralde
5/8/2013 3:34:16 PM

got thru page one and the image gallery - i hold a permenant visa to the philippines so i have a remote idea how most of those poor sods regard the 'justice' system once they get caught or worse, put in the immigration authorities received box. read some report's statistic a number of years ago, during bush sr's reign i think, that came up with an average of 11 million illegally cross the border annually... i sat in the final adjucators reception lobby, watching intently as hopeful couples and reunited families from other places exited the adjucators office, smiling and cheerful. eventualy i got the call, went inside, followed instructions to have a seat and relax - seems i was told it was lunch break, the processing stafffs were out to lunch, but we have one hour together so make the best of it. yes, i asked the attorney to double check my documention, appeared to her at first glance a-ok. both parties somewhat contented, we sat quietly for most of the remainder of the 1 hr. noon time break. to cut the tension i asked her maybe she listen to a joke i came up with while waiting. told her maybe i thought the best call she could make all day is to the u.s. immigration dept. at the u.s. embassy and inform them we (the Philippines) are letting in 1 u.s. today so to be reciprocal you let 1 filipino in because the young gentleman sitting in the office here is rather concerned that 1,256 illegals got in front of him this past hour and maybe his request to enter and stay in the philippines will fall upon deaf ears. do the math...its not the human carnage that concerns me so much as quite possibly many people from around the globe made business transactions or made corporate decisions or pasted each other with governmental rhetoric and the rest of the silly possible www activities for that 1 hour that nobody gains from, costs many something they really dont want or need and widens the gap between the haves and the have nots beyond any and all reasonable control....so i apologize the eyeball blistering facts from this end but god forsake id like to submitt an invoice for the one hour it took me to get it onto the screen. grassy ass amigoes.


michael murray
5/8/2013 2:39:21 PM

All very touching, however if you do not wish to suffer the indignities and tribulations of crossing the border, stay home. Entering this country illegally is a crime. You say nothing about how the Mexicans treat people who cross their southern border illegally, nothing about what they offer to those who wish to move to Mexico legally and what the rules are for them. I can NEVER own a home in Mexico. I can NEVER be a voting Mexican citizen. We have just short of 90 million American citizens who have left the workforce. Nearly 10 million in the last 5 years who have given up looking for work as well as the 11 million currently counted as "unemployed". 40+ million people in the USA are on food stamps. While endless unemployment benefits and disability payments are certainly a part of the problem, illegals DO drive down wages and displace some US workers (I speak from personal experience in the construction trades). The idea that illegals do jobs we will not do however is a lie. Here is a peer reviewed study: http://www.cis.org/illegalImmigration-employment They found "Of the 465 civilian occupations, only four are majority immigrant. These four occupations account for less than 1 percent of the total U.S. workforce." Why do we need tens of millions of new low skilled, poorly educated people, when we have millions of our own? What do you say to those like my mother who waited YEARS to emigrate legally? "Too bad for you that you couldn't walk across an ocean"? A nation without borders is not a nation. When will enough be enough?