September 8, 2013
COLUMBUS, N.M. – A cloud of dust is approaching. I’m on Hwy. 9, the narrow east-west road from Columbus to El Paso, a road that parallels the U.S.-Mexico border, cutting through a wasteland of cactus, lava-like rock and scattered mesquite bushes.
Cecilia Vazquez, a Mixteca Indian from Oaxaca, lives in the Anapra area of Juárez. She hitchhikes to the Santa Teresa border crossing every day to sell sombreros, crosses and other trinkets
Reina Cisneros in Palomas, Mexico, with ‘Chago,’ one of the elderly people she cares for who have been abandoned by their families. The $100 bill came from a benefactor in Denver
Bethzaida, age 5, is Reina Cisneros’s granddaughter. She knows several poems by heart
Manuel digs up the roots of a mesquite bush for firewood, about 100 yards from the border fence.
The cloud is being stirred up by a Border Patrol vehicle towing what we used to call a tooth harrow when I was growing up in western Colorado; we used one to break up manure after cattle had been grazing in our pastures.
A 30-foot wide swath has been cleared on the south side of the road extending most of the 65 miles from Columbus to the intersection just west of El Paso. The Border Patrol agent is going slowly in the opposite direction so there’s no way to ask how much of this 65 miles has to be harrowed or why it is being done. To spot the tracks of illegal immigrants if and when they cross the road?
Pulling a harrow behind a tractor as a teenager was fine. But this is a federal employee who, with salary, benefits and housing prices in some town like El Paso or Deming, is probably costing the U.S. taxpayer $100,000 a year.
This is one example of the “border security” that I see about every three weeks as I cross into Mexico, sometimes at Juárez or Santa Teresa just to the west, other times at Palomas south of Columbus or on foot at Nogales and Tijuana.
Crossing also involves navigating other U.S. checkpoints north of the border and Mexican checkpoints to the south – perhaps as many as 20 checkpoints each time I come from Santa Fe.
It’s a staggering amount of manpower, yet the recently passed Senate immigration bill, if enacted, would effectively double the number of Border Patrol agents, as well as adding billions of dollars of new high-tech gear and hundreds miles more of border fencing at a cost of $3.9 million per mile. House Republicans say that the bill is “dead on arrival.”
Even though arrests for illegal crossings have dropped from 1.2 million in 2005 to 365,000 last year, they want even more of this border militarization.
Yes, we need secure borders, but let’s not lose sight of common sense and basic humanity. For example, I just received an angry e-mail from a hysterical man in Denver talking about “drug gangs with machine guns and drugs crossing the border,” as if we Americans were in a state of siege. What I see when I go across is very different.
For example: Cecilia Vazquez is a Mixteca Indian from the state of Oaxaca who migrated to Juárez some 10 years ago. Now she lives in the Anapra area with her family and hitchhikes to the Santa Teresa crossing every day to sell sombreros, crosses and other trinkets. She is part of a small colony of these Indians who eke out a few pesos from people waiting in their cars to cross the border.
Reina Cisneros lives in Palomas and cares for elderly people who have been abandoned by their families. Years ago she founded the orphanage, La Casa de Amor Para Niños. Bethzaida, age 5, is her granddaughter, a very sharp little girl who can recite about six poems by heart.
Irene Garcia lives in Nogales. Her husband, Jaime, is a cab driver and has taken me on a number of tours of the city. When I first visited, Irene was working in a pharmacy right by the border, but business collapsed because Americans were scared to come across and buy low-cost medications. She lost her job. Now she makes tamales to sell at construction sites.
Manuel lives in the Anapra section of Juárez. One morning I saw him pushing a wheelbarrow up the road that flanks the border fence. He said that he was going to gather firewood. Later I followed him, realizing that there were no trees where he was headed. So how could there be firewood? He had dug a hole at the base of a mesquite bush about 100 yards from the border fence and was down in the hole, chopping at the mesquite roots with an axe. That was the firewood he was talking about.
Hugo Maldonado leaves his house on foot at 6 a.m., carrying two big burlap sacks, and heads west along the highway from Juárez, looking for cans. He may end up walking for 10 hours to find enough cans to sell for the equivalent of $5.
Many of these people live less than a mile from the border fence, and every day they see the big buildings of El Paso rising in distance. Only yards away from the wealth of the United States, they are simply struggling to survive.