Growing up in Aspen, I spent many hours pulling a tooth harrow behind our tractor, breaking up the manure from the cattle belonging to Clyde and Wayne Vagneur that would graze on our ranch, now the North Star Nature Preserve. I didn’t expect, however, to see one of these harrows in action on Highway 9, the narrow two-lane road from Columbus, N.M., to El Paso, Texas, that cuts through a desert wasteland of cactus, lava-like rock and scattered mesquite bushes just north of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Pulling a harrow behind a tractor as a teenager in the 1950s for $1.50 an hour was one thing. But this was a federal employee who, with salary, benefits and housing costs in some town like El Paso or Deming, N.M., was probably costing the U.S. taxpayer $100,000 a year.
This is “border security” as seen by a casual, but repeated, traveler. As part of an ongoing documentary project on the border, I cross the border into Mexico numerous times every month — at Juarez, Santa Teresa, Palomas, Naco, Agua Prieta, Nogales and Tijuana. In addition, there are U.S. checkpoints farther north on the U.S. side that have to be navigated. What you experience is a staggering amount of manpower.
In June, however, the Senate passed an immigration bill that, if enacted, would effectively double the number of border patrolmen as well as adding billions of dollars of new high-tech gear and expanded border fencing. House Republicans say that the bill is “dead on arrival.” For many of them, even this proposed doubling of the number of border patrolmen isn’t enough.
Why is there this obsession with more and more security on a situation where even a casual observer like I am can see such obvious overkill? Perhaps it’s typified by the following email I received from a man named Karl Snyder when I wrote about this issue earlier.
He says, “Stop with the propaganda your only making yourself look like a dumbf–k. the whole WORLD has seen multiple videos of drug gangs with machine guns and drugs crossing the border.”
What I see on the border is very different. Here are a few examples:
When Elenita Porras was in her mid-30s, she went to the Juarez jail to help the daughter of her housekeeper. Horrified by the conditions there, she started a rehab program for young women who were involved in drugs and prostitution, and she has helped hundreds of them change their lives in the many decades she has managed her program. A fearless woman now in her 70s, she said,“I go to the most dangerous places,” in her work to get young women to change their lives.
Hector Beltran, 16, lives on the west edge of Juarez with his sister, Yeira, 15, and grandmother, Elvira Romero. For many years, Elvira was the cook in a mental asylum a few miles away. Because the area where she lives is dangerous, she would take Hector and Yeira to the asylum on weekends when they weren’t in school. That’s how I met them — mingling in the central patio with dozens of mental patients. “I want to be a doctor,” Hector says, and he has the talent to do it.
Reina Cisneros lives in the tiny border town of Palomas. One of her first efforts was to start an orphanage for abandoned children called La Casa de Amor Para Ninos. Later she transferred it to a coalition of New Mexico churches. Now she takes in older people who have been abandoned into her home.
Guillermo and Maria live in Anapra on the west side of Juarez. Before the huge border fence was built, residents would just walk across the border to day jobs in El Paso. Now the fence has eliminated those jobs, and Anapra is devastatingly poor.
Contrary to Snider’s ugly remarks, for the most part these examples typify the people who live on the border, people who are struggling to survive or to help others, often within a few hundred yards of the riches of El Paso.
Back in the ’50s when I was driving that tractor for $1.50 an hour, the chances of hearing someone speaking Spanish in the Roaring Fork Valley were about one in a million. Times have changed, and anyone anywhere in the United States knows how important immigration is to agriculture, the restaurant business and construction, the kinds of work that most Americans will no longer do. In order to make this upcoming immigration debate a success, we need to recognize the importance of immigration and the humaneness of those who live on our border.
Morgan Smith lived in Aspen in the 1950s. His family ranch is now the North Star Nature Preserve. He served as a member of the Colorado House of Representatives and as commissioner of Agriculture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.