Illegal immigration: A view from the border

Editor’s note: Phil Hall has traveled extensively throughout Mexico. He recently took a motorcycle trip down to the Mexican border. This is the first of a two-part series.

RUGGED ARIZONA DESERT“You’d just as soon try to bail the Rio Grande with a minnow bucket,” Jeff, U.S. Border Patrol, said from Checkpoint Charley on Highway 26, which runs between Deming, N.M., and Hatch (chile-growing capitol of the world). (He asked not to be identified for fear of losing his job.) Off to the west, Cook’s Peak (8,408 feet) rises like gun smoke out of the desert floor. This country personifies the definition of “basin” and “range.” In every direction dark mountain ranges rise from the scrub earth. The terrain has a ghostly feel. Trees are rare.

“Sure, we catch them. We process them, we turn them loose, then we catch them again.” He laughs lightly, and leans against his patrol rig, an easy grin on his face. “It keeps us employed.”

According to a recent article in the Deming Headlight, 90,000 illegal immigrants have been apprehended in the last six months by Border Patrol agents in the El Paso sector, which includes New Mexico and West Texas. That’s 180,000 a year. And that’s just the ones they catch; it is a 20 percent increase over the previous year.

Why this massive onslaught on our southern border? Two reasons: hunger and money.

According to a report filed recently from the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, the leading Mexican academic institution in the study of the Mexican-U.S. border, in Ciudad Juárez, coyotes made nearly $102 million in the last year trafficking in illegal immigrants. The coyotes or polleros, as they’re called, serve as “travel agents” for the immigrants, who come for essentially one reason: to work.

Sinaloa is the state just south of Sonora. Much of it is Pacific coastline. It is rich agricultural land. Coconut palms march for miles along the coast. I was down there last year.

In January you can see whole crews of young men loading coconuts into trucks: big, four-ton affairs with high sides and dual rear wheels. You can see campesinos planting chiles by hand, harvesting tomatoes, burning. There is an ever-present miasma of smoke, as fields and ditches are constantly being burned in preparation of another round of planting.

Campesinos work all day in the fields for 100 pesos a day — a little more than $9. That’s for a day’s work — the price of lunch in the United States. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. Everywhere I went (in the fields, at taco stands, on the streets) the refrain was the same: “We can’t feed our families on what we earn, no matter how hard we work.”

Not all Mexican immigrants want to stay in the U.S. Some come to earn enough money to return to their homeland. I talked to a rancher in Guerrero (Chihuahua) who spent 15 years in Phoenix working in a dairy. “When I earned enough money I returned home,” he said. He earned enough to buy cattle to support himself and his family. He spoke good English and was extremely helpful in getting my flat tire fixed.

But whether they stay or not, undocumented workers are coming here, and in record numbers.

The coyotes provide transportation, information, sometimes paperwork, and a lot of know-how. Without the coyotes the immigrants would have a much harder time getting into the U.S. Without the immigrants there would be no need for the coyotes. Without the economic disparity between the two countries, there would be no need for either.

The coyotes have spent years perfecting their craft. They know where all of the roads and trails are, when roadblocks are likely to be set up, who to bribe, and when and where to cross. In order to get into the U.S., all the immigrants need is money. They might pay a coyote $5,000 to get into the U.S., and if they get caught? Tough. Back to Go. Start over. It’s the survival principle of a flock of birds: A predator might get one or two or three, but the rest will get away.

Of course many of them do it the hard way, crossing the desert on foot with scant supplies. The risks are tremendous, and yet the campesinos take them. Some of them die. In Arizona alone in 2005, at least 228 died while trying to make it across a scorching desert replete with rattlesnakes, scorpions, and treacherous canyons.

According to the Associated Press, as of September 2005, more than 400 illegal immigrants had died nationwide in the previous 11 months while trying to make the crossing. Many can never even be identified and brought home to their families.

Even if you know the desert Southwest well, it’s difficult to comprehend the magnitude of the task facing the Border Patrol in trying to police 2,000 miles of border. There are currently 11,500 U.S. Border Patrol agents, 9,000 of whom are stationed along the southern border of the U.S. in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

“You might as well try to catch migrating birds with a butterfly net,” one seasoned border agent said.

There are 50 million Spanish-speaking people in the U.S., the majority of them here legally. They work virtually everywhere, in every industry.

“You can’t run a restaurant without Mexican help,” said Jess Viau, a manager in Denver’s upscale Lodo. “You‘d shut Denver down overnight if you started rounding up all of the Spanish-speaking people.”

Last year, having returned from an extended trip throughout 20 states in Mexico, I met three young men from Mexico in Carbondale, Colo. They were sharing a pitcher of beer in a popular bar and grill downtown. My Spanish was fresh at that time and they were eager to speak English, so we had a discussion in Espanglish, which is growing in popularity everywhere.

The three young men were working in the construction trades. One was working in sheet rock; the other two were working in cement. These are not unskilled trades. You have to do quality work to remain employed in the Aspen Valley. Mexicanos learn quickly, they are fast, and they work very hard.

“We make $10 an hour,” they told me. “Ten dollars an hour is good money.”

The bachelors live communally, as a rule; they’ll work as many hours as it takes, and they save their money. Fifty hours a week is $500. Many of them send money home to their families in México. Dollars from the United States are widely reported to be the biggest source of income in México.

For employers of undocumented workers and the workers themselves, it’s a win-win situation. But many citizens and politicians are concerned about the tidal wave of Mexican immigrants.

Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., a national spokesman for cracking down on illegal immigration, sounded a defiant note in the aftermath of an immigration bill passed by the U.S. Senate on May 25: “The battle has been joined,” he said.

“The Senate bill strengthens our security and reflects our humanity,” countered Sen. Edward Kennedy, DMass., an architect of the bill. But Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., called it “a tremendous budget-buster.”

The bill, which would strengthen border security while also launching a guest-worker program and providing a way for many of the nation’s current illegal immigrants to become citizens, passed the Senate 62-36 but is expected to face stiff opposition in the more conservative House.

The Senate’s 55 Republican members were sharply divided over the bill, with 23 voting for it, 32 against. By contrast, Democrats backed it 38 to 4. The Senate measure calls for 370 miles of fencing along the Mexican border and more jail cells for undocumented workers waiting to be deported. In a nod to conservatives, it makes English the official language of the U.S.

A competing U.S. House of Representatives bill passed in December is far tougher. It provides no guest-worker program and seeks to further criminalize illegal immigration, making it a felony to enter the U.S. improperly, and providing fines, penalties, and incarceration for the millions already here illegally. There’s a problem with that approach.

There are currently 2.2 million people behind bars in the U.S. and 1,000 inmates per week are being added; that’s 52,000 more per year. If that number were doubled, the repercussions would be staggering.

Among the issues posed by immigration is what to do with the 11 million people estimated to be in the country illegally already.

The U.S. Senate bill would provide them a path to citizenship. Those here five years or longer would be allowed to apply for citizenship, if they pay back taxes, learn English and have no serious criminal record. Those here two to five years would have to return home and apply for a green card. Those here for less than two years would be sent home, as would those convicted of a felony or three misdemeanors. The House bill offers no path to citizenship. The Senate bill would provide 200,000 new temporary guest-worker visas a year and create a special program for 1.5 million farm workers.

Both House and Senate bills would require building more fence along the border, train more U.S. Border Patrol agents, and send National Guard members to the area in the interim.

Both bills would provide hefty ($40,000 per worker in the House bill, $20,000 in the Senate bill) fines for employers who hire illegals.

While politicians debate, desperately poor workers continue to pour across the border.

Columbus, N.M., is just a few miles north of the Mexican Border. Pancho Villa State Park is there (which doesn’t make much sense in light of the fact that Pancho Villa’s soldiers invaded Columbus in 1916 and shot the place up and killed some people).

I pulled into the little gas station/ convenience store and strolled over to where a young man was lassoing orange traffic cones with a red lariat. A beautiful young Palomino gelding with a new saddle was standing there and an old caballero with a small white mustache stood beside him.

“My name is Victor,” he told me as he shook my hand.

Victor is from Janos, Chihuahua, the first town you come to going south out of the border town of Palomas. He’s been in the U.S. for 30 years.

“If we let them (the Mexicans) come we’ll all be working for 10 cents an hour,” he said. “I’m not against them coming, but they gotta come legally, like everybody else.”

“I came across right here,” he said. “then I went to Utah and got a job herding cattle. Three hundred dollars a month and room and board. Damn, that was a good job.”

“What do you think about sending the National Guard down here?” I asked.

“It would be all right,” he said, “if they don’t start shooting at people like they did that other time over in Texas (the 1997 shooting of a Mexican goatherd by a U.S. Marine). I ride out there all the time. I don’t want to be shot at.” “Do you see Mexicans coming across?” I asked.

“Every day,” he said.

Many Americans are angry about what they see as an alien invasion; many employers welcome undocumented workers as good, cheap labor.

Human-rights advocates believe it is no more criminal for a hungry Mexican worker to cross the border illegally than for Jean Valjean to steal a loaf of bread to feed his family. Environmentalists lament the impact of the border wars on pristine wildlife refuges and delicate ecosystems.

Here in the desert Southwest, the issue is like an out-of-control brush fire. And you can bet some are going to get their pants legs burned trying to stomp it out.

From June 2006.