In the late 1800s, my family came from Solingen, Prussia and built their homestead in a canyon on the Mexican border before Arizona was a state. At that time, Nogales was literally a walnut grove bisected by an international line with little more than a railroad station and post office. My grandmother and all her siblings were born on that land, as was my father and his siblings, and it’s where we spent summers when my mom dropped us off with family and went to work.
When I was growing up, the fence, as we called it, was literally a fence, and there were only 25 Border Patrol agents at the local station. With a pair of wire cutters and knowing the area wouldn’t be patrolled for at least another few minutes, groups of people could hop through and migrate north. When an actual border wall went up within the city, it stopped cars from going through, but people still go over and a vast network of new tunnels beneath the city, like a contraband ant farm, continues to carry a determined people to their destination.
I worked steps away from a walk-through port of entry, and one day on my break I was sitting in front of our building enjoying the sunshine when a man jumped over the fence from the hilly area on the Mexican side. He took off running with a huge smile as his friends yelled, “See you later, man!” A patrol car followed quickly behind him but the man seemed to enjoy the cat-and-mouse pursuit. As soon as this wall was announced, friends in Mexico commented, “If you build a 30-foot wall, we’ll build a 32-foot ladder.” Having seen the tunnels, worked with the Border Patrol, and lived the border most of my life, I can tell you the permeability will fluctuate but it won’t stop.
In Nogales, the three biggest industries are agricultural trade (60% of the tomatoes in the United States come through Nogales), drugs, and law enforcement. The majority of my friends and family were on the side of the law, but in a tiny town with limited options, it’s inevitable to know people “in the business.” The ebb and flow, legality and illegality, are part of our daily lives.
In all this talk about a huge wall, there hasn’t really been any real discussion about what that border wall would look like or what purpose it would serve. A wall for the purpose of being a wall. A symbolic wall that will exude power and prejudice and that will cost the country more than $15 billion and the esteem of the global community.
To quote Robert Frost, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offence.”
Let’s get back to what this wall would look like. Currently, 600 miles of the 2000 mile border – roughly one-third – is walled. In some areas, it’s utilitarian corrugated metal barricade and in others. it’s decorative and “friendly” (see photo, top right). Even with a wall, people will go under and over. Along the border there is autonomous reservation land (75 miles of Tohono O’Odham in Arizona – read more about it in my news article) out of the jurisdiction of the federal fence builders, and yet other parts of the border are marsh land along the Rio Grande that would make an unstable foundation for a huge wall.
What’s the purpose of this huge border wall?
Are we stopping illegal immigration? In the sewers under cities along the border, there are sensors and cameras that trigger the patrol and PA systems warning illegal immigrants to turn back. In the deserts, similarly, there are towers to monitor from up above and sensors that, when tripped, turn on cameras and notify the authorities who can rush out to where the sensors were triggered in SUVs, helicopters, hummers, or whatever the group size and load they’re carrying may warrant.
A border that traverses the entire international border is a colossal waste of public funds. Former Mexican president Vicente Fox Quesada says Mexico will not pay for the #fuckingwall. I believe him. All the recent Mexican presidents concur. Something tells me we won’t be reimbursed for this absurd, ill-conceived wall most of us don’t want to begin with.
There’s a fairly prosperous country with the promise of opportunity on the north side of the fence, and to the south, one with limited opportunities for undereducated populations and less economic resources. The border is an escape valve. The majority of people that come across are looking for a better life, or are simply hoping to provide for their families the way they are not able to in their home country. Many long to return to Mexico but are unable given their legal status, so they sacrifice in order to send money so their families may have a better life. On the other hand, many people cross each year with more underhanded objectives: the drug trade and human trafficking. Demand on the U.S. side drives supply from Mexico. Socially, the U.S. is at least partly to blame for illegal crossings.
Mexicos National Institute of Immigration has a task force called Grupo Beta – a service for people who risk their lives to cross into the U.S. under dangerous circumstances. Grupo Beta tries to orient and prepare crossers (I heard less of a focus in my meetings with them of dissuading and deterring) and they provide relief when the crosses are in distress – food and water, rescue efforts, and medical care.
Rather than a grandiose statements – in our case a wall – to tell Mexicans, Muslim nations, and the world, for that matter, to keep their tired, poor, and huddled masses, perhaps we should focus our efforts on policy that enables Mexico to focus on economic equality, creating opportunity in the country so her people can stay and encourage the country to become a better trade partner. Maybe we should address the war on drugs domestically with education, prevention, and treatment, lesser sentencing for minor violations, and – dare I say – legalization of marijuana.
Illegal immigration will not stop.
It may slow because of increased resources and new infrastructure, or as a conscious decision to avoid our hostile policy and ignorant leadership. In the 2010 Census, 5.2 million U.S. citizens identified themselves as having indigenous roots (Native American). For the other 98.4% of us, our forefathers came to this country chasing a dream. We should be empathetic, tolerant, accepting, and informed, or keep our mouths shut and embrace the spirit that allowed our families to establish roots in this beautiful country. A huge wall is not the answer, no matter the question.