TUCSON, ARIZONA — One moment the desert sun hangs suspended as an oppressive, solitary orange sphere against a china-blue sky. Seemingly just a moment later, tar-black clouds cloak the landscape like a woolly blanket, sharply raising the humidity. Lightning bursts in the foothills, and the wind smells electric as a midsummer monsoon readies its downpour.
These are the natural rhythms of the American borderland, a 2,000-mile stretch of surreal shifts and superficially senseless contradictions.
One moment I sit with desperate young men from the Mexican state of Hidalgo on the steps of a church just south of the border in Nogales. They patiently wait for nightfall and quietly brace themselves knowing that within hours they will defy the motion and heat sensors, the infrared trip wires, the night-vision glasses and cameras, the Blackhawk choppers and unmanned drones, the observation towers and the stadium-strength floodlights of the beefed-up ranks of U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents.
They know their odds are slim. Some tell me they have been caught already three, four or more times. But so what? They also know that, in the worst case, they will be cuffed, fingerprinted and kicked right back across the border within hours, right back to where they are now. Only after 10 detentions might they face prosecution and an American jail. There is little to lose. When the minimum wage in your home village is a buck an hour, time is cheap. “I just want to make it to Tucson — to get any job,” says one of the men from Hidalgo. “I’ll keep trying until I make it.”
And then, only a few moments later, and no more than a half-dozen blocks from that church, and only by accident of birth, I effortlessly glide north across the same border that these men will challenge by night. “U.S. citizen,” I say to the customs agent as she peers at my driver’s license. She hands it back to me and lackadaisically waves me across the looming fortification.
That night, I sit in a Tucson patio sipping red wine and Pacificos and munching barbecue with two writers from two different generations who know this border much more intimately than do I. Luke Turf, a fervent young reporter with the Tucson Citizen, has done outstanding work exposing the consequences of U.S. border policy. The crusty Charles Bowden, meanwhile, churns out such lyrical nonfiction narratives (especially his Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder and Family) that he continues to startle the worlds of literature and investigative journalism simultaneously — not an easy trick.
Bowden is unfazed when I recount to him the details of my day spent on both sides of the Nogales border — half with the migrants and half with the Border Patrol agents trying to catch them. My report is as predictable as the cycle of Arizona’s August monsoons. Every day, a torrent of poor people mightily washes over the border, probably about a million per year. Every day, the Border Patrol, in helter-skelter fashion, catches as many as it can. And then, as if they were undersized bass, the detainees are just as soon released back into the sea of Mexican poverty. Eventually, about half the migrants elude the net and are rewarded with jobs as laborers, fieldworkers, gardeners, nannies and waiters.
The political pressure comes and goes, and forces the Border Patrol to clamp down here or there. The bulk of migrants simply shifts and surges through the cracks in what a Border Patrol spokesman admits is something like a “multi-dimensional chess game.” Over the last decade, the flow has been directed right here through the deadliest patch of the south-central Arizona desert. (See my report “On the Border of Hypocrisy,” December 5, 2003 in the L.A.Weekly archives.)
Recently, record numbers of migrants, as many as 350 to 400 per year, and five more here on Monday, have died while playing this game. This summer season the U.S. government has spent an extra $20 million trying to plug this hole in the Arizona desert, hoping to tamp down on the number of deaths and also cool off the passions that have led to the placement of a Proposition 187–like measure on the state ballot. But the human flow has once again gone around, if not over, the obstacles: some 250 deaths so far this season, and certainly dozens more to come before the winter. As many or more people than ever are crossing — “enhanced enforcement” or not. “Nothing really changes here,” Bowden says over another glass of red. “When people ask me what the solution will eventually be here, I say, ‘This is it.’”
This is, indeed, the game. You keep enough agents on the border to quell political protest while American industry continues to be ever more dependent on cheap, immigrant labor. Which is, by the way, the sort of natural “solution” you get along the only 2,000-mile-long border on the globe that divides two such disparate economies.
Policy changes, or the lack of them, can barely have an impact on a human wave whose awesome power, like a true force of nature, is as unstoppable as the desert summer rains.
As Bowden regales us with stories about the darkness of the human soul, we finish off the beers and the rest of the wine. The storm moves closer and it’s time to go. Driving back to my hotel through the blackness of the desert night, I can’t help but wonder where those young men from Hidalgo are at this hour and just where the morning sun will find them.