Friday, August 27, 2010

Along the Border

If you want to know what's really happening on the southern border of our country, don't turn on Fox or CNN.  Don't read inflammatory editorial pieces.  Simply get on a bus headed for Arizona and you'll see for yourself.

I took a Greyhound from Reno southward through California, crossing over to Phoenix.  From Phoenix, Greyhound uses partner carriers to take passengers to the border.  I was instructed to take a voucher to a cab driver who would take me to this shuttle service, some 10 miles away from the Greyhound station.  The cab driver was not happy with the voucher.  I apologized and told him that was all I had to give him.  He says "prefiero efectivo (I prefer cash)".  I said, "I understand."

The shuttle station was tucked in the corner of a deserted strip mall.  The entire drive from the Greyhound station to the shuttle station was bizarre.  It was around 6 p.m. and I didn't hardly see a soul.  On the west side of Phoenix, there were signs in Spanish all over the place, but buildings looked as if they'd been closed for business for a quite a while.  It was eerily quiet.

I went to the station to catch a ride for the three hour drive to Nogales, a town on the Mexico/US border.  There was an absence of the formality and pageantry that accompanies the usual boarding process with the Greyhounds.  This was a guy behind a plastic shield in a little hut of a building telling the passengers in Spanish that it was time to go.  The room was covered with old, tan wood paneling and had a couple of old gumball machines standing guard.  It looked like a building from 1972.  The bathroom had no toilet paper or soap.  It was purely a 20 foot by 10 foot gathering space for travelers going to and from the border. 

I boarded the 15 passenger van with two other men.  On our way out of Phoenix, we stopped in a residential neighborhood to pick up another guy.  We pulled right into his driveway as he ran out, hugged his wife and got on the van.  About a half hour later, we picked up another passenger at a gas station.  It seemed disorganized to me, but everyone else seemed to know what was going on.

On our way to Nogales, I started talking to the two men seated behind me.  I had noticed that they did the sign of the cross on our way out of the parking lot.  I trusted that this was standard religious ritual rather than a sign that they were nervous about us making it there safely.  The men looked young.  Gregorio said he was 18 years old.  His friend, Francisco was 26.  They were leaving Phoenix for good.

In Spanish they detailed why they were leaving: "We've been here in Phoenix for four years.  I work as an auto mechanic.  I specialize in repairing vintage cars.  Gregorio has been working the whole time at IHOP as a cook.  Since this new law passed in Arizona, it has changed.  We've seen friends of ours, neighbors of ours, arrested while walking on the street.  They've been asked for their documents and then deported."  Francisco continued, getting more animated, "I don't understand it.  Who wants to work at IHOP?  He makes $8 an hour.  They say we're taking jobs.  Nobody wants to do those jobs.  We are supposed to be family.  We are brothers.  We share this continent.  If you go down into Nogales, Mexico, you will be well received.  But, yet in your country, you say that you don't want me?"

I didn't know how to respond to them.  They seemed angry, defeated and disillusioned.  Francisco told me that he and Gregorio were going back to Cananea, Sonora, Mexico.  They had family there.  "Do you hope to come back up here some day?", I asked them.  "Yes, but when it's better.  It's not worth getting arrested."

Francisco, left and Gregorio, right

In Nogales, I met Marlene, the manager of the Burger King on the Arizona side of the border.  She grew up in Kingman, Arizona to Mexican immigrants.  Her dad got a visa back in the 60's to come work as an engineer at a factory in Kingman, in the northwest corner of the state.  Marlene and her husband moved to Nogales in 1992 when the opportunity presented itself to purchase a Burger King franchise.

"It's changed a lot", Marlene said.  "We used to have tourists all the time, but with the media going on and on about the murders on the border, our business has taken a hit.  We hardly see any tourists anymore.  The murders aren't even happening here in Nogales.  It's like 15 or 20 miles in where they're seeing the trouble."

I asked Marlene about the impact of the new law in Arizona where law enforcement officials can request documentation without cause.  "They don't really pester people in Nogales.  It's over 95% Hispanic here and they'd have their hands full.  They're pretty much just nailing people up in Phoenix".  As I walked around in Nogales, I saw vehicle after vehicle with "Border Patrol" on the sides.  They were just driving the streets of Nogales, AZ, looking for people trying to cross through, over or under the fences that line that city.  It was an eye opener, for sure.

On a lighter note, there are multiple border crossing checkpoints on highways in the South.  They are not right at the border.  Usually, they're 30 or 40 miles in and the US Border Patrol flags vehicles down and searches them.  There are drug sniffing dogs and heavily armed agents looking for contraband and illegal immigrants. 

Our bus was stopped about an hour east of El Paso on I-10.  The beefy patrol agents got on the bus and announced, "We are with the United States Border Patrol.  Please have proper documentation available to verify that you are a U.S. citizen!"  Their voices boomed and they were no nonsense.  It was about 5:30 in the morning and they were climbing up on our Greyhound to do their job.  One agent went to the back of the bus and another stayed at the front.  They worked their way toward the middle to mitigate any possibility of confrontation or escape. 

One big agent with a crew cut and an automatic weapon strapped across his chest stopped in the row in front of me to question a 95 pound Chinese woman.  "Can I see your documentation, please?"  She just stared at him.  In a louder voice, "I NEED TO SEE YOUR DOCUMENTATION!"  Silence.  "YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND A WORD I'M SAYING, DO YOU?  YOUR PAPERS.  I NEED TO SEE YOUR PAPERS.  HABLAS ESPANOL?"  That made me smile because these guys were obviously trained to deal with Spanish speaking immigrants, but it was an awkward interaction at best with this mild woman. 

She nervously fidgeted around and produced something in the shape of a drivers' license but it was some sort of ID card.  The officer looked at it and just kind of shook his head.  I figure that they have a pretty swift and smooth process for when they catch illegal immigrants from Latin America, but I wasn't so sure that he wanted to deal with this case.  He just handed her the card back and said, "thank you.".  She smiled and tucked the card away.  A large, African-American woman in the seat behind the Chinese woman was amused by the whole encounter and said, "I think she knows more English than she's pretending.  He almost snatched her ass straight off the bus!"

The government is pouring millions of dollars into securing our borders, trying to get rid of tens of millions of undocumented workers, one Greyhound bus at a time.

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