It’s an odd little spot, really, sitting between the Union Pacific Railroad tracks and Highway 90 as it runs through Alpine, Texas. Not much bigger than a convenience store parking lot, the [...]
When we were living in the trailer on the ranch, the Rio Grande was less than a mile distant across the old Mines Road. The immigrants were often still wet when they came by our door on the way to the railroad tracks that they were going to follow north to San Antonio. They never really asked anyone on the ranch for more than water and did not want to linger because they knew the Border Patrol was vigilant.
In those days, we went to Mexico every weekend and ate and shopped and walked the streets in Nuevo Laredo and up to the Sierra Madre and the little towns like Bustamente. People played music in the plazas and there was almost always the smell of carne asada in the air as you walked to the Cadillac Bar for a drink. The nights we had on the border are still as vivid as the mornings when it had rained and you could see the mountains across the desert.
I don’t think it is anything like that today but I don’t go down to Mexico any more. A few days ago, while speaking with a friend from there, I’d heard about nine people found hanging from a bridge. There is no reasonable way to talk about such things. The desperation over drugs and money and guns has grown so great that the news often sounds like everyone has surrendered to the circumstances. The war on drugs is over. And drugs won.
The U.S. government says that there is now a “net zero” migration from Mexico to this country but that does not mean our mutual problems are lessened. They are still coming to America and we continue to buy the product that is killing Mexicans by the tens of thousands. You cannot know what that is like until you have seen and heard them cry. I have listened to their pleadings but mostly I remember the immigrants’ tears.
We were down on the Rio Grande where the river makes a slow bend south of Del Rio, Texas. The land the immigrants were about to encounter when they reached the north bank of the big river was marked by an endless horizon of mesquite, prickly ocotillo and cholla, and a ceaseless heat that felt as though it were left over from the earth’s beginnings. First, though, they had to cross the fast water.
Our camera crew was moving slowly into the cane breaks. The sky was rolling up darkness from the east and there was much less light in the tunnels the immigrants had made through the 10 and 15 foot tall stalks. A US Border Patrol officer led us down a path and showed us where the crossers had made little spaces to hide off of the trail. These were littered with abandoned clothes and other belongings that might have not served them on the long walk across deadly open spaces of Texas. I thought it looked like a camp or a fort fashioned by adventurous boys.
Above us, the cane stalks woven together by the wind made a roof against a sky that they would come to know as an enemy in the next days. A few of the lucky ones would be able to jump a freight train if they were successful at sneaking into town and avoiding the security at the rail yards.
“We can’t catch them all,” the border patrol agent said into our television camera. “We only get a tiny percent. And you feel bad about it when you do. But it’s the law and it’s my job. Here, let me show you this.”
The pathway opened up to a muddy embankment that angled sharply to the water. The Rio Grande was moving swiftly and was darkly colored from the soil it carried from the farmland of north central Mexico and the tall canyonlands of Big Bend National Park. They would have to swim with great strength and courage to reach America.
“They’re gathering over there right now.” The agent pointed upstream a few hundred yards and slight motion was visible in the undergrowth on the Mexican side. “I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be crossing that river tonight. Let’s just pull back and wait.”
After making our way slowly behind his pocket flashlight, we were positioned with the agent at a location up the trail near the hollowed out rest spot. We squatted in the darkness for almost an hour until we heard them slipping as they clambered up the muddy embankment. The agent stood.
“They’ll be here in a few minutes.” His voice was dispassionate, clinical. After riding around with him that day, his moral conflict was obvious. He was the son of immigrants from Mexico. “We all came here from somewhere,” he had told us during the taping of an interview. “I’m just not sure how or what we do about this.”
Eleven immigrants approached and the agent turned on his big flashlight as he heard them rustling through the cane.
“Alto. Espere aqui,” he ordered.
His voice was not authoritative but they obeyed and stopped. As he walked past each of them, he tapped them on the shoulder and ordered them to sit on the trail. This was a measure of security he took because budget cuts had put him in the position of working alone in the dark and handling people who might be filled with angry desperation. These 9 men and 2 women were not. They were tired and sad and wet and all they wanted was a job and money to care for their families in Mexico.
“Can you please just let me go,” one of the immigrants said in halting English. “I just can’t go back. Please, sir. I am beg to you.”
His name was Armando. As we waited for the vans to arrive after the agent radioed for assistance, we talked to Armando. He was the only one willing to speak but their stories all had the same texture of pain with minor variations in fact.
“I cannot go home,” he sobbed. The bright camera light turned his tears into shining rivulets. “No work there. My children hungry. My wife sick. I have to come America.”
“Where do you come from?” I asked.
“My home…..you know is Guadalajara? Little place by there. I walk here. Many hundreds miles.”
The agent paced in front of the assembled group and kept his eye wary for anyone who might bolt into the brush.
“You let me go, sir? Please. What it matter? No one knows. What it matter to you? Nothing? But it big important to me. Please. My children.”
I turned to see if there was a reaction on the agent’s face behind the flashlight’s glow. He betrayed nothing. He swung the beam of his light up toward Armando and saw his bare feet, sweat pants, and torn tee shirt, his dripping, stringy hair.
“I can’t,” the agent said in perfect Spanish. “You know that.”
The vans rolled up and the immigrants boarded and were gone within minutes. After being processed through a detention center, they were returned to the international bridge and sent back south. But they were not likely to give up.
“I’m sure I’ll see Armando again,” the Border Patrol officer said. “Or one of our other agents will. And probably the rest of them. Look, like I said, I don’t blame them. I’d take whatever risks are necessary to feed my kids. I guess we’re all just doing what we have to do. I don’t know anything.”
But what else is there to know? Drug cartels are killing innocents and each other. The Mexican government’s military crackdown has not even slowed the trade. Hundreds of people, mostly women, have been “disappeared” from Ciudad Juarez. And now the low-paying jobs of the border manufacturing facilities known as maquiladoras are being moved to China where labor is even cheaper.
And the only thing separating that great misery from great possibility is a river and a desert. So they take their chances going north. And they swing hammers and build houses and work the farms and the restaurants and clean homes and hotels and care for our children. They also have the same dreams of health and prosperity as Americans. The profit of great industries is carried on their low income backs and is marked in their calloused hands and defined by the ache of their muscles. Our economy and our country might not function as well without their labor. And there are no laws Washington can pass that will free us from our mutual dependence.
Immigration is not a curse. It is our heritage. And when we decided to make America the “shining beacon on a hill,” we ought to have known people were going to be drawn to the light.