1,500 miles…

bags on bags of snacks, hours of naps in vans, very few showers, and numerous placticas later, we have returned to Southern Arizona from our second travel seminar. The premise of the second trip was to understand how the border functions differently in different parts of the southwest. I can’t boast a complete, thorough understanding of what the entire US-Mexico border encompasses, but I can say that the time we spent in Agua Prieta/Douglas, El Paso, and Big Bend National Park gave me a sampling of the ways in which Mexico and the US are unavoidably neighbors, and conflicts that exist within that relationship.

Our trip began in Agua Prieta, Sonora. Mark Adams, US Coordinator for Frontera de Cristo, took us to the fence one morning to give us a brief synopsis of the relationship between Agua Prieta and Douglas. Douglas’ economy, he explained, is based on the residents of Agua Prieta – Walmart, Food City, and all the fast food chains that are on the US side of the border in Douglas (pop 16,000) primarily serve the folks on the other side of the border (who number between 100,000 and 125,000.) With a crossing visa, Agua Prietans can pass through the check point, do their shopping, leave the sales tax in Arizona’s economy, and go home with their goods.

The fence that we were all standing next to was an excellent example of border hysteria and American tax dollars being poorly spent, he pointed out. The fence used to consist of chain link with barbed wire on top. It was incredibly permeable, and people used to cross for weddings, funerals, lunch and/or shopping. Next, it became a cream-colored picket fence with pickets pointed towards the US, ostensibly so that Mexicans didn’t feel like they were in jail. As Mark sees it, the direction of the pickets are representative of how border policy really just makes it harder for people to go home to Mexico. He also mentioned that US Border Patrol has started checking documentation for folks heading south across the border and detaining the folks as they’re trying to return to Mexico. While this could be explained as “teaching them a lesson,” to me this merely exemplifies how border enforcement, at the end of the day, is mostly about profit – the more bodies we incarcerate, the more money is made in food contracts, contracts with doctors, contracts with construction companies, contracts with folks who was prison garb, etc etc etc.

Mark also explained to us how the communities of Douglas and Agua Prieta started to feel very differently towards each other by the mid 1990s, when traffic through their section of the border increased because bigger cities like El Paso and San Diego were sealed off. Residents of Douglas hadn’t even wanted the wall in its current manifestation because they were well aware that they were financially supported by undocumented crossers. However, as more migrants passed through the region, resources got squeezed and “the illegals” started to be blamed. Even residents of Agua Prieta turned hateful towards other Mexicans who were trying to cross through the region. Additionally, the culture of fear that we’ve seen so shamelessly propagated in Tucson reared its head in Douglas, too, as the border became militarized. As Americans saw a huge fence, lights and cameras as prominent parts of the border, it was harder and harder to believe that there was nothing to be afraid of on the other side of the fence.

Our time in Agua Prieta/Douglas had a religious bent to it, and left a number of us thinking about how religion can span the border and motivate people to be allies in the name of brotherhood and sisterhood. While this left a few of us (including myself) feeling pretty conflicted, I found myself able to push past my discomfort to appreciate the weekly vigil that was held by Frontera De Cristo on the Douglas side of the border. Beginning in the parking lot of the local McDonalds, Mark distributed 100 some-odd crosses to participants of the vigil. Each cross was inscribed with the name, birth date, and death date or date of discovery of a migrant found in Cochise county, where Douglas is located. We set off south on Pan American Ave, arms full of crosses, walking single file towards the border and designated port of entry. Every few feet, the person at the head of the line would turn around, raise the cross bearing the name over their head, and say the name as loudly and respectfully as possible to the line of cars waiting to cross the border. After each name, everyone else in line shouted “presente!” After some time, each person would leave their cross in the street, leaning again the sidewalk, and return to the line. In this manner we leapfrogged all the way to the border, all the while inhaling the exhaust of those waiting to cross the border. Despite my discomfort with the repetition of crosses and the visual of people raising crosses over their heads, I recognized this form of remembrance as vital and healing. Shouting “PRESENTE!” into the night over and over again gave me an outlet for some of the frustration and anger that has grown inside me at how migrant deaths are repeatedly forgotten in American media and culture. Additionally, standing so close to the border while remembering those that had perished not too far away made it real to me that wherever I find myself in the borderlands, people are dying trying to reach this country and its economic opportunities. And while I may feel in the current recession that those economic opportunities are few and far between, I remind myself that largely because of my country’s actions, the economic opportunities in Mexico don’t hold a candle to those that I have daily access to in the US.

El Paso/Juárez blew me away. The cities (which are indistinguishable from each other after sunset, see photo to the right) have a combined population of 3 million – 2 in Cd. J, 1 in El Paso. A huge shift in population from south to north occurred between 2007 and 2012, when violence south of the border skyrocketed due to Calderón’s misguided war on drugs. (When I say skyrocketed, I’m talking about 3,600 murders in 2010, which is just under 10/day in a city of 2 million.) As a result of this violence, 1/3 of Juárez’s population moved north across the border. As that population moved north, business also moved north, resulting in Forbes rating El Paso as one of the best mid-sized cities in which to find employment in 2010, the same year that 10 people a day were getting murdered just south of the wall. The way that El Paso was able to remain one of the safest mid-sized cities in the US while Juárez was the most dangerous city in the world is through the incredible border security industry that we tasted briefly. With Border Patrol agents stationed every 500 feet in the urban area, tens of people manning the port of entry between the two cities, motion sensors built into the ground in the suburban area outside of the city, video cameras all over the place, and thousands of wattage in enormous lights that shine on the border all night, the border in El Paso felt like a low-intensity war zone.

The question of how we take care of our neighbors and each other as human beings became real to me in a very different way during our time in El Paso. UTEP professor Kathy Staudt talked about the femicides that have swept through Juárez in the last two decades in the context of being in El Paso’s backyard. If tens of women were being raped and murdered across a state line in the US, would the state without a rash of femicides fail to offer support for the other state in the same way that the US has failed to offer any support to Mexico?

Annunciation House (a shelter and comedor for migrants,) Maternidad de la Luz (an extraordinarily low-cost midwifery,) and Centro de los Trabajadores Agricolas (an eatery and community center for farm workers) are organizations that are supporting undocumented folks in El Paso. It was interesting to think of their work in the context of the responsibility I believe we have to take care of each other. It was also interesting to think of the work those organizations do as a means of resistance to the US’s profiting off of migrant hardship and subordination, and, in the case of those organizations that were run by white Americans, as a way of putting one’s privilege on the line, exercising the responsibility that comes with that privilege, and using one’s social capital as a tool of defense for those subjected to unjust laws.

To avoid being written off as a crazy radical when I say things like the US is coresponsible for and profits off of Mexico’s problems (and I can go off with examples like this all day, so let me know if you need more): Also in El Paso, we got to talk to the Labor Justice Committee, which is a group that fights wage theft in El Paso. Wage theft is a pretty large problem there for a number of reasons: 1) non-nationals sometimes don’t know that they’re entitled to minimum wage, even if they’re undocumented. 2) as the recession has hit and jobs have become more scarce, wages have fallen lower and lower (sometimes to below minimum wage level.) 3) undocumented status – it’s harder for undocumented folks to organize and fight because employers can threaten them with deportation. So essentially, there are plenty of people in El Paso (and across the country) who are being ridiculously underpaid (if paid at all) and they’re unable to fight for their wages due to their status. Furthermore, American employers are the ones benefiting off this cheap labor.

I left El Paso both in awe and infuriated. I was even more in awe when we got to Big Bend National Park. Did you know that Texas is huge? Turns out it is. We spent all four days there wallowing in nature: We camped all three nights by the Rio Grande – one of the only parts of the border that exists without a fence. There was something completely mind boggling about sitting on the banks of (and occasionally in) that river and thinking about how we’d be fined $5,000 and potentially sit in jail for a year if we were caught crossing it (as US citizens. The consequences are much steeper for non-citizens, of course.) We hiked around some of the most overwhelming canyons I’ve ever been whelmed by that serve as the border, yet didn’t cost millions of dollars to create. We met men on horseback who had just gallivanted across the river, as they did every day, to see if visitors to the park had purchased any of the beaded animals they left on the bank of the river. We heard, yet again, about how the hardening of the border post 9/11 (on 9/18/2001, to be exact) had ravaged cross-border communities. Did you know that on the aforementioned date, Border Patrol agents disguised as river runners entered Presidio, another town that straddles to border and had a thriving bi-national community, and rounded up and deported hundreds of people? The park ranger who told us this story said that the day when most people cluster around the fence, having conversations through it with people on the other side, is Mexican Mother’s Day.

Y así regreso a Tucson: angrier, more confused, a little sunburnt, and my understanding of the border, the Mexico-US relationship, and what it means to care for people complicated and strengthened.

– submitted by Mariel Cohn


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