Reflections on Altar/Nogales

Figuring out how to approach this assignment is difficult, because I feel an inclination to do two things I don’t really want to/couldn’t possibly do: (1) speak in a way that captures or represents the “group experience” to a wider readership, including prospective BSP participants and (2) provide a neat little nugget summary of the chronology of the last few days. All I can provide is a few scattered articulations from my own perspective, which has been shaped by conversations with Jaye and you all and every other person and environment I have encountered, but which cannot be read as anyone else’s truth. I’d rather not cover each item on our itinerary in shallow detail, because that short-changes them all and I’d rather reflect in greater depth about one or two events.  Also, I don’t feel that it’s appropriate for me to formulate my views into a tidy cohesive narrative because that belies the frazzledness of my own thoughts and the complexity of these experiences, as well as the fact that I am refering to the lives of people we have briefly met and topics that to me are exactly that, “topics”—subjects to mull over and write about and maybe cry about, but that do not necessarily enfold me or cause me daily harm. To compose words about these “topics” in a neat way seems to reduce them further and I also mentally can’t, because of the extent to which they are still unfathomable to me.

The first thing I want to talk about is visiting Border Patrol. One aspect of the experience which struck me the most was the ways that the “job” of policing the border, and presumably the training that agents go through (perhaps speaking to militarization, policing and surveillance more broadly), involves an ideological conversion of the nuances of reality and the flesh/thoughts/feelings/spirits of people into rhetoric that obscures injustice and frames the whole system as alternately a game/sport and an urgent project to maintain order. WHAT AM I SAYING. How do I find a way to say what I’m thinking. I’ll just give examples.

Both of the agents mentioned that they had always loved to be outdoors, hike, and “run around the mountains,” so their friends had said, ‘hey, if you love doing all that, why don’t you apply to be on border patrol and put those interests towards serving the country?’ (as though patrolling the border is just a slightly more patriotic outdoorsy activity). They talked about “tunnel teams” who go down the “rabbit holes” to find “smugglers.” They talked about how agents can apply for “details,” which I understood as being like special temporary bonuses (e.g., getting to ride a horse for a little while), and after being selected for a detail they can’t apply for another one for 90 days, so the novelty doesn’t wear off—kind of reminds me of a computer game where you collect a special coin and then get to fly for a limited time, or something (am I stretching this metaphor?). They talked about how they sometimes have to spend a week at a remote camp in the desert, and complained about having to bathe with jugs of water in the intense heat and be away from their families (I can’t imagine how difficult that must be, but it still sounds almost quaint compared to what migrants go through and the ways in which they are separated from their families)—and overall, they made it sound like an adventure. Then they talked about their “community involvement” and the “Explorer Program” which they run for local Arizona youth in order to “guide them to a better path,” in which kids “get to shoot guns, do everything we get to do, it’s kinda fun.”

There are so many ways that the agents use intentionally complicated/abstract phrasing to obscure or create distance from what is actually happening and to propagandize. For example, when a migrant throws a rock, it’s a “lethal assault”; when agents throw a rock, they are exercising a “field expedient weapon.” The language with which they discussed the technologies used by “smuggling organizations” (e.g., “digitized cammo booties”; “ultralight aircrafts” [also described as “lawnmowers with wings]) and “terrorism” (e.g., “putting spikes on the back of marijuana bundles”) which has evidently “increased and taken on many forms since 9/11” (maybe because we label more and more stuff as “terrorism” ever since 9/11?)—made the migrants  or “illegal aliens” seem more threatening. Meanwhile, all of the words that they used to talk about their own technologies (e.g., “radiation isotope identification device”; “unmanned aerial systems” [drones]) and their systems/methods (e.g., “Alien Transfer Exit Program”; “sign-cutting” [following footprints]; “escalating levels of consequence delivery”) were almost absurd in their dehumanized convolution. The “levels of harm done,” which dictate the “levels of consequence delivery,” include:

(1)  not active compliance (the agent beckons, but the migrant stands still)

(2)  active resistance (agent grabs migrant and migrant wriggles out of grasp)

(3)  assault (migrant kicks or hits agent)

(4)  serious bodily harm (migrant poses great threat to agent, e.g. by picking up rock)—the consequence for this is that the agent can “escalate to the level of lethal fire.” No warning shots are allowed. What does that mean? What do you think that means? They said, “We don’t shoot to kill. We shoot to stop the threat and de-escalate.” They also said, “We know what it feels like—everything we use has been used against us. Granted, not the guns.”

I JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MIGRATION CAN EVER LEAVE OUT AN ANALYSIS OF WHY PEOPLE ARE MIGRATING. The Border Patrol did mention that migrants are often poor, or that the “smugglers” prey on people. They talked about how the agents take a “humanitarian approach” by deporting children across the border at the same place where they had crossed (as opposed to what they sometimes do with adult migrants, which is move them over to Texas or other crossing points to disorient them). But they don’t imagine what might be entailed by an actual large-scale humanitarian approach, which might involve changing U.S. economic policy so that people don’t have to migrate. Obviously it’s not in their interest to talk about how, for example, many people are unable to continue growing their ancestral corn because of the influx of subsidized US corn, and thus must migrate in search of work in the US, often in the fields of the same factory farms whose GMO products displaced their livelihood in the first place). It’s not surprising that BP doesn’t talk about those things and probably doesn’t learn to think about them, as though the whole issue with migration starts in the immediate surroundings of the wall. What’s more unsettling is that the general conversation about migration that takes place in schools, in the media, at my family’s dinner table, everywhere in this country, also leaves out this incredibly basic question about how the US engineers the necessity of migration.

I’d wanted to write in some depth about my home-stay too, but I’m starting to run out of steam. I’ll just mention a few details:

I was thankfully very heartened by conversations with my host, Alma, and her daughters who are roughly our age.  Gabi helped a lot with translation and interpretation. Alma told us how she loves “mi México” and doesn’t want to leave, and that being in the U.S. makes her angry. She said she has a VISA, but Border Patrol doesn’t care who has a VISA or not, they treat you rudely all the same (“hay tanto racismo”). She also said that she doesn’t generalize about everyone in the US, because she knows there are a lot of good people and that’s why she likes being involved with Border Studies. She appreciates that we are visiting and learning.

Her daughter also explained to us that the fields of study are more specialized and vocational in Mexico for undergrad, so if you’re interested in studying social justice, your main option is law school. She said she’s working in a maquila that’s owned by a Mexican corporation which pays $12/day, whereas many US-owned maquilas pay $8 per day. She wants to study journalism and be on the radio as a representative reporting on concerts, parties and other events. She says she wants to do this because she’s loud and friendly and always the one singing at karaoke.

That’s all I can manage for now! Thanks for reading.

-Rena Branson


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