Trip to Altar, Sonora: Some thoughts on studying migration and being a human

The Border Patrol Station in Nogales, Arizona is flanked by three parking lots of vans, ATVs, and horses purposed for finding and deporting immigrants entering the United States through Mexico. When we drove up to the station, it was clear to me that though we were still on the north side of the wall, we had found the other side of immigration. Border Patrol isn’t necessarily what I had imagined; a room of administrative cubicles greets incomers and a mix of civilian and uniformed agents mill about with coffee and granola bars. A wall of trophies on the back wall marks the national achievements of BP’s youth outreach program and we sit down at a horseshoe-shaped table for a slideshow about Homeland security and border enforcement tactics. The mission of Border Patrol is simple, to quote a Border Patrol agent,“[federal immigration policy] is the law of the land….our job is to do our job.” The winding cement hallways and observation room with dozens of TV screens of the quiet desert don’t leave any room for negotiation.

Before coming to Tucson, immigration was a series of numbers and statistics with occasional clips from a documentary or two floating around my mind. Coming here put a face (or rather, many faces) to immigration, so to speak, and I guess that’s what the trip to Border Patrol could have done. Behind green uniforms and bolted trucks, there are real humans with wives, partners, husbands, golden retrievers, whatever. But walking around Border Patrol’s cool offices was shockingly far from humanizing. The agents that we spoke to operated exclusively under a duty to enforce the laws of the United States; whose laws are those? I certainly didn’t write those laws nor did my host family back in South Tucson; where was the human element in all of this?

The quick drive to Nogales, Sonora and visit to the Kino Border Initiative’s hospitality house for women and children didn’t exactly help me feel closer to immigration as it actually happens. Another PowerPoint presentation and a few more gringos report statistics; we peek inside the women’s sleeping area. I am happy that if immigration is going to be statistics and cold folding chairs, at least this time, people crossing the border get a bed and time with their children as opposed to segregated holding cells.

CCAMYN is a two-hour drive from Nogales and offers free food and housing for individuals coming from and/or going to the border. It is situated in the somewhat odd town of Altar – a place whose economy is largely centered on migration. The shops that line the plaza display camouflaged backpacks and carpet-bottomed shoe covers to hide migrant tracks from the “signcutting” border patrol. Inside this migrant shelter, I feel even further from migration. Though we are surrounded by hopeful crossers, my pale skin and accented Spanish confirms my status as a gringo who will happily coast through the Nogales checkpoint tomorrow sporting a blue passport and North Carolina driver’s license. What am I looking for? I find myself wondering, as I get increasingly frustrated with the awkwardness of this situation. Why do I even keep using these words, “far from migration,” as if it is something you can touch, immerse yourself it, experience in the raw like language immersion programs for highschoolers advertise. My social position necessarily creates a distance between my situation and that of a migrant, and I think that’s okay. But what do I do with that distance?

Immigration is, by nature, always dynamic. The migrant is moving and la migra are changing their tactics, but the students are reading the same stale articles and trying to situate themselves in a way that feels less horrible or somehow demonstrates a somber awareness of a system in which they’re so clearly implicated. For the men that Megan and I are playing Crazy 8’s with, migration is a means of being with their families or supporting themselves economically. It’s not a cultural phenomenon that they’ve cultivated and want to show off or talk about. I find solace in hearing about Alfonso’s Chinese ex-girlfriend in Florida and learning magic tricks from Oscar. Scholastic articles about how I should be behaving clog my brain, but I fall back on making fart jokes about beans and putting entirely too much hot sauce on my eggs in some weird competition with my Honduran neighbor who has completely drowned his. I’m probably behaving inappropriately.

Back in South Tucson, my host mom and I dance to Shakira’s 1998 album and her youngest daughter laughs at us. I call my mom and put Alfonso and Oscar in the back of my mind for now to talk about what my sister’s doing for her birthday. I guess I am just another vacation activist or do-gooder student. It certainly feels nice to be back home. Binders full of statistics, quotes, and half-Spanish notes stay packed away for the night and my confusion and discomfort about this system that I’m studying and my place within it lingers. But I’m glad that if nothing else, tonight I can just be a human. I know that puts me farther from Border Patrol’s locked gates, and tonight I can confidently say that that’s a good place to be.

— submitted by Rebecca Varnell


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