A couple days after our late August arrival in Tucson, us Border Studies students learned that we would have two main modes of transportation for getting around Tucson: a bus pass for the SunTran, automatically refilled by the BSP, and a Bicas bicycle on loan to us from the BSP. In the first week of the program, we got fitted for our bikes (I ended up with a handsome blue Bianchi!) and were also informed that a bus strike was taking place. As a person with a lot of experience relying on public transport to get around Boston and the suburbs and most of her biking experience on flat Ohio roads or clear Massachusetts bike paths, I was initially pretty nervous about biking around Tucson. Over and over again, the instructors assured us that “Tucson is one of the most bikeable cities!” and that we would, “totally get the hang of it and feel like you OWN the bike lanes by the end of your time here.” Nonetheless, I figured that I would be happier taking the bus to get around rather than biking on busy roads.
It turned out that the bus strike limited service more than I anticipated and busses only ran between 8:00am and 6:00pm on very few routes. At first, the strike was predicted to only last a few days, as SunTran bus strikes had been fairly short in the past. In actuality, the strike ended up lasting for over a month (find more information here) and had a much bigger effect than just pushing me to get on my bike.
I found it really interesting hearing two different sides of the conversation centered on the bus strike. Talking to people in class, both students and professors proclaimed their support of the strike in favor of gaining fairer wages for SunTran employees and announced when there was a need for more bodies to show up at a Ronstadt Center protest. In contrast, on the actual bus I heard regular riders expressing their upsetness that they had to alter their work schedules to make the bus on time, or that their walk to work was lengthened because their usual transfer route wasn’t running. One woman expressed to me that she definitely wanted SunTran drivers to receive fair wages, but that she also wanted to be able to make it to work in a timely and convenient manner.
Even though the extra walking and waiting that the strike caused regular SunTran riders, I experienced much kindness from people on the bus. People offered me a seat when I was standing, pointed at the books in my hands and inquired about where I went to school, and warned me about soaking wet seats on a rainy day. Even though I liked seeing the same folks on the bus every morning, after a week or two, I decided that riding my bike might make my commute to the classroom more swift, especially during the bus strike.
So, I ended up converting from a busser to a biker and making the Blue Bianchi my primary form of transportation around Tucson. When I expressed my nervousness about riding a bike around a city after having most of my bike experience on a smooth path or on flat Ohio roads to Rachel, one of my supervisors at Mariposas Sin Fronteras, she gave me a great, bite size piece of advice. She told me that it would be unfortunate to let feeling intimidated by my bike get in the way of going to the places and doing the things that I wanted to do here and that a good way to get used to biking around the city is to make the time and mental space to get lost. She reminded me that I’m lucky to have a GPS on my phone if I got seriously lost, and if not, I can just treat getting lost as an unexpected way to see different parts of Tucson.
For the most part, I took Rachel’s advice. I got lost many, many times and as a result ended up on Tucson streets I would not have seen otherwise. I eventually got the hang of my daily routes from my host family’s house on the South side of Tucson to my field study at Casa Mariposa and the classroom in the Historic Y downtown. And biking became something that I looked forward to in the mornings. My bike made me feel very independent in a way: with a little bit of time, I can get almost anywhere that I want to go and put almost anything that I want to take with me in my basket. And it feels good knowing that my bike is powered by my own two legs that get a little stronger every time I pedal! I’m really fortunate that I have the physical ability to be able to ride a bike to transport myself and my backpack around Tucson to pretty much wherever I want to go and whenever I want to go there. I am also lucky to be able to move around Tucson in public without constantly feeling fearful for my safety, as many people who live in this city –whether it be because of race, documentation status, or gender identity– might not feel safe doing.
Although my Blue Bianchi quickly carved out a place in my heart, relying on a bicycle has its shortcomings. Biking home at night still really freaks me out. I’m not a huge fan of the dark and it can be scary feeling like cars speeding by might not be able to see me. It’s a bummer to show up to everywhere I go sweaty, to have big dogs barking at me behind fences and small dogs chasing me down the street, to encounter near misses by car mirrors passing me by, and experience unwanted catcalls and whistles as I’m trying to concentrate on staying upright and peddling straight. Sometimes, biking feels like a huge inconvenience and other times when I’m riding I feel weightless and carefree. Often, my daily bike ride feels like 40 minutes of me-time; time to process the day before and gear-up for the day ahead. I love being the only person on The Loop and belting a song with the mountains as my audience during a solo bike trip, having a 10.5 mile bike workout built into my daily routine and accidentally catching a purple and orange sunset behind the Tucson Mountains on my way home.
My Blue Bianchi has trudged through El Niño rainstorms with me, has taken me to beautiful neighborhood streets, has been the recipient of my butt sweat, has been patient with me as I cried over being far away from my friends and family, has chased the ice cream truck with me because it’s worth it for the coconut popsicle, has listened to me sing, has taken a major tumble in a pile of sand with me and encouraged me to get back on the saddle afterwords, has carried my books every day, has felt with me as I sobbed after visiting Streamline proceedings and Florence Detention Center, and and has waited for me as I ran into Epic Cafe to buy my morning coffee. My Blue Bianchi has been a dear friend to me here in Tucson.
Alien: A creature from another galaxy. Something different. Not human. An unknown.
Alien: A term used by Border Patrol for people without papers from other countries that shows the disconnect from humanity, accountability, and context that often exists in Border Patrol and among its agents.
Separation is the word that sticks with me the most after visiting the Border Patrol station in Nogales. Both of the agents we talked to as well as Border Patrol policy convey that people crossing the border are other than human; calling people aliens and illegals reinforces this state of mind. Calling someone illegal implies that one type of person is the wrong type of person while another is the right type of person. Border Patrol literally values US citizen lives over migrant lives. For example, when we visited Border Patrol and asked about expenditures the agents replied using a hypothetical situation of a dirty bomb killing a US citizen; “wouldn’t you spend six million dollars to save a life? Isn’t any amount of money worth saving a life?” Yet this logic applied only to the lives of US citizens. Millions of dollars a year are spent funneling people without papers into the most dangerous parts of the desert. The same millions spent to save the life of an American citizen are also spent to kill non-US citizens in the desert. Prevention Through Deterrence, a border strategy, increased border spending, heightened surveillance, and closed down urban areas of crossing, making people cross through the most dangerous parts of the desert. This relies on the mortal danger of the desert, high death rates, and tales of gruesome death to de-incentivize people from crossing.
Border Patrol’s refusal to remember migrants who have died further illustrate their failure to recognize migrant’s basic humanity and their devaluing of migrant peoples lives. A plaque of Border Patrol agents who died in the line of duty, or more commonly driving to and from work, is the first thing you see walking into the Border Patrol station. Since Border Patrol’s founding in 1924, roughly a hundred agents have died nationally. In Border Patrol school, each agent in training has to learn the story of someone who died. Juxtapose this with hundreds of people who die in the desert each year as a result of Border Patrol policy and action. These people’s stories aren’t learned. Their faces aren’t displayed. They are simply numbers that fit into categories like illegal, alien, and Other Than Mexican- words that agents use to describe the people they apprehend. Border Patrol policy and mentality addresses non-U.S. citizens as people whose lives don’t have value or narratives.
This theme of separation and devaluing life is magnified in the lack of agents accountability for their actions. Appropriate action in a given situation is “all based on the officer’s perception.” Thus, if a person doesn’t respond to an agent’s vocal commands because they don’t understand English, the officer is authorized to use whatever force they deem necessary. If a person grabs a rock, the situation has escalated enough for an agent to use deadly force. When we questioned these policies, we were told “that’s above my pay grade.” Agents follow orders. A daily separation between thought, action, and effect is the normal function of Border Patrol. Officers are conditioned not to question; they are taught the policy governing their actions is not their business.
Causes of migration seemed irrelevant to the daily operations of Border Patrol although they are incredibly interconnected; action is void of a larger context. When asked what dialogue existed at Border Patrol about root causes of migration, the agents giving us the tour responded “that’s not in my pay grade.” Yet, there are direct correlations between US involvement in Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala with immigration/refugee rates. The United States has supported and supports violent pro-US regimes that force people to flee for their lives. Examples include Rios Montt in Guatemala, Manuel Noriega in Panama, and the current Honduran government. United States’ free trade agreements such as NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement passed in 1994) and CAFTA-DR (the Dominican Republic Central American Free Trade Agreement) prioritize US corporate investment and production while undoing subsidies and tariffs that protect small businesses in foreign nations. These agreements prioritize big US businesses over everything else. This makes it very difficult for subsistence farmers and local business to survive consequently promoting people to search for livelihood elsewhere. Both NAFTA and CAFTA-DR have provisions where companies can sue host governments for interfering with profits. US international policy plays a large role in promoting immigration; if the goal is to actually slow immigration, US foreign policy needs to be addressed.
Border Patrol policy on the border itself and in the US is also void of reality. As the border is increasingly militarized, crossing becomes more difficult necessitating people to use cartel infrastructure. A militarized border means that billions of dollars worth of military equipment and technology is used on the border, and the Border Patrol prides themselves on functioning similarly to the military. Consequently cartels are the ones that have the resources to smuggle humans across the border. Thus US Border Policy stimulates the very cartels the US government says they want to fight. Furthermore, the rationale of protecting US jobs and livelihood is not backed by fact. Numerous studies (for example: http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/high-school/top-10-myths-about-immigration) have shown that immigrants contribute to the economies they live in through purchasing power. Most immigrants pay into Social Security, but do not receive Social Security benefits.
At Border Patrol I witnessed a very real border between action and reality. Root causes, context for migration, and humanity are not viewed as pertinent to daily border policy. By defining migrants as illegals and aliens, border policy, and consequently the agents enforcing policy, separate people crossing the border from humans thus legitimating inhumane treatment.
Operation Streamline feeds in a grand building with pillars and neck-craning ceilings, and I am reminded of a medieval courtroom with a monarch sitting high above, surveying his property. Pictures are prohibited so although this Tucson Tyrant wears no curled wig my mind’s a fool and I remember a king. Or does he resemble a forefather, face emblazoned in stone in the Sioux Nation’s land in South Dakota.
Like a black hole hope drains. The room is Despair, this is despotism, and whatever naïve conviction of General Human Decency held dear in my activist group is hacked apart as one brown man after another choruses “si” to mechanical questioning in erudite English translated to erudite Spanish that rots in the ears of those who speak native dialects. The judge’s words are stale. Isn’t he a good actor? We are scarecrows, juiced vegetables, beings fighting against and for sentience, blocking out for numbness, for self-protection while searching eagerly for mercy. My brain repeats, “there is no justice,” like elevator music to the proceedings, my own cyclical soliloquy. I’m surprised at this statement and my surprise is why I am permitted to leave at the end of the proceedings while others shuffle out, still in chains.
I check Yahoo News over the shoulder of a Federal marshal on his phone. “There is no justice.”
United States Law requires the judge to confirm that each man accepted the plea bargain “without coercion.” Another chorus of “si,” another row of crisp crisp crisp suited-up lawyers bending down to whisper in the ears of the blue-jeaned hombres, que bajan son ellos. One man fingers his hat and once again my mind’s a fool because his hat is a pageboy cap and he’s a Newsie in Newsies and there’s a strike and Labor Wins and The System Changes For The Better because of teamwork and the Pursuit of Happiness and because they’re pulling up at each other’s bootstraps. This strike is supposed to happen, the Newsies are supposed to redeem and create anew because “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
A compañera says that the Government of the Free World pays $161 per day per prisoner. 2,910 total days sold this Thursday and my jaw drops because that’s $468,510. The machine – and what a marvelously efficient machine it is, with its click-clacking parts all in line, starting promptly at 1:30, no time to waste – spurts out $500,000 today and then gobbles it up again quickly. No one can realize that it is just one beast, his singular meal going in and out, swallowing and shitting and eating and shitting the money again.
Arizona is an “open carry” state so anyone can have a gun in public without permits but if you want to live here you must have papers on you.
The parade ends with a man in a government issued army-green shirt and no shoelaces telling the courtroom, in English, that his wife and children are being held hostage at “gunpoint.” They’re being “forced.” He uses the words “gunpoint” and “forced.” He got caught and they too are still in danger. The grand finale, he receives 180 days in prison, the maximum sentence given. The machine chugs on with haste. It has been re-oiled with this sentence and can carry on another day.
I expect a climax, an epilogue, a triple dismount stick it, a sense of weight, of remorse, of acknowledgement, anything for closure. I’m frantic for something in the grand room – I think in English they call that pulling at strings, is there a Spanish idiom too? I rise for the King when they tell me to but don’t I already do that every day? and I walk out, truncated, monotonous, cut.
Operation Streamline functions in seven United States border cities with the intent of efficiently convicting multiple migrants of “illegal entry” at once. While each migrant is given the option of a trial, he or she almost always opts out in favor of the “assembly line justice.” Essentially, each migrant meets with a court appointed lawyer for a few in order to accept the ‘deal’ put forward by the U.S. government by pleading guilty to “illegal reentry” and therefore avoiding going to court. It is important to note that Operation Streamline is considered a ‘proceeding’ not a trial. The purpose is to expedite the process of placing migrants into detention centers before they are eventually repatriated into their home countries. Streamline has created a new economic niche with jobs such as public defenders, court marshals, judges, interpreters, Border Patrol agents, clerks, and other legal staff now necessary to fill the courts. However, it has also cost the United States millions of dollars in fees and payments to personnel and corporations. Most importantly, it is a humanitarian disservice that provides a ‘one-size-fits-all’ type of (in)justice to many whose only crime was a desire for ‘a better life.’
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