I have seen them before, watched their eyes move about, sometimes focusing on things that were nowhere near them, reflecting on images from their past, memories from childhoods, adulthoods, crossings and re-crossings, flashes of places and faces left behind. I have watched their struggles to find the most appropriate words to describe their feelings, their thoughts, and the sacrifices that have become such a part of their lives. I used to marvel, somehow, in not comprehending their realities, as they were so foreign to me, so un-natural in what they must be. I have been saddened, too, at the simple thoughts of what their lives must have been like over there, and simultaneously confused at the possibility of such disparity. While words are great paintbrushes for demonstrating the hues and possibilities of what certain things are “like,” they can sometimes be only weak re-presentations of what actually “is.” Our trip to Nogales, Sonora was the coming to life of words that I had heard and read over the last several years. The trip was an instance of thought becoming reality, of painted imaginings becoming real and hard, tangible life.
I believe the human element is often overlooked, and maybe even ignored sometimes in the public conversations about immigration issues. Those conversations appear to focus more on the economic concerns related to the masses crossing the borders and tapping into what are by some degrees scarce resources. I think our nation’s policy makers would benefit from a trip south to see some of the people who are most affected by the laws that they are working so hard to create and enforce. How easy it must be to sit in their state houses and design laws and policies concerning the social constructs of “undocumented aliens” without ever having seen the environment from which those people came or having been touched by the lives that those people live.
Author Miriam Davidson, in her book Lives on the Line, discussed the contradictions of the border region, how the booming industrial environment, with its maquiladoras, held the promise of economic rejuvenation for the country, while offering below adequate wages for the people who would work in them. She mentioned workers earning the equivalent of $45 for a 48 hour work week and their inability to pay for what we consider to be the most basic living essentials, such as running water and electricity. The corporations who built the maquiladoras were thriving while their workers were living in destitution and poverty. Davidson touched on the responsibility that the corporations and maquiladora managers have to their employees. I pondered this notion when we were in Nogales, standing at the top of the hillside looking down into the shanty-town of Colonia Colosio, and then again a few moments later when our guide pointed to the brand-new housing development being built for the factory workers across the street from the ultra-modern maquiladoras. This was a situation where corporate and state responsibility to the workers became twisted in the ironic marriage of capitalist interests and the pretense of doing something for the workers. The monthly payment for the new apartments or condos was extravagant in comparison to the wages that the household of maquiladora workers would have to combine in order to live in them. How sickening it is, on a human level, that the corporations, with their NAFTA agreements and constitutionally protected rights, can pursue their economic success, no matter the cost or exploitation of the workers whom they employ. Images of indentured servitude and slavery come to mind when I consider the relationship of the corporations and the maquiladora workers. In truth, though, those images are somewhat mitigated when I remember that the people can leave when they want to. They could go back to the hinterlands where their family’s ranchito and small agricultural holdings no longer provide a living. They could go to another border city where the working and living conditions would be the same as they are here. They could also try to cross the border and take their chances at making a living in the United States where the contradictions of legality and illegality, boom and bust, open arms and fortified fences await them, a place where “No tengo papeles” (I don’t have papers) means further exploitation and difficulties.
One of our guest speakers at the BorderLinks office was a young lady, Kat Rodriguez, who works with Coalición de Derechos Humanos, another organization that focuses on border and migrant related human rights issues. Kat discussed the Altar-Sasabe road that is taken by people trying to enter the United States through informal means. This road and travel network was also addressed in the Washington Post article, “You Only Have One Life” (2006). The article highlighted the role played by the Mexican equivalent of the U.S. Border Patrol (USBP), Grupos Beta, as they attempt to educate, and even dissuade, the migrants who make their northward journey into the unforgiving environment of Arizona’s southern desert. While the USBP is an enforcement arm of our federal government, Grupos Beta is more of a humanitarian entity of the Mexican federal police. They attempt to protect migrants from being victimized by their coyotes and other organized hoodlums by offering education and real-life examples of what can happen to them as they try to make it across the desert into the United States.
When we met with the Grupos Beta staff in Nogales, I was impressed by the genuineness of their concern for the migrants. While they were somewhat matter-of-fact in their deportment and interaction with some of them, there was an obvious concern for their health and well-being. They were committed to restoring the returned/deported migrants to relative health and facilitating their journeys back to their home villages. I think the Mexican government’s Grupos Beta is an excellent example for what the United States government should do in regard to its immigration “problem.” Our government needs to think “outside the box,” and devise more humane ways of dealing with the people who are leaving the personal-level economic devastation of Mexico and trying to make a better life in the United States.