Hidden in the Heartland: The New Wave of Immigrants and the Challenge to America

Hidden in the Heartland: The New Wave of Immigrants and the Challenge to America

by Nancy Brown Diggs

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As other teens returned home from school, thirteen-year-old José Silva headed for work at a restaurant, where he would remain until 2:00 a.m. Francisca Herrera, a tomato picker, was exposed to pesticides while she was pregnant and gave birth to a baby without arms or legs. Silva and Herrera immigrated illegally to the United States, and their experiences are


As other teens returned home from school, thirteen-year-old José Silva headed for work at a restaurant, where he would remain until 2:00 a.m. Francisca Herrera, a tomato picker, was exposed to pesticides while she was pregnant and gave birth to a baby without arms or legs. Silva and Herrera immigrated illegally to the United States, and their experiences are far from unique. In this comprehensive, balanced overview of the immigration crisis, Nancy Brown Diggs examines the abusive, unethical conditions under which many immigrants work, and explores how what was once a border problem now extends throughout the country. Drawing from a wide spectrum of sources, Hidden in the Heartland demonstrates how the current situation is untenable for both illegal immigrants and American citizens. A vivid portrait of the immigration crisis, the book makes a passionate case for confronting this major human rights issue—a threat to the very unity of the country.

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The New Wave of Immigrants and the Challenge to America

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2011 Nancy Brown Diggs
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87013-997-0

Chapter One

Getting Here

Imagine that in Mexico you've heard the stories from your cousin, your brother-in-law, or the neighbor's son about how much better life is in the North. "The streets in America are paved with gold," they say. "Come on up!" If you can't get here by legal means, how would you plan to cross the border?

The best way would be to get yourself a tourist visa and merely stay on when it expires. More than half of those without documentation come over that way. If you don't mind waiting up to a year, negotiating your way through miles of red tape, answering personal questions, and proving that you and other family members have a decent bank balance, that's the way to go. That's what Isabel did. A young widow with an asthmatic child, she left her job as a secretary in Mexico City to earn more money in North Carolina as a chambermaid. Medical treatments back in Mexico for her elderly parents, as well as for her daughter, are expensive, she explains.

Some can't manage that route, though, especially since 9/11 has tightened security, so many come over the hard way—trusting their lives to "coyotes," guides who may or may not be trustworthy. If you're coming to an area with an established community of other immigrants, you may be lucky enough to find someone reliable, but it doesn't always happen, as Luis Herrera will attest from his desert experience.

Events in the very Arizona desert that Luis would cross were the basis for M. J. McGee's research when he wrote his classic article "Desert Thirst as Disease." Published in 1906, it is a graphic account of what happens to the body when it has no water. McGee described the "feeling of dry deadness of membranes" throughout the whole respiratory system, as saliva and mucus dry up in the oven-like heat. The tongue "may cling irritatingly to the teeth, or stick to the roof of the mouth; a lump seems to rise in the throat and starts endless swallowing motions to dislodge it." Throat, ears, and eyes are hurting. As the skin shrinks, the head feels full and there are "throbbing pains in the nape and down the upper spine." Hearing, vision, and judgment are affected; "the sufferer is a walking fever patient, passing or passed into a delirium." And that is just the first, or "cotton mouth" stage.

Luis's Story

Luis knows all about thirst. He is a burly young man, more like a Green Bay linebacker than his smaller compatriots, but even the strongest find it hard to cross the Arizona desert. In March, when Luis and his group of sixty made the journey, temperatures can range as high as the nineties during the day and plunge to freezing at night. In addition to the contingent of young men, there were older men, women of all ages, and children, including a year-old baby.

The group was told that they would be walking in the desert for about six hours, and to be sure to bring food and water for that time. They were to carry nothing else, in order not to slow down their travel. As often happens, not long after their start, their guide claimed that in order to avoid the INS they would take a longer way—a march through the desert that would end up lasting a hellish two and a half days, almost all the way without food or water. It was so hot during the day that when they chanced upon water tanks for animals, they rushed to gulp down the green and slimy water—at least most did. Luis, too afraid of getting sick, merely moistened his lips.

Along the path, the travelers skirted the remains of one man who hadn't made it. His body mummifying in the heat, he had obviously been dead for two or three days. Having been instructed to bring nothing but the clothes on their backs, they were not able to bury him or even grant him the dignity of covering his face. "We were very discouraged," Luis remembers, as the coyote urged them forward.

At night in the desert cold, without extra clothing or blankets, Luis and his companions huddled together for warmth. In order not to be spotted, they were told to wear dark clothes and no white hats. Smoking or whistling were also forbidden. At last they came to a highway to be crossed, where they would wait until late at night when there was no traffic at all. When a car stopped on the road, the guide warned everyone not to move and to keep their eyes closed so the light wouldn't reflect off the whites. Just at that moment Luis could no longer contain the tickle in his throat. It erupted in a loud cough! Everyone held their breath, but fortunately the driver was only someone having car trouble. After waiting for what seemed hours, they were finally alone again.

When all was dark and quiet, the guide called another coyote, who came in about a half hour with two vans. As they were ushered forward, some people were tired and moved too slowly; the guide threatened to leave them behind if they didn't hurry up. The sound of a helicopter caused everyone to push and shove in a vain attempt to squeeze sixty people into the two vehicles. Some had to remain behind, including Luis, who waited anxiously for the coyotes to return. Fortunately there was a big incentive: Luis and his companions had not yet paid them.

At the next step of the journey, the immigrants were loaded into a truck trailer that was "incredibly hot," with no water, let alone air conditioning. After traveling some four hundred miles, they eventually arrived in the Los Angeles area, where they were able to buy plenty of food and drinks, as well as drugs. After spending the night in a safe house, Luis and his group met their new American coyote, an Anglo, who sent them off in different directions. Luis took a bus to Las Vegas where his uncle lived, and later moved on to Ohio to be with friends.

Was it worth the $1,000 that Luis paid to get to California? No, he insists, and he would never take the risk or undergo the agony again. Nor would he advise others to try.

Gabriel Suarez had a similar story about his third and most recent crossing, in 2004. In his case it was a hailstorm—in August—that almost killed him in the mountains of Arizona. In fact, in March 2006 cold temperatures in the desert were responsible for the deaths of four would-be immigrants. Gabriel's trip, too, was expected to be much shorter than the four days it required. He had brought along enough food and water, or so he thought, but not for such a long period, as the guides altered course to avoid the border guards. Once they arrived at the border, twenty people were packed "like sticks" into a small van, whose driver "drove like a crazy man" to get away from the border.

This dangerous practice of packing as many people as possible into vehicles and driving recklessly to escape the Border Patrol is increasing, according to New York Times reporter Randal C. Archibold—nine people died in the recent crash of a Chevrolet Suburban in which twenty-one Mexicans had been stacked "like cord wood," as the Yuma County Sheriff's Department described it. Gabriel tells me that someone he knew in Oaxaca didn't make it on his attempt, dying in the desert and leaving behind a wife and young children.

When Gabriel first came over in 1992, the cost was $1,000, but it has steadily risen. On his last trip it had gone up to $2,000. He explained that there is a sliding scale for the coyote's services, depending upon the difficulty of the crossing. It now costs between $2,000 and $3,000, depending on whether you want to come over fast or slow. The more you walk, the less you pay, for a lot has to be arranged if you choose the fast way.

Although, from the vantage point in Mexico looking toward the green oasis of Quitobaquito Springs, the desert can look almost inviting, you can trust the sign that the Border Patrol has erected on the other side of the fence. It warns in Spanish of the folly of entering the vast area where there is no potable water. "NO VALE LA PENA," "It's not worth it," it says. The desert is a hostile place. Where there is not sand, there is a fine red dust that permeates everything. The animals and plants that live there are uniquely adapted to an environment with extreme temperatures and very little water; people aren't. The plants themselves, prickly cactuses, spiny ocotillos, and thorny trees, have evolved to discourage any intruders. The chollas from a distance look like soft flowering shrubs, but up close one can see that they, too, are covered with needles that seem to jump out at the traveler. Animals also pose a threat. Rattlers, coral snakes, and sidewinders, tarantulas and Gila monsters are out there somewhere. When I camped in the Sonoran desert in April, our guide counted twenty-four scorpions near the campsite. The daytime heat in the nineties, enervating even with ample water, dropped to the chilly forties at night—OK when you're in a sleeping bag and wearing a wool hat, fleece jacket, and sweatpants. Not many immigrants are so well prepared, though—especially when their guides have taken everything away.

Warning walkers to stay out of the desert is one of the tasks of the Border Patrol, and yet at least 200,000 attempt to cross through Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument each year alone. Some have put the figure at over three million illegal aliens entering the country annually through our southwestern border states. The extent of the desert borderlands should be enough to deter all but the most desperate—or foolhardy. They face a huge wilderness covering over four thousand square miles; Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge by itself is as big as the state of Rhode Island. Nevertheless, about a million people have been apprehended every year, and an average of three hundred and fifty have died on the way. It's possible that the death toll has been much higher, numbering in the thousands in Arizona alone; Pima County's deputy sheriff Sgt. Joe Jett estimates that "for every national that makes it, there are probably at least ten that don't." Their families in Mexico may wait and wait and never learn what happened to their loved one.

The dead, like the person Luis encountered, are often left to lie where they have fallen. With no identification on the bodies, they would be almost impossible to trace. Agents don't have time for the mountains of paperwork that recording each death would require, Luis Alberto Urrea explains.

Even a contingent of 17,500 border agents are too few to patrol adequately the six thousand miles of the Mexican and Canadian borders combined, plus the thousands of miles of coastal waters—but they are well trained for their task. Each trainee must complete a nineteen-week resident course at the Border Patrol Academy in Artesia, New Mexico. The challenging curriculum for those stationed on the southern border includes instruction in integrated law, firearms, driving, and Spanish, as well as physical training. An armory of high-tech tools is at their disposal: 6,741 motion and seismic sensors, 413 stationary cameras, 155 mobile video sensors, night-vision goggles, aerial drones, and underground radar equipment. But equipment breaks down, animals set off the motion detectors, and it may take hours for agents to arrive at the trouble spots. The agents know that even if they stop a few—and it's known that the coyotes will sacrifice some in order to distract the guards—many more are waiting behind them. Those used as decoys, who are sent back, may get preferential treatment from the coyotes next time.

It's hoped that the temporary deployment of up to six thousand National Guard troops will ease the agents' workload, although critics, like California's governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, argue that the troops may be needed elsewhere.

Border Patrol agents have seen many a tragedy, including the loss of some of their own—like James P. Epling, who died after rescuing an illegal immigrant from China from drowning in the Colorado River. Or like Kris Eggle, who died in the line of duty, killed by a drug smuggler. The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument visitor center has been renamed in his honor.

Luis Alberto Urrea reports on the many deaths in the Organ Pipe area, particularly on the Camino del Diablo, "The Devil's Highway," where

all the agents seem to agree that the worst deaths are the young women and the children. Pregnant women with dying fetuses within them are not uncommon; young mothers have been found dead with infants attached to their breasts, still trying to nurse. A mother staggers into a desert village carrying the limp body of her son; doors are locked in her face. The deaths, however, that fill the agents with deepest rage are the deaths of illegals lured into the wasteland and then abandoned by their coyotes.

Urrea focuses on the story of just such an abandoned group. Of the twenty-six who attempted the trip, only twelve remained alive to bear witness to their ordeal and against the guide who left them to die. The teenage gangster is now serving his sixteen-year sentence in an Arizona prison.

Recently one mother deserted by her coyote got lucky when Officer Marisol Cantu discovered her alone and in premature labor. The baby, automatically a U.S. citizen for having been born in this country, was given the name "Sarai Marisol," after her rescuer.

More common, however, are the horror stories—like that of the nineteen who died when seventy-four immigrants were sealed into an airless 18-wheeler. The victims included a five-year-old child. An assistant U.S. attorney called the driver "the most heartless, evil and cruel" member "of a criminal enterprise that treated people worse than animals on their way to the slaughterhouse."

Rev. Thomas Buechele bears witness to the suffering of those who attempt the crossing not far from his Episcopal church in Bisbee, Arizona. "Borderline property owners," he says, "pick up abandoned backpacks, baby clothes, shoes, empty water bottles, and they grieve as they hope the folks who left them are OK. It isn't a question if they 'made it' or not. The questions are: Are they still alive? Did some coyote rip a child out of its mother's arms and pass the child back across the line because it was making too much noise? Did they get caught by one of the kinder Border Patrol agents? Are they being held at gunpoint by a few wild-eyed, trigger-happy vigilantes? Are they stuffed into stifling hot vans, trucks, or some Tucson or Phoenix bedroom? Are the younger women paying the cost with their bodies?"

Not all border crossers come here freely. Some are "sex slaves," like thirteen-year-old Rosa, who, promised a better life in America, was forced to work as a prostitute when she arrived. Some 15,000 women, many of them young girls from Mexico, are victims of sex trafficking.

In this vast, lawless land, anything goes. "There are bandits that roam the desert now," says Margot Bissell, who is public use assistant at the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge, headquartered in Ajo, Arizona. "They rob these people at night, attack them. The coyote could care less. He's not going to guarantee anything. He's got their money. That's why, when they get busted, he's the first one to take off.... The border's a real scary place on the Mexican side, and people are coming from all over Mexico, not just the border towns. Children are being sold in all kinds of awful trades."

She tells the story of the woman who came with her child to join her husband in the United States: "She told the coyote exactly where her husband was, what her whole point was of getting here, so the coyote knew everything he needed to know. Then a couple of guys snatched the child out of her arms and ran to the U.S. Took off! They contacted the husband and said, 'If you want to see your child again, you meet us here with this much money.' He contacted law enforcement and they got him over here, and he met them where they were supposed to be. When they knocked on the door, with the child, of course law enforcement was waiting for them.

"Those kinds of things are starting to take place. It's become a murderous business. It's not just 'Here, give me $4,000 and I'll take you to the U.S.' Now there are many 'opportunistic crimes.'"

Sometimes, though, Margot has to admire the creativity in this "cat and mouse game." Border crossers will brush away their footprints with branches of creosote, or "they'll cut squares of carpet and tie them on the bottom of their shoes, so that their soles don't leave distinguishing signs. You can tell where those footprints are, but they get wiped out, especially if they walk in the arroyos there. It makes it tough walking, but your footprints will be wiped out." A few optimists attempt to cross the desert on bicycle. Margot claims she could open up a bicycle shop with all the new abandoned bikes that are recovered.


Excerpted from HIDDEN IN THE HEARTLAND by NANCY BROWN DIGGS Copyright © 2011 by Nancy Brown Diggs. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Nancy Brown Diggs is a writer and lecturer whose interest in other cultures has taken her around the globe. Her previous books include Meet the Japanese, Steel Butterflies: Japanese Women and the American Experience, and Looking Beyond the Mask: When American Women Marry Japanese Men.

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