How do we balance border security and America’s need for a vital workforce while continuing to provide access to the American dream? Since the attacks of 9/11, the United States has steadily ramped up security along the US-Mexico border, transforming America’s legendary Southwest into a frontier of fear. Veteran journalist Peter Eichstaedt roams this fabled region from Tucson, Arizona, to El Paso, Texas, meeting with migrants, border security advocates, and communities ravaged by cross-border crime. Eichstaedt finds that despite tens of thousands of border agents and the expenditure of billions of dollars, an estimated one million Mexicans and Central Americans continue to cross the border each year. These migrants fill jobs that have become the underpinnings of the US economy. Rather than building a wall, or more and better barricades, Eichstaedt argues that the United States must reform its immigration and drug laws and acknowledge that costly, counterproductive, and antiquated policies have created deadly circumstances on both sides of the border.
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About the Author
Peter Eichstaedt is a veteran journalist who has reported from locations worldwide, including Afghanistan, Albania, Somalia, the Sudans, Uganda, Kenya, eastern DR Congo, eastern Europe, and the Caucasus.
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The Dangerous Divide
Peril and Promise on the US-Mexico Border
By Peter Eichstaedt
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2014 Peter Eichstaedt
All rights reserved.
* * *
Roberto stands on the gritty hillside in the southern Arizona desert, eight miles from the Mexico border. The sun is high and hot, heavy on his shoulders. He sighs, scanning the dirt, spiky cactus, and spindly mesquite for signs of life. Fear sweeps over him.
Where are they? Where are my amigos? I hate this place. So dry. Not like my town on the banks of the Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. In the mountains, so cool and green. These are not like my mountains, the volcanoes of Atitlán, San Pedro, and Tolimán. These are dry and offer nothing but death. But I will not die. I cannot die. Mi esposa, mis niños, my wife and children. They need me. They depend on me. That is why I came to this terrible place.
Roberto tries to swallow, but his throat is dry. He shuffles along the dirt in his worn and loose high-top shoes, then settles in the mottled shade of the mesquite. He opens his pack. The water bottles are empty. He pushes clothes aside. Half a bag of white Wonder Bread. Flour tortillas wrapped in a plastic bag.
I can't swallow. I need water.
Roberto closes his backpack, hoists it to his shoulder, and angles down the slope. His steps are slow, deliberate. He pauses to check for the sound of voices, of vehicles, of la migra, the border police.
It has been three days now. They came overhead in the dark of night. How could they see us? How did they know? The helicopter shook the air and blew the dirt like a storm. It came down very close. We were scared, and then they were there, the border police, la migra, waiting. I scrambled up the hillside and disappeared into the night.
Roberto pauses just one hundred yards from murky water, a ranch pond made for cattle. There is no one, not even the cows. The wind moves slowly, rustling leaves. He walks to where the mud has dried and cracked. He opens one of the plastic bottles, squats, and tilts it under the surface. The murky water gurgles in, a yellowish orange. He holds the bottle to his mouth, but the scent repels him. Yet he sips.
It is warm but not so bad.
He fills the bottle, and then another, stands, and picks up his pack. I have twenty-three years and I am strong and I can work hard. That is all I want. I am good with my hands and my back is strong. I am good with a shovel. In America, el Norte, there is work. I know I will find some. In my town of Panajachel there is nothing. New York, Nueva York. The great city in America. That is where I will go. It is my dream.
Roberto retraces his steps up the hill then settles in the shade, where he searches his pack for the bag of bread. He folds a couple of slices and takes a bite, chewing slowly. Roberto wets his mouth with a swig of the yellowed water, just enough to swallow. His stomach knots. He closes his eyes. His head spins. He lies back on the dirt as his forehead breaks out in sweat.
Later, Roberto opens his eyes.
How long have I been asleep?
He sits up.
It cannot have been long. The sun is still high.
He glances around, then up in the sky. The big, black birds are circling high.
Every day they are there. Every day.
He sits and stares at the dirt.
Enough. This is enough. I cannot fight the desert. I hate this place.
He picks up a couple of stones and throws them in disgust.
No mas. No more. I am going home. I will find la migra. Let them take me. Either that, or I will die. I am never coming back to this place. Never.
Roberto turns his head to the sound of a motor in the distance. A truck. He is sure of it. He crosses himself.
The Virgin Guadalupe. She has saved me.
His heart pounds. He stands, hoists the pack to his shoulder, then moves toward the road, slowly, step by step.
Drops in the Desert
It is late April 2012 and I am with Ed McCullough and Al Enciso, volunteers with Tucson Samaritans, a group of humanitarian activists, many retirees, who put plastic one-gallon jugs of water in the desert where thirsty migrants might find them. For the past several hours we have been walking the length of Ramanote Canyon, a scruffy gash in the earth. The path follows the meandering and intermittent stream that feeds lush foliage, grass, and a few towering cottonwood trees. There are signs of recent use by migrants passing through. Empty cans of Red Bull, yogurt containers, plastic water bottles, and candy wrappers have been tossed by the wayside. The litter is not much, as far as migrant trails go, says Enciso. The more heavily used trails are trashed, unlike this one, which he thinks is used infrequently.
Ramanote Canyon empties into yet another, which we also walk before retracing our steps to one of the Samaritans' water drops near where we have parked. The half-dozen gallon containers of water, each marked with a date, have been untouched for the past month. McCullough and Enciso debate whether the spot should continue to be resupplied. There are other, better places that are more frequently used.
Picking and choosing water drop locations in the Arizona high desert, which might mean the difference between life and death for some migrants, is a hit-or-miss proposition. But McCullough has brought some scientific skill to it. An eighty-one-year-old retired chemist who has been involved in this humanitarian work since 2000, he has been mapping the migrant trails since 2004. He has traced our route on a GPS device that dangles from his neck. After each day's outing, McCullough adds the day's trail data to maps that he prints and keeps in a three-ring binder. The paths spread north from the Mexican border through some of America's most daunting terrain, tributaries of a human river flowing across the desert from the deep interior of Mexico and Central America.
McCullough creates his maps by tracking the movement of the water bottles. In addition to a date, each has a code noting where it was placed. When an empty container is found later, he knows where it was picked up, and by backtracking, he can trace a migrant trail. Lately the jugs have been moving southward, not northward, reversing the direction of the past decade. McCullough attributes this to the increased state and federal pressure on undocumented migrants to "self-deport." Many are leaving voluntarily.
The flight of migrants back to Mexico and Central America is a factor in the precipitous decline in apprehensions of undocumented migrants coming north, McCullough says, but it may not tell the whole story. "The Border Patrol says they catch most of the people [crossing the border]. But I don't think that's right. They have a very high presence. But the migrants have learned something, too. They've gotten smarter. Maybe more of them are getting through."
If the apprehensions are down, then the number of migrants found dead in the desert should also be down, McCullough says. But it's not. Based on data he has collected from the Pima County, Arizona, Forensic Science Center, which records recovered human remains for the region, the deaths in the desert are as high as ever. For the twelve months from October 2008 through September 2009, 189 human remains were found in the desert in Arizona's Pima and Santa Cruz Counties. During the subsequent twelve months in 2009–10, 224 remains were found. For that similar period in 2010–11, 177 remains were found. For the one-year span from October 2011 through September 2012, the remains of 171 people were found, a slight decrease. From October 2012 to September 2013, however, 182 remains were found, indicating an upward trend.
"When we started coming out here in 2000, you would see people [crossing] every day," McCullough says. Estimates were that as many as two thousand people per day were crossing the border, which makes the official loss of migrant life in the borderlands rather paltry if less than two hundred die out of an estimated 730,000 crossings annually. The official number of migrant deaths may be low, he cautions, since "I think the number [of deaths] we have is a minimum" and many may remain in the desert undiscovered. "A lot of people die out there who no one knows about." McCullough adds that studies have shown that a corpse lasts just two weeks in the desert before it becomes a skeleton, because of animal scavengers and the arid climate. After that, only the bones remain, and the date and cause of death is forever obscure.
There is yet another explanation for the high number of dead turning up in the southern Arizona desert, McCullough says, an explanation that proves prophetic. The Border Patrol searches the area with helicopters, and pilots use a tactic called "dusting." They swoop down low over groups of migrants, scaring them with the deafening noise and thrashing wind. Rather than staying put, the group often scatters. Disconnected and disoriented, migrants become lost, run out of food and water, and possibly die. "It is all part of the strategy [to stem the flow of illegal immigration]," he says. "Scattering is making more people [become] lost."
The incidence of death in the desert may have also risen because of the increased number of Border Patrol checkpoints on main and backcountry roads in the region, McCullough reasons. In the past, once migrants crossed the border, they would be met on backcountry roads by a van and taken to Tucson, Phoenix, or points beyond.
Now, with numerous checkpoints, most migrants must walk not just five or ten miles across the border, but as much as sixty miles north to Tucson, the first major community north of the border where they can blend into the general population. A young person who is in shape can make the trip in three days. But for some, it can take six days or more. "But you can't carry enough water for that," McCullough says. "It contributes to people dying."
Not everyone is happy with what the Samaritans do. "During the hot season, we get a lot of jugs slashed," McCullough says — anti-immigration groups are suspected — or "the Border Patrol will take them." Confrontations with the Border Patrol can be less than friendly. "We still run into Border Patrol who think that we're aiding felons. They think that because the migrants entered illegally, they deserve whatever happens to them. The government doesn't want to hear that we are saving lives."
Like most of the Samaritans, both Enciso and McCullough argue that illegal entry into the country is not a crime punishable by death. Once in the United States, people should be treated humanely, they say. "There comes a point in life when you can't let another person die out there because you did nothing," Enciso says as we trek along a dusty path to yet another water drop location.
A lot can be learned from what migrants leave along the trails, Enciso says. Many carry chunks of raw garlic to ward off rattlesnakes. Each migrant carries extra clothes for the cold nights in the high desert and supplies of food and water. Migrants drop their backpacks at pickup points when they're no longer needed.
As hundreds die in the desert, McCullough blames policy makers. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, immigration and border security became the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security. But terrorism has nothing to do with the immigration along the Mexican border, he says. The threat of terrorism has been used to mask rampant xenophobia that followed the attacks of 9/11. "The whole terrorism thing is a huge excuse to keep the Mexicans out. How many terrorists have we caught [on the US-Mexico border]?" he asks. "Zip."
McCullough makes a valid point. There is little readily available evidence that a clear "terrorist" threat exists along the US-Mexico border, an issue I will explore later in the book. The only notable exception involved the widely reported case of Mansour Arbabsiar, an Iranian American used car salesman from Texas who was convicted of a plot to hire Mexican drug cartel killers to murder the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States. When Arbabsiar was arrested in September 2011, federal investigators said the plot involved members of Iran's Quds Force, a secretive wing of Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. In May 2013, Arbabsiar was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison.
Incidents of international terrorism are rarely mentioned in public debate about the US-Mexico border since few exist, yet the term "security" has become synonymous with the border and the idea of terrorism. The term "border security" has become a catchall phrase that includes immigration issues, drug and human trafficking, economic and social impacts of cross-border migration, and domestic and cross-border crime. What bothers McCullough so much is that with little evidence that terrorist organizations are using the US-Mexico border to infiltrate and threaten the United States, border security advocates rely on a handful of dramatic deaths and criminal incidents to inflate the "security threat" and to inflame antipathy toward immigrants, legal or not.
Our truck groans up a steep hillside on ranch land leased from the federal government. We have crossed numerous cattle guards, the frames of metal bars or pipes laid across the road and at fence lines because cattle will not cross them. The cattle guards were installed by the Border Patrol, McCullough says, because their ATV patrols were slowed when agents had to dismount to open and close gates in the fence lines.
Soon we are in a place called Lost Dog Canyon, a typically foreboding name given to the desert features hereabouts. As we crest the hill, a short and wiry man stands at the edge of the road. A black backpack sits in the dirt between his bent legs. He lifts a hand hesitantly, a gesture that is part wave and part appeal. McCullough stops. We climb out. Enciso, a native of Colombia, speaks Spanish to the man. "Do you have water?" Enciso asks.
The man nods.
"Do you have food?"
The man nods again.
This is Roberto, we learn, from Guatemala.
McCullough asks to see his water.
Roberto takes two bottles of brackish water from his pack.
"That's no good," McCullough says, and motions for Roberto to hand him the bottles. McCullough tosses them into the back of the truck, takes four bottles of fresh water from a plastic-wrapped package, and hands them to Roberto, who immediately twists off the top of one and gulps. "Do you have food?" McCullough asks again as Enciso translates.
"It's bad," Roberto says, and shows his mangled bag of Wonder Bread and the plastic bag of tortillas.
McCullough goes to the truck and returns with two small bags of protein bars, cookies, and plastic cups of applesauce.
"Gracias," Roberto says with a nod, and explains that he came across the border four days ago with a group of fifteen people, some of them friends from Guatemala. They scattered when a helicopter swooped over them. Border Patrol agents captured six or seven, but the rest escaped. He has seen no one from the group since then and has been wandering the rugged hills alone for the past three days and nights. "I don't know where I'm going," Roberto says, squinting to the nearby hills, clearly disoriented.
McCullough and Enciso tell Roberto that he's not far from the border, less than ten miles, and can go back before he's caught.
Roberto shakes his head no. "I can't make it back by foot," he says. Even if he did go back, the return trip to Guatemala is long and difficult. "I don't have any money to travel," he says. Roberto crossed the border because there is no work in his hometown of Panajachel. He's handy with a shovel, he says, and makes a digging motion with his hands. He asks Enciso where New York is.
New York is a long way, too far for him now, Enciso says. "We're not far from Tucson." But Roberto has no idea where Tucson is, either. I am awed at this man's determination and can only imagine what desperation drives him. He has crossed much of the length of Central America in search of a dream, yet carries with him little sense of the daunting reality of his quest. He has no notion of where New York is yet is convinced, despite his slight frame, that his skill with a shovel and a good heart will see him through. This humble and harmless man constitutes the perceived threat against which America is spending billions of dollars annually and employing tens of thousands of armed personnel to secure the border. This diminutive, dehydrated, and frightened man is the focus of fearsome rage and enmity.
Roberto explains that he left his home at the edge of Lake Atitlan twenty-five days ago and has been on the road ever since. He paid a coyote, or guide, $1,300 to help him make the trip. Several in his group were middle-aged men who were so exhausted and their feet so sore that they couldn't walk and were captured. Now his money is gone and his spirit is broken. He has no choice but to return. "I want to go back," he says.
McCullough and Enciso ask if he is certain.
Roberto nods yes.
Excerpted from The Dangerous Divide by Peter Eichstaedt. Copyright © 2014 Peter Eichstaedt. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Part I The Migrants
1 Desert Solitaire 9
2 A Thousand Stories 25
Part II The Business of Fear
3 The Frontier of Fear 53
4 Migrants or Terrorists? 69
5 Overwhelming Odds 79
Part III Guns, Money, and Resentment
6 Guns Go South 95
7 Good-Bye, Columbus 111
8 The Ghost at Pancho Villa 127
Part IV The Enforcers
9 Guardians of the Border 145
10 The Port at Nogales 173
11 And Were the Bad Guys? 189
Part V Brewing a Solution
12 To Leave Our Land Is to Suffer 205
Epilogue: Borderline Realities 223