Six stories from the borderlands

One short week, spent sleeping nestled between mesquite bushes and barrel cactus, driving nearly impassable dirt roads by day, and here I am back in Tucson. I have ideas and issues and ideology to wrestle with, and if you’re at all interested in immigration or politics more generally, you’ll have a lot of reading to do in the next few weeks. But for now, while I’m still here, I wanted to share a few short stories from the Arizona borderlands.

1) I meet a man in Nogales. Not a man, I suppose—he’s more or less my age, though substantially taller. Sarah introduces me to him, saying that he’s from a town near my college. We talk for a minute—I’m always excited to meet people who have heard of Walla Walla, Washington. I ask him a few questions about where he grew up, and we part ways.

Later, Sarah tells me that he grew up near me, but was deported last year—caught in a traffic stop. He has no legal way of getting home, no means of re-entering the U.S. I cringe at the thought that in a few days, I’ll step onto a plane and be back home in a matter of hours. There’s a bitter taste in my mouth for the rest of the afternoon.

2) I find myself cooking dinner with a group of anarchists. It’s much like cooking dinner with any group of young people. We have the radio cranked to play the latest in terrible pop music, and we relax into the ease of self-deprecation while waiting for the onions to brown. Any time our limited camp kitchen resources create a challenge, someone feels compelled to blame hierarchical systems of oppression.

“You guys, the patriarchy is burning the quesedillas again.”

Someone else chimes in. “Fucking patriarchy ruins everything.”

We all laugh, and someone suggests adding noodles to the soup. I’m not a huge fan, so I cross my forearms in an x front of my chest—a block. It’s used in consensus circles to indicate irreconcilable disagreement with something being proposed. Here, though, we’ve resigned ourselves to the irony of having a trip run by leaders (or “facilitators”) who don’t believe in hierarchy. The noodles go into the soup. I have a bite, and find to my surprise that it’s not so bad after all.

3) Walking, I notice suddenly that the signs are all in Spanish. I turn to my right.

“Sarah, are we in Mexico?”

She nods.

I’ve walked into Nogales without being asked to stop, show my passport, prove my citizenship or answer questions about my intentions.

On the way back stateside, standing in line, I snap pictures of the trucks lined up and waiting to enter. A Customs and Border Patrol agent snaps at me, telling me to stop. I apologize, saying I didn’t know. I assume this is the end of it, but I reach the front of the line. The man waves me forward and takes my passport.

“What were you taking pictures of?” he demands.

“Signs, the trucks…nothing much.”

I shrug, hoping my casualness will deflect his concerns about homeland security, but it doesn’t work. He motions for me to show him. I turn the screen on.

“You’re not allowed to take pictures of the port,” he tells me, shaking his head. I wonder what I look like to him, greasy hair pulled back into a knot, Chacos covered in Mexican dust. I pause, waiting for him to say something, but he doesn’t. I ask if I need to delete the photo, and he says yes.

The first one is of a sign—no agricultural products may enter the country. He doesn’t check for agricultural products in my backpack, but he makes sure I hit the delete button twice. The next photo shows two trucks under a sign that says “open” in green lights. I hit delete. We continue this for twenty images until I reach one of the border wall, framed by construction work.

“The wall is okay,” he tells me grudgingly. I put my camera away, ask if he needs anything else, and walk back into my country.

It didn’t occur to me until after I’d crossed that I could have refused. It didn’t occur to me until later that night how low the stakes are for me when I choose to cross a border.

4) The two Border Patrol agents are joking with each other, but I can barely hear them over the rattling of chains. To my left are forty or so detainees—people picked up near the border in the last few days. They’re here in court to plead guilty en masse to criminal offenses—entering the U.S. not through an authorized port, re-entering the U.S. after being deported. Six at a time, they go up to the microphone and the judge questions them.

“Are you a citizen of Mexico?”
Sí.
“Were you found in Arivaca, Arizona on the 22nd of March of this year?”
Sí.
“Were you previously denied admission, excluded, deported and removed from the United States on April 2 . . .”
Sí.

And together, as a group: Culpable. Culpable. Culpable.

“All guilty,” says the translator to the judge.

Those six file out, and another six are up. Some of them were previously deported earlier this year. I can’t imagine making the journey through the desert twice in a lifetime, much less twice in one year. Those who have never been deported before will be back on a bus to Mexico this afternoon. How many of them will try again? How many of them will end up back here?

 

5) Heading back into town, we pass through a Border Patrol checkpoint. They’re stationed strategically throughout the Southwest to pick up migrants who have survived the desert. We roll down the window, and he sticks his head in the car.

“Everyone a U.S. citizen?”

Marcel, our driver, says no, he’s German, and starts to hand the man his passport. The agent glances at the cover, doesn’t open it, and hands it back.

“I’ve seen all I need to see,” he says to our four white faces. “You folks have a nice weekend.”

 

6) We’re out on water drops, delayed a few hours because I noticed the car needed gas right before we’d reached the remote washes where we put supplies out. It’s our second stop on the route, and each of us carries a gallon of water in each hand. On the caps, we’ve drawn hearts. The sides say Suerte or Buen viaje in black marker.

We follow the migrant trail, but when we get there, we find almost a dozen full jugs of water. The Samaritans have been here recently. I tell myself it’s a good thing that the water isn’t being taken, hoping that it means people don’t need it, not that they aren’t finding it. We rearrange the jugs, placing them directly on the trail, since the coyotesdon’t always let people stop to grab supplies when the groups move at night. On the side of one, in pink marker, is a wish: Hasta un mundo sin fronteras.

Until a world without borders.

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Selling out to investment banks

Most of the students I know at Whitman want to go save the world. We’re a liberal arts college made up of idealists, future Peace Corps volunteers and academics. I’ve always sort of pictured Whitman as a place to train the next generation of college-educated small organic farmers, but there’s something to be said for health insurance and being able to pay off student loans. I’ve spent the last week in New York City talking to Whitman College alums working in tons of different careers—law, media, finance—and it’s been fascinating to see how people explain their career choices to us, and to see so many Whitties living and working in a city that’s about as different from Walla Walla as you could reasonably get.

One of our first appointments was with an alum who does private baking for Merrill Lynch. He deals exclusively with clients who have at least $25 million in assets. He came to the U.S. and to Whitman as an immigrant on a full scholarship, so he’s been incredibly happy to be so successful in his professional life.

We asked him what he thought about his job. He leaned back in his chair, arm angled against his side, and thought for a minute.

“We don’t really produce anything. We’re capital allocators,” he told us. “I struggled with it for a few years—what am I really accomplishing here? Making rich people richer?”

Ultimately, he goes back to the fact that he has a dynamic, rewarding career. He also said that the wealth earned by the rich often goes back to philanthropy efforts, so in a sense, he’s making the world a better place by allowing more charity to take place. Still, I got the sense that he struggles to reconcile his beliefs with his work.

“I do love my profession, but if I didn’t have to do it, I wouldn’t do it,” he told us. He said he had to do it to pay the bills, which there are a lot of.

Our Goldman Sachs guy was much less apologetic. He’s a vice president in merchant banking—not the division that was responsible for the collapse of capitalism, as he told us several times. He said he loves the challenges he faces at work and the culture at Goldman. He downplayed our concerns about the long hours, acknowledging that sometimes he has to stay late (until 2 or 3 a.m.), but he’s usually out of the office by 8 or 9 at night. I thought about that for a while. I’ve always told myself that I would never get a job where 60 hour work weeks are the norm and 18-hour days are sometimes a necessity, but I don’t think that’s really true. I can’t imagine loving banking enough to do it for most of my waking hours, but I would spend that time on writing or reporting in a heartbeat.

I asked him if there are any social or environmental responsibility guidelines that Goldman uses to screen potential investments. He said that the firm takes those things very seriously, and that they wouldn’t invest in a company causing serious environmental damage. I asked him to what extent that’s really true.

“You’d invest in Exxon-Mobil or Apple or Nike, right?”

He paused for a second, then acknowledged that yes, they would. But he added that there had been investment deals which had been stopped because of environmental concerns. The cynic in me says that any efforts to avoid environmental damages stem purely from a profit motive. If your company is dumping toxic waste everywhere and is eventually forced to pay for clean-up, the value of your assets goes down. I don’t fault him for this, really. I was trying to get at something I struggle with a lot. I understand that investing allocates capital in a supposedly “efficient” way and allows for business creation, economic growth and jobs, but I think there’s a fundamental tension between profit-motivated investing and environmental/social responsibility. A conservative or moderate (and really, most liberals I know as well) would say that the problem is externalities, and that if we figure out a way to make environmental liabilities show up on a P&L, we’ll make that investment machine a vehicle for environmental good. But I’m not convinced it’s a reconcilable problem.

The point of the trip is to network with alums and get a sense of what careers are out there in the world. We’re able to ask them questions about their work, ostensibly to figure out if we might be interested in working in a similar position. Since most of us are bleeding heart liberals with no desire to be in investment banking, we asked them their thoughts on the Occupy movement instead.

Both of our guys said they absolutely supported the movement’s goal of reducing income inequality. I found this interesting, since the original Occupy contingent wasn’t really about that at all. The 99% rhetoric is so ingrained in our national consciousness now that it’s easy to forget Occupy’s birth was with the Adbusters folks—a contingent of anti-capitalist anarchists who wanted to criticize the most obvious and extreme example of soulless capitalism: investment banking. Income inequality is a symptom of what they see as a much larger problem, but they’re not really into reform, because the whole system is rotten.

Our Merrill Lynch guy was more strident in his support of the protests, talking about the importance of equal opportunity and how much he believes in the American Dream, even though he knows it’s gotten harder to move up since he did it. Still, he thinks Occupy hasn’t accomplished much.

“It has high hopes. I don’t think it accomplished anything,” he said. “I think it sort of failed to do what it was going to do, which was create a more urgent environment for our country to rally around. . .”

He also said that he thought the movement was too fragmented and disjointed to do much that was practical. Our Goldman guy echoed this sentiment, saying that he agreed with the goal of more equal income distribution, but thought the movement was too theatrical in ways that detracted from the point.

Most interestingly for me, Merrill Lynch guy said that he absolutely considers himself to be part of the 99%. I’ve thought about this a lot as well—can you affiliate with others across class lines effectively? Whether or not he’s technically part of the wealthiest 1% of Americans, I have no doubt that his life is much more closely aligned with that crowd than it is with the single mother working two minimum wage jobs to try to put food on the table for her kids. Still, I’d rather have a fabulously rich guy who cares about those below him than one who’s indifferent. He said most of his colleagues aren’t like this, and that politics isn’t something you discuss at the office. We asked him if he would ever consider bringing it up, but he said it wouldn’t be possible.

These meetings reminded me how easy it is to become complacent, how easy it is to convince yourself that the work you’re doing is enough. I’m not criticizing these guys’ individual career choices, though they’re not choices I would make. But talking to them reminded me that whatever I end up doing with my life—journalism, activism, food policy—I need to keep the end goal in mind. Another Whittie we met with—a lawyer at a global firm that represents banks, sovereign nations and a bunch of other important actors—said that he didn’t think the work he was doing was actively making the world worse, but that there’s a huge difference between that and actively improving things. There are a ton of things I want to do with my life, but while I navigate that, I need to make sure that I’m true to the values that got me there in the first place. I’m sure I’ll become less radical as I age and settle down (though I’m still hoping not), but I want to check in with myself about why I’m doing the work I’m doing regularly. Because if whatever it is isn’t working to fix something that’s wrong with the world, I’m in the wrong profession.