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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