Return to Issues

Prof. Gebelein’s Diary of the Border

This diary follows our one week trip to Tucson, Arizona, Nogales and Altar Mexico, and the Sonoran Desert.

One Week on the U.S./Mexican Border: A Professor’s Diary Anne Gebelein, PhD


We have just touched down in Tucson, Arizona and the air is dry and hot, a stark change from the cool New England weather left behind. Giant saguaro cacti line the streets like elegant, slim gentlemen extending bouquets of creamy white flowers to passersby. The palo verde trees of luminous green bark have recently shed their yellow flowers, which carpet the loose, brown gravel I find a poor substitute for Connecticut’s lush greenways. It will take days for my eyes to adjust to the change in color scheme, but only seconds to shift from pollen allergies to dust irritation. So much for my vain hope for a week’s respite from hay fever symptoms.


Eleven students, a colleague, and I comprise a border delegation representing Trinity College thanks to a generous grant from the Mellon Foundation. We will be spending a week with the non-profit educational group Borderlinks to learn more about the push and pull factors of Mexican migration to the United States, with the hopes of understanding not just national phenomena but also local. What really is happening on the border and how and why are so many Mexicans and Central Americans trying desperately to cross it? How does national policy regarding migration and trade impact the border region but ultimately affect local realities? How and why do migrant workers end up in places like Connecticut? The Borderlinks staff has assembled a series of guest speakers and visits for us on both sides of the border to help us answer these questions.

I have decided to write a diary of our week at the border to help sort out some of the many elements in play here and the voices who represent them. Each day for the coming week you can follow along with our daily trips to meet with law enforcement, human rights groups, border residents, and border crossers in Arizona and in Sonora, Mexico. I hope to let the voices speak for themselves, so that those back home in Connecticut will be able to vicariously share our Borderlinks journey too.

Note: I have decided to focus on only 2 visits a day of the many places and people we spent time with. Consequently, a few visits are out of chronological order.

Monday, Day 1

After a day of rest at Borderlinks dormitory facilities, a trip to the Desert Museum, and an orientation by our knowledgeable, incredibly dedicated guides Lil Mattingly and Manuel Morales, we are ready for our education to begin. Our first guest on this bright Monday morning is Mike Wilson, a Native American activist featured in the documentary Crossing Arizona, and one of only two people of the Tohono O’odham Nation he claims are willing to help travelling migrants in distress on their reservation.

Mike Wilson and the Tohono O’odham Nation

The Tohono O’odham’s reservation on the Arizona border is the size of Connecticut, which makes it the second largest Indian reservation in the country. Wilson’s tribe estimates that up to a staggering 1500 migrants are trying to cross their land on any given day, and on average 75 dead bodies are found each year.


The tribe doesn’t want to reach out to migrants in need, Wilson says, because the majority of members are employed by the federal government. Indian reservations are part of the federal land management system, and many jobs on the reservation and near it are supported by government funds, as is their hospital; the Tohono O’odham don’t want to take any action or stance that would appear pro-migrant, because they don’t want to jeopardize their funding or their employment, nor do they want the hospital bills. Dead bodies don’t cost them, but hundreds of sunstroked Mexicans would. Not that they’re exactly destitute, for they have 3 successful casinos, largely patronized by wealthy Mexicans, and just christened a 16 million dollar cultural center.


While willing to benefit from rich Mexicans’ money, Tribal council members have repeatedly voted to deny human rights groups access to the desert to assist poor Mexicans dying of dehydration. In addition, Wilson tells us, tribal members secretly slash open the plastic water jugs that he and his partner leave along the most heavily travelled trails. There happen to be 2000 gallon water tankers in the area, but they are reserved for supplying cattle troughs. Perhaps one of the biggest ironies of the region is embodied by Wilson himself, a former Green Beret in the Army’s Special Forces for 22 years, whose experience advising the fascist government in El Salvador back in the Reagan years opened his eyes to the cruel economic inequities of Latin America and the United States’ negative impact on the region. He left off advising torturers and turned to pastoral work, and it is his devotion to God that drives his 10 hour days of filling hundreds of gallon water jugs with his garden hose and then delivering them at trail intervals. While some would call him a saint, others of his nation have suggested a motion that he and his partner be considered terrorists, riding the recent political wave of collapsing Mexican migration with radical Arabic fundamentalism. Fortunately the motion went nowhere.

Border Patrol Map

The U.S. Border Patrol

Our second visit is to the U.S. Border Patrol in Nogales, Arizona. Two attractive and charming young Mexican Americans, Omar and Raúl, are our guides. They work for the Tucson Sector, one of 20 Border Patrol regions that carve up the U.S. It is the busiest sector in the country, and is divided into three corridors. We are in the Nogales Corridor, an area of 11,000 square miles; of their 617 agents, 150-160 are out in the field at any given time. Raúl tells us that 40% of the force is Latino, comprised of men and women of Puerto Rican, Dominican, Panamanian, Honduran, and Mexican descent; he estimates that only 25% of the administration is Latino, however.

Our guides discuss the many challenges to the Nogales Corridor: the international highway I-19 which brings drug trafficking up from Latin America; the drainage tunnels under Nogales that people not only traverse, but inhabit; single homes found to contain 20-50 migrants hiding; large mountainous desert regions with few roads on which to patrol and pursue border crossers and drug smugglers; youth who throw rocks at their vehicles; and the serious business of human smuggling, as the “coyotes” who guide migrants charge an average of 2400$ per head these days.

Subsequently these agents explain their daily objectives: to improve quality of life for the largest number of people who live near the border and to be proactive in reducing crime; but their main mission now, explains Omar, is anti-terrorist. How many terrorists have they caught? A student asks. None, he admits, but they passed a test in which radioactive material was planted in a backpack. They catch criminals every day though, he is quick to add. Of the 300-400 people they intercept daily crossing the border, they claim that 15% are criminals—murderers, rapists, and child molesters, a mantra I hear repeated multiple times by both our guides. They note that their sector seized over 300,000 pounds of marijuana last year and 90,559 illegals. In their power point presentation, drugs and illegals are continuously lumped together, as if all migrant crossers were carrying marijuana in their backpacks, instead of professional Mexican drug runners temporarily crossing to pass drugs to professional American drug runners, which is how it usually works; although migrants are occasionally duped into being mules.

As I am listening I start doing the math, and find it incredible that 45 murderers, rapists, and child molesters a day are entering south central Arizona; 16,000 of them a year pouring into the country in one sector alone? I ask how many of these 15% are criminals simply because they have crossed the border previously, since deportation proceedings against a migrant give him a criminal record. Raúl and Omar have no idea. They also acknowledge that in every border sector except theirs, the numbers were closer to a 10% criminality rate, and that the other 90% are simply “Joe immigrant”. We learn later, after we have left, that the former BORDER PATROL chief David Aguilar is on record for claiming that only 1% of crossers have any criminal record; it is the new chief Robert Gilbert who uses 10% in his public information campaign.

We ask how the border wall, which has been rising since the passage of Operation Gatekeeper in 1995, is impacting mortality among crossers, since they can no longer cross in urban areas, but are forced into 2 desert corridors; one of them is an eastern strip of the Tohono O’odham reservation, and the other, which cuts through the Organ Pipe National park to the west, is called “Devil’s Highway”. Omar acknowledges that it creates many more deaths to force migrants to cross in the most dangerous areas of the desert, but this funneling gives them the tactical advantage to do their job, which is of ultimate importance. According to signs posted by Mexican authorities, more than 5000 Mexicans have died on our border since Operation Gatekeeper was initiated, making the Arizona desert the largest cemetery in the United States. But how do we limit the movement of narcotraffickers willing to do anything to make a dollar from delivering drugs to their millions of American users? And how to keep a seemingly endless stream of poor from arriving on our shores needing help?

After our talk Raúl gives us a tour of the facility. We go to the control center where 5 people scrutinize dozens of TV. screens for evidence of border crossing or criminal activity. Lastly we enter the detention and processing center, where from a glass control booth, we can see men and women held in separate cells, and a large central area where people are patted down and given paperwork. As we are about to leave, a lone boy who looks about 10 years old is brought in. The patrol pats him down and has him strip off his outer clothes. Why are they treating a boy that way? A student asks. He could still be a criminal, Raúl answers. As we exit the door, I turn back to glimpse several more young “potential criminals” being led in for detention. It is a sobering end to an emotionally charged morning.

Tomorrow we will visit 2 shelters in Mexico: one for children who have been caught by the U.S. Border Patrol, and one for migrant adults. Our hope is to hear their stories and understand better why they are trying to cross into the United States.


Tuesday, Day 2

Casa de Menores Repatriados

It is the second day of our Borderlinks experience. We wake in Nogales, Mexico, after enjoying gracious hospitality and delicious food in the homes of women who work in U.S. factories. It is much cooler in Nogales, MX than in Tucson, since the elevation is much higher. We pile into the van and our Borderlinks guide Manuel takes us deftly through a maze of narrow, dusty, nameless streets of steep inclines towards our first scheduled appointment. Children are all heading for school in a rainbow of school uniforms, with pink, coral, maroon and blue all symbolizing different institutions. Girls wear jumpers, knee socks, and Mary Janes, their freshly washed hair tied at the nape; boys sport long pants and button-down shirts, their backpacks swaying from side to side as they saunter along, laughing and teasing each other en route to class.

We arrive at the Shelter for Repatriated Minors, part of DIF (Desarrollo Integral de la Familia), which is a social service network in Mexico. There are two one-story, adobe buildings in this small gated sanctuary high on a hill; on the right, a dormitory, and to the left, a cluster of offices, meeting rooms, and a cafeteria. The director Fernando Guerrero ushers us into a large room and describes the nature of his work.

The “casa” he runs services on average between 100 and 160 boys a month between the ages of 15 and 17, although last January he saw a record 360, and February and March were busier than normal too. His are youth who have been caught by the U.S. Border Patrol, interviewed by the Mexican Consulate, and sent to one of DIF’s shelters for repatriation. While teenage boys are sent to Fernando’s shelter, all girls and boys under 15 are sent to a separate facility. Children under 18 are not typically arrested for crossing into the U.S., but rather, are put into Mexican custody until their parents can be located to come pick them up. If a child is caught in the Nogales sector of Arizona he is sent to DIF in Nogales, Mexico, whose representatives, after necessary counseling or medical attention, send him to the DIF closest to his hometown.

Parents who come to pick up the child in custody must bring papers to prove their relationship, and before the child is released, they are lectured about violating the law and about risking the life of a minor. Many times one or both parents are already in the U.S. which is why the child is travelling to begin with—to reunite with a parent who can no longer afford to visit him or her because of tightened security at the border, for whom detention could mean losing the job that sustains that child. Sonia Nazario’s book Enrique’s Journey is a valuable read to learn more about the thousands of Central American and Mexican children who attempt to cross the border each year in search of their parents.

We ask Fernando about the child we saw being brought into the Border Patrol Detention facility yesterday, which provokes an immediate, visceral reaction in him. Children are not criminals, he replies, and a minute fraction of them are ever used as mules. That is just a pretext by the Border Patrol to not have to treat children as children. He then begins to tell us that children complain upon their arrival that if they and other companions are shivering out in the desert cold, that when they are captured by the Border Patrol that the agents cranks up the air conditioner in the van. If they are excruciatingly hot from the desert sun, when they are captured the Border Patrol cranks up the heat. They are fed crackers and milk or juice, and little else for days until their release. They are frisked and made to strip and are placed in small cells where the temperature is also purposefully unbearable. Fernando claims that many children arrive at his doorstep traumatized and depressed and in need of psychological intervention. The increasing militarization of the border is nothing but bad news for children, he concludes.


Shelter for Migrants CCAMYN

In the afternoon we head south to the town of Altar, which was once a sleepy cow town but is now a bustling center for human trafficking. As it is only an hour south of a major desert trail in Arizona, it is a natural resting place for both migrants that have been sent south by the Border Patrol and for migrants heading north towards the border from states as far south as Chiapas. Consequently the place is swarming with “coyotes”, desert guides anxious to lead migrants across the border for a hefty price. We arrive at CCAMYN, the Community Center for Attention to the Migrant and the Needy, where we unpack our bags as we’ll be spending the night.

CCAMYN is a non-profit organization that has assisted over 18,000 migrants in its 7 years of existence. Many of its volunteers are from its sponsoring church the Parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and it completely depends on outside donations. We meet its director Enrique Selaya, who by all indications is a saint, running the entire facility after he finishes up with his two jobs as teacher and director of a school and before he goes home to his wife and two kids.

Enrique’s job is to interview and admit all migrants to the facility who need a free place to stay, a hot shower, a sink for washing their clothes, and a hearty meal. The center also has phone cards available for use and donated clothes for distribution. Migrants are allowed to remain for 3 nights free of charge, so this place is a godsend for those who have been dispossessed of their belongings either by thieves or by the BP and haven’t a peso to their name. Once migrants are admitted they are educated about the dangers of the desert: its scorpions, rattlesnakes, gila monsters, tarantulas and black widows, spiny plants whose thorns easily infect swollen feet, and its dehydrating sun. They are discouraged from heading north, but are also instructed as to plants that could save their lives: the biznaga cactus, the aloe, the ocotillo, the maguey, and the saguaro.

plants that can save you

After the lecture we sit down to have dinner with the migrant travelers that are there. There are about 15 of us and 18 of them, so we sit in every other seat to mix ourselves up. We bless the meal and break bread, and then listen to the many stories these men and two women have to tell us.

The migrants echo some of the same stories of treatment by the Border Patrol we heard from Fernando, and say that if agents catch you near a river or gully they throw your backpack and belongings into it, which is why they only bring one change of clothes. They say that if you act in a submissive fashion most BP guards will treat you well, although the Latinos are the worst, they remark. Their verbal abuse and occasional physical violence are hurtful to the migrants knowing they are all of the same blood.

But many others of their same blood are looking to hurt them or take advantage of them as well; gangs of narcotraffickers now camp out in the Mexican desert and demand 50$ per migrant to let them pass; they and other gangs also hide on the U.S. side and jump migrants in the dark to steal their money and meager belongings. Some even kidnap them to ransom them for money. Coyotes often lead crossers astray and abandon them; women migrants are routinely raped by coyotes and gangs. Crossing the U.S. border is an incredibly dangerous, difficult endeavor. Why do it? We ask our dinner mates.

At this point almost all the stories converge. Because our children are hungry, they say. It is that simple. A young man, David, speaks up. He has a one and four year old. They do not have enough to eat. He has been searching for work for months and months. As a father, he remarks, he could sit around and watch his children be hungry, or he could risk dying in the desert attempting to provide for them. As a man, he says, the choice is easy. He is planting seeds now in trying to cross, and his reward will be reaped when he secures work in the U.S. that will feed his family. None of them want to immigrate, except for a man with an American wife and 4 kids in L.A. They all want to work long enough to secure a nest egg for their family, perhaps see relatives in the states, but ultimately they want to come home.

Bernardo, a youthful man in his forties, then recounts his story. He is a businessman and father of one fourteen year old. His parents have had to take out loans against their house to pay for basic necessities, and they are now in danger of losing it. He is attempting to cross to rescue their house and secure a home in which they can live in their old age. He remarks that he has tried to cross 7 or 8 times now, but he has yet to be successful, for his group is always caught waiting in a holding house near the border on the U.S. side. He now plans to cross the desert by himself. He thinks he can get from Altar to Phoenix in 4-5 days. I tell him that from the border to Phoenix alone is 193 miles, and that he couldn’t possibly get there in so little time, or carry enough water to survive. He is a runner, he replies, and has been training to cover at least 12-15 miles a day. I tell him he will never make it, but he replies he has no other choice. He has applied for a visa to work in the U.S. four times now. Each time the application costs him 100$, a small fortune for him. He has steady employment from his own business and money in the bank, both requisites for being granted a visa. But he has now lost 400$, years of wait time, and his parents are desperate.

dining hallAndrew and LizCCAMYN outside

We are deeply moved by our communion with these men and women. They are lovely people—friendly, open, generous, dedicated to their families and to God. They are also desperate people who want to work hard and would do anything for their children. They are not so different from us, and I try to imagine who I would be if placed in their situation. I reflect upon the accident of birth that put me on the wealthier side of the border, and I am relieved to be so lucky.

Tomorrow we travel to an American factory in Mexico that makes plumbing parts for American homes, and with a workers’ rights advocate, Polita Acuña.


Wednesday, Day 3

The Dearborn Brass Factory

Today we visit an American factory in Nogales, Mexico, one of 99 maquiladoras in this city alone. We enter an enormous industrial park that houses other factories with familiar names: Otis Elevator, Black and Decker, Chamberlain, Masterlock, etc. After handing to the parking guard the 23$ visitor visas we had to buy from the Mexican government specifically for this tour of facilities, we arrive at the doorstep of Dearborn Brass, a division of the Oatey Company based in Cleveland. A large American flag flaps loudly above us, right next to the Mexican one.

We are stunned to see not one but 5 administrators waiting to give us a presentation and a tour of their facilities. We sit in executive chairs in a large boardroom and are served bottled water while all five address us in perfect English. Operations manager Gabriel Solano begins by explaining the company vision, dictated from Cleveland, which is to focus on quality, service, cost, and people in that order. He explains that their standards are higher than those of OSHA, and they are committed to ethical working conditions for their 165 employees. His factory floor workers have month to month contracts and earn 11$ a day. Their benefits, he adds, are exemplary: they get a free breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria, free health care, and free on-site day care.

Once the presentation is over we are given a tour of the factory, after being outfitted with earplugs and safety glasses. The building is leased from its Tucson owner, who leases the land from Mexico. It is cavernous, clean, and resonates with the whir and grind of industrial machines, that are clustered to follow a product from start to finish. We watch young men and women make thin wire and thread it onto spools; we see plumbing pipes roll down belts from a furnace and workers fit their curvaceous forms with copper lips; we contemplate the cutting of hollow plastic tubing after a machine unceremoniously spits it out. All these products, our guide Manuel explains, are destined for a Home Depot near you.

Polita Acuña, worker’s rights advocate

After leaving Dearborn’s factory grounds we head to the home of Polita Acuña for lunch. Over mole chicken, rice and beans, she discusses her years as a factory worker and as an advocate for workers’ rights. She began working in a factory at 14 years of age, which is not uncommon. In Mexico grades 10-12 are considered college prep, and if your destiny is to work alongside your father in the fields or in the factories to supplement your family’s income, then after you complete 9th grade you’re ready to enter the work force. This is also why 15-17 year olds can be found traversing the border; they are often in search of work with their family’s blessing, their mandatory education complete. This explains too why statistics on Latino education in the U.S. appear lower than the national average for other racial groups. Mexicans cram more education into longer hours and fewer years, and “college prep” is often highly specialized towards a specific career path, many of them unattainable for the poor.

Polita tells us of her struggles to educate women factory workers about their rights, and how she was prohibited entry into any maquiladora once the factory owners, who all communicate with each other, discovered her intentions. They put out memorandums prohibiting the teaching of human rights and joining unions, suggesting that anyone who did so would not have their contract renewed.

Why do you think all maquiladoras now have month-to-month contracts? She asks. A main reason is to avoid paying maternity leave. Most factories recruit young female workers of childbearing age, for they are considered to be the most docile. Mexican labor law stipulates that pregnant women must be given relaxed work schedules and accommodations, and then paid leave. But who wants to pay for maternity leave for 70% of your employees, or risk a drop in productivity? Consequently, all women are given pregnancy tests after working 28 days for a factory, and if they test positive, their contracts are not renewed.

What if workers attempt to organize or unionize? No renewed contract either. If they get sick and productivity drops? You guessed it. A woman decides to complain about her boss’ sexual harassment? The same. Is it illegal to test women for pregnancy? Is it illegal to fire someone for being pregnant or for unionizing? Sure. But there’s a difference between firing and non-renewal. Mexican labor law is exemplary, among the fairest systems in the world. Unfortunately it is rarely enforced. Mandatory overtime is illegal, but workers often sign contracts in which they agree to perform overtime when needed. Workers are paid so little to begin with, Polita remarks, that overtime is rarely worth it. Mothers have to get home to get their children off the bus or cook dinner. But if they don’t comply? That contract doesn’t get renewed next month and they are suddenly without an income. And 80% of all border factories are American. Something to think about.

Market Basket Survey

The last visit of the day is to a Mexican supermarket to record prices for everyday necessities. Our Borderlinks guide Lil Mattingly gives us lists of groceries to price out and divides us up into teams. When we get back to Borderlinks facilities we compare notes and convert pesos to dollars. A gallon of milk costs $4.90 in Mexico. A pack of 36 disposable diapers costs $9. Eight rolls of toilet paper price out at $4. A kilo of apples weighs in at $2.40, of beef at $6, of rice at $1.30, of beans at 70¢. Eggs are on sale, 18 for $2.60. A 16oz. box of corn flakes is $2.50, and a 2 liter bottle of Coke is $1.50. Bread costs $2.40 a loaf and a medium jar of peanut butter $3.28.

Now, Lil asks, how many hours would you have to work in an American factory here in Mexico to buy a gallon of milk? To answer this question we need to do a bit of math. $5.30 a day is the minimum daily wage, and the work week is 6 days, 8 hours a day, or 48 hours. Most factories (not Dearborn) add bonuses of production, attendance, and punctuality to that, at $10 each per week, which would add up to about $1.28 an hour, or $61.44 a week. Following this formula, we see that it takes almost 4 hours of work to buy a gallon of milk earning minimum wage. To buy Pampers? 7 hours of work. To buy a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread? About 4.4 hours, the same as for a kilo of beef. If you miss one day of work you lose all three bonuses plus $5.30, which means you’d have to double your work hours again to buy those same items. Most maquila workers in Nogales are not beginning workers and consequently earn slightly higher than the minimum, on average $72 a week; but this only reduces their purchasing hours for a gallon of milk from 3.8 hours to 3.2—not a significant difference.

I imagine having to work 4 hours for a gallon of milk in the United States. As the minimum wage in Connecticut is $7.65, it would be the equivalent of $30 for a gallon of milk. Would I buy milk if it were $30 a gallon? Or even $25? Hell no. Would you? But I realize why Mexicans are the largest consumers of soda in the world. I also realize that if prices were that expensive here, that I’d be adopting their diet very quickly, eating mostly rice and beans, using meat only as a condiment, and drinking generic soda and water. No wonder Mexicans have a hard time feeding their families.

Tomorrow, we visit with a human rights group sponsored by the Mexican government to assist migrants, and with a pair of Mexican artists who decorate the U.S. border wall with large whimsical sculptures.


Thursday, Day 4

Grupos Beta

Our adventure for the day is to visit a government sponsored human rights group, and then head on to the studio of artists who create art and hang it on the border wall that separates Nogales, MX from Nogales, AZ. As we travel to Grupos Beta, I take note of the strange hybrid border language that is reflected in the signage here in downtown Nogales. The Spanish is peppered with English: “Auto Partes Express”, “Hotel Los Soles: Vacancy”, “Grease Monkey: Cambio de Aceite”, “Comisiones Periferio Drive Thru.” This linguistic invasion is in addition to the American franchises that dot the landscape like Autozone and Domino’s Pizza, and the omnipresent northern advertising, like an enormous cement tower painted like a Sprite can.

We arrive at Grupos Beta where our presenter Darío García leads us to its central office. Lining the walls are posters warning migrants of the dangers of crossing and explaining why they’d be better off at home. Darío tells us that their human rights agency was created in part to convince migrants not to cross, but unfortunately, they only dissuade 8% of their clients on average. His office sees about 130 migrants a day, and many are repeat clients.

Grupos Beta has 17 branches throughout Mexico, most of them on the U.S. and Guatemalan borders. They provide food, phone cards, medical services, discounted bus tickets, and direct migrants to shelters. In addition, they sweep the Mexican side of the desert for people in need, and encourage people to know their rights and to submit complaints against officials who have violated them. On the Guatemalan border, he says, gangs and corrupt policemen are the problem; he mentions the deadliest gang, La Mara Salvatrucha, that started in Los Angeles and has caused untold violence in Southern Mexico. On the Northern border, it is the desert itself that poses the biggest threat.

People quite literally lose their minds in the desert—we’ve had three already today, he remarks. The heat gets to them, but also the despair and the sight of dead bodies. The Border Patrol will say we have 200 disappeared people a year, he notes, but here we have reports of 200 people missing a month. Coyotes routinely tell people that it will take them only 1-2 days to cross the desert, when in fact it takes at least four. More and more diabetics are crossing, he adds, and they don’t bring enough insulin. The Border Patrol often doesn’t give it to them either, so they arrive here severely ill.


But they won’t stop crossing, and corrupt people will continue to try to abuse them, Darío continues, sounding rather discouraged. Look, he says, Mexicans are the most ingenious people in the world. Americans can put up all the walls they want. But do you know what they’ve started making here in Mexico? Trucks with folding ladders that extend diagonally up and then down. The wall is bad for the environment for it impedes migratory animals from their natural patterns; but it won’t stop migratory humans from theirs. If they don’t go over they’ll go under. He mentions the many tunnel systems in Nogales, and how people have dug tunnels right up into safe houses on the U.S. side.

As we head out, I think about what Darío said about Mexicans being the most ingenious people on the planet. The surrounding streets are a testament to his claim, for the locals have found many new uses for old objects. One auto shop has a backyard whose fence is constructed completely of car hoods, which have been soldered together and painted beige. Car tires are recycled to terrace steep hills, or filled with dirt and used for house steps. Some residents even construct entire houses out of discarded garage doors, a practice quite common in Tijuana.

Taller Yonke

We head to the studio of Alberto Morackis and Guadalupe Serrano, a team of artists who create visual, public art that challenges national and border identity, and comments on the blending of two cultures and their politics that sometimes don’t. Their name itself remarks on hybrid identity, as “taller” means workshop and “yonke” is a play on “junk”.

Their art is playful, visionary, clever. Guadalupe admits that living on the border is painting with 2 palettes. He describes the border as a laboratory of culture, and that its flow, movement, and hybridity are reflected in his art. We in Nogales all have family and friends on the other side, he offers, and the art he and Alberto create on the wall can be a bridge between 2 cultures and communities and inspire dialogue.

The construction of the wall is an affront to the average Mexican, for it is being thrown up without their consent, sends a strong message about how Americans view them, and even worse, in the Nogales region it is made with war detritus, from landing strips from the Vietnam and first Gulf war, material that offends them. Who wants to look at the symbolic refuse of U.S. invasions of other countries every day? I might add that Mexicans haven’t forgotten America’s multiple invasions of their land, the most damaging being those motivated by the U.S.’s belief in its own manifest destiny to dispossess Mexico of half its territory in 1848. The irony is that Mexicans are now claiming that the new section being built to the west of the current Nogales wall is intruding 20 meters into Mexican territory, and that international boundary obelisks are being unearthed and repositioned. Mexicans are calling this an aggressive act, a new invasion of their land. A similar error on the Columbus, New Mexico border is going to cost American taxpayers as much as 3 million dollars to uproot and reposition.

Why put art on the wall, we ask? Art dignifies the border wall, subverts the symbolism of warfare, beautifies ugly metal, encourages social identity, improves Nogales’ urban image, and expresses Mexican creativity and ingenuity. Alberto and Guadalupe have several projects that have been hung on the Nogales wall and on other new walls in Texas and California. Alberto says they make all their work portable, since they hope the wall won’t be forever.

Their project currently on the wall is called “Parade of Humanity”. It is collaboration between Mexican and Arizonan artists. Cut aluminum pieces designed by Arizona artist Alfred Quiroz to resemble Mexican “Milagros”, small silver charms that reflect a wearer’s desires and obstacles, flank life-size, painted figures designed by Taller Yonke. A silver coyote head sports a dollar sign above his forehead; a Border Patrol guard made out of landing strip material chases a group of Mexicans whose bodies are covered with crops they pick in the states, or symbols of domestic work. Pre-Columbian imagery, religious icons, symbols of capitalism, and images of death enhance the interpretation. In all, about 40 figures tell the story of migratory flow between the two countries.

Taller Yonke has other incredibly visionary projects in the works as well. They are creating 130 figures out of used car metal that they are painting and welding together to form a new southern gate into the city. They are creating an enormous vinyl photograph to hang on the wall of exactly what visually lies beyond it, a veritable trompe l’oeil of a view that was theirs until 1994. They are collaborating with musicians and engineers to create a giant musical instrument with piano strings that will make noise when stroked by the wind. They have invited U.S. artists to collaborate in their vision of wall art, since Homeland Security doesn’t allow any art to be hung on the American side. They are encouraging American artists to develop laser artwork to project onto the American side of the wall so as to not break the law.

As our discussion with the artists ends, I walk out onto their balcony, and see a huge Border Patrol tower looming a few hundred yards from the building, its spy cameras trained down on us. It is one of 32 focused on Nogales. I wonder what it is like as a Mexican to feel watched every day by another country’s military, what it would be like to have “El Hermano Grande” watching my every move in Hartford. I don’t think I’d like it much. I am grateful, however, to have had a whole day to reflect upon their creativity and ingenuity in response to it.

To see pictures of Alberto Morackis and Guadalupe Serrano’s wall art, you can visit their website at

Tomorrow, we will be visiting federal court in Tucson to watch Operation Streamline, a new initiative to process and sentence up to 100 migrants simultaneously.


Friday, Day 5

We are back in Tucson and heading to Arizona Federal Court today to watch Operation Streamline in action. Operation Streamline is a new initiative in Texas and in Arizona to attempt to legally process and formally deport 10% of all those who cross the border in a given sector on a given day. Up until this year, only about 1% of migrants were processed, and those selected were repeat offenders or people with a criminal history. The rest were fingerprinted and returned to the border in a practice called “catch and release,” considered by the Border Patrol to be highly ineffective in deterring poor migrants from returning. In the past, those who crossed our border seeking shelter, asylum, or work without permission were processed by administrative courts by what used to be the INS. Operation Streamline is part of a new initiative by Homeland Security to criminalize immigration infractions, hence the transfer of processing to federal criminal court. Selection for prosecution is now determined by who is caught in a particular geographic region being targeted rather than criminality.


We meet with Isabel García, a public defender for the state. She guides us to a courtroom where we sit on long benches in the back. To our left are 68 men and 2 women, all in ankle and wrist shackles. They are dark from the desert sun, and young. My students realize that a good number of them are no older than they are, as the migrants stand up when their prison number and name is called out. A few are questioned as to their nationality and age, but in general, it is the same routine every time. A woman at the bench barks out phrases such as these for all 70 would-be migrants: “08-143-710 MP, Fernando Mejías Robles: Do you understand that you have the right to an individual court trial? Do you wish to waive that right?” Every last “MP” or “male prisoner” answers yes twice. They are all made to stand up in their shackles a second time, one after another, as they are asked if they plead guilty to crossing the border. We hear “culpable” echoed 70 times.

The judge asks the lawyers representing the U.S. government in this trial if they wish to be heard. They do not. Those who have been caught crossing the border for the first time are then told by the judge that the fine of 5000$ for not crossing at an official point of entry has been waived; that time served is sufficient jail time to fit their infraction; and that they waive their right to an appeal in accepting those terms. They also now have a criminal record, a misdemeanor, which will jeopardize future legal entry, meaning they are more likely to have to cross illegally in the future too. Those who have been caught more than once, called “flip-flops”, are given anywhere from 45-90 days; this judge has chosen to waive their felony charge for crossing more than once, as felony charges can mean sentences of 2-20 years, although migrants are never given more than 180 days. To complete their sentences, these men and women will be returned to one of several prisons run by either Wackenhut or CCA, the Corrections Corporation of America, both corporations who have contracted with the government to house crossing migrants in Arizona, both strong proponents for the emerging criminalization of border crossing. The collective trial of these 70 people takes just under 1 ½ hours.

I count 25 federal employees in the room, between the judge, interpreter, stenographers, Border Patrol officers, court security, public defenders, government lawyers, and private lawyers paid by the government. Since the criminal processing of migrants is new, the federal court does not have the resources to handle the tremendous influx of cases. There are not enough court marshals, so the Border Patrol must send additional security forces. The public defender’s office can only send 2-3 lawyers a day, because there are plenty of citizens in Arizona who need public defense. Consequently, the government is contracting private lawyers to represent 6 migrants each for 600$ a day. As the goal is to reach 100 migrants per day by September, and there are not enough private lawyers in Tucson, the plan is to begin to fly in private lawyers from Phoenix, and as many of them do not speak Spanish, they will each get private interpreters. All of this paid by our taxes. According to the public defendants who speak to us in a break out room after the affair is over, the court has a blank check from the federal government to hire as many lawyers and interpreters as needed. In the past when only 1% of migrants were processed, the price tag for incarceration and prosecution of migrants and border criminals was about 11 million dollars a month, according to Attorney García. Derechos Humanos of Arizona estimates that incarceration alone now averages between 9 and 11 million a month, and that current court costs add another 10 million. By the time they reach 100 migrants per day the numbers will have greatly increased again. Yet another day for us of shocking math.

In the midst of this abundance of funds, the Tucson school system is facing a serious budget shortfall, and is trying to decide which educational programs to cut for the area’s children. The irony is not lost on my students.

Our meeting with a group of public defenders after the trial is eye-opening. Isabel, Eric, and Miguel are frustrated by the use of their court for managing huge socio-economic problems, and they are worried about the future of corporatized criminal justice, for they see CCA as reaping the bounty of this war on immigration. They quote Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations [IV/V/IV], suggesting that socio-economic solutions to socio-economic problems make more sense than law enforcement solutions, and insist that immigration is not a law enforcement problem. They claim that the individual adjudication of guilt has been determined by jury trials since Sir Walter Raleigh’s sixteenth century England, and that collective trials sans juries are a corruption of that justice. One can no longer hear individuals’ stories. There is no allowance for exceptional cases. Migrants are not about to opt for spending months more in prison and greater fines for the possibility of getting a future individual trial with undetermined representation and costs. Only 17% of those who passed through Ellis Island were “legal” according to today’s standards; what would our country look like if the other 83% had been arrested and then sent back?

You must hear their stories when you counsel them before each trial, I say to the public defenders. What are the commonalities of their histories? I ask. Eric replies that the two stories he hears over and over again are that there is less agricultural work in Mexico than before, and that the factories there don’t pay enough to live on, so people cross the border looking for work to feed their families. All five migrants he represented today are corn farmers put out of business by NAFTA. The North American Free Trade Agreement between Mexico, the U.S. and Canada that passed in 1994 was supposed to ameliorate the problem of undocumented workers in the U.S., but instead it has increased the flow. Eric’s clients offer a good example. As Americans’ tax dollars heavily subsidize American corn, it has flooded the Mexican market and tens of thousands of Mexican farmers and their employees have lost their farms and jobs because their corn can’t compete with subsidized U.S. prices. Those farmers displaced by American economic policy end up coming to the U.S. to seek a way to feed their families here. As we saw in the maquiladoras, Mexicans who move from the interior to the border to work in American factories don’t get paid enough to feed their families, so they choose to keep heading north.

As we are about to leave, we ask the public defenders what solution they would like to see. Isabel replies that we need to work on sustainable economic development for sending countries; that we must create immigration policy that takes into account the reality as to why migrants are here, and what needs they serve; and that we have to demilitarize the border, for it has brought nothing but death to the poor. Follow the money, she says. Who is benefiting from the new criminalization of migrants? Lawyers, the military, but perhaps most of all, the corporations that incarcerate them, corporations that are growing fat from our tax money, in addition to corporations that design surveillance instruments and high tech weapons for battling the people of a neighboring country with whom we enjoy very good political relations.

I reflect upon the new post-national order in which my students are coming of age. We are not at war with the Middle East, but rather, with their terrorists. We are not at war with Mexico, but rather, with their poor.

Tomorrow’s article will reflect on undocumented migration and its impact in Connecticut.


Day 6 Final Reflections


It is our last day on the U.S./ Mexican border, after a week of conversing with its inhabitants, crossers, law enforcers, and human rights workers. We have focused on Mexican migration because in Arizona most border crossers are Mexican. Central Americans often cross in Texas after riding up the eastern seaboard on trains; and those in Arizona usually identify themselves as Mexican so that they will be released at our border rather than put on a plane to their home country. Consequently, it has been next to impossible for us to get adequate information about migrants from other countries.

Borderlinks facilitators Lil and Manuel help us process and reflect upon what we’ve seen thanks to their guidance and planning this week. After a general conversation and some role play, students begin to make connections to their own lives. Begaeta, whose parents immigrated to Hartford from Bosnia when she was a young teen, shares a story of Bosnian peoples crossing the Austrian border and what that was like for her relatives. She relates that they too followed trails of trash over difficult mountainous terrain, as do the Mexican migrants. Ultimately many from both sets of migrants made it to Hartford.

Denise, who was born and raised in Hartford, speaks next. She describes her experience attending Hartford public schools, explaining how difficult it was to study using old books that had to be shared among students. She lists the many friends she had that dropped out in part, she feels, for lack of resources. She wonders what Weaver High could have been like if all the money being spent on Operation Streamline were redirected to schools like hers, if our national priorities were different, if education came first. She understands on a deep level the significance and the irony of millions of dollars being thrown at a war against the poor, at the expense of the country’s other war against the poor.

I begin to reflect on what I know of border crossers in Connecticut. The Connecticut State Data Center estimates that there are about 85,710 undocumented people living in Connecticut today. National statistics show that just under half of them overstayed their visas, flying in to visit family members from places like Poland and Albania, or came in through an official port of entry but then let their paperwork expire. The rest, slightly more then half, walked across a U.S. border, so we can estimate that about 45,000 people in Connecticut today have done so.

As Connecticut has a maritime border, the Coast Guard is responsible for protecting our southern boundary. The state officially belongs to the Swanton Sector of the Border Patrol, although its agents never travel farther south than the Vermont/ Massachusetts state line unless they’re recruiting. ICE agents respond to any immigration matter in CT’s interior; they are sent from either the Boston or the NYC office, depending on where in CT an event occurs. I think of the recent ICE raids in cities like Hartford, New Haven, and Danbury, raids that have targeted Latin Americans. Three operations, 65 migrants arrested, 85,645 to go? How much taxpayer money would that cost? ICE hopes that people will get tired of living in fear in our communities and will return to their home countries on their own coin.

But I don’t want people around me to live in underground communities, using underground economies, to live in hiding and in fear, to maybe have to resort to theft or crime to survive. That’s not the kind of Connecticut I want to live in. As it is, when the undocumented settle in communities, crime decreases relative to the population, since people without papers don’t want to attract police attention. I worked for several years as a Spanish interpreter for group of private detectives investigating workplace injuries, and also in Yale New Haven Hospital’s Emergency Department. I have met undocumented workers fumigated by pesticides and poisoned by asbestos; workers whose limbs were severed, broken or melted in industrial accidents; workers whose companies didn’t pay them for 3 weeks, were given a week’s vacation, and came back to work to find the entire factory had disappeared, along with their month’s pay. None of them were seeking legal redress—how could they? In spite of the fact that our laws protect all who are in our country regardless of immigration status, drawing attention to their plight could mean deportation. Underground working conditions also mean that CT employers and residents can easily abuse workers.

The undocumented I’ve met in CT are usually here with a specific goal in mind, like earning the money to buy a house back home, or saving enough to open a business when they return. Many come heavily in debt from the journey and can’t return home until that debt is paid. One man I met in Stamford a few years ago was saving for a very special goal; he was a construction worker who earned more building offices in CT than in his previous job as an engineer for Volkswagen in Mexico. I asked him why a man with a Master’s degree would work in construction rather than sit in an office building in Mexico, even if it was for less pay? He replied that his hometown had no elementary school, and that he was in Connecticut for three years to earn enough money to build one. He had already saved enough in 2 years to buy all the bricks; he had one year to go, to buy the labor costs, and then he’d be back home. I marveled at his generosity of dedicating 3 years of his life in a foreign country to be able to offer such a generous gift to his hometown. To my dismay, he told me that in over 2 years in CT, I was the first person to treat him like a human being, as someone with goals, opinions, and education. The rest just ignored him or told him what to do on the job.

His remarks highlight what Wayne Cornelius, a leading scholar in immigration, has dubbed “ambivalent reception.” Americans have a love-hate relationship with migrant workers, because on the one hand they are grateful for the cheap labor, but on the other hand they feel culturally threatened by them. Americans want workers but not humans with human needs, medical and educational needs. Invisible bodies that won’t visibly alter our daily cultural landscape.

In my courses at Trinity College on border studies, one of the main points with which I begin the semester is that human rights and civil rights are often in conflict regarding immigration. People crossing the border do so because they have desperate needs; they need to feed, clothe, and shelter their families. They need medical attention. They did so in the 80’s and 90’s because they were escaping the violence, torture and displacement of wars supported by the United States in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. Citizens of the U.S. may recognize immigrants’ human needs but be more concerned with their own civil rights. We citizens have all put money into a common pot to guarantee quality of life for ourselves. As taxpayers, we feel we deserve civil rights like access to education and to health care, and our quality of life may be compromised if we dedicate our common pot of money to helping a seemingly endless stream of needy poor.

People who tend to care more about citizen’s rights are often called conservatives; those who tend to care more about human rights are often called liberals. Both sides are critical to a national and state conversation about how to balance these two sets of rights. We don’t have an endless supply of resources. We do need to secure our borders. We also need migrant workers to maintain our quality of life, and we have an obligation as neighbors, as religious folk, and as humans to be Samaritans to our fellow humans in need. People have come to Connecticut because they were hungry enough to leave their homes, family, and neighborhoods behind. How can we best help them and help ourselves?

Migration and immigration are complex issues, with no easy answers. Here on the border we have tried to understand their complexity by listening hard to a multiplicity of voices with first hand experience in the migratory patterns of some Mexican nationals, migratory patterns that have existed for 150 years but that have changed drastically with the closing of the open border. Mexicans who used to travel back and forth between the countries, harvesting vegetables or tobacco in the summer and apples in the fall for example, and then going home, can no longer do so. They need to stay where the work is, stay year-round, seek other opportunities. They turn into immigrants.

Connecticut is certainly part of the new world order of transnational migratory communities, and as the fates and the economies of the United States and of Mexico are deeply and inextricably intertwined, you can be assured that Mexicans will play an increasingly significant role in our state’s cultural identity and economic well-being, whether as migrants, immigrants, or citizens. They are a young population, an increasingly legal and English-speaking population, and will inevitably weave themselves in to the fabric of Connecticut life, as millions of foreigners have done before them.

After more reflection and goodbyes, our Borderlinks educational experience is over and it is time to board a plane for Hartford. We return tired, thoughtful, and hopefully wiser. This week-long diary represents only about half of the many voices that we have heard in our seven days of reflection and learning, voices whose lessons are still sorting themselves out in our heads. I hope that this consideration of migration at our international border and its many challenges provokes further desire in my students to research and understand such a complex issue, and that it inspires their future policy making, activism, and Samaritan tendencies. I also hope that this diary of voices provides some interesting food for thought for you, devoted reader. I thank you for accompanying me on this journey to the borders of knowledge and nation.

For more information on Borderlinks, please visit their website


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.