A Lesson on the Border

Revolutionary Worker #896, March 2, 1997

We received this correspondence from a participant in a two-day "Border Reality Tour" organized by La Resistencia last summer.

Night is when the mechanism of repression appears. As darkness spools over the arid, rolling terrain separating the boundaries of Mexico and the United States--night vision scopes click on, helicopters lift off from air bases, and droves of green border patrol vans begin to ferret into a labyrinth of dusty roads, trails and paths--all of them in search of the same elusive target: people driven north by hunger, desperation and a need to find work.

A teacher living in a Southern California city, I have been reading about the extensive changes taking place at the border. But all my news has been filtered through the Los Angeles Times or edited-down snippets and sound bites on the network news. Friends kept telling me that the border was being turned into a war zone. Believing that they were embellishing the truth, I decided to come on the Border Reality Tour and see for myself.

What I saw was much worse than I could have imagined.

I returned home with a feeling of sadness, guilt and anger. The sadness is for the immigrants I met and spoke with through an interpeter; the guilt is for having turned a blind eye to the growing oppression being implemented by the border; and the anger is directed at my government for treating people no different than myself and other members of the tour as though they were criminals. Yet the only desperation is their hunger and their need for work--work that most Americans wouldn't deign to consider for themselves.

In listening to the plight of the immigrants, I formed a lasting respect for their courage. Were I a Mexican farmer without money or crops to sell, and with a family to feed, I only hope I would have their courage to come north and risk my life and freedom crossing the border--no matter what it took.

Back here in the city where I live, I keep thinking about what I saw during my two days and nights along the wall. Many impressions remain from the Border Reality Tour but two in particular are ones I wish to share.

The first occurred at the Casa del Migrante, where the Catholic Church provides separate housing for men and women trapped at the border, or those who have been forced back into Mexico and have nowhere to go.

With our translator's aid, I found myself talking with a young man of 24; dark-haired, husky, with an engaging smile, he looked like any young man in the prime of his life--except for his crutches and a deep scar embedded in his forehead.

I learned that this young man lived with his family in southern California. He had come south to Mexico to visit friends and when returning to Tijuana to cross the wall, he was set upon by seven men: robbed, stabbed, beaten with an iron bar, and left for dead.

Now, regaining his strength, he is trapped at the shelter, for he has nowhere to go: his family moved to a city farther away than ever.

In listening to his story, I felt as though I were meeting a modern version of Philip Nolan, a man without a country. Yet in this young Mexican man's case, it was someone who wanted very much to live in the United States--but because of the brutal imposition of Operation Gatekeeper was marooned from his family.

Standing in the foyer of the Casa del Migrante, I looked at the nearly 100 men milling about. Most were young, strong, many probably married or engaged. Their only crime is a human one: to do what anyone of us wants to do, earn a living, have a home and a family.

And now they were trappped between the poverty of their country and the lengthening wall before them.

Later that night, I found myself on the other side of the border, literally standing alongside the high, black metal sheets near the San Ysidro crossing station.

The tour had stopped, and we had dismounted from our cars to walk down a dirt road that led to what used to be a railroad gate between Mexico and California, a gate now sealed shut with metal bars.

As we neared the wall, I could see a score of men on a hill just beyond the border. Watching us approach, they came down the hill and pressed their faces against the opening in the wall.

I felt embarrassed as they stared at me and spoke through the translator of their need for work. "We are not criminals," one said. "We only want work."

Where was I? I asked myself. Inside the border of which totalitarian country was I standing? How far away from America had I wandered to find myself under a web of yellow klieg lights, talking with a young man of twenty, whose weary expression and hollow cheeks were mirrored on the faces of all those beside him?

Why were they out, and why was I in?

I heard an engine, and turned as a border patrol van coasted down the hill toward us. It stopped, and a husky officer got out. "You people are down here at your own risk."

Our group leader nodded his acknowledgement. The border patrolman got back into his van and began talking on his radio.

"There's another one," someone said, pointing down the road. I turned. Sure enough, another border patrol car was parked in the shadows of an abandoned garage.

"Hey, check out the camera," another voice said.

I looked up. Attached to the top of a telephone pole was a camera, its lens pointed directly straight at us.

Some landscape, I thought, as we waved goodbye: desperate people, walls, guards and electronic surveillance. In what old newsreels had I seen that vision before?

As we climbed into our cars, I glanced back at the border. The long metallic wall seemed to slice into the darkness.

"How far will the wall go?" I asked the tour director.

"As far as it needs to go to keep the immigrants out," he replied. "It's already into the desert. The INS thinks the heat and the desert will stop them from crossing. A lot of them have already died, risking the journey on foot. But they'll keep trying, you saw their faces."

Yes, I had seen their faces, and to be honest, I didn't see any difference between theirs and mine, between theirs and the border patrolman's face--between any of ours, in fact.

That's what walls do--drive a blade down between us to create them.

That's what I brought back from the tour.

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