Reporter's Notebook

The War on Immigrants and
the Resistance in Arizona

Part 2: Border Crossings and Connections

Revolutionary Worker #1074, October 15, 2000

In 1994, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) launched Operation Gatekeeper in the San Diego-Tijuana area. This escalation of the U.S. government's war on immigrants further militarized the border with huge steel walls, stadium-style spotlights and "automated surveillance technology." Now, behind the wall on the U.S. side is a broad military zone, occupied by an enlarged Border Patrol equipped with SUVs, all-terrain vehicles, aircraft and night vision equipment. Regular military troops have been stationed along the border at several locations, as well as units of the National Guard. People trying to cross the border have been forced into remote, and deadly, desert and mountain areas. And as a result, many have died from exposure, dehydration and other dangerous conditions. Pro-immigrant groups recently protested on the October 1, six-year anniversary of the start of Operation Gatekeeper by reading the names of over 600 immigrants who have lost their lives in Southern California alone.

Today, southeastern Arizona near Tucson has the greatest concentration of undocumented immigrants trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, and the most "apprehensions" by La Migra, the Border Patrol. This area is now the target of a new Border Patrol clampdown. A team of RW reporters recently went to this area and talked to activists, immigrants and other residents about this clampdown, and the resistance to it, including what the Arizona Star called "a modern underground railroad"-which helps immigrants to cross the border safely, The following article is Part 2 of a "Reporter's Notebook," written by a member of this team.


Three sets of towns sit on or near the border between Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora. They are Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora; Douglas, Arizona and the Mexican town of Agua Prieta; and Naco and Bisbee on the U.S. side near the Mexican town of Naco. These cities are now separated by big walls that extend miles into the desert on both sides. Although the conditions are less harsh than in the California desert, immigrants are still dying in this area. At least 58 have died around Douglas in the last year, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and the real toll may be as many as 200.

This rising death toll of immigrants on the border has galvanized people into action. A woman in her 50s in Bisbee told the RW, "If somebody is standing by the side of the road, and they're obviously out of it, and they're really dehydrated, and they're hungry and they've been out there for three days, how could you not pick somebody up like that? How could you live with yourself thinking that maybe that person died? And how could you take that person to the Border Patrol after they paid everything that they owned to get to that side of the road? You just do what your conscience dictates."

Meanwhile, racist ranchers like Roger and Don Barnett have led anti-immigrant protests and have organized vigilante groups to go out and hunt down and attack immigrants trying to cross the border. People like the Barnetts have been given a lot of coverage in the mainstream media, as if they represent the sentiment of the majority of people living in these areas, on the U.S. side of the border. But activists we talked to pointed out that these anti-immigrant racists are clearly in the minority, even among ranchers.


One activist told us about the new "underground railroad" and how efforts to help immigrants get safely across the border have continued in the face of more difficult conditions. He said, "We could get rides out, for a while, but then the checkpoints started going up. It became harder, but we were still able to do it. We can still do it, but it's going to cost you if you get caught. But there are people who are willing to pay the cost, so it's still being done."

Within 30 miles of the international border, the Border Patrol doesn't need search warrants or probable cause to stop or search people or homes. Bob Carney, the pastor of St. Luke's Catholic church in Douglas, told the RW, "When this was sealed right here in town, the migrants were pushed further and further out, and directly into the front yard of the ranchers. Now instead of having two or three or five pass through, which has always been, now they've got 50 and 100 a day. Some [ranchers] are part of the new underground movement.... If you fit the profile, you're going to be stopped a lot [at the checkpoints]. A lot of people are just waved on through. Any person of color is going to be stopped without a doubt. So you face the loss of a car. That's the first thing that would happen. Then, if you were convicted of smuggling people, you would face jail time. Whatever you're doing for humanitarian reasons is by law smuggling undocumented people. So people need to be willing to do that. But people take other risks, too, by giving safe shelter."

In small towns like Douglas, Bisbee or Naco, the fact that people know each other has its advantages as well as disadvantages for people organizing to help immigrants. One activist told the RW, "It's so loosely knit. It's like somebody says something to somebody, and then somebody says something to somebody else and you get the idea that these are friendly people and they would be helpful." But at the same time, he added, people have to think, "'Who can I trust? Who do I need to be sure I don't slip and say the wrong thing to that would jeopardize other people?'"

In the 1980s, during the U.S. war in El Salvador, religious activists and others in this same area started the Sanctuary Movement. There were churches in every part of the U.S. where people openly gave shelter to undocumented refugees. There were also activists on the border who helped refugees from Central America to get into the U.S. The government clamped down hard on the movement, but the activists remained defiant.

Now U.S. authorities are trying to threaten and intimidate the emerging movement helping immigrants on the border. The Border Patrol threatens people, telling them that giving food or water to migrants is a criminal offense. The INS regularly impounds cars-they have huge lots in the desert with hundreds of vehicles. A Bisbee activist told the RW, "Some woman picked up a woman and her daughter who were really dehydrated. She called the Border Patrol and said, 'I'm bringing some people to you who are in danger of dying.' They came and they took her and the people who were in her car and they stole her car from her. She had to pay $800 to get her car back." Another activist in the small town of Naco was recently attacked and beaten by vigilantes. Other activists there have noticed an increase in undercover cops.

The risks for these activists are increasing. But in the face of this, most people are not getting scared and pulling back from the struggle. Instead, we found people making plans to take on the repression. And some people who had been sitting on the sidelines are now looking for ways to get involved.

When we talked to activists in Tucson, Nogales and Douglas, many mentioned Bisbee as being a place where people have been very upfront and defiant in their actions to give food and aid to immigrants, even if it means breaking the law. Bob Carney said, "They're the ones who have a real sense of justice, and have been open about it: 'Yes, I give people water, food and shelter. Now do something about it.' That has been a safety for us when that happens, to be that open about it. They can't separate us." Bisbee was the next stop for the RW team.


Down a side road on the way to Bisbee is the tiny port of entry town of Naco, Arizona. The center of town is one block long. It's one of those "old West" streets that's wide enough for a horse-drawn wagon to turn around in, except all the buildings are modern. You can park on that block, walk back 30 feet and you're in Mexico. When we arrived at the border at Naco, Mexico, there was a line of 15 or so people on their way back into Mexico. They had been caught after seven hours in the desert and were being deported. On the side of the building there was a huge banner from Grupo Beta, the Mexican police that patrol the border, and in some areas try to stop immigrants from crossing. The banner warns that immigrants face deportation, jail, death in the desert-and attacks from U.S. vigilantes.

We waited in line, sad and angry that the Migra had caught our immigrant brothers and sisters. After a minute, the Mexican official looked up and with his hand waved us across the line, ahead of the Mexican people, no questions asked. This brought home the bitter truth that the border has never been a barrier going south, whether it's for U.S. tourists, or for U.S. capital looking to pay workers $3 a day, or U.S. weapons to repress the Mexican people.

Every Mexican border town in the area has its "migrants' plaza" where, at times, thousands of people gather daily to wait for the sun to go down. There are always pay phones, where people call their families to say they're about to cross. Sometimes, this is the last news relatives hear of their loved ones. In Naco, the plaza is a couple blocks from the port of entry.

The people who were getting deported included several from the state of Hidalgo. One man, who was 21, had been crossing since he was 18. He was trying to get back to work in a chicken-packing plant in Georgia. He said it was one of the biggest chicken processing plants in the world. Another young man we met in the plaza was a 22-year-old from Chiapas. A month ago, he had been working in an orange orchard in Phoenix when he got word that his mother was sick. He went to visit her and fortunately, she had gotten better. Now, he was going back to work. But he said it was much harder to cross than the year before.

The difficulty of crossing has a lot of impact on the undocumented who are working in the United States. Some cannot risk going back to visit sick relatives or attend funerals or even just to see their families. So there are a lot more women and children trying to cross now to be with husbands and fathers, as well as to work. The guy from Chiapas told us that because of his fear of La Migra, he only goes out maybe once in a whole year to hang out on a downtown street for a few hours. Almost everyone in the plaza has crossed before. Most have jobs waiting for them. They had children to feed, and they can't get work in their own country.

Word spreads quickly in places like Naco. People heard there were some people from the U.S. who are against the War on Immigrants, and were taking down people's stories. As we were leaving, an older man hurried up, and grabbed one of us by the hand. He had heard who we were. "Es bueno, es bueno, lo que hacen," he told us. "What you're doing is really great."


In 1972, Phelps-Dodge closed its giant open pit copper mines near the towns of Bisbee and Douglas that it had created. "Closed" is not exactly accurate. Phelps-Dodge left behind huge pits, gaping holes in the landscape and huge mounds of tailings scattered across the countryside. Real estate prices went down after Phelps-Dodge left. According to one resident, in Bisbee "You could buy a house for $500 and a whole hillside for $1000." The area became a magnet for people who wanted to live in a beautiful, remote area and jumped at the opportunity to get a good deal on land and homes.

Bisbee is in a long tilted valley with a stream running through and tall trees to moderate the desert heat. At night in the clear air, the sky is full of stars. The people who moved in included many with a little retirement income. Artists found it possible to make a living selling to tourists who passed through or stayed at the remodeled old hotels or bed and breakfast inns. Bisbee residents built a playhouse and staged regular festivals.

We met a lot of people here who were active in the 1960s. A woman artist who recalled going to anti-nuke demonstrations with her mother in the early '60s told us that the first sign she saw of the Border Patrol's invasion was a lot of people getting stopped driving through Bisbee. She said, "When I first got to town, I started noticing that they [people being stopped by the INS] were all Hispanic. And there were so many cops. I never saw so many cops in my life. There were people being pulled over everywhere. This was in March. I wasn't really clued to it. I just thought, 'Hmm, that's weird. It looks like racial profiling.' Then I saw it again and again, the cops and the Border Patrol. Then I saw the cops and the Border Patrol talking to each other a lot." One day, she saw a couple of women standing by the street with signs that said, "End Racial Profiling." She stopped her car and joined them.

Residents told us that along with the general clampdown atmosphere, there has been an increase in police brutality. One notorious Bisbee cop beat up the manager of the Renaissance Café, a popular hangout at the lower end of town, and broke down another woman's door because he said her stereo was too loud.

Earlier this year, the Arizona Star reported the story of how two Mexican women were found hiding behind a trash bin in Bisbee. The women had been abandoned by their guide [the "coyote" who they had paid to help them cross the border] and were lost and hungry and thirsty. They were found by a young kid who knew what to do. The two women were taken to a house where they were joined by a woman from Nicaragua who had been found lost in the desert. They were given food and a place to rest. Their families and friends were contacted in Dallas and in New York. A network of friends got them out of the area and on their way.

People have opened their hearts, as well as their homes. Activists who go on hikes in the desert to pick up trash left by immigrants have found many personal items, including photos of family members left behind in villages. They have carefully preserved all these mementos, and are planning an installation on the tallest hill in Bisbee.

People are finding other ways to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the immigrants. Some activists set up "way stations" to distribute food, water, dehydration kits and clothing in places where they won't be detected by the Border Patrol. There's a newspaper in town, The Bisbee Buzz, that gives extensive and sympathetic coverage to issues involving immigrants. A May 2000 issue was dedicated to an exhibit of crosses installed at the border in Tijuana as a memorial to the dead of Operation Gatekeeper.

Activists have challenged the Migra agents who have threatened to arrest people who give immigrants water. When people pointed out that Arizona has a "Good Samaritan" law that says you have to give water and other aid to anyone you encounter in distress, the authorities had to back off of this threat.

Art,* an activist in Bisbee, told us about how the government created the Citizens' Committee for the Naco Border Station-a local committee set up to supposedly get input from citizens. Art told us that when he tried to join the committee, "I was literally run out. I went to three meetings and at each meeting I was threatened." When Art interrupted right-wing property owners and said, "Instead of calling these people 'illegal aliens,' why don't we call them 'immigrants'?"-people started screaming and yelling. Art said, "They tell us to get out of the meeting, and we don't belong there. Yet they say they're a public meeting. I went to three meetings asking, 'How do you become a member? I want to become a voting member of this group.' No one would tell me even how to become a member."

"We would ask the Border Patrol agents in the meetings, 'How many dead people have you found out there in the desert who have died of either exposure or dehydration?' They'd tell us, 'Officially, we can't tell you because we consider this a war zone, and like any other war zone, the military will not disclose how many casualties they have.' So they're not telling us." Art pointed out into the rocky desert, thick with bushes, and said, "Ten feet from here, you can't see much when you get down here on the lower desert. We have a coyote population here, and we have javelina here, it's a wild pig, and they are scavengers. They're not going to find everybody who dies." Art also said that one Border Patrol official said "unofficially" that they thought about 200 had died in the last year.

At the Renaissance Café in Bisbee you can get into a deep political discussion right quick. Here, nobody is neutral on the War on Immigrants that's unfolding around them and many told us how the Seattle protests against the WTO had given them hope.

Penny, a 22-year-old who works in an art gallery, said, "I've definitely gotten more solid on my viewpoint about it. I think I was kinda, not necessarily in the middle, but I hadn't really been forced to think about it before. I think things are really tightening right now. People make the argument that people are coming over here dealing drugs, but they're basically doing the jobs none of us want to do, and getting screwed for it. It really upsets me.... Last night I was walking down the street and I saw three plainclothes policemen with suits on. The Border Patrol was never in this area of town before like two months ago. And the other day I saw two of them driving up the gulch towards the hills in full uniform on dirt bikes. I kind of feel like, 'Maybe I should move somewhere else.' But I think that's not really a solution, because if everybody moves somewhere else it's the same. There's pretty scary stuff going on everywhere."

The next day at the same table at the Renaissance, we talked to Andy, a 32-year-old guy who used to live in the Northwest. His first week in town, he was out enjoying the desert air along a side road and got sweated by the Border Patrol. Andy shared his thoughts about the difficulties immigrants face even if they are able to safely cross the border. He pointed out how undocumented immigrants working in the U.S. are a lot more vulnerable. If they want to stand up for their rights, their employers could deport them, and they might not ever make it back, or might die trying. As Andy was telling us this, a guy at a nearby table, listening in, asked if he could put in his opinion-then said, "What they're trying to create is a form of indentured servitude."

For someone from a city like L.A., Bisbee feels really remote-two hours from the small city of Tucson, on two-lane winding roads. But people here have a sense that they're part of a larger movement. Andy talked about how a movement of resistance is growing-"We're kind of coming back at them again. This thing in Seattle, and then Washington and then the Democratic Convention. Any time they get together, people are there to voice their opinions. The key to any major change we want to make in this country is to find our allies, to really be open to accepting all the allies we can round together, regardless of personal issues."

We told Art about a conversation we had with a man we had met in the plaza in Naco, Sonora, who was trying to get back to his job in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant somewhere north of la linea. Referring to the huge wall on the border, the guy had said, "No matter how high they build it, some day this wall is going to fall." To this, Art responded, "Nothing is stronger than people themselves. Eventually, we'll win. It'll happen."

*Names have been changed to protect the people.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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