Life on the Border
Heather Nan Carpenter · February 25, 2007
This summer, I was privileged to be able to visit the borderlands of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. I say “privileged” not because of the accommodations – I have done some rough traveling through North Africa and South America, but somehow, with tourist dollars in hand, I always had a bed and a hot meal. During the Mexico trip I took with other Divinity students from Vanderbilt, Borderlinks (the non-profit group that organizes these bi-national trips) showed us what it is really like on the border.
We didn’t stay in hotels; rather, we stayed in the homes of individual Mexican families living in a squatter neighborhood. The more permanent homes were constructed out of cinder blocks and cement. More often, families lived in patched-together shelters, literally made from trash (parts of shipping crates and tarps with dirt floors). Often, the most tent-like homes are inhabited by women – single or with children – who work in the Maquiladoras, the vast US-owned factories that operate with little regard for the health and safety of their workers or the environment. We also stayed in a church-run shelter, sleeping on the floor on the equivalent of yoga mats with sheets for blankets (although it was so hot in the summer, even at night, that we didn’t really need blankets).
The first night, the family I ended up with actually gave us their sons’ two twin beds (there were four of us, so two took the floor). When I was just about ready to get into bed, I noticed that there was a scorpion crawling on the wall, right next to where my head would be. I calmly explained this to the room at large – three guys and me. (I was the only woman willing to spend the night with all men. If I ever do seek ordination, I don’t think the UUA fellowship committee would find that “improper” in a review and refuse me ordination, unlike other Protestant denominations). Anyway, I say this because one of the guys jumped onto the other bed (he was barefoot and absolutely petrified) while another valiantly volunteered to kill the scorpion using his boot. We all agreed that if he missed it, if it got away, none of us would be able to sleep that night. He did it – he got the scorpion. Our triumph was short-lived, however, as we realized that although scorpions rarely kill adults, there was a toddler in the home, Lopita. She had the biggest brown eyes and a short mop of curly black hair, and the fact that she has to face these menaces daily really sobered us.
The trip to Mexico was a privilege, not only because I literally learned the privilege that my passport afforded me, but also because I returned fundamentally changed. I thought I knew much more than your average American about the special relationship between the Southwestern US and Mexico. I grew up in the Bay Area of California, where Cesar Chavez was loved almost as much as Martin Luther King Jr. I grew up knowing about migrant labor and how the growing seasons all along the West Coast, from Oregon to Baja, complemented an itinerant, agricultural workforce. I thought I knew, since half the cities I could call to mind were Spanish – San Francisco, San Jose, Modesto, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Los Angeles. I somehow knew as a child that Anglo-Californians were interlopers on an already-occupied land.
I thought I knew, but since the passage of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) things have drastically changed in the US and Mexico, especially for the working poor. The Mexican economy has tanked, and for working-class Americans, by 2000 NAFTA accounted for a job loss of more than 400,000 American manufacturing jobs (probably many, many more by now). But more significantly, when Americans found new employment, they made only 77% of their former wages. Wages in the US are now at their lowest in terms of buying power since 1955. In Mexico, the situation is much worse.
On the second day of our trip, in Nogales, the Borderlinks tour guides gave us a challenge. They gave us a grocery list of some staples common to both Mexican and American homes. We split up into teams and our job was to price these items. My team was supposed to find a gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, and a bag of dried pinto beans. They drove us to a SuperMercado – right across the street from a SuperWalmart. We didn’t go to the SuperWalmart because the management of SuperWalmart has run Borderlinks out before. Gringos pricing groceries are not welcome (I dare say, we might have gotten thrown out of a Walmart anywhere). Anyway, the guides assured us that the prices were similar.
The inside of the SuperMercado was just like Walmart, very clean and bright. Half the store was made up of departments, like toys and clothes, and the other half was all grocery. I don’t speak Spanish, but I can read global capitalism and I knew my way around instinctively. It was pretty easy to find my items. Now, before I entered, I knew that the minimum wage in Mexico was $4 a day for a 10-hour work day; so, I expected the food to be cheaper than in the US, where the federal minimum wage is $5.15 per hour. This was one of those “let’s challenge your assumptions exercises” – and boy, were mine challenged. The prices for food in Mexico (especially in the border region) are the same – and in some cases, higher – than in the US! I can’t remember the cost of the bag of dried beans, but I do remember that the gallon of milk was almost $3 and the eggs were almost $2 for a dozen! I was floored.
After this exercise, we attended a lecture about how the face of agriculture in Mexico has changed since NAFTA. Before NAFTA, family farmers in Mexico were able to get loans with interest rates around 8-10%; these loans were subsidized by the government and helped farmers get the seeds and other inputs they needed to stay mildly profitable. After NAFTA, the interest rates increased nearly 50%. While the wholesale prices for crops that farmers can get have been artificially regulated to stay the same, the costs of farming have increased and increased and increased until for many, it has become more expensive to farm the land than to leave it fallow. With interest eating up all the profits, and sometimes more than what the crops yield, thousands of family farms went bankrupt. Then, because NAFTA allowed American companies to hold property in Mexico, big-Agribusiness has bought up many of those family farms – pieces of land held in some cases for many generations – and kicked these hard-working people off their land and into destitution. Some were allowed to stay on to farm the land that was once theirs in grueling conditions, for $4 per day, for a 10-hour work day, six days per week (on the 7th day, you get a $1.50 more). It’s estimated – and I know that this number is vague – that between 600,000-10,000,000 (ten million) farm workers lost their jobs in this “restructuring” of the Mexican agricultural sector. Yeah, sure, this tragedy was created by a conspiracy between both global corporations and the Mexican government, but still, it took our government’s say-so to make it possible to force Mexican agricultural workers into a state of neo-serfdom.
There is little wonder that today, the second-largest segment of the Mexican economy, (after the oil industry, the wealth of which goes to the corrupt and inefficient Mexican government and a tiny population of millionaires and billionaires) is the money sent home from Mexicans working in the United States.
The day that we returned state-side from Mexico was also the day that I met a living, breathing hero. Her name is Shanti Sellz. Shanti works with No More Deaths, a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing the unnecessary deaths of border crossers in the Arizona desert. Before NAFTA, typically 70% of border crossers came and returned to Mexico over the relatively easy passages through California and Texas. And 90% of them worked in California, Texas, or Illinois. But after NAFTA, the newly militarized Border Patrol increased its presence on the California and Texas borders, forcing new crossers into the harsh Arizona and New Mexico deserts. Also, more than half of the new migrants proceeded to other parts of the United States, where few had been before; thus, all of the US became aware of “Mexican Immigrants.” Crossing became more hazardous and expensive, because “coyotes” now charge a minimum of $1,200 to guide migrant workers through the perils of the desert, but often the “coyotes” pose as great a threat as the elements, robbing and abandoning their prey. More Mexicans are staying in the US rather than sticking to migration patterns typical of earlier years (working in agriculture and then returning home). Now they’ve expanded the types of work that they do in the US, particularly in construction, slaughterhouses, and other labor-intensive industries. The death rate of crossers has risen from 2 per 10,000 crossings, to 6 per 10,000 crossings; 300-400 have died each year since NAFTA. Recently, in border-states, new laws were passed restricting legal and illegal immigrants’ access to vital services. One law even made it a felony to help in any way a “suspected” illegal immigrant.
On July 9, 2005, Shanti Sellz and her No More Deaths colleague Daniel Strauss were hiking through the desert, looking for border crossers in need of water or medical attention. It was a tough summer, the hottest on record and more people were dying in the desert. No More Deaths, along with many church groups, has established water-stations – big blue containers filled with safe drinking water – strategically positioned in difficult parts of the desert. Border Patrol agreed not to stake out these water stations. No More Deaths also provides paramedic training for its volunteers and has doctors on staff, advising rescuers. Shanti and Daniel came across three sick migrants. They were severely dehydrated and unable to hold down water; they were vomiting, and had crippling blisters that prevented them from walking. Shanti and David consulted the supervising doctors at No More Deaths and were told to evacuate the men to the nearest hospital. On their way to the hospital, Border Patrol arrested Shanti and David, charging them with two felonies, although their procedures had been established in previous negotiations with the Border Patrol before this event. They were charged with “transporting illegal aliens” and “conspiring to do so” and faced a maximum of 15 years in prison. The three men were taken into custody as well; two were immediately deported after receiving no medical treatment. (There are these buses out on the highway that Border Patrol uses and at that time, they would just literally take migrants in a catch-and-release program across the border). The third man (the one in the best shape) was detained long enough to make a video-taped statement, which was used to indict Shanti and David; he was then also deported. No one knows what happened to the first two men, if they are alive or dead after this incident. At the time I met Shanti, she was still working with No More Deaths, stationed in the desert on private land. The No More Deaths legal team was fighting this battle in court—their defense: IT CANNOT POSSIBLY BE ILLEGAL TO SAVE A HUMAN BEING’S LIFE. Shanti and David were both 23, facing a long sentence, but they refused to plea out when the constitutionality of this law was so questionable.
[Since last summer, the local press and public sentiment was so against these prosecutions that local prosecutors have dropped all charges, despite the Nativist movement growing in the region, characterized most vividly by the Minutemen.]
In 1850, with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, many Unitarians and some Universalists were outraged by a law that similarly made it illegal for Northerners to aid escaped slaves. I know that the contexts are very different, but the same argument stands: IT CANNOT POSSIBLY BE ILLEGAL TO SAVE A HUMAN BEING’S LIFE. Theodore Parker, a Unitarian Minister in Boston, openly defied the Fugitive Slave Act when hosting a couple, Ellen and William Craft, in his own home in October of that year. He got wind of “kidnappers,” as they called them, in town, bounty hunters from the South looking for the Crafts. He wrote his sermon with his revolver at his desk, ready to defend his guests. It is rumored that he was even armed in the pulpit that Sunday morning. The kidnappers were run out of town, with Parker at the front of the throng, warning the two men that as a clergyman he could only protect them so long before the mob took their justice, so it was best to get gone (though of course, he was one of the ring-leaders of that very same mob). After the Crafts were safely delivered further north, Parker wrote a letter to President Fillimore, telling him of the escape of the Crafts and his part in it. He challenged the President to “enforce his monstrous law” and arrest him. He wasn’t arrested, but he did go on to disobey the Fugitive Slave Act in both overt and hidden ways.
The 1995 Unitarian Universalist Resolution of Immediate Witness implores individual Unitarian Universalists to “serve those directly harmed and others affected by the passage of any legislation which would deny human beings the basic services warranted to all members of a free and just society.” Theodore Parker’s example serves us well in our own trying times.
I am not calling for open borders; I don’t have the answers to all the problems I’ve presented here. I’m not “The Decider” nor am I an economist, but I am here to share what I’ve seen firsthand and what I’ve learned. I’ve learned that the easy version of the “immigration problem” as-seen-on-TV – that constant mantra that “they” just want what we have, and that if our ancestors immigrated legally so should “they” – isn’t an honest picture of how the intimate and multi-generational relationship between the US and Mexico has brought us to this point today. The rhetoric cannot be allowed to overcome the realities of how global trade and specifically how North American trade has produced many crises, from the Rust Belt to Chiapas. When the second-largest source of income for Mexican citizens is money sent home from workers in the U.S., it cannot be denied that the proposed mass deportations and further militarization of the border will be bloody and famine-generating.
This might be “legal” but it is not moral.