on the border-Introduction column
By Amanda Wilson
For the Salisbury Post
When Congress approved an act that would start construction of large sections of wall between the United States and Mexico in 2006, I was living abroad. But as a U.S. citizen, more than ever, I felt the loneliness of the observer from afar. It was strange to see the border fence rise as a powerful new geopolitical symbol of my country, which at the age of 23, I barely knew.
I decided then to see the border with my own eyes. Somehow, it seemed my duty as a dual citizen of peaceful, small-town America ó Salisbury ó and the great, unending world that had so quickly and unquestioningly accepted me.
The articles in this series feature some of the people I met living and working on the U.S./Mexican border in Arizona. But first, some background.
I traveled to the U.S./Mexican border with a photographer from Milan, an Italian peacekeeper and a Swiss documentary filmmaker. We spent two months in Tucson, Ariz., and a week on the border of Arizona and Mexico collecting interviews and talking with immigrants themselves.
We shared a common belief that understanding migration as a global trend, as a human trend, with broad, interwoven causes will be increasingly important in the search for peaceful solutions.
For two years, I lived in Eastern Europe with people who remembered what it was like living on the wrong side of the Berlin wall. But even as the memory of a walled Europe grows dim, walls in the world continue to rise. The United States is not alone. Italy and Spain are building barriers to the south to stop migrants from Northern Africa who brave stormy seas in rickety boats, hoping to land in Europe.
At a medical aid station on the Mexican side of the border, volunteers with the faith-based humanitarian aid group No More Deaths see scenes we might only imagine in war-torn countries or refugee camps.
We volunteered there, too, helping providing medical assistance, food and water to deported migrants in collaboration with the Mexican Commission for Aid to the Migrant.
Other summer volunteers from the United States included students, retired people, an Iraqi War veteran, doctors and nurses and others interested in doing something positive on the border and learning about it firsthand.
Most importantly, the border work enabled us to personally meet the people coming from the other side of the fence: the illegal, or undocumented, immigrants so frequently profiled in our popular political discourse.
We saw hundreds of deportees every day, dropped off at the border by the Office of Homeland Security in buses: men, women, children and families. Some of them had been living in the United States, others were apprehended by the Border Patrol while trying to walk cross the Sonoran Desert into Arizona ó a hard, sometimes deadly journey of several days.
The migrants who came from the desert were in bad shape. They had severe blisters on the bottoms of their feet and between their toes, wounds from walking at night, cramps and headaches.
The people we met were humble, slow to ask for more water or medical help, even if they needed it. Nine out of 10 were dehydrated and mentally and physically exhausted. Many were displaced by floods or were leaving their ancestral homelands in the aftermath of the dissolution of their traditional, local economies and agricultural communities: an unfortunate (but foreshadowed) collateral side effect of NAFTA reforms. If NAFTA left factories empty in the United States, it devastated rural Mexico. People have come north, hoping for work, struggling to find a role in the new global consumer economy … just like us.
We saw that the wall isn’t deterring them; it is simply slowing them down, raising their risks and the price on their heads if they are smuggled. A new surge in the black market of human smuggling has increased volatility, turf conflicts and attacks on migrants in the most remote and isolated areas of the desert.
From the border, I remember a woman with an infant on her hip, a black eye and a knot on her forehead the size of an egg. She said she’d fallen. I wasn’t sure.
There was a 28-year-old young woman of from Chiapas who was apprehended crossing the desert when the Border Patrol showed up and her group scattered. I held her hand as a Red Cross volunteer plucked the cactus thorns from her arm. She had been on her way to her sister in Durham.
Over the course of the week, I saw a family with young children deported three separate times. Each time they exited with a human smuggler, or “coyote,” to set out for the desert again. Coyotes often scoured the aid tent, searching for clients and quick cash, pitching deals like “we can get you there in three hours” and other lies. Their presence chilled my blood.
The family, which was deported three times, returned to the aid station each time more exhausted and desperate than before.
The young daughter, a shy preadolescent, seemed confused but resigned to the darkly redundant pattern of her family’s strange, interminable journey: desert, America, detention, Mexico, desert, America, detention, Mexico. Her name was Angeles: Angel. I still wonder if they made it. They certainly weren’t turning back.
On the U.S./Mexican border at night, high-powered stadium lights brighten the fortified zones, glowing like Olympic-sized nightlights in the haunted darkness of our collective fears.
The border fence comes at an enormous cost and is built on strong promises. Will it stop illegal immigration? What is behind the wall, both literally and figuratively?
This series in the Post highlights people I met on the border who are living and struggling with these same questions.
I hope they can help you come to your own conclusions.