The Face of the Frontier

The Spanish word for "border" is "frontera," which also translates as "frontier." The translation is appropriate for the arrival of the Minutemen in Arizona, the "citizen volunteers" policing the U.S.-Mexico border for the month of April. The definition of "frontier" is as fitting today as it was during the expansion of the United States 200 years ago: the often deadly line between savagery and civilization. Indeed, the Minutemen's website warns that "Future generations will inherit a tangle of rancorous, unassimilated, squabbling cultures with no common bond to hold them together...The result: political, economic and social mayhem." And so the Minutemen bring their "frontierism" to the frontera, claiming they want only to protect our great nation.

The Minutemen volunteers often defend their actions to the media by saying that illegal immigration is a huge drain on public resources. But exactly how do Mexican immigrants affect public resources? The Minutemen might be surprised to learn that in Arizona alone, Mexican immigrants spend nearly $1.5 billion in mortgage payments and rent annually. This doesn't include the property taxes they pay which go directly to funding public schools. In 2002, Mexican immigrants paid nearly $600 million in federal taxes, while using approximately $250 million in social services such as Medicaid and food stamps, and $31 million in health care - leaving the United States with a profit of $319 million, according to a report of the American Graduate School of International Management in June 2003. And, since undocumented Mexican workers cannot file income tax returns, they don't receive tax refunds, allowing the United States to spend that hefty profit with one hand while waving away immigration issues with the other hand.

American financial institutions enjoy nice profits as well. In 2001, Mexican immigrants sent home $486 million, generating approximately $58 million in transaction fees. Most importantly, it is well-documented that the estimated seven million undocumented immigrant workers in the United States are now providing our Social Security system with a subsidy of as much as $7 billion per year.

The silent middleman in the heated immigration debate is the Mexican worker him/herself. The Minutemen voice their concerns over the internet, through volunteers, and through the media; the U.S. and Mexican governments have researchers, speech writers, ambassadors, and elected officials. They paint illegal immigrants as criminals and mercenaries. But the words of the Mexican immigrants and undocumented workers themselves are rarely heard. Not only are their words in Spanish, but often they simply remain silent. If we did listen to their voices, we'd learn why they leave their homes and families in search of work, even the type of work and rate of pay that many Americans simply will not accept. We'd learn exactly how immigrants risk death to cross the border simply to break their backs working in this country. If the coyote (the smuggler) doesn't kill the immigrant, the desert or Border Patrol likely will. Still, in the hopes of keeping themselves and their families alive and fed, they take the risk.

The author Luis Alberto Urrea describes the deadly border crossing process in his book, The Devil's Highway. The book details the true story of the "Yuma 14," the 14 Mexican immigrants who died tragically in May 2001 when their coyote abandoned their group of 26 in the Arizona desert. In researching the book, Urrea learned that smugglers would describe the immigrants they smuggled with the the word "pollos" – cooked chickens — because of the desert heat they would have to endure. The guides leading the"walkers" across the border, give them cocaine to make them walk faster and longer - of course the cocaine helps their hearts explode, too, because of the extreme physical elements. The Border Patrol agents whom Urrea interviewed revealed that their word for a Mexican is "tonk" - the name based on the stark sound of a flashlight breaking over a human head.

The Border Patrol Agents also explained that they don't enforce federal law, they enforce whatever policy is being handed down to them. The Clinton Border Policy was different than the Bush Border Policy, and the next one will be different as well. When farms in the Imperial Valley need extra pickers and workers, the Border Patrol is ordered not to catch crossing immigrants. The Border Patrol turns a blind eye and allows immigrants to enter the U.S. until the farms have enough workers, and then they bear down again when they are told to do so. Most importantly, Urrea's book provides a personal account of each of the 26 men in the group, explaining that they left their state of Veracruz only after the collapse of the price of coffee, the state's primary industry. Thus, the book provides the human side of immigration - above all the numbers and money and rhetoric there is a human being struggling simply to work.

For me, the faces of the history of immigration are my mother and father, who picked strawberries and cauliflower in Southern California for $1.25 per hour in 1968. My father saw Cesar Chavez speak that year, when Cesar led the nationwide boycott of table grapes in an effort to obtain labor contracts for farm workers. Because of Cesar's work, my parents received a raise that year - to $1.60 per hour. The cauliflower picking occurred rain or shine - my father tells me about watching over my pregnant mom, in galoshes and a rain coat, bent over and picking cauliflower. Picking strawberries was even more backbreaking, but if you filled 20 boxes you'd receive 25-cents as a "bonus" for each extra box you could fill that day, although you wouldn't get the bonus until the end of the month.

The farms in California remain the real face of Mexican undocumented immigration. Farm workers now earn approximately $6.75 per hour; if they work "piece rate" like my parents did in the strawberry fields, they'll rarely make minimum wage. Yet they'll pay the fees to send part of that money back home, and they don't ask questions about the state and federal taxes that are deducted from their paychecks - taxes that will help fund the Social Security benefits I'll be allowed to claim one day, benefits that all American citizens can claim when they retire.

Most people reading about the Minutement don't have the personal knowledge I do of these immigrants in our country. Most people won't read Urrea's book. So it's easy for vigilante groups such as the Minutemen to incite fear, blame, and xenophobia. It's up to journalists and activists to show the real face of undocumented workers, the face that I saw in the fields. The frontier the Minutemen are fighting to defend faded a long time ago and when you look closely at an "undocumented worker" what you'll see is simply a human face.

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