The Border, the Wall and a Post-9/11 New World Order

Editor's Note: Nguoi Viet's Dzung Do and photographer Benjamin Vu received a McCormick Tribune Foundation Fellowship to work on immigration stories at the Arizona- Mexico border.


After Sept. 11, 2001, the United States increased control of the borders with Mexico to try to stop illegal immigrants. Hundreds of miles of wall were erected. More personnel were sent to the borders to patrol around the clock.

In May 2005, President Bush ordered 6,000 National Guard troops to border states California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to help stop illegal immigrants.

Meanwhile, the northern border of the United States, next to Canada, has no wall nor any military unit deployed.

"Between the U.S. and Canada, there is almost no wall at all, nor any border line," said Professor Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego. "U.S. residents can go to Canada and return without any problem. Only at the border entries are there some clear border lines."

On the other hand, the United States doesn’t accept many Mexicans to immigrate legally, compared to those from other countries.

The Wall

Journalist Charles Bowden, born and raised near the borders of Sonora, Mexico, and Arizona and author of many books about Mexican migrants, said: "Before, Mexico and the U.S. had no border fence. Then, Nogales was just a city located between the two countries. Later, the border was drawn and divided the city into two. As time goes by, wire was set up along the borders between two countries. However, going back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. was easy.

"Only after Sept. 11 … the U.S. began to pay attention to build walls along the borders. Since then, crossing the U.S. borders is getting more difficult."

After that, the United States started to build walls at Arizona’s border entries of Nogales, Sasabe, Douglas and Naco, etc., but the wave of migrants crossing borders didn’t decrease. It has even actually increased.

"Before, Mexicans drove here a lot without anyone’s notice. Since the wall was erected, few people came here. However, on the other sections, more migrants cross the borders, especially in the terrain areas, because we can’t build the wall," said U.S. National Guard Master Sgt. Michael Drake, media officer of Operation Jump Start’s Joint Task Force Vista Center.

So, instead of crossing directly in San Diego, migrants have decided to go around, which is farther and more dangerous. Or, they hide inside the cars or try to bribe border patrol officers at the border entry.

While lecturing, Cornelius showed us a picture of a woman hiding inside a dashboard of a van. The van was stopped after it crossed the border entry between Tijuana and San Diego.

In the article "Broken Fences," on borderstories.org, published on May 28, there was a story about the Kay family, living in a ranch in Arivaca, Ariz., near the Mexican border. One paragraph quotes: "The Kay family praises building the wall along the borders since it helps reduce the amount of drug dealers entering the U.S. Nevertheless, they still see about 1,000 migrants from Mexico walking through their ranch."

Deaths in the Desert

Dying in the desert is one of the many things may happen to migrants, especially on the hot days in summertime. They die because of heat, thirst and dryness, among other things, such as robbery and rape, gang activities.

Ed McCullough, from "Los Samaritanos" -- a group that saves and helps migrants in the U.S. side of the Sonora Desert -- said: "On the U.S. side, there is no water tank for migrants like on the Mexican side. Migrants have to carry their own water. When too thirsty, they drink up the water. When they are thirsty again, there is no water for them."

"Before, helping migrants cross the borders was taken care of by coyotes and was a lucrative business. Later on, gang members joined to share the profits, and sometimes forced coyotes to pay or threaten to rob migrants. When they clash, migrants often are the victims," said Enrique Celaya, co-director of the Community Center of Attention for Migrant and Necessities.

Moreover, the wall along borders helps increase the number of deaths in the desert.

"The walls make migrants go around and farther, stay longer in the desert, and the possibility of being dead is higher," McCullough said. "I used to meet a migrant walking in three days, from Sasabe to Tucson, after passing dozen of hills. Desert trails are not flat, plus with the hot weather of the desert, death is unavoidable."

In the article "Immigration: Why Prudencia Died," published in the Tucson Citizen on July 7, it was reported that Prudencia Martin Gomez, 19, from Guatemala, was abandoned after her group realized that she was dehydrated and sunburned. She died on June 15 in the Sonora Desert, near Tucson, Ariz. The temperature that day was 115 degrees.

In the afternoon of March 22, while on Highway 286 heading south and about 2 miles near the Sasabe point of entry, we met 10 migrants -- eight men and two women -- standing next to the road. We stopped and learned that they had been in the desert for 15 days. They all looked tired. We gave them water, socks, some junk food and asked if they needed help.

Frontera NorteSur News, a Web site about immigrants, reported in early July: "Mexican Foreign Affairs Department has just released a report that says in the first six months of this year, there were 117 deaths in the desert listed. Of those, 40 died near Tucson."

The Web site reports that this is just the number of deaths reported before the hot summer began.

In 2007, the number of migrants who died in this area was 207, a 21 percent increase compared to 165 deaths in 2006.

However, the Coalicion de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Coalition) in Tucson reported that in reality, the number of deaths was much higher, 237 in 2007 and 205 in 2006.

The Organizations

The Los Samaritanos began because of the work of the Rev. John Fife in the 1980s. Then, he was pastor of the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson. In 1981, the church became the first place in Arizona that allowed El Salvador migrants to stay. This sparked a movement that drew thousand of Latino migrants seeking shelter at more than 500 churches in the United States.

In 1986, Fife was one of five immigrant activists sentenced for smuggling migrants and was on parole for five years. In 2002, he founded Los Samaritanos.

Tucson is about 60 miles form the border and there, border patrol agents can arrest anyone suspected of giving shelter to migrants.

Nevertheless, at some places, we saw blue water tanks with blue flags. In front of some houses, we saw signs that read, "Humanitarian Aid Is Never a Crime," with the drawing of a dead body next to a cactus. That means these residents still want to help migrants.

"We don’t shelter them, because it’s against the law. But we have the right to help them, give them food, medicine, sandals, blankets ... or give them directions, if they ask," said Debbi McCullough, a group member.

She continued: "Well, when we meet them on the trails, we always encourage them to consider if they want to go on. If they don’t want to go anymore, we would call (border patrol) to send personnel to pick up the migrants and deport them. We stay with them until the get into the pickup truck. We want to make sure the migrants are not mistreated."

Communities Friendly to Immigrants

While many cities and communities in the United States adopt strict policies toward illegal immigrants, such as forbidding loitering on the streets for work, working in the city, checking identification, or not protecting immigrants when they are exploited by their employers, some are very friendly to them.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York has recently ordered city police to not check immigration status of city residents.

At a John Jay College conference on June 2 in New York, Mayor John DeStefano of New Haven, Conn., said his city has ordered "police should not ask immigration status of residents, unless it is related to crime investigations."

At this conference, Eddie Francis, the mayor of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, said: "Windsor is one of the biggest cities on the border with the U.S. and is currently the second-fastest growing in Canada. This is a diverse city, with policies attractive to immigrants. The residents speak over 100 different languages. Each year, we have about 2,500 immigrants come to work.

"Last year, we began to have migrants from U.S. states far away, such as Florida. They come by air, trains and cars. Illegal immigrants come to Windsor to work, stay and wait to change their immigration status. All of them are entitled to health insurance. They can also have a place to stay if necessary. Now, because the law has changed recently, if suspected, a person can be asked his or her immigration status by police."

Perhaps, no place in the United States is friendlier to immigrants than White Plains, N.Y., an urban area with 56,000 residents, 25 miles north of New York City. In the daytime and or on weekends, there are about 250,000 people who work, travel and shop in this city.

Immigrants here, whether having a work permit or not, can come to labor sites to wait for jobs without being rounded up by police. If the employer doesn’t pay, immigrants can inform city police or immigrant-protection groups and ask for help. The city even issues free labor handbooks to immigrants so they can write down details of the jobs, such as place of work, who the employer is and includes the rights of workers and what the labor law is, in both English and Spanish.

Each year, White Plains organizes a three-hour parade for the Latino community.

In a meeting with us at City Hall, Mayor Joseph Delfino said: "My parents are Italians, coming here to work in the 1900s. I used to experience what they went through before. I think White Plains wants to build a community where everyone is happy. We want to have a city where the rich and the poor can live together. Everyone is treated equally."

"We even patrol the city after working hours to guarantee that immigrants are not robbed," said Lt. Kevin Christopher of White Plains Police Department. "We light the streets that immigrants often walk at night."

While touring the city, we saw many Latino immigrants talking with police without any sign of fear.

Frank Straub, city police commissioner, said: "Arresting illegal immigrants is a federal job. Our job is to protect residents and the maintenance a safe community -- free of crime -- and protect every resident according to the U.S. Constitution. Letting local police get involved in a federal issue is dangerous."

Many immigrants find stable jobs and become successful in White Plains, whether they come legally or illegally.

At the office of the Westchester Hispanic Coalition, we met Felix Castillo, from Santiago, Dominican Republic, who came to White Plains in 1984 when he was 14. He now owns a restaurant and a takeout.

In a meeting with immigrants at Grace Church Community Center, we met the Iglesias from Puebla, Mexico. They came to the U.S. illegally, worked in Queens, N.Y., for eight years, and have lived in White Plains the past 10. The husband is a construction worker, the wife a janitor -- neither have work permits yet. They have three children born in the United States. They send home $100 every two months.

The wife said: "Employers here are nice. In Queens, we make more money, but it’s not safe like White Plains. In 2000, my employer applied a work permit for me, but I was denied because I didn’t have enough documents."

Another migrant who just gave the last name Dominguez, also from Puebla, said he came to White Plains in 1992 and currently works in landscaping. He said the job is good. His wife and his three children still live in Mexico. He has never applied for a work permit.

"Police here are very good. I have no car and no driver's license," he said. "Every two weeks, I send home $400 via Pronto Envios."

Before leaving White Plains, we passed by the city’s downtown and saw many skyscrapers under construction. This made me recall what I had seen in Arizona and came to a conclusion: Economically, tough immigration laws in that border state causes many businesses trouble. Meanwhile, a city friendly to immigrants, such as White Plains creates many construction projects.

Tough Labor Laws in Arizona

Arizona passed a law effective Jan. 1, 2008, that requires the suspension of licenses for businesses that knowingly hire illegal workers. Another violation would result in the revocation of the business' license.Immigrants

On April 1, the Arizona House of Representatives voted 41-16 to pass an even tougher law. If businesses hire migrants without records, or create false documents for those migrants, they will also be fined. The bill also allows police to seek complaints about illegal immigrants without knowing the sources. In addition, businesses that have government contracts are required to join the federal "E-Verify" program to verify the immigration status of a migrant before hiring.

Also, county prosecutors in Arizona now can prosecute businesses that knowingly hire illegal immigrants. As a result, illegal immigrants who can’t find jobs have left Arizona, and more businesses began to leave this state because they can’t hire people.

"When migrants find no job, they don’t stay," said Dawn McLaren, an economist at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. "While it’s hard to find a job in an unfriendly environment, people decide to do something. And the best they can do is move to another place. This surely affects the state economy, since after migrants leave, no one will fill their jobs."

Immigration, a Hard-To-Solve Problem

So far, legislators and the executive branch have come up with many policies to control immigration. However, none of them seems to be effective. And this issue can’t be resolved overnight.

At another conference this spring in Green Valley, Ariz., Roxie Bacon, an immigration attorney of the Center for American Progress, said: "According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement reports, there are about 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. In reality, this number may be 20 million. Based on analysis of many economists, it would take us five years to deport all of these people with the cost of about $40 billion per year. The total cost would be $200 billion.

"So, in fact, we can’t deport all of them. At the national level, I think, after the November election, our new president will concentrate on the war in Iraq and health care, not immigration."

After attending a federal criminal court hearing in Tucson on March 20, where migrants crossing the border illegally were prosecuted, we met the judge. Because of the sensitive issue, he declined to give us his name. He contended that the current U.S. immigration policy is a big failure.

"This problem is ours," he said. "I think, instead of Iraq, we should liberate Mexico. It would cost less, and we would have more people to help our economy."

Nam Loc Nguyen, the immigration director, said thanks to these migrants the U.S. economy is more stable.

"We don’t encourage people to come illegally. If all of them are deported back to their countries, who would do the jobs that native residents or other migrants refuse to do? Who will pick the strawberry on the fields, clean the bathrooms or build our houses?" Nguyen asked.

"Way back in our history," the federal judge said, "we used to penetrate deeply into Mexico and be welcomed by the Mexican people. Then they asked us to stay, but we withdrew back to the other side of the Rio Grande. Well, whatever we do now, we will have to continue to face these neighbors."

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