issue 223 - September 1991
Running the gauntlet
At night the US-Mexican border resembles a scene from a Wild West movie.
Beatriz Johnston Hernandez reports on US efforts to keep the Third World out.
With each approaching step toward the US border station at San Ysidro, California, Señora Raquel Saenz’ usually confident demeanour began to change. Even before needing to, she began searching in her worn purse for papers, glancing nervously around her for familiar brown faces. Inside, before the blond immigration officer, the transformation was complete: her shoulders were hunched, her eyes pleading, her tone submissive with every word. She was requesting permission to travel into the United States beyond the 25-mile limit on her border permit – the kind that Mexican border residents get to visit, not to stay.
‘Señor, por favor, necesito ver a mi hijo en Los Angeles,’ she whispered to the agent, explaining her need to see her son, and handing him her passport for inspection.
‘Can’t you speak English?’
She looked around for help. All she had understood was ‘speak English’, which she didn’t. ‘No hablo inglés,’ she said, smiling sheepishly.
‘Well, learn then.’ The agent’s answer proved he understood her words, if not her need. Nor did he care that poor knowledge of English is no legal reason for exclusion. ‘Go back to Mexico, we can’t let you in.’ He waived her impatiently toward the door into Mexico and turned to the next Mexican.
Victor Clark Alfaro, director of a well-known human rights office in Tijuana, Mexico, squirmed as he looked on from another queue. Moved by the woman’s ordeal, he was nonetheless offended by her air of servility. ‘It makes me angry to see my compatriots assume that posture,’ he said later, ‘but we have no choice. Here the migrants can’t demand. We Mexicans are approaching the North Americans as a people in need. If we had the same level of economic development as they do, we wouldn’t be so submissive.’
The US-Mexico border – that 1,950-mile long economic faultline between First and Third World – developed and underdeveloped, brown-skinned and white, is principally a line of exclusion.
When Clark Alfaro faced the immigration agent at the head of his queue – also to request permission to travel beyond the 25-mile limit – she asked him for an unreasonable amount of proof to show he would not remain in the US. When he could not produce his electricity bill receipt, she denied his request. Angrily, he stuck his ticket to Los Angeles, only 150 miles away, back into his pocket.
‘You can’t fight them,’ he said. ‘If you argue, they simply tear up your documents.’
The border has been the US’s first line of defence against the Third World since the line was drawn in 1848 after President Zachary Taylor invaded Mexico. This he did on the pretext that Mexicans had mistreated some North American marines, but with the real purpose of extending US frontiers to the Pacific Ocean. After easily defeating the Mexicans, the US military sat Mexican President Santana down and, some say at gunpoint, made him sign away half of Mexico’s northern territory for a mere $12 million. It must be the sweetest real estate deal in US history.
Now, to keep the Mexicans and the Third World out, the US Government has 4,000 Border Patrol agents on the US-Mexico border – compared with only 275 agents patrolling the entire US boundary with Canada. No wonder then that the San Ysidro-Tijuana border point, most commonly used for illicit crossings, is so militarized.
Between the pockmarked streets of Tijuana with its cardboard houses, tacky tourist traps, dirty cops, worn prostitutes and child thieves, and the mighty US with its superfast freeways, sparkling shopping malls, and facelifted ladies – is the border, the ugly wild-west of the 20th century, which knows only bad guys and victims.
‘At night it’s like a war zone,’ says former San Diego Councillor Robert Filner. ‘It’s like living in a movie set. You look up and you don’t know if that helicopter is the Border Patrol’s, the National Guard’s, the Sheriff’s… it’s crazy.’
In San Diego, as well as other border points, migrants face a gauntlet of police forces that include agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), Customs, the Joint INS-San Diego Police Border Crime Prevention Unit, the National Guard, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Sheriffs, Army and Marine Units.
The INS Border Patrol monitors the border with sophisticated electronic intrusion and heat sensors, radar, helicopters, and fixed-wing aircraft with nightscopes. And in spite of it all, illegal immigration in San Diego is up to record levels.
Mexico’s economic crisis has dragged salaries down to three dollars a day; indeed economic woes are pushing migrants north from all over Latin America, particularly from Nicaragua, Argentina and Peru. And civil war in El Salvador and Guatemala continues to expel young people to relative safety in the US.
Gustavo de la Vina, chief of Border Patrol in San Diego, where the 12-mile frontier is the most concentrated illicit crossing zone, says his agents make an average of 1,830 arrests daily, mostly after dark. And this is only a fraction of the people who throw their fate into the unknown. Their desperation is such that two out of three make it across undetected.
For the others, the anguished decision to leave their homes and their language, their familiar smells, customs and rituals, is often met with terrible cruelty in the half mile between Mexico and Freeway 5 – the first sign of relative safety in America.
Shootings, rape, extortion and killings of Latino migrants are rampant and increasing. The militarization of the border, after all, is to exclude, not protect migrants. And the Border Crime Prevention Unit is often the perpetrator. In the five years following its inception in 1984, its agents, a mixture of Border Patrol and San Diego police, killed 20 migrants. A further 814 people reported to the American Friends Service Committee abuse at the hands of the border control between May 1988 and May 1989. This included inappropriate use of firearms, verbal and physical abuse and psychological coercion.
Just last June, INS officer James Edward Riley was charged with repeatedly abducting illegal immigrant women and threatening to deport them unless they had sex with him. His trial is pending. But violence is so widespread that INS Commissioner, Gene McNary, citing ‘escalating violence’, called for an unprecedented review of lethal force used by his agents last December.
In addition there are the Mexican bandits who carry knives and use them on women and men alike. After all, both carry money, $1000 and more, to pay their guide, buy bus fares and fund the first weeks of a new life.
There are also the white supremacists. Last year Fox TV aired a film of teenagers with painted faces beating illegal immigrants. It asserted that ‘secret paramilitary groups’ harassed and sometimes shot undocumented workers.
A recent letter sent to Robert Martinez, San Diego director of the American Friends Service Committee, starts off: ‘Robert, you dirty fucking spic greaser, you better start keeping your mouth shut about your grease tribe coming over the border… this illegal crossing has been going on for too long and white power is not going to let you have political clout over it… You are coming down to your time now. The cops are going to start shooting you Mexicans wholesale soon, and there will be nothing you can do about it.’ The letter was signed by ‘The White Fighting Machine of the Cross’.
Beatriz Johnston Hernandez is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco.