A lesson from Borderland

Wikimedia Commons/Tomas Castelazo

First a crackle, then a woman’s voice over the radio: “I’ve got eight under 12 zone six.” It’s been a few years now, but as best I can recall that’s what she said.

I asked the border patrol agent I was riding with that day back in 1999 who the woman was and what her message meant. I’d been bouncing around along the California/Mexican border in white Broncos with the border patrol for a few weeks by then and I knew it wasn’t one of the regular dispatchers. He explained she was a bored housewife (his words not mine) whose husband was a long-haul trucker. He went on to tell me that her hobby was to spend all day looking through a big telescope she’d mounted on the back deck of her house, which just happened to stand on one of the highest hills between Campo Road and the border fence west of Tecate, Mexico. He said she could see darn near everything from there and that it gave her something to do when she was lonely.

I was still contemplating the meaning of “under 12 zone six” while trying to figure out how destroying the lives of migrants by getting them caught could be a cure for loneliness when my guide to all things border patrol elaborated, “I think she mainly does it because it gives some of the guys an excuse to drop by her place during the day… if you know what I mean.”

I did.

So, what’s this “eight under 12” stuff, I asked. He explained that the whole area along the border was divided into zones and virtually every tree and rock in each zone has been given a number. That way every border patrol agent can instantly know exactly where an individual or group of migrants has been spotted. Because the woman spent so much time starring through her telescope, the border patrol had honored her by allowing her to use its maps, numbering system, etc.  “We even gave her a thank you plaque once,” he added.

The woman was just one more bizarre character in my exploration of our nation’s southern border. On one side of the never-ending struggle that defines the borderlands (the first 50 or so miles of U.S. soil north of the border) are the migrants; men, women and children caught in a life and death game of cat and mouse as they desperately try to make their way from the violence and poverty of their home countries to the better life they’re headed for. On the other side are the border patrol, other law enforcement types and a good number of peculiar people who fancy themselves as some sort of vigilantes.

It’s a dangerous place. Where I was that day in California, crossing the borderlands requires a two- to three-day journey through 20 to 40 miles (depending on trail) of no man’s land without nearly enough water or anything else. It’s a bizarre area, part carnival show and part militarized zone complete with the constant, and stress-inducing, low-frequency thumping of helicopters that cruise along just above the treetops.

The lonely woman was a good example of the carnival show aspect. I mean, where else but the borderlands could a horny, middle-aged, racist housewife trade the lives of desperate families for an ongoing supply of two-timing nooners with la migre. And she wasn’t even the worst example of humanity I encountered in this land of chest high brush and cacti where dreams and people so often die for no justifiable reason.

A few days earlier and a few miles farther west I’d come across a two-acre compound sporting U.S. and Confederate flags alongside a homemade shooting range in the backyard of what appeared to be an unpainted concrete-block house. A “no trespassing” sign adorned the razor-wire-topped chain-link fence that surrounded the property. The sign seemed a bit redundant.

I’d asked another border patrol agent about the compound. He told me the guy who owned it had started a militia group of sorts. He said he thought they were antigovernment in general, but were definitely anti-Mexican in pretty much every way imaginable. For fun, he said, they liked to put on night-vision goggles, arm themselves to the teeth, break up into teams and play what they called war games. He said they doled out points for how many immigrants they could capture and turn over to border patrol.

The agent — correctly identifying the look on my face as something between horror and disgust — quickly added that no one had ever been injured or killed by these “games.” I waited for him to add, “at least as far as we know,” but he didn’t. And I found his definition of “injured” a bit too narrow. Ask the person or family who just got deported because of some crazy gun-toting racist using them as part of a twisted game if they felt injured and you’d likely get a different answer.

There’s a reason lately I’ve been thinking about the months I spent on the border 20 years ago, both riding along with the border patrol, as well as accompanying parties of migrants as they illegally crossed the border.

I had first been drawn to this area east of San Diego by a tragedy. On April 2, 1999, a freak storm hit the Laguna Mountains dumping several inches of snow and dropping temperatures well below what anyone could have expected for that time of year so far south. At least nine migrants who had crossed the border a day or two before the storm hit and were trying to make it up to their ride waiting along I-8 lost their lives that night and another 24 were rescued with varying degrees of hypothermia, frostbite and other serious ailments resulting from the extreme conditions.

I heard unimaginable stories from that night. One man, who was freezing to death, built a small fire and eventually burned his only pair of shoes and some of his clothing in his last ditch effort to stay alive. He died. A young mother had to choose which child to carry and which to leave behind. Let that soak in.

It was a chaotic scene. Once the coyotes abandoned their groups to save themselves, dozens of people were simply left wondering alone in the middle of a snowstorm at night in the mountains in a place they’d never been before not even knowing which direction to go.

The storm caused a terrible tragedy, but is also exposed another terrible thing: our indifference to the plight of our fellow human beings when they are brown and without what we call “the proper paper work.” As far as I know this horrific event didn’t even make the nightly TV news. I only knew about it from a three-inch wire story buried deep inside a newspaper I was reading under the headline “Illegal aliens detained by snowstorm.”


Nine dead, dozens badly injured equates to “Detained?”

Only when you’re skin’s not white.

I remember wondering what Woody Guthrie would have said about that headline if he’d lived to see it. I think he would have noted not much had changed since he penned “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).”

Thinking back on this incident exposes something in me that I don’t like. The memories have me reevaluating my feelings regarding the current immigration crisis. It seems that quite often these days I treat my moral outrage over what is happening at our border and to our 11 million undocumented neighbors as shrapnel I cram down the barrel of the cannon I like to aim at my political enemies, like the president, in an effort to disparage them.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem justifying my disgust with Trump and his band of cruel idiots. But I have to wonder, “Are things really all that different now when it comes to how we treat immigrants and why am I so much angrier now than I was back then?”

Those people died in 1999 because a 60-mile-long border fence had been built by Bill Clinton from San Diego to the east in 1994. And it was built for purely political purposes. This fence known as Operation Gatekeeper allowed Clinton to tout a strong on border security position, a politically popular position useful when gearing up for a 1996 election against Republican Bob Dole who saw immigration as one of his strengths. It was just the kind of thing we’d grown to expect from Bill. After all, he was the man who once polled public opinion before making his decision as to whether or not he should commute the death sentence of a mentally disabled man facing the chair in Arkansas. Clinton let the man die on his way to winning his next election.

Wikmedia Commons/James Reyes

It wasn’t just the nine people on April 2, 1999 who died as a result of Clinton’s fence. The barrier removed the easy and safe pathway for migrants along the beach from Tijuana to San Diego. The fence forced most migrants to make a multi-day crossing through the dangerous mountains and deserts to the east and to do so, most had to use the services of unscrupulous coyotes. The result? Deaths from crossing the border illegally in California went up five-fold. Thousands have died because of Clinton’s fence.

Remember the outrage from the left in the 1990s as more and more men, women and children were killed because of this misguided border policy born of political expediency?

Don’t worry if it doesn’t ring a bell. You don’t remember it because it didn’t exist aside from the few activists trying to put a stop to it. Despite thousands of unnecessary deaths, there were few notable complaints being leveled by elected Democrats and of course most Republicans, then as now, saw dead bodies as a deterrent to the crime of trying to flee violence and poverty for a better life.

I’m not making this comparison to rail against Clinton. Until Trump and his overtly racist policies came along it was President Barack Obama who had deported the most people, breaking up the most families in U.S. history. And it was Obama and Hilary Clinton who set the policy to turn back unaccompanied minors at the border, no doubt sending many of these young people to their deaths at the hands of the very gangs they were fleeing in their home countries.

It seems we’ve been needlessly killing Latinos one way or another for decades with our politically motivated immigration policies in this country. Democrats and Republicans have taken turns separating families and causing children to die in our deserts and mountains.

But now, after years of indifference, we are suddenly outraged over what Trump is doing at the border and to our undocumented neighbors. A quick check of social media reveals that a lot of people consider the recent death of a seven-year-old girl who died while in ICE custody to be a case of murder literally perpetrated by this president.

I understand that sentiment.

I agree with it in many ways.

But I have to ask, where was I while hundreds of other children and thousands of parents and sons and daughters and brothers and sisters were being similarly put to death by the inhumane immigration policies of our former presidents? And more importantly, where will my outrage be when Trump is gone but the people are still dying and the families are still being torn apart?

If I only feel my current level of “righteous” anger over immigrant deaths, family separations and unjustified deportations when I can use them to further my political opposition to a horrible person like Trump, then what should I call it? Is it really righteous? Does it really have its roots in my concern for others?

Or, as I fear, is it just another, albeit less obvious, form of racism in its own right? Am I, at least partially, using these dead children and separated families as just another excuse to justify my anger and disdain for Trump and the political other?

My motive does make a difference. In fact, I think motive is really the only thing that matters here. If politics is the catalyst for my concern then I will once again become numb to the tragedies spawned by our cruel immigration system once Trump has been relegated to just another footnote in our history books alongside Andrew Jackson, Joe McCarthy and Nixon. But if I really care because I am seeing, really grasping the immense pain our system has long heaped upon those who have come to our country hoping to find compassion and opportunity — albeit without certain pieces of paper — then there is reason for hope.

In the borderlands, when you care about the wellbeing of migrants you show it by hanging bottles of water and warm clothes on your fence or leaving your shed unlocked on cold nights.

I think it is past time for all of us to find ways to show our concern for those seeking asylum and opportunity in our country, as well as for our 11 million undocumented neighbors who are already here and forced to live under the constant threat of incarceration, deportation and family separation.

I think I’ve learned my lesson from the borderlands, I hope I have.  I know it’s time for me to unlock the shed and leave it that way from now on, no matter who the president or what party is in control.

Despising or fearing Trump can’t be my motivation for doing the right thing. It’s a poor substitute for compassion, empathy and sympathy and love.