Why Mexican Americans Say ‘The Border Crossed Us’

Why Mexican Americans Say ‘The Border Crossed Us’

Before Texas was a U.S. But during the nine years that the Republic of Texas existed, Mexicans became outsiders as white settlers made it more difficult for them to vote and hold onto their land.

White settlers did this by targeting Mexicans with voting laws and taxes, suing for possession of their land and subjecting them to police violence. This presaged the way the U.S. would treat Mexicans in California and the New Mexico territory when it gained this land from Mexico in 1848—as foreigners who had less right to be there than the white settlers who’d moved in.

In 1841, future Texas governor Peter Hansborough Bell bizarrely asserted that “Mexicans disguised as Indians are formidable in depredating on the property of Citizens on the Border.” Bell would later become a commander of the Texas Rangers, at a time when it was a vigilante group inflicting violence on Mexican and Native Americans.

In fact, the land that had become Texas originally belonged to Mexicans who had won their independence from Spain in 1821. It had been inhabited by Native peoples and tejanos, or Texas Mexicans. Soon, anglo immigrants from the U.S. and Europe moved into Texas, bringing enslaved people of African descent with them. Texas then gained independence from Mexico through the Texas Revolution in 1836, and emerged as its own nation: the Republic of Texas.

In the beginning, there wasn’t a stark political inequality between anglos and tejanos in the Republic of Texas. More to the point, tejanos weren’t viewed as outsiders who didn’t belong. Both anglos and tejanos could be full citizens. But for tejanos, it was “kind of mixed bag,” says Raúl Ramos, a history professor at the University of Houston. Tejanos had citizenship rights, with a caveat. Over time, anglos restricted tejanos’ access to voting and land, outnumbered them in government positions, and used police violence against them.

“There were a few tejanos who served in the republic congress and they managed to have laws included that would, for instance, translate all of the Texas laws into Spanish as well as English,” says Ramos.

This was much different than what black and Native people experienced in Texas. If you were black, you had to be enslaved. And if you were Comanche, Apache, Cherokee or belonged to any other Indigenous nation, you were given an ultimatum: leave or be massacred.

But tejanos weren’t completely on equal footing. While anglos were automatically Texas citizens if they lived in Texas, tejanos who had already been living there couldn’t be citizens unless they signed a pledge of loyalty to Texas. Even these pledges didn’t allay anglo fears that tejanos might side with Mexico if fighting broke out again.

After the Mexican army invaded and occupied San Antonio in 1842, tejanos faced more overt political discrimination. Anglos started to make it more difficult for tejanos to vote by strictly enforcing property and tax requirements for voting. Tejanos were also selected for jury duty less often, meaning they had less representation in courts. Some anglos even suggested that they should force all tejanos out of Texas.

These practices carried over when the U.S. annexed Texas as a slave state in 1845. In the Republic of Texas’ first few years, tejanos represented a majority on the city council of San Antonio, Texas’ most populous city. By the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, tejanos were a minority on the city council.

“They became a suspect class,” Ramos says. “The idea was that they couldn’t be fully Texan or fully American.”

As American citizens, tejanos faced violence from anglo vigilante groups like the Texas Rangers and struggled to maintain ownership of their land. “They essentially went broke trying to defend themselves against frivolous lawsuits contesting their claims to land ownership,” Ramos says.

More than a century and a half later, Mexican Americans continue to face claims that they don’t belong and should “go back” to where they came from. For those living in Texas—as well as California, Arizona and New Mexico—the charge is particularly ironic since the land used to be part of Mexico. As many Mexican American activists have argued: “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”


How the U.S.-Mexico Border Became a Political Flashpoint

To many Americans, the U.S.'s southern border seems nothing short of a long, hot mess. Traffic jams at major city crossings. Beyond that, miles and miles of barren, unforgiving desert. Drug smugglers. Armed guards. Illegal immigrants. Walls. Fences. Barriers.

The U.S.-Mexico border is a flashpoint — especially now — a political and literal line in the sand waiting to be crossed. Name a problem that America faces today — economic, social, moral, whatever — and somebody, somewhere will blame the border for at least part of it.

This winding, raggedy, roughly 2,000-mile (3,218-kilometer) boundary has become as much about symbolism as sovereignty. It delineates where two nations start and stop, certainly, and what happens there, at least partially, defines both.

"In some ways, I think actually people pay too much attention to the border," says Benjamin Johnson, a border expert and history professor at Loyola University Chicago and the co-author of "Bridging National Borders in North America." "I think that a lot of the things that are quote-unquote 'problems' on the border are manifestations of larger problems that didn't start on the border and aren't going to be fixed on the border."

The Border's History and Make Up

The U.S.-Mexico border as we know it today has been around only since the mid-1800s, mapped out after the U.S. "annexed" Texas and won the ensuing Mexican-American War (1846-1848). The area, of course, was contested long before that, with Native Americans (including Aztecs, Comanches and Apaches), Spanish and Mexicans all laying claim to borderlands at one time or another.

Today the border runs from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, making up the southern edges of California and Arizona, part of New Mexico and the entire southern side of Texas. It follows the Rio Grande River (in Mexico, it's the Río Bravo del Norte) from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico.

The biggest cities along the way are San Diego, Nogales, Arizona and El Paso, Texas. Those are the spots that many think of when they think border: crowded crossings with fences and checkpoints manned by police and immigration officials. Most commercial traffic and legal immigration take place there.

But the border has a total of 48 places where people can legally cross. Outside of those 48 are hundreds and hundreds of miles that are largely unmanned by law enforcement, often marked only by low fences easily crossed on foot — if you can make it through the desert and terrain.

"It's really a patchwork of busy-ness and emptiness, chaos and order," says Ieva Jusionyte, a professor of anthropology and social studies at Harvard and author of "Threshold: Emergency Responders on the U.S.-Mexico Border."

Everyday Border Life

The U.S.-Mexico border, especially in the bigger cities, is a living, thriving ecosystem unto itself. Millions live and work there. Along with thousands of border agents and immigration officers are restaurant and retail workers, doctors, lawyers, educators . you name it.

"The people who live near the border live there often because of the border," says Jusionyte, who spent a year there working with first responders, "either because they have family on both sides and it's easier for them to be part of that family, or because [the border] creates opportunities."

Some in the U.S. will go to doctors in Mexico while some who live in Mexico will send their kids to American schools. Bi-nationals often move between the two nations, sometimes daily, often enduring long waits to cross the border.

Then there are those whose families have been there for decades, whose ancestors can be traced to a time well before the U.S. existed.

"For those people, it's the border that has crossed them," Jusionyte says. "Their communities were split in half by the border and the fence."

Breaching the Border

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, some 50,000 immigrants crossed the southern border in May 2018 some illegally, some who turned themselves in. It was the third straight month of 50,000-plus immigrants. Authorities expect many others slipped through undetected.

If you listen to some politicians these illegal immigrants are the genesis of any number of problems that the U.S. faces. They steal jobs from American citizens, don't pay taxes and take government handouts. They smuggle drugs. Crowd schools. Commit heinous crimes. Spread coronavirus.

Others claim that immigrants (and undocumented workers) boost wages, grow the economy, commit crimes at a lower rate than the public as a whole and enrich the culture.

The people who live on the border have learned to live with all the rhetoric, Jusionyte says.

"The communities that live by the border, both Republicans and Democrats, Americans and Mexicans, they see this issue much more reasonably," Jusionyte says. "It's part of their everyday life and they know that this has nothing to do with security." For instance, U.S. towns like El Paso are just across the border from Mexican towns like Ciudad Juárez, which has one of the highest homicide rates in Mexico. But El Paso is one of the safest communities in the U.S. "No crime is pouring through the border," Jusionyte says. "Only those people that live in the region understand that."

Life Ahead on the Line

Former President Donald Trump, of course, trumpeted a zero-tolerance policy toward illegal immigration. He declared it a crisis and ordered in the National Guard to protect the border. He promised, famously, to build a wall to keep illegal immigrants out. President Joe Biden is dealing with the crisis differently, though his Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas won't call it that. "We will also not waver in our values and our principles as a Nation," Secretary Mayorkas said in a statement March 16, 2021. "Our goal is a safe, legal, and orderly immigration system that is based on our bedrock priorities: to keep our borders secure, address the plight of children as the law requires, and enable families to be together. As noted by the President in his Executive Order, 'securing our borders does not require us to ignore the humanity of those who seek to cross them.' We are both a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. That is one of our proudest traditions."

All of it, Johnson says, misses the point.

"As a historian, there seems to be a widespread assumption that we used to be in control of the border, and that at some point we lost that. And if we hire more people or use certain technology like drones or sensors or build a fence, that we're going to get that back. That's just not the case," he says. "I don't know a single point in history when the government actually determined who and what got to cross and was successful in implementing that vision.

"This is not about the border. This is about these other things, and we just see them at the border."

Sometimes it seems as if those "other things" — economic disparity, racism, nationalism, fear, anger, crime, just to name a few — are most at home along the southern border. But all that exists in Chicago, too, and Washington D.C, in Seattle and in Syracuse. All those problems didn't start at the border. The border won't keep them out.

"[The border] became this site, an object, a metaphor even, where we misplaced very real economic insecurities and social anxieties," Jusionyte says. "So it is the wrong answer to very important questions about the conditions of our society."

Still, the U.S.-Mexico border, thanks to decisions made in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere, remains a flashpoint. At least away from the border, passions run high. Rhetoric runs wild.

"It hasn't always been this way, and it won't always be this way," Johnson says. "Decades from now when a quarter of the United States is of Latino descent, I think we're going to have a different politics and a different society.

"I think we're at the high point of a kind of sound and fury on this."


The Mexican immigration debate

The criminalization of informal border crossings occurred amid an immigration boom from Mexico.

In 1900, about 100,000 Mexican immigrants resided in the United States.

By 1930, nearly 1.5 million Mexican immigrants lived north of the border.

As Mexican immigration surged, many in Congress were trying to restrict nonwhite immigration. By 1924, Congress had largely adopted a “whites only” immigration system, banning all Asian immigration and cutting the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States from anywhere other than Northern and Western Europe. But whenever Congress tried to cap the number of Mexicans allowed to enter the United States each year, southwestern employers fiercely objected.

U.S. employers had eagerly stoked the era’s Mexican immigration boom by recruiting Mexican workers to their southwestern farms, ranches and railroads, as well as their homes and mines. By the 1920s, western farmers were completely dependent on Mexican workers.

However, they also believed that Mexican immigrants would never permanently settle in the United States. As agribusiness lobbyist S. Parker Frisselle explained to Congress in 1926, “The Mexican is a ‘homer.’ Like the pigeon he goes home to roost.” On Frisselle’s promise that Mexicans were “not immigrants” but, rather, “birds of passage,” western employers successfully defeated proposals to cap Mexican immigration to the United States during the 1920s.

The idea that Mexican immigrants often returned to Mexico contained some truth. Many Mexican immigrants engaged in cyclical migrations between their homes in Mexico and work in the United States. Yet, by the close of the 1920s, Mexicans were settling in large numbers across the Southwest. They bought homes and started newspapers, churches and businesses. And many Mexican immigrants in the United States started families, raising a new generation of Mexican-American children.

Monitoring the rise of Mexican-American communities in southwestern states, the advocates of a whites-only immigration system charged western employers with recklessly courting Anglo-America’s racial doom. As the work of historian Natalia Molina details, they believed Mexicans were racially unfit to be U.S. citizens.

Western employers agreed that Mexicans should not be allowed to become U.S. citizens. “We, in California, would greatly prefer some set up in which our peak labor demands might be met and upon the completion of our harvest these laborers returned to their country,” Friselle told Congress. But western employers also wanted unfettered access to an unlimited number of Mexican laborers. “We need the labor,” they roared back at those who wanted to cap the number of Mexican immigrants allowed to enter the United States each year.

Amid the escalating conflict between employers in the West and advocates of restriction in Congress, a senator from Dixie proposed a compromise.


The Mexican Border: Crossing a Cultural Divide

T he first time I stood on the U.S.-Mexican border in Arizona, I couldn’t believe how inconsequential it felt. I was on a magazine assignment, spending part of a night with a Border Patrol agent. We had been bouncing down an extremely rough dirt road in the Sonoran Desert south of Tucson when he pulled off to the side.

We stepped out into the flat, shadowed light cast by the truck’s headlights, and there it was, the line dividing not just two countries, but the developed and developing worlds, wealth and poverty, philosophical traditions of exceptionalism and fatalism, impatience and old-world courtesy, rock ’n’ roll and mariachi, McDonald’s and taco stands, power lunches and siestas—an endless litany of clichés, true and untrue to varying degrees, but all intended to mark the vast differences between the two nations separated by this border.

Except that, really, there wasn’t much there at all: a modest stone marker and a sagging wire fence, no more than waist high, with only a few loose strands of wire. I dragged my shoe from one country to another, briefly making illegal immigrants of my toes. It felt absurd. Here this little patch of sand was America, here Mexico. Meanwhile, the Sonoran Desert, a landscape as unique and, at night, as haunted as any on earth, stretched in all directions, an overwhelming reality of dark, tangled vegetation and stark landforms thrust unex­pect­edly into the brilliant stars.

The entire night had an absurdist air. The first illegal migrants we came across were crouching politely by the side of a road while a Border Patrol agent moved down the line, lighting their cigarettes for them. (The agents also carry water and crackers crossing the desert is a thirsty and hungry business.) Migrants would run through the brush until caught and then abruptly give up, a game of tag. Later, we would stop by the Douglas Border Patrol Station where men and women waited phlegmatically to be put aboard buses and sent back to Mexico.

What surprised me most was the courtesy all around, the feeling of people going through a ritual demanded by convention, but so well worn and absent any pressing relevance that the principal requirement to participate was patience. At the time, coyotes—the guides who lead migrants through the desert—often included two or three attempts in their price. The play would go on tomorrow.

That was 10 years ago. I can’t remember exactly where we stopped that night, but if I could find it today, it would be very different. The last time I was in the desert on the border, I stood beside a 14-foot-tall fence made of heavy metal double-mesh that stretched like the spine of an infinite snake across the land, up and down hills, in and out of valleys, and on to the visible end of the world. I was there during the day, but if it had been night, floodlights high on metal poles would have illuminated a space cleared of vegetation on the U.S. side of the fence. Cameras were up there too, and motion detectors were buried in the desert. There were many more Border Patrol agents, and they were more on edge.

Everything has changed along the border. It was already changing at the time of that first visit: more agents, better equipment, increased emphasis on border interdiction as central to immigration policy. All that has continued in an ill-conceived, pell-mell, politically driven throwing of resources at a problem that will feel familiar to anyone who was around during the Vietnam War. But a confluence of events—the deflated U.S. economy and concurrent rise in American nativism, the detonation of the Mexican drug war into a murderous state of low-grade anarchy, and the continued post-9/11 obsession with security in American politics—has changed life here in a way no fence alone could manage.

M y family and I have lived in Tucson for a little more than a decade. During that time my work as a freelance writer has repeatedly taken me down to the border, both here and in California. I once came upon a family picnicking on both sides of the fence in San Diego: grand­parents in Mexico reaching through the wire to touch the hands of their grandchildren in America. I spent a day with a church group trooping out into the hot desert to refill the blue water barrels they left along migrant trails, some of which were later stabbed or shot full of holes.

I walked along the fence with a man who can see the border from his front door and whose dog often wanders down to an unfenced riverbed and ends up on the wrong side. He flew an American flag above his house and the whole time we were together packed a pistol on his hip when he saw Mexicans trudging along their side of the fence, he tossed water bottles to “the poor sons of a bitches.” I’ve talked to an artist who made sculptures out of clothing left behind by migrants near her home, boiling it down to a cloth mache from which she fashioned figures of migrant women. I interviewed a representative of one of the citizens’ groups patrolling the border, a recent legal immigrant herself, with such a strong Teutonic accent I felt immersed in a Saturday Night Live skit.

The border stretches for 1,969 miles, 370 of them in Arizona. It is its own world, a surreal blend of patriotic burlesque and human tragedy, but also part of a larger, shared culture that reaches in both directions. I live in the northern part of that zone, but I hadn’t been across the border to the southern part for a while, so on a bright Saturday morning last fall I joined a small group making a trip to Mexico led by a friend, Joe Wilder, who heads the Southwest Center at the University of Arizona.

The center is dedicated to illuminating the character of the border region, and for years Joe has been taking people across. By midmorning, we were driving slowly through a neighborhood that captured much of the color and flavor of Mexico, the brightly painted buildings with their boldly lettered signs in Spanish, the different rhythm of street life, managing to feel both slower and busier at the same time.

The trip was an introductory tour for Robert Miller, the new director of the university’s school of architecture. At the suggestion of Bob Vint, a Tucson architect guiding the trip with Joe, we followed a battered highway out of the neighborhood—people trudging along the side of the road in the way of developing countries—until we came to a magnificent 18th-century mission church. Standing in front of the whitewashed adobe face, the native village spreading around us, we contemplated the long intermingling of Hispanic and native cultures that gives Mexico so much of its character.

Except we were still an hour from Mexico. The neighborhood we had passed through was in South Tucson, a small city that feels as if it has been transported from below the border. The church is San Xavier del Bac, a National Historic Landmark on the Tohono O’odham Indian Nation, which straddles the border.

It might be a bright line on the map, but the border is blurred on the ground, at least if you measure it as a dividing line between cultures. “Some people think it’s Iowa all the way down to the border, but it’s not,” Wilder observed as we turned toward Mexico. “There are all these other realities that are still alive here. The roots of that indeterminacy go way back.”

The best part of Tucson, where I live, is the result of that indeterminacy. Otherwise, it’s just a sun-blasted place with poisonous creatures crawling about and funny-looking cacti dotting the hillsides. The cultural fusion is woven into life in the city and all of southern Arizona. There are the Sonoran hot dog stands and the mariachi bands. On the weekends before school starts and during the pre-Christmas season, the Sonoran middle class floods Tucson to shop the parking lots are filled with cars bearing Mexican plates, and English becomes the second language in my local Target store. There’s the huge Day of the Dead parade that probably has more Anglo participants than Latino. There’s a local art scene heavily influenced by Mexican iconography.

But it’s more than that. Tucson has plenty of wealthy people, mostly living in the Foothills section, but this is a poor city overall. More than a fifth of the population lives below the poverty level, nearly twice the national average, and the physical nature of the city is as fine an example of casual Mexican disrepair combined with rapacious American commercialism as you’re likely to find. This feeling of a place with half its history written outside the traditional American narrative exists throughout much of the American Southwest. It may, in part, explain the raging xenophobia that forms a constant subtext in politics here it can be seen in part as the expression of a deep-seated fear that these places are somehow less American, and as a furious desire to erase that notion.

There’s nothing new, really, about our latest round of immigrant bashing. The United States has alternated between periods of welcoming workers from its southern neighbor and rounding them up and shipping them home. In the 1950s, for instance, “Operation Wetback” included sweeps through barrios and random stops and searches that would warm the hearts of today’s nationalists. Still, the culture along the border has survived, held together by familial, economic, and social ties that transcend the mood swings of American politics.

Despite everything, it was never very hard to cross the U.S.-Mexican border, where there was a culture continuously replenished by an informal, daily social exchange. Border towns shared fire departments and civic clubs. Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, shared a minor-league baseball team. In some towns, one street was Mexico and the next was the United States people committed casual acts of illegal immigration to have dinner. Tony Zavaleta, the vice president for external affairs at the University of Texas, Brownsville, can stand on his porch and see a cousin working a farm on the other side of the Rio Grande, in Mexico. When Zavaleta was 14 his grandfather gave him a horse as a gift he simply had a ranch hand ride it across the river.

Even as the U.S. government began stepping up enforcement along the border in the 1980s and ’90s, this interaction remained vibrant. It survives to this day. Lost in the calls to “secure the border” are the facts that it remains a demarcation between two nations at peace, with strong economic ties and that, as of 2008, it was still the busiest international border in the world, with 220 million legal crossings a year.

America’s talk-show political culture has cost us the ability to see anything except in black and white, but the reality along the border has long been a messy canvas splashed with color. This world has attracted drifters, artists, and opportunists throughout its history, feeding the fluidity of identity. Meanwhile, the monochromatic vision is being imposed by circumstances real and imagined. I’d been down to Mexico many times in the past, and no one I knew had thought much about it, but when I mentioned I was tagging along on this trip, several friends said the same thing, “Be careful.” With Joe Wilder at the wheel of our van, we finally crossed into Mexico at Nogales, Arizona, moving through the gray, modernist U.S. port of entry (in our case, exit) and into the pastel-colored Mexican border station. We were waved through without incident. Even today, nobody much cares if you’re headed into Mexico.

N ogales is also the name of the city below the border. Immediately after we crossed, Joe steered us down the street that runs along the backside of the rusted metal wall, topped with razor wire, that divides the two Nogaleses. We stepped out of the van to get a better look.

The wall is ugly enough on the U.S. side, but on the Mexican side it’s impossible to see it as anything but a physical expression of contempt—shabbily thrown together, made of long strips of corrugated metal that look salvaged from a junkyard. The Mexicans have taken revenge through art. Their side is decorated with murals and metal reliefs created as a testament to the migrants. The most moving are massive collages in which shadows of footsteps are superimposed over photographs of people who died crossing into the United States. You see dozens of faces—old, young, men, women. The power of the photos comes, in part, from their sheer ordinariness a collection of snapshots of “illegals” turns out to look a lot like a Facebook page—except everybody’s dead.

Nobody knows how many people die trying to cross the border every year. As of late last September, the 2010 tally for Arizona alone stood at 232. But privately, Border Patrol agents will tell you they know they don’t find all the bodies. When people are near death from heat prostration, they usually curl up in whatever shade they can find. Amid the cholla and mesquite, they’re easy to miss. Coyotes and other predators can make short work of the remains.

The fence, of course, is intended to deter illegal crossers. About 650 miles of it now stretch along the border, but there’s no hard evidence that it has had an impact on illegal migration. The most significant factor determining the number of people who try to sneak into the United States is the state of our economy. People come for jobs. When jobs are scarce, fewer people come. Not surprisingly, the number of illegal migrants caught on the border, which is the only real gauge we have of how many people are trying to enter, fell with the advent of the Great Recession.

What the fence has done is displace illegal migration. The Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego, has noted an increase in the number of people trying to cross by water, either along the California Coast or the Gulf of Mexico. Other illegal migrants fly to Canada and enter the United States from the north. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 45 percent of illegal immigrants simply cross legally at U.S. ports of entry but don’t leave in accordance with their visas.

For those still trying to make their way into the United States by land, the fence has pushed them into less accessible terrain, country so harsh it forms its own barrier. In doing this, the fence and associated security buildup have probably contributed to the number of people who die trying to cross. To part of the American population, this is not a problem. Suggestions that we should consider shooting or blowing up illegal immigrants (by placing land mines on the border) have been made by elected lawmakers, candidates, radio talk-show hosts, and others in several states.

A surprising number of the immigrants are under the age of 18 and unaccompanied by adults. Not only are they young, they come surprisingly great distances. Enrique’s Journey, written by Los Angeles Times reporter Sonia Nazario, traces the story of a boy from Honduras who made several attempts to make it into the United States, traveling all or part of the 2,000-mile journey again and again until he succeeded. Like many of the children who try to cross the border, Enrique was in search of his mother, who had illegally migrated when he was an infant.

We considered the faces on the mural and then climbed in the van and headed south through Nogales. It was a beautiful, clear-blue day, and the city looked busy, but like other Mexican border towns, its economy is being strangled by drug violence. Two years earlier, when the craziness had begun but hadn’t reached the level it has today, I took my daughter down to Nogales one afternoon to browse among the shops and stalls across the border—the touristy places usually packed by day-trippers. There was almost no one there. In several shops we were the only visitors, and the clerks wore a defeated look. Like everyone I’ve ever spoken to in Nogales, the owner of a shop selling jewelry had family in Arizona—in his case, daughters in Tucson—and he spoke of the state with unabashed affection. But he was desperate for the Americans to return to Nogales. “We are slowly starving here,” he told me.

A few days later a Sonoran policeman stopped a van for a routine inspection and stumbled upon a group of narcos, as the Mexicans call the drug gangs. The running gun battle that raged through town left eight dead and 10 wounded. At one point, the narcos tossed grenades out the windows. I read the story at my dining room table with an eerie focus, trying to determine if they had come near the plaza where my daughter and I sat on a bench and lunched on tacos.

Mexico’s drug war is the great shadow hanging over the southern side of the border. Nogales had at least 131 murders in the first half of 2010, compared with 135 for all of 2009. Three years earlier, it had just 37. This is not the bloody cauldron of Ciudad Juarez, but for a city of about 200,000, the tally is frightening. It’s not just the body count, but also the phantasmagorical nature of the violence: last July two heads were found jammed between the bars of a cemetery fence, an act of terror that has become familiar in Mexican border cities.

Sonorans point out that the violence is focused in certain corridors leading to the United States and maintain that most of the region remains quite safe. This may be true, but as the Mexican government takes on the narcos, the battlefield has a way of shifting. After leaving Nogales we passed a highway leading into the valley of the Rio Altar, an area of villages with picturesque churches, long popular with tourists. As we drove past the highway, it looked closed. A police car idled at the intersection two officers were inside, dressed in the black uniforms of the Federal Police.

The Altar Valley extends into Arizona, forming a natural human and drug-smuggling route. The Sinaloa cartel and the Beltran Leyva cartel have been fighting over it. Last July a gun battle erupted on a road between the villages of Tubutama and Saric. The shootout left 21 dead and six wounded. Authorities found hundreds of shell casings and eight shot-up SUVs abandoned at the site. Basic commerce in and out of some villages has been blocked, and residents have become hostages in their own homes. Others have fled. The response of the Mexican government is unclear, although it seems to have essentially quarantined the Altar, waiting for the battle to sort itself out.

This lurid backdrop has helped make popular such measures as Arizona’s new law SB1070, which gives police the right to demand proof of citizenship. But despite the ramblings of Governor Jan Brewer about “beheaded” bodies in the desert (the medical examiners of six Arizona counties could not think of a single case), the violence so far has largely stopped at the border. At the height of pre-election hysteria last fall, The Arizona Republic, the state’s largest newspaper, found the rate of violent crimes in Arizona border counties to be down or flat.

America, compared with Mexico, has paid a small price for the drug war, but the toll has been taken in the basic social and cultural commerce along the border. For 35 years, the Southwest Mission Research Center in Tucson had been running tours down to Sonora. The nonprofit center wanted North Americans to appreciate the historic connections between north and south and to see the Mexico beyond the tourist resorts. Altar Valley was one of its popular destinations. Last fall the center suspended operations. “Nobody wants to sign up for the tours,” says Nick Bleser, who with his wife, Birdie Stabel, has been leading trips south since 1978. “Who the hell wants to go down there and get shot?”

There is the wall, and then there is the psychological wall being erected between the two countries. Drug violence is one part of that wall. Arizona SB1070 is another. On one level, it seems to have made little difference. Tucson is still a popular shopping destination for the Mexican middle class. You still see a line of Mexicans at the U.S. port of entry waiting to visit Nogales, Arizona. But the law has frayed longstanding bonds between the Mexican state of Sonora and Arizona. For 50 years, the Arizona-Mexico Commission has met to discuss cross-border cooperation, but after passage of SB1070, the Sonoran government canceled the meeting to protest the new law. The Mexican government has issued an alert to citizens traveling in Arizona, warning that they could be required to prove they are in the country legally at any time.

Many Sonorans feel a sense of betrayal at their treatment by a state to which they have deep connections. Francisco Javier Manzo, a notary public in the Sonoran town of Sonoyta, traces his family’s history in the region back roughly 250 years. His grandfather, a general in the Mexican revolution, lived in Tucson in the 1930s, and he still has friends and family on both sides of the border. “People are being harassed without any reason. Friends of mine have been bothered. They say they will never go back,” he says.

If SB1070 was intended to scare immigrants back into Mexico, there is anecdotal evidence it may be having some effect. Seminario Niñez Migrante, a Sonora-based organization, tracks Mexican families that have returned to the region from the United States. The public schools in Sonora, says the organization’s director, Gloria Ciria Valdéz, have registered 8,000 new students in the last three years, many who were born in the United States and know little or no Spanish. “We have been interviewing the families,” she says, “and they say they are returning for two basic reasons. The first is the economic crisis in the United States, and the second is SB1070.”

For much of the American population, this would be nothing but good news. But for those who care about the shared culture of the border, it carries the weight of sorrow. “What’s being lost is the realization that we have more in common than differences,” Bleser says. “What’s being lost is our sense of this heritage.” Manzo sees history being erased. “There is a long relationship between us and Arizona,” he says. “We cannot live in the global world like this. We need each other.”

H ordes of migrants marching through the night to steal your job, Minutemen and other self-proclaimed patriots playing cowboys and Mexicans in the desert, a state law that gives the police the right to demand your papers, drug-war shootouts in Nogales and other Mexican border towns, beheadings. The media-refracted view of Arizona and its neighbor to the south is cartoonish: a quasi-fascist police state perched above a failing narco state.

It’s as reductionist as any headline scrolling across the screen. Yet the elements out of which it’s constructed are just real enough to obscure other visions of life along the border. Compared to the dead along the migrant trail, the dead in the Mexican drug war, this is a lesser tragedy, but a tragedy nonetheless.

Joe Wilder, the architects, and I drove from Nogales to Magdalena de Kino for lunch. The town is bright and cheerful, with a modern square that holds the tomb of Spanish explorer and missionary Father Kino. There you can look through glass at the bones of a man who 300 years ago was notable for his treatment of the native population and for trying to fuse unlike cultures through charity rather than intimidation.

From there we drove on to the village of San Ignacio, where there’s a handsome, although sadly dilapidated, Kino mission. The highway bent through steep, tangled mountain slopes, country that appeared wilder, greener than around Tucson—familiar yet foreign. I had the sense of seeing this peculiar part of the continent where I live for the first time, and the land, as it always does for me in Mexico, began to take on a feeling of uncomplicated beauty.

We parked on the San Ignacio square with the sun low in the sky. An octagonal bandbox stood in the center of the square, and a solitary man sat on one of the benches, a dog at his feet. Joe left to get a key to the church, while the rest of us wandered back to view it from across the square. In the falling light the whitewashed adobe had the soft, slightly blurred perfection of a bar of Ivory soap. It looked like a long-lost cousin of San Xavier del Bac, and the familiarity filled the air with the threads of history.

Joe returned to say the church had been declared unsafe and we couldn’t go inside. Instead, we went to the home of friends of Joe’s, the Sanchezes, and ended up around the table in their narrow living room while they treated us to quesadillas, and then tamales, and then persimmons. Family members kept appearing, being introduced, and standing politely for a minute or two to talk. Only Joe and Bob spoke enough Spanish to really converse, but language wasn’t much of a barrier. We learned that the priest shut down the church after a piece of plaster landed on his head during Mass.

Casimiro Sanchez makes his living from an orchard on the edge of town. He took us out there in the twilight and we wandered through an unkempt, overgrown Eden while he fussed about. The way he tilted his cap and considered his fruit trees and other plants reminded me of the farmers I grew up around in North Dakota. One of us, it might have been Robert, asked him about the impact of the drug war. “You can live peaceful here if you don’t get tangled up in things,” Casimiro answered, which seemed a rule for life in general, not just in Mexico.

We had a long trip ahead of us to get back to the border crossing, a drive that would end in a line of vehicles creeping toward the surgically lit port of entry. Over an hour’s wait left us dealing with a deadly serious Border Patrol agent who would inspect our passports carefully before letting us reenter the United States. As it happened, we got off lucky. The last couple of times Joe had taken a group across the border, they’d been taken aside and kept for more than an hour in a windowless room while being checked out.

After entering the United States we would have to stop again at one of the floodlit checkpoints set up on the major highways. All day we had been in Mexico, a country in the middle of a murderous conflict, and nothing even vaguely threatening had happened to us. The country that felt the most like a police state was the one we had returned to.

But all that was ahead of us. Earlier, in the Sanchez orchard, lingering with Casimiro, we settled into a more amiable reality, our last few minutes together. No, that didn’t make less serious the drug war, the migrants out in the desert, the legitimate questions of policy that people grapple with concerning the border. But its value was no less for that. The inescapable truth that it has been made much harder for Americans and Mexicans to enjoy these simple moments is something to mourn.

The sun had set and it was quickly getting dark. We dropped Casimiro off at home and drove up a rural highway, making our way back toward the United States until we came upon a string of pickup trucks moving slowly, their beds filled with people, blocking our way.

There was no oncoming traffic, and soon Joe pulled into the right lane to pass. We drove past truck after truck, and then came to men riding horses, children riding bicycles, floats being towed by ancient tractors—girls dressed as Indian princesses, a band blaring away—and then more trucks, horses, children, a parade headed somewhere down a narrow Mexican road in the twilight.

“How ya doin’?” someone in the back of a pickup yelled in an imitation American accent as we passed, and there was laughter, friendly, teasing, slightly giddy. We laughed, too, and pulled past. What was going on? We would never know. It was getting dark and we were heading home, the only Americans on the road.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Reed Karaim lives in Tucson and writes frequently about science and the environment. He is the author of the novel If Men Were Angels.


Kids cross border alone, fleeing drugs and gangs

Others say rumors and lax enforcement are driving the growing numbers. An internal report from Customs and Border Protection, recently made public by Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, cited interviews with 230 immigrants detained at the border in May. According to the memo, detainees said they migrated because of a “new” U.S. “law” giving a “free pass” to unaccompanied children and mothers with children.

"To reject out of hand the notion that perception of lax enforcement is not a motivator is naive at best and destructive at worst," said Sen. Jeff Flake, R.-Arizona.

But in a 2011 report prepared by researchers at the U.N.’s refugee agency, the unaccompanied minors gave their own menu of reasons for leaving Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The study noted only one instance in 404 interviews in which a child specifically mentioned the possibility of benefitting from U.S. immigration reform.

Many kids cited the dissolution of family networks, or a desire to reunite with family in the U.S., but violence was a recurrent theme. Many young girls reported being victims of sexual violence, including rape and assault by gang members. Both boys and girls talked of forced recruitment by street gangs and transnational drug cartels, and some had witnessed murders of family members, friends and classmates. The violence has spread from urban centers like Guatemala City to rural villages. Cesar said he “barely left the house” despite living far out in the countryside.

“I’ve had parents, and even some of the children tell me, ‘There is no childhood here,’” said Elizabeth Kennedy, a Fulbright scholar who is currently researching the causes of child migration in Central America. “There’s not any calculated attempt to game the system. There’s just one last attempt to survive, and try to have some quality of life.”

In order to survive, however, the kids head north, and their escape is fraught with its own dangers.

'There's No Future in Honduras'

Ruby, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, left western Honduras less than a year ago, but her eyes still go wide as she recounts her 1,600 mile journey. The 15-year-old says she and one of her sisters slept in the brush, walked through deserts, were captured by kidnappers and held in a trailer, and eventually picked up the U.S. Border Patrol in Texas.

“You have to risk yourself,” said Ruby. “There’s no future in Honduras.”

Ruby was barely school age when her father abandoned their family. Her older sister, Ana, left soon after for the U.S. For about 10 years, as violence escalated in Honduras and work became increasingly illusive, Ana supported the family by cleaning houses in the U.S. and sending money home. But it wasn’t enough.

Ruby was pregnant when she left, and hoped that the U.S. might mean a better life for her unborn baby.

“There’s a lot of crime, a lot of narcotraffickers [in Honduras],” she said. “They kidnap people. Adults and children, old people, to get money. People who have nothing. It doesn’t matter to them. The police do nothing.”

A country of just 8 million, Honduras boasts the world’s highest per capita homicide rate, with 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people, according to U.N. figures. An estimated 270 Honduran children were killed within the first three months of 2014 according to Casa Alianza, a nonprofit that works with children across Latin America. Experts on the region say this helps explain why an estimated 8,000 children flee the country unaccompanied each year.

“The police are overwhelmingly corrupt, as is the judicial system and prosecutors,” said Dana Frank, a history professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has written widely on human rights and U.S. policy in Honduras. “There's near complete impunity, which means anybody can kill anybody they want, and nothing will happen to them.”

Honduran authorities in the U.S. did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The route north is well known, as are its perils. Families in both Central America and the U.S. pay thousands of dollars to smugglers, known as “coyotes,” who promise to help individuals cross the border. Those promises are often broken. Young women are at great risk for assault or sex trafficking. Children can be robbed, assaulted or murdered. Gang networks have come to see these migrants as a source of income. They kidnap the migrants and extort their families for money, threatening harm or death to those whose loved ones cannot pay.

Ruby left her hometown in western Honduras last fall with her sister, Maira, a cousin and the cousin’s two small children. They got as far as Mexico, then were detained and returned to Honduras.

On their second try, Ruby and her companions reached the Mexican side of the Texas border. A group of people befriended them and offered to help them cross the Rio Grande river. Ruby and the other girls got into a small boat, as two cars waited on the opposite bank.

Suddenly the mood changed, recalled Ruby. The people roughly ordered Ruby and the others into the cars. “They forced us to climb in,” Ruby remembered. “They were very angry. Acting really ugly.” The kidnappers took them to a trailer behind a house in southern Texas, and ordered Ruby to call her sister Ana in Maryland and ask for $4,000.

Said Ruby, “They dialed the number for me to tell her to send the money or else they would kill me.”

Ruby reached her sister Ana in Maryland, but could barely deliver her plea for help.

“I was so afraid all I could do was cry,” Ruby said.

Ruby says she and the others spent two weeks locked in the trailer as the kidnappers tried to extract money from her family. They were able to run away during a moment when their captors weren’t paying attention. They reached a bus station, and called Ana, who told them to ask for help. Border Patrol officers came and took Ruby and the other girls into custody.

Cesar says he also found kidnappers waiting near the border. He’d already been robbed on the way north from Guatemala, and had no ransom to offer, but the kidnappers held him for three days until he was able to run away.

Like Ruby, he wound up in the hands of U.S. authorities, and then entered their system for processing minors. Once Immigration and Customs Enforcement realized he was under 18 -- which took a month -- ICE transferred him to the arm of the Department of Health and Human Services charged with caring for the flood of young migrants.

'We Are Good People'

While children from Mexico or Canada can be returned to their own countries immediately, children from other nations must go through a more elaborate immigration process before they are either deported or granted some sort of relief from deportation.

By law, within 72 hours children must be moved into a shelter system that extends from Texas to Oregon to New York City and is managed by an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services. Within a few weeks, authorities work to find a sponsor, often a family member or friend, or a foster parent, who they live with as they go through immigration proceedings, which can take months or years.

Most of the shelters are run by non-profits and private agencies, but as the tide of underage migrants has grown the government has scrambled to open additional emergency facilities in Texas, California and Oklahoma, even appropriating a shuttered military base.


Barbra Dozier's Blog

The study examines the historical development of the Mexican community in the United States since the 1900 to the present. The main purpose of study is to address time and place specific variations in the incorporation of the Mexican community as a national minority and bottom segment of the U.S. working class. One of the key concerns is to explore two inter-related historical trends in this incorporation, steady upward mobility and unrelenting social marginalization. Therefore, the study puts emphasis on work experiences, race thinking, social relations, trans-border relations, social causes and larger themes in U.S. history which includes wars, sectional differences, industrialization, reform, labor and civil rights struggles, and the development of a modern urbanized society.

Overview of Mexican American history

General overview of a long-standing experience of Mexicans in the US.

Brief overview of how Mexicans have undergone upward occupational and social mobility at the same time that they have remained marginalized since the middle 1800s.

Independent Mexico, U.S. Expansionism, and Wars, I, 1821-1848.

Independent Mexico, U.S. Expansionism, and Wars, I, 1848-1900.

The Collapse of Mexican Social structure.

The Mexicanist Generation, 1900-1930s.

The repressive policies of President Porfirio Diaz and Mexican migration into the US.

Emergence of new social relations in the 1900s.

Work, migration, and community building: unequal relations between Mexico and the United States and the emerging differences and divisions in the Mexican community.

Mexico, Self-organizing, and a Moralist Mexican Political Culture, I

Americanization, Political Divisions and a New Ethnic Ethos: The armed revolt of 1915 in South Texas and the emergence of the moderate League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in 1929.

World War II to 1960s: War, recovery, and unequal opportunities

The good Neighbor Policy and its influence in the cause for equal rights,

The emergence of LULAC as the principal Mexican civil rights organization in the country.

Mexican American civil rights leaders increasingly turn to government to promote equal rights.

Demographic changes, urbanization, and an optimism in the 1950s

Acculturation and assimilation in the 1950s.

Mexican Social Movement in the 1960s

New Opportunities and persistent inequality

The history of Mexican Americans can be traced from 1848 when the term ‘Mexican Americans’ first came up. It was used then to refer to the Mexican Americans who remained in the US after Mexico’s defeat in the war with the US, and its loss of the enormous territories on its northern frontier (Kutty 2005). The northern frontier constitutes the current US states of New Mexico, California, and Arizona. Mexico lost Texas to the US just some time before 1848 when Texas was annexed by the US (Kutty 2005). In the decades after 1848, the Mexican Americans quickly lost possession of their land holdings and experienced a decline in their socio-economic status as the Anglo Americans increasingly settled in the US Southwest. New waves of immigration from Mexico brought large numbers of Mexicans into the US. Today, Mexican Americans now refers to all those who live in the US and are of the Mexican origin. While they initially settled in the Southwest of the US, they have since dispersed throughout the nation. By the end of the year 2000, the Mexican American population had grown to 21 million (Kutty 2005). At the turn of the 1900, central Texas town in Gonzales saw an impressive population surge consisting largely of Anglo Americans from other parts of the United States together with Mexican Americans. The Mexican American constituted a new ethnic community in a town of Anglo Americans as well as African Americans. The arrival of this community questioned the power logics of the power relationship between the Anglo Americans and African Americans.

The Political Economy of Expansion

Immediately after the Mexican independence in 1921, problems began between the Mexicans and the Anglo-Americans settlers in the early-day Texas. The Mexicans had believed that the US government was using the Spanish colonialists to cause trouble so as to acquire Texas either by revolution or purchase (Kubiak 2009). As such, Mexico grappled with several internal political struggles as well as economic deficits which began as early as 1824 (Kubiak 2009). Mexico had won several northern territories from the Colonial Spain and therefore was supposed to protect these territories. However, protecting and ruling the northern territories became almost impossible as for the country. One major reason for this was that the northern frontier society was more informal, egalitarian, self-reliant and democratic compared to the heart of Mexico’s society. Therefore, these communities were often in conflict with the central since the latter imposed restrictions that significantly impacted the economy of these societies. This led to constant war between Texans and Mexico from 1826 to 1832 when the Texans held a convention with Mexico to ask for separation. The Texian Revolution of 1835-1836 finally led to the Texas independence (Kubiak 2009). Between 1836 and 1845, the Republic of Texas governed itself. However, as the US population rapidly increased due to high birth rate and immigration and the economic depression of the mid to late 1930s worsened the US economy, the need to expand into new territories to accommodate this population and acquire agricultural land became very important (Polk 2006). As such, the US citizens began to expand into the frontier land (Texas) which was inexpensive and sometimes free. This opened opportunities for new commerce as well as personal self-advancement. Land ownership was associated with wealth as well as self-sufficiency, political power, as well as independent ‘self-rule’ (Polk 2006). Meanwhile, in the 1840s, the people of the US felt that its was their national destiny to extend the “boundaries of freedom” to other territories or states by imparting their US idealism as well as belief in democratic institutions (Polk 2006). Thus, the US citizens asserted the right to colonize most parts of North America beyond the country’s borders including California, Texas and Oregon. Annexation of Texas finally occurred in 1845 after the US Congress passed a Joint Resolution for Annexing Texas to the US when a formal annexation treaty had failed. The Joint Resolution for Annexing Texas to the US allowed Texas to keep its public lands as well as public debt, deliver all military, customs and postal facilities as well as authority to the US government, and have the power to divide the state into four other states of convenient size should they desire to do so. The annexation of Texas from Mexico led to the Mexican-American War, which was an armed conflict between the Mexico and the US from 1846 to 1848 ( Hernandez, 2012) . Mexico had considered Texas part of its territory despite the Texas Revolution of 1836 ( Hernandez, 2012) .

The US expansion westward created a problem of whether the annexed states should be admitted as slave or free states. A national policy was enacted to balance slave and free states during the joint admission of Maine (free) and Missouri (slave) as new states in 1820. As a result, Florida and Texas were admitted as slave states in 1845, and in 1850, California was admitted as a free state. Article IX of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which was signed in 1848 between Mexico and Texas (United States) regarding territorial acquisition, guaranteed Mexican Americans “all the rights of citizens of the United States “ such as freedom of liberty as well as property (Kutty 2005, p. 6). Gonzales (2000) notes that despite protections that were promised under this treaty, the Mexican Americans quickly lost their land holdings to Anglo-Americans as the latter began occupying these territories in large numbers from 1858 to the beginning of the 20 th century. Anglo-American run institutions like “the legal system that administered land holdings, were used to dispossess Mexican Americans of their land” (Kutty 2005, p. 8). The Mexican Americans were experiencing for the first time the institutionalized adverse treatment against them in the US. In Texas, California, and New Mexico, Mexican Americans were dispossessed of their land through encroachment, litigation, taxes, as well as outright violence. “For many Mexican American landowners, land title deeds were not very specific about the boundary” since the land had been granted to them at a time when still very few Indians in the province and land was still abundant (Kutty 2005, p. 8). Due to lack of English fluency, the Mexican American landowners had to rely on Anglo-American lawyers to ascertain their claim of land ownership before US authorities. These litigations went on for long and were very costly forcing the Mexican American ranch owners to part with large portions of their land as attorney fees (Kutty 2005). Land holdings were also lost in payment of taxes. In states such as California and New Mexico, the construction of the railway line brought more Anglo-American settlers who further dispossessed the Mexican Americans of their land. In Texas, Texan cattlemen drove Mexican American stockmen out of their land. In California, legal codes were used to deny Mexican Americans property and business opportunities. For example, local mining codes were enacted denying Mexican Americans the opportunity to engage in mining. In some states such as Texas, violence was used by some Anglo-American competitors against Mexican Americans who had well established businesses (Kutty 2005). These experiences, particularly the loss of most their land holdings in the US Southwest have had a long-term effect in significantly defining Mexican Americans’ status in the US society (Sweeney 1977). It is therefore important to note that between 1848 and 1900, the Mexican American community lost most of its economic and political power to Anglo-Americans.

The Search for a Proletariat, 1890-1930

The end of the Civil War and the completion of the construction of the railway line in New Mexico in 1880 signaled even more problems to the Mexican Americans as more Anglo Americans, largely ex-soldiers, settlers migrated to this region. Many small and medium-sized Mexican Americans who owned ranches lost most of their land after the US takeover (Kutty, 2005). Since the Mexican Americans were not able to produce clear land title deeds, they lost their land to the Anglo-American settlers. Kutty (2005) reports that over 80% of the grant holders lost their lands. New Mexico and the other states became dominated politically by a group of unscrupulous businessmen and lawyers (Santa Fe ring) who actively engaged in dispossessing owners of the land grants. Kutty (2005) notes that the Santa Fe ring, which comprised Anglo-Americans and upper-class Latinos, became powerful from the end of the Civil War into the 1890s. Steiner (1969) explains that they dispossessed the Mexican Americans by simply filing a ‘patent’ or dead with the approval of the United Sates Government’s Land Office. Before this, immediately after the Civil War which ended in 1865, Texan cattlemen (Anglo-Americans) had driven Mexican American stockmen out of the areas they had settled in on the eastern grasslands, San Luis Valley, and San Miguel County (Kutty 2005). The Anglo Americans also passed usurious interest rates which they used to deplete the wealth of the Mexican Americans after the Civil War. Thus, it became difficult for the Mexican Americans to preserve their land holdings. The situation became worse at the turn of the 20 th century when much of their land was taken by the US federal government and turned into parks (Gonzales, 2000). Again, changes in farm technology as well as economic changes led to the decline of the Mexican American ranchers (Gonzales, 2000).

By the turn of the 20 th century, the proletarianization of the bulk of the Mexican American community was incessantly reinforced by impoverished Mexican immigrants from Mexico (Gonzales, 2000). Garcia (1985) notes that between 1900 and 1930, around a million more Mexicans entered the US seeking work or political refuge from the Mexican Revolution of 1910. The high immigration, particularly to seek work, was triggered by the capitalist economic development in the Southwest region as well as the need for cheap labor, which on the contrary presented attractive wages for Mexicans (Garcia, 1985 Reisler, 1976). This significantly contributed to the reduction of the socioeconomic status of the average Mexican American as dispossession of land holdings that were still held by the Mexican Americans continued into the 20 th century (Kutty, 2005). Steiner (1969) notes that areas in the Southwest that were heavily populated by Mexican Americans continued to lose their lands in the early 1900s since their lands were continually being converted to National Forests. From time to time, they were being asked to re-locate their fences to allow for the National Forests acreage to be increased. As a result, they now had to use their meager earnings to acquire permits for grazing, particularly for farmers who owned bulls, milk cows, and horses. Since most of the Mexican Americans were now landless or held very small land holdings, they were now forced to work in the Anglo-American or upper-class Latino – owned farms and industries such as the automobile factories of Detroit, steal and meat packing plants in Chicago, as well as on the maintenance of crews of most of the country’s railway lines (Reisler, 1976). Although a lengthy debate raged in the 1920s as to whether the Mexican immigration should be restricted or not, majority of the US farmers and industrialists supported their immigration due to their willingness to provide cheap labor and easily manipulated labor supply (Reisler, 1976). Besides, they willingly accepted inferior living conditions (Reisler, 1976). They were regarded as unprogressive and inferior by the Anglo-American employers. Thus, they continued to exist within the immigrant laborer class (Sanchez, 1993, p. 125).

Culture, Integration, Expulsion in Depression and World War

In the debate that followed among the Anglo-American employers and federal government officials as to whether Mexican immigration should be restricted led to all these groups classifying Mexican American as backward or unprogressive due to their cultural and racial traits (Reisler, 1976). This is because many Anglo-Americans found them with qualities of submissiveness and indolence. Most of them held negative attitudes toward Mexican Americans especially due to their cultural heritage and as such, some of them argued that would likely cause hygienic and social problems (Reisler, 1976). Sanchez () notes that even though the Mexican American laborers dressed, ate, and entertained themselves like Americans, they had well defined characteristics and ineradicable characteristics. Majority of the Mexican Americans preserved “their customs, their native language, their parents’ religion, and had a deeply rooted love of their native land” (Sanchez, 1993, p. 125). This led to a battle for cultural allegiance between each individual immigrant and the Mexican government on one side and the American government on the other as each immigrant learnt to balance nationalistic sentiments with a new cultural identity. The Mexican Americans established a new community in the new land as they hoped this would bring greater stability to them. It is in these new communities that new immigrants were welcomed. Sanchez (1993) notes that they enforced strong cultural norms which kept the community together and externally familiar so that even new Mexican immigrants found it easier to identify with. This way, the Mexican immigrants found it easier to adapt to the American society while still holding on to their Mexican cultural values and practices. Unlike other immigrants such as those from Europe, Mexican immigrants were not ready to renounce their nationality and culture (Garcia, 1985). According to Garcia (1985), “Mexicans deflected Americanizing tendencies and consequently were less acceptable to Americans” (p. 198). However, by maintaining their ethnic distinctiveness, they met more exploitation and discrimination (Garcia, 1985). The Anglo-Americans often accused the Mexican Americans of possessing three social problems: uncleanliness, delinquency, and thievery. The “ethnic retention helped dissolve provincialism” among Mexican Americans, thus they were able to protect each other (Garcia, 1985, p. 198). They were able to put behind their political and religious differences and formed a united front against discrimination. They infused the Mexican culture with the American culture although with a strong Mexican cultural influence. They promoted the retention of their culture by establishing Spanish-language libraries and schools so that their children could learn Mexican cultural traditions since they did not want they children to be fully Americanized (Garcia, 1985). As such, even the more acculturated Mexican-American generation of the 1930s identified themselves of Mexican Americans. They actively participated in numerous organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens to fight for the rights of the community (Garcia, 1985).

Garcia, M. T. (1985). La Frontera: The border as symbol and reality in Mexican-American thought. Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicans, 1(2), 195-225.

Gonzales, M. G. (2000) Mexicanos: A History of Mexicans in the United States,

Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Hernandez, J. A. (2012). Mexican American colonization during the nineteenth century: A history of the US-Mexico borderlands. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kubiak, L., 2009. History of the Texas revolution. [Online]. Available at: http://www.forttumbleweed.net/revolution.html

Kutty, N. k., 2005. Policy lessons from the Mexican American experience, 1848 to the present.

Reisler, M. (1976). Always the laborer, never the citizen: Anglo perceptions of the Mexican immigrant during the 1920s. Pacific Historical Review, 45 (2), 231-254.

Sanchez, G. J. (1993). Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, culture and identity in Chicano Los Angeles. Cambridge, MA: Oxford University Press.

Steiner, S. (1969). La Raza: The Mexican Americans, New York: Harper and Row.

Stephen, L. (2007). Transborder Lives: Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico, California, and Oregon. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007

Sweeney, J., 1977. Chicana History: A Review of the Literature, ‖ in Essays on La

Mujer, ed. Rosaura Sanchez and Rosa Martinez Cruz, Los Angeles: Chicano Studies


29c. "American Blood on American Soil"

While Polk awaited the Presidency, the trouble of Texas resurfaced.

Congress admitted Texas to the Union in a joint resolution passed the day before Polk's inauguration. Mexico was outraged. Inclusion in the United States would forever rule out the possibility of re-acquiring the lost province.

Furthermore, the boundary was in dispute. Mexico claimed that the southern boundary of Texas was the Nueces River , the Texan boundary while under Mexican rule. Americans, as well as the incoming President, claimed that the boundary of Texas was the Rio Grande River . The territory between the two rivers was the subject of angry bickering between the two nations. Soon it would serve as the catalyst for an all-out war.

President Polk's true goal was to acquire the rich ports of California. He envisioned a lucrative trade with the Far East that would revolve around San Francisco and Monterey. Great Britain also had designs on the territory, so Polk thought he would have to act fast. He sent John Slidell to Mexico with an offer. The United States would pay Mexico a combined sum of $30 million for the Texan boundary of the Rio Grande, New Mexico territory, and California.


The disputed territory along the Texas-Mexico border is shaded above. The boundary along the right is the Nueces River (the border which Mexico recognized) and the one along the right is the Rio Grande (which was recognized by the United States).

The Mexican government was livid. They were not interested in selling the valuable territory. Instead they issued the highest diplomatic rebuke. They refused even to receive Slidell to hear his offer. The American President was enraged. He resolved to fight Mexico.

In July of 1845, Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to cross the Nueces River with his command of 4,000 troops. Upon learning of Slidell's rejection, Polk sent word that Taylor should advance his troops to the Rio Grande River. From the standpoint of Mexico, the United States had invaded their territory. Polk hoped to defend the disputed area with armed force. He also knew that any attack on American troops might provide the impetus Congress was lacking to declare war.

Sure enough, in May of 1846, Polk received word that the Mexican army had indeed fired on Taylor's soldiers. Polk appeared before Congress on May 11 and declared that Mexico had invaded the United States and had " shed American blood on American soil !" Anti-expansionist Whigs had been hoping to avoid conflict, but news of the "attack" was too much to overlook. Congress passed a war declaration by an overwhelming majority. President Polk had his war.


The Maquiladora Industry: A Brief History

The Mexican government initiated the Border Industrialization Program in 1965 as a response to the demise of the “Bracero Program” by the U.S. government in 1964. The “Bracero Program” had allowed Mexican agricultural workers (mostly migrating northbound from the interior of Mexico) to work legally in the U.S. on a seasonal basis.

After the end of the “Bracero Program” the Mexican government was forced to implement the Maquiladora Program to alleviate the rising unemployment burden along the border. This is a concept whereby the Mexican government mostly allows the duty-free, temporary importation of raw materials, supplies, machinery and equipment, etc. as long as the product assembled or manufactured in Mexico is exported. The Mexican government also sought to utilize this program to increase the level of “hard currency” and as a vehicle for the transfer of technology. Since the conception of the Maquiladora program, the changes have been dramatic, to say the least!

The first years of the program saw few U.S. companies move to the border areas to take advantage of these incentives. The ones who did and especially the first Tijuana Maquiladoras were mainly in the electronics field since lower priced products arriving from Asia were competitively squeezing them. In addition, the value of the Mexican peso against the U.S. dollar was similar during this time frame, a major factor that made Mexico less attractive from a labor cost perspective.

As the 1970’s arrived, Mexico found itself awash in oil reserves and began to borrow heavily in foreign currencies to expedite the exploration and processing of their “black gold”. Many of us remember the global economic uncertainties of the 1970’s-particularly high interest rates raising havoc on new infrastructure projects worldwide. As Mexico incurred a massive oil based debt, the Mexican economy began to falter, which gave rise to inflation and finally to a serious currency devaluation. These devaluations have since continued, albeit on a less dramatic scale (with the exception of the 1994 devaluation).

The serious devaluation of the Mexican Peso began in the late 1970’s and escalated to the point of the country being in a bankrupt mode in the early 1980’s. As a result of heavy borrowing and high interest rates, coupled with changes in U.S. Customs laws, Mexico became an attractive location for foreign investment.

In the early 1980’s, many U.S. businesses were feeling the “squeeze” from their Asian competitors and had decided that in order to remain in business, lower labor costs were necessary. As they began to look to Asia as an option for their investments, Mexico’s currency devaluation and economic crisis became both an opportunity for U.S. investors looking to go offshore and for Mexico who badly needed hard currency. It was during this period that the Maquiladora industry experienced the steady and substantial growth that has continued to this day.

The Mexican government, recognizing the importance of the Maquiladora industry in attracting foreign investment, signed a special “Decree” in the mid-1980’s. This Decree formally recognized the industry and issued special regulations for the industry to comply. Also in the 1980’s, the Mexican government introduced a 5 year development plan opening the economy to foreign direct investment and encouraging growth of its domestic industries.

This began Mexico’s “Network of Treaties” with Mexico becoming a contracting partner to GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). In the late 1980’s the Mexican government further liberalized foreign investment through modifications of the “Regulation of the Law for the Promotion of Mexican Investment and Regulation of foreign Investment”. The NAFTA negotiations began in 1992 and took effect in 1994. Also in 1994 the U.S./Mexico Bilateral Tax Treaty (to avoid double taxation), took effect. Continuing in 1994, Mexico joined the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), in an effort to become a global partner in trade and commerce.

The NAFTA has made Mexico a viable trading partner with the U.S. and Canada and has assisted Mexico in opening up trade with South America and the European Union. It was the high profile of the NAFTA that made the Maquiladora industry more visible to the American public in both a good and bad light. Many people still believe that the Maquiladora industry was a result of the NAFTA-this of course is not true.

There have been many changes to the Maquiladora industry in Mexico throughout the years and many of these changes have been as a result of the NAFTA. Unfortunately the “Rules of the Game” have made it more complicated to operate in Mexico than prior to the signing of the NAFTA. Even though the promotional arm of the Mexican government, SE (Secretary of the Economy), has done an outstanding job in making it easier to obtain permits, etc., the fiscal authorities (HACIENDA) are looking for more ways to increase the country’s revenue through new tax schemes for the Maquiladora industry.

As always, Made In Mexico, Inc. is your source for information on the Maquiladora industry, and we trust that this brief Maquiladora Industry History has been informative. Please contact us for other information on the Tijuana Maquiladora History.

Whether you are new to the maquiladora program or have been involved in the industry for some time, you may desire expert assistance of Made In Mexico, Inc.


Crossing the Mexican-American Border, Every Day

Thousands of people in the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez region live a binational existence. It&rsquos not easy.

EL PASO, Texas—She leaves university around 5 p.m., just as the sun is falling behind the dark mountains to the south, and steers her white Honda Civic down the hill toward the border. It’s a short drive, maybe 10 minutes, past the fast-food restaurants and strip malls of El Paso and over the I-10, where Texans sit in traffic to head home to the suburbs, then alongside the two fences—electric and brown metal—that divide Texas from Mexico.

Then, she waits. Valeria Padilla is accustomed to waiting—for four years she has commuted from the home she shares with her mother and grandmother in Ciudad Juarez to the campus of the University of Texas-El Paso, where she, like many other Mexican nationals, qualifies for in-state tuition. But the wait used to be to get into the United States. Now, she waits to get out, too.

“It’s horrible right now. It’s like, ‘no, no, no to crossing,’” she tells me, as she sits in the long line of cars waiting to get out of the United States. Wait-times to get into Mexico have become longer after U.S. Customs and Border Protection began requiring Mexican agents to check cars entering Mexico for guns and money, according to Tony Payan, the director of the Mexico Institute at Rice University.

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“We are truly making the border a difficult place to live. It seems that this is by design,” he told me.

Indeed, as Padilla and I cross the border after about an hour of waiting, crawling slowly down El Paso streets and then past gun-toting Mexican agents whose faces are covered, supposedly so they won’t be identified for bribery, our car is flagged and a Mexican agent asks Valeria to pull over and open her trunk. This is typical, and it’s the reason that it can take Padilla an hour or two to travel the three miles from campus to Juarez on any given day. Traveling from Juarez to El Paso has gotten faster since she joined a program that allows for rapid border crossing—before, it could take two hours each direction. Now it’s just the trip into Juarez that requires a long wait.

“Oh you’re lucky today,” Padilla jokes to me as we pull over in the dark, and the agent shines a flashlight in the car.

This is the life of someone who lives on the Mexican side of the border: pesos and pennies in the little container between the seats, Chihuahua license plates and a mining-pick emblem on the back of her car (the University of Texas-El Paso’s mascot is a miner).

Traffic between El Paso and Juarez in 2010 (Alexandre Meneghini / AP)

El Paso is the largest metropolitan area on the Texas border, and the El Paso-Juarez-Las Cruces region calls itself one of the largest binational regions in the world, with 2.5 million people. Thousands of people cross both ways over the border every day—Mexican elementary kids heading to U.S. public schools, U.S. residents working in Ciudad Juarez, students like Padilla attending U.S. colleges and universities. But binational doesn’t mean unified—not when it’s so difficult to get back and forth between two countries, and when there’s such a strong us-versus-them mentality coming from one side.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us,” Donald Trump has said, to cheering crowds.

He’s presumably not talking about Padilla, since she’s actually a U.S. citizen. She was born in El Paso, when her parents lived there, but then her parents split up and moved back to Mexico. Her father can’t cross into Texas anymore, since someone stole his passport and used it to run drugs. Her mother simply doesn’t want to.

Since she lives in Juarez, she has to deal with the daily humiliations that anyone who crosses the border has to face, if their skin is brown. Because she is who she is, she laughs them off.

“When you live in Juarez, you know your status. You just say, ‘Okay, I’m going to wait two or three hours in line,’” she says.

Padilla’s daily life, and indeed that of many people who live on the U.S.-Mexico border, makes vivid the weight of the fates that are determined by accidents of birth. Padilla has more freedom to move around than many of the kids she went to high school with in Juarez because of where her mother gave birth.

But what if Padilla had been born in Juarez? She’d still be the same person: Valeria who grew up in Juarez, who loves La Nueva Central, the old timey-café that serves lattes and pastries and Chinese food in Juarez just down the street from the cathedral, who prefers her beer with Clamato juice, absolutely loves her eyebrows and has never dated a gringo, as she puts it. She’d still be the Valeria who wants to be a film producer, to head to Hollywood after school if she can somehow find the money, who is working on a documentary on the strip clubs of Juarez. She’d just be that Valeria without a U.S. passport and with a harder life.

Padilla in La Nueval Central, a Juarez cafe (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

Not that it has been easy crossing to school every day from Juarez. This is the first year she’s had a car. She took out student loans to pay for it. Walking for three years was miserable. To get to the border crossing without a car she had to take three buses. Once, she tried to walk and suffered a heat stroke. Then her mother started dropping her off at the border. She’d walk over the Bridge of the Americas, the cement walkway that spans two countries over the dry gulch of the Rio Grande, under bright spotlights and series of fences, and catch a bus up the hill to school. She broke her ankle crossing in the winter of 2013. It was icy and she was running late—she’s always running late—and she was hurrying across the bridge to catch the bus and slipped on the ice. She convinced her boyfriend to drive her to school so she wouldn’t miss classes. When she finally got home, her mother suggested she could heal it with arnica, a cream that mothers everywhere say can cure all. When she finally went to the doctor and found out it was broken, he assured her arnica would not have worked.

There are other indignities. Padilla overheard a student call her mother a wetback when the two went to an admitted-students’ weekend. Latinos in Texas can be just as judgmental about Mexicans as white people, she says.

“Even though we’re on the border, people are racist against Mexicans,” she sighs. But you’re American, I point out. “They still stereotype you anyways. They see the last name, they hear the accent.”

There was the border-patrol officer who asked her, when she carried a tripod, if she was transporting a firearm. (She wonders: Did he expect her to answer yes? Did he think she was that dumb?) There was the border-patrol officer who would ask her to marry him every day she crossed on foot, telling her that he’d make a nice life for her, that she wouldn’t have to work so hard. He was the first officer she came across once she got a car —he asked her to marry him again. She could get a nicer car, he said.

Padilla’s mother never wanted her to go across to school across the border.

“Every day, she was like, ‘You don’t have to do this. Come back to Juarez. You will have money in Juarez,’” she says. Her mother thinks it’s humiliating to wait in the lines to get in and out, to go to school beside people who look at you and think, “wetback.” She thinks it’s humiliating to pay $150 to the U.S. government and $300 to the Mexican government to join the Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection program, or SENTRI, which allows her to enter into the U.S. without waiting in line. When Padilla got accepted as a transfer student into UT-Austin, her mother put her foot down. It was too expensive and too far away.

Padilla goes to UTEP because she wants to set out on her own. She wants to be adventurous and escape the bubble of a world her parents have created in Juarez. If her car breaks down in Juarez, she can call her mom. If she has trouble with a cranky pharmacist who refuses to serve her in Juarez, she calls her dad. In El Paso, she needs to figure things out herself. She figured out how to take two buses to a job at a tax-preparation office in El Paso that netted her $60 a day and free food. She figured out how to get elected as a senator-at-large in UTEP’s student government. (She reached fellow Mexican students by walking the Bridge of the Americas to hand out her campaign literature. She is the only Juarez resident on the student government.)

Besides, she likes walking between the strange, towering red-and-gold buildings of the UTEP campus, which were modeled on Bhutanese architecture. She likes giving tours, pointing out the administration building featured in the film Glory Road, chatting about the UTEP basketball team’s first-in-the-NCAA all-black starting lineup.

Padilla on UTEP’s Bhutanese-inspired campus (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

There aren’t the same opportunities in Juarez. Her mother, who has a graduate degree and works for the Mexican federal government, makes less money than Valeria makes in her minimum-wage job at the university. One professor who works at UTEP and gets American wages but lives in Juarez has a house with a cinema and two swimming pools. Mexico doesn’t have the same internships or film classes as Texas has. Its universities in Juarez don’t have the same sweeping campuses and sports teams as Texas universities do.

When Padilla graduated from high school in 2011, just about everyone was trying to get out of Juarez. The violence there had claimed 3,000 lives in one year alone. (In 2014, by comparison, there were 424 killings.) Around that time, Valeria’s mother, driving down a busy road, saw a man put a gun to another man’s head and pull the trigger. She saw his head explode.

On the UTEP campus, Padilla and I ran into a friend of hers named Isaac Bencomo, who left Juarez during the violence, moving in with a friend in a trailer in El Paso. He finished high school there, went to UTEP, and has since graduated and is becoming a pediatric nurse practitioner. He wants to legally immigrate to the U.S.

“Personally, Juarez for me is a lot of bad memories,” Bencomo told me. “A lot of my friends left. It’s just very sad there.”

Padilla isn’t so sure she wants to forever leave Juarez behind. She loves walking the streets and seeing the murals of a young Juan Gabriel, a famous singer from Juarez, of going to the nightclubs and gossiping with childhood friends in Spanish, of being a part of a community that is trying to rebuild itself after years of being known as the murder capital of the world.


What It’s Really Like To Cross The U.S.-Mexico Border

This is the fourth and final piece in a ThinkProgress series chronicling the struggles of immigrant life in Southern California along the U.S.-Mexico border. You can find our other pieces here, here, and here.

SAN DIEGO, CA &mdash It was hard not to think about death in the Jacumba desert. Hot, bleak, and desolate, the dry air and glaring lack of life created a palpable sense of foreboding when ThinkProgress visited last October. It was also eerily quiet, with only a few sounds puncturing the stillness: the rustle of the wind as it swept over the rocky peaks in the distance the crunch of footsteps as we ambled across the sea of baked sand the uneven sloshing of the water jugs we held in our hands.

And, of course, the soft hum of two large Border Patrol SUVs perched on the crest of the nearby hill.

&ldquoThey won&rsquot do anything to us,&rdquo said Enrique Morones, our guide for the day and head of Border Angels, a local immigration advocacy group. He turned and waved at the officers up the hill. &ldquoNow, if we were jumping the fence over here, that would be different&hellip&rdquo

&ldquoOver here&rdquo was a brush-filled patch of the Jacumba desert, itself a thin stretch of dirt, low grass, and spindly shrubs about an hour and a half east of San Diego. The area was once the site of many illegal border crossings, as it runs alongside the physical wall representing the border between Mexico and the United States. ThinkProgress traveled to Jacumba with Morones to participate in a &ldquowater drop,&rdquo a practice where volunteers from his organization journey into the desert to leave out water bottles for migrants crossing the border. The water, Morones said, could save lives.

&ldquoThey&rsquoll hide out here for a long time at night,&rdquo he said, pointing to a small bush. He turned and mimicked the posture of someone hiding after jumping the fence. He held out his hands, as if lying prostrate in the dirt, and nodded in the direction of the Border agents above us. That, he explained, is when migrants, frightened and exhausted after a long trip, could use some water.

Americans are often presented with claims about how &ldquoeasy&rdquo it is to cross the border from Mexico into the United States. In September of last year, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) declared that barbed wire was the &ldquoonly thing&rdquo stopping migrants from crossing the border, claiming that terrorists could effortlessly enter the country through the southern border. Several other conservative politicians have made similar statements, all predicated on the idea that crossing from Mexico is a simple trip.

But these narratives stand in stark contrast to the hundreds of deaths that occur each year along America&rsquos southern boundary, where immigrants, activists, and residents of divergent political persuasions report that crossing the U.S.-Mexico border is difficult, dangerous, and &mdash all too often &mdash deadly.

Heat and exhaustion

Morones explained the history of Border Angels and water drops as he guided ThinkProgress reporters across the desert. He gestured as he walked to direct us where to leave our jugs &mdash usually underneath bushes and sand banks.

&ldquoWhen I started doing this in 1996, no one anticipated the deaths,&rdquo Morones said, referring to a time period in the mid-1990s when the federal government implemented the Southwest Border Strategy. The new immigration program shut down areas of the border where people normally cross, re-routing migration flows and ultimately leading to an increase in the number of border-crossing deaths from exposure to either extreme heat or cold, according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Although the number of deaths has decreased in the San Diego region in recent years, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol reports that the number of people who have died crossing the U.S. border has increased overall.

Staring out across Jacumba, it was easy to see why the Border Angels &mdash along with similar groups such as &ldquoLos Samaritanos,&rdquo or Samaritans, in Arizona &mdash take their work so seriously. Although ThinkProgress visited Jacumba in early winter, it was still noticeably warm, and temperatures in the area can reach as high as 111 degrees in the summer months. Most sections of America&rsquos southern border regularly report similar temperatures, and since immigrants often have to walk miles alone through the desert, the blistering sun can quickly cause dehydration, heat exhaustion, and even death.

Border-crossers try their best to be prepared for such conditions. True, immigrants typically don&rsquot have much in the way of supplies, as they are are often beleaguered by crushing poverty in their home countries. But they are still wary of dangers lurking about the border, and bring along what little they can carry. The U.S. side of the wall in Jacumba was littered with things migrants have dropped along the way: ripped clothing, desiccated oranges, and muslin cloths that some tie underneath their shoes to help hide footprints from border officials. Peering through the border fence into Mexico, we could see several crumpled plastic water bottles &mdash presumably discarded before crossing &mdash stacked on top of the sand beneath a tangle of bushes.

Despite these precautions, few travelers make it across the desert unscathed. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, some 2,346 people had to be rescued along the border during the 2013 fiscal year, something Morones said is often a direct result of the blistering heat. Groups like Border Angels try their best to offer assistance, but their efforts aren&rsquot nearly enough to cover the 1,954 miles that make up the U.S.-Mexico border.

&ldquoWe didn&rsquot have a name until 2001, when we were called the Border Angels,&rdquo Morones said, stepping gingerly as he spoke to avoid slipping on the loose sand. &ldquoThere are now over 25 organizations that drop off water. We come out three or four times a month to various locations.&rdquo

If extreme temperatures weren&rsquot enough, migrants also have to avoid dangerous creatures that roam the untamed borderlands. Snakes such as the western diamondback rattlesnake, whose bite can cause extreme pain and even death, hide under rocks and shrubs along the entirety of America&rsquos southern border. In addition, the Southwestern section is home to the Arizona Bark Scorpion, whose sting can cause severe pain, numbness, vomiting, loss of breath, and even convulsions for up to 72 hours. The dangerous insect frequently seeks shelter in shoes, clothing, or sleeping bags &mdash the few possessions often carried by border crossers.

Morones said he himself was once bitten by a Brown Recluse spider &mdash one of the most venomous creatures in either country &mdash during a routine water drop near the border a few years ago. He said the injury ravaged his hand, causing chunks of flesh to decay away until he visited a doctor. The wound finally began to heal several weeks later.

The incident was uncomfortable for Morones, but such a bite could be a death sentence for many migrants: medical experts and anti-venom are hard to come by in the desert, where a healthy body can mean the difference between life and death.

Human hazards

Even if a traveler is fortunate enough to beat the elements and escape nature&rsquos wrath, there is still another, far more dangerous threat to evade: other humans.

Pausing for a moment during our walk across the Jacumba, Morones stooped to pick up an empty, broken water jug.

&ldquoThese holes are from an animal, probably a coyote,&rdquo he said, holding up the jug and pointing to various tooth-sized punctures near the lid. He then drew his finger across a long, slender gash that stretched along the middle of the jug. &ldquoBut this might be from something else &mdash a knife. We find empty water bottles out here with gashes like this &hellip Minutemen will come and slice them open.&rdquo

He added that people will sometimes write chilling messages on busted jugs, such as &ldquokill these people.&rdquo

The so-called Minutemen, originally formed in 2005, are a loose collection of armed anti-immigration activists who see migrants as a threat to American society and regularly patrol the border looking to intercept crossers. Led by political activist James &ldquoJim&rdquo Gilchrist and named after the Minutemen of the American Revolution, the group&rsquos website says it is dedicated to &ldquoprotecting&rdquo the border by running &ldquovolunteer scout patrols&rdquo and &ldquooffering assistance&rdquo to Border Patrol agents.

Although members of Minutemen groups have not yet been found guilty of committing violence against border crossers, their vehement anti-immigrant stance has caused clashes with immigrants and Hispanics living in the United States. In 2011, Shawna Forde, founder of Minutemen American Defense, was found guilty of breaking into the home of 29-year-old Raul Flores and murdering him and his 9-year-old daughter. Forde, who was given the death penalty, explained that she had planned to rob Flores to fund her militia group. She justified the act by saying that she thought Flores &mdash who, like his daughter and wife, held American citizenship &mdash was a drug dealer.

Minutemen activities have lulled over the years, but Gilchrist recently tried to rally thousands of vigilantes to capture the droves of Latin American children who came across the border this past year &mdash a radical move that came with the blessing of some Texas state lawmakers. The Minutemen Project has since announced plans for its largest effort to date, a robust gathering of gun-toting anti-immigrant activists codenamed &ldquoOperation Normandy&rdquo scheduled for May 1, 2015 &mdash the anniversary of the famous American invasion of France during World War II. Organizers plan to assemble thousands of armed individuals and &ldquomilitias&rdquo along the border, where they will encourage participants to &ldquomake their stand&rdquo against any immigrants they see cross.

But while the Minutemen are currently more of an existential threat to migrants &mdash their alleged sabotage of water supplies, if true, constitute an indirect attack on the livelihood of migrants &mdash people crossing the border do face real violence at the hands of those who live along the wall. Ranchers often encounter immigrants crossing their land, for example, and some have been known to respond to trespassers with deadly force. In 2009, one rancher reportedly held 11 immigrants at gunpoint and threatened to set his dog loose on them, and another shot 2 men on his property in 2011 because he thought they were border crossers. Some ranchers have even organized teams of people to hunt for immigrants, although most insist their intention is only to stop them and alert Border Patrol, not hurt people.

Some ranchers, of course, leave out buckets of water for immigrants to drink as they make their way across the border. But even with good samaritans about, the odds are stacked against border crossers: On the Mexico side, Morones said that immigrants &mdash particularly those coming from Central America &mdash often solicit the help of human smugglers, many of whom are affiliated with notoriously violent Mexican gangs and criminal organizations. Although these guides, sometimes called coyotes, assist some migrants, they&rsquore also known to hurt or even rape women they escort, and some simply abandon their clients altogether. Morones spoke of guides who &ldquowill say that they&rsquore just walking [away for] a couple of hours&rdquo before leaving immigrants alone and desperate in the desert. This is corroborated by statements made by various U.S. Border Patrol agents, who note that these smugglers will often leave behind travelers who can&rsquot keep up, dooming them to wander aimlessly across scorched wastelands with no direction or form of communication &mdash a perilous situation that can easily lead to a lonely death.

Fighting for dignity, even in death

Because of this lethal combination of environmental and human dangers, more than 6,000 people have been found dead over the past 16 years attempting to enter the U.S. from Mexico, and some 307 met their end while crossing between October 2013 and September 2014 (that&rsquos down from 445 the year before). In the 2013 fiscal year, Border Patrol recorded seven deaths in the San Diego sector alone.

Still, exact counts of immigrant dead are often difficult to ascertain, both because statistics from the Mexico side are hard to acquire and because it&rsquos not always clear who is or isn&rsquot a migrant. This is especially evident at Terrace Park Cemetery, a county-run burial ground in Holtville, California, about an hour east of Jacumba. When ThinkProgress reporters visited the cemetery after finishing the water drop, we were greeted by Chuck Jernigan, a mustachioed, cigar-chewing former sheriff who now oversees the area as Superintendent of the Central Valley Cemetery District. Jumping out of his truck to walk us across the dirt field that constituted the graveyard, he explained that the cemetery primarily serves as the final resting place for poor individuals who can&rsquot afford funerals.

&ldquoIn the old days we used to call this a pauper&rsquos field,&rdquo he said.

But closer inspection of the cemetery, which is home to 522 graves total, reveals a strange oddity: about half of the graves are marked with little more than a small, nondescript brick resting atop the ruddy red dirt, and while some have names, most are inscribed with just an identification number. This is because the yard also houses unidentified bodies found in Imperial County, and since the area is known to be a hotbed of border crossings, many of the nameless graves that fill the yard &mdash listed as John or Jane Doe on official documents &mdash are suspected to house the bodies of immigrants who passed away while trying to cross over.

The presence of possible immigrant graves has made the cemetery a flashpoint between immigrant rights activists and Jernigan. Morones and Border Angels volunteers insist the graveyard should be made more easily accessible so groups can visit and hold vigils for the people they claim are immigrants (the burial ground is usually only open to people who submit a written request two weeks ahead of time). But Jernigan argued that holding specific religious ceremonies for the unidentified graves is inappropriate because it is impossible to know their religious affiliations, and that allowing for unmitigated access to fresh graves could result in accidents.

Despite this tension, Jernigan has allowed Border Angels and other groups to hold occasional vigils on the grounds, as evidenced by the row of tiny, colorful crosses &mdash supplied by volunteers from Border Angels &mdash that sit behind several graves. They read &ldquoNo olvidados,&rdquo which means &ldquonot forgotten&rdquo in Spanish.

&ldquoWe leave &rsquoem up until the crosses fall down,&rdquo he said, implying that allowing the crosses was a concession, and not his personal preference.

For his part, Jernigan, a self-described &ldquoFox News junkie,&rdquo expressed deep frustration with immigration activists such as Border Angels and Democrat-led efforts to overhaul the current immigration system. He noted, for instance, that it wouldn&rsquot be &ldquoright&rdquo if undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States were granted citizenship or permanent residency en masse.

Yet he was also adamant that his job was simply to provide dignity to the deceased &mdash whoever they may be &mdash and was quick to distinguish between his irritation with the immigration system and immigrants themselves.

&ldquoMy feelings about immigration don&rsquot have anything to do with the business I&rsquom in,&rdquo he said. &ldquoThe majority [of immigrants] just want to come over and feed their family, and that&rsquos not a crime &hellip They&rsquore good people. They&rsquore honest people, man. They&rsquore just looking to better themselves.&rdquo

The majority [of immigrants] just want to come over and feed their family, and that&rsquos not a crime.

Unfortunately for immigrants, Jernigan&rsquos passion for respectful burials is increasingly rare, and many who pass away while crossing the border still have to fight for dignity in death. For example, Jernigan noted Terrace Park actually hasn&rsquot buried an unidentified body in four years, but not because people &mdash or immigrants &mdash have stopped dying. Imperial County still reported Jane and John Does deaths after 2010, but county officials told ThinkProgress that those bodies were cremated. If any of those bodies were Catholic immigrants, the use of cremation is potentially insulting the Catholic Church lifted its ban on cremations in 1963, but still officially prefers a physical burial, as do many traditional Catholics. Yet the practice of cremating unidentified immigrant bodies is widespread, and various other counties along the Arizona border also cremate immigrant bodies.

But even cremation is preferable to the treatment awaiting some immigrants who don&rsquot survive the trip. Last year, anthropologists uncovered a mass grave of immigrant bodies at a funeral home in Brooks County, Texas. One of the plots had three bodies stuffed inside a single body bag, another had the deceased wrapped in small garbage bags, and still others contained disembodied skulls and skeleton parts shoved into biohazard sacks. The county had reportedly been paying the funeral home to intern bodies for 16 years.

Deaths have been reduced at some parts of the border, but last year&rsquos surge of people &mdash including thousands of children &mdash fleeing to the United States from violence-ridden Central American countries could lead to a uptick of newly reported deaths. Meanwhile, efforts to bolster border security &mdash which the federal government already pumps around $18 billion into annually, more money than is spent on every other federal law enforcement agency combined &mdash have yet to stop the dying.

Empty bottles left over from previous water drops.

Back in Jacumba, Morones told ThinkProgress that he plans to keep leading water drops for as long as it is needed, but expressed dismay about the perilous situation facing those who risk the trek to the United States. As he extrapolated on the death toll caused by the border and the wall, he was interrupted by the groan of a Border Patrol SUV, its tires kicking up clouds of coarse sand as it rumbled down the path that runs along the fence.

&ldquoYou have a situation where people are dying &mdash they&rsquore dying everyday,&rdquo he said, watching it pass.