We lived in a trailer on the ranch and the Rio Grande was less than a mile distant across the old Mines Road in Laredo. The river was so close that immigrants were often still wet when they came by our door on the way to the railroad tracks that they followed north to San Antonio. They never really asked anyone on the ranch for more than water and did not want to linger because they knew the Border Patrol was vigilant. Sometimes during the night they gently tossed pebbles against our window to ask for water and it scared my young bride while I was away at work.
In those days, we went to Mexico every weekend and ate and shopped and walked the streets in Nuevo Laredo and drove up to the Sierra Madre and the little towns like Bustamente. We had cold beer and pickled eggs and listened to the music in the plazas and there was almost always the smell of carne asada in the air as you walked to the Cadillac Bar for a rum punch. The nights we had on the border are still as vivid in my memory as the mornings when it had rained and you could see the mountains across the desert. We sat on the wooden steps at the back of our trailer on the days we could see the outline of the distant peaks and we talked and dreamed about our lives and travel. We were excited about being young and together and seeing the world.
The border is not much like that today but I no longer go down to Mexico. I was in the Lower Rio Grande Valley a few weeks ago and in the business community the conversations were focused on how drug cartel violence was harming the image and economic vitality of border communities. A new medical center had been built in the middle of the lower valley and doctors had been recruited to move from the midwest but when their wives got on the Internet and began researching their future home town they put an end to their husband’s plans.
Every day there is a new horror from Mexico but it is also a beautiful country and is overwhelmingly populated with gentle souls making humble livings on an epic landscape. You can also find videos posted by innocent observers conducting their business when a gunfight breaks out and people start dying in the plazas where the shoeshine boys are now afraid to linger. Not too long ago I heard about nine people found hanging from a bridge and a dump truck full of bodies that had been left beneath an overpass. These stories are far too plentiful and there is no unemotional context for the harm they do even beyond the sadness of the deaths. The desperation over drugs and money and guns has grown so great that the news often sounds like everyone has surrendered to the circumstances. The war on drugs is over. And drugs won.
The U.S. government says that there is now a “net zero” migration from Mexico to this country but that does not mean our mutual problems are lessened. Mexicans are still coming to America and we continue to buy the product that is killing them by the tens of thousands. You cannot know what that is like until you have seen and heard them cry. I have listened to their pleadings but mostly I remember the immigrants’ tears. I know that what they are doing is against the law but I also know that if I were living their lives of desperation and fear that there is no river that could keep me from trying to help my family.
I understood this more intellectually on a trip down to where the Rio Grande where the river makes a slow bend south of Del Rio. The land the crossers were about to encounter when they reached the north bank of the big river was marked by an endless horizon of mesquite, prickly ocotillo and cholla, and a ceaseless heat that felt as though it were left over from the earth’s beginnings. There was also fast water moving in the channel and at this location it was deep and dangerous.
Our camera crew was moving slowly into the cane breaks that stood tall in the flood plain. The sky was rolling up darkness from the east and there was much less light in the tunnels that the immigrants had made through the 10 and 15 foot stalks. A US Border Patrol officer led us down a path and showed us where the immigrants had made little spaces to hide off of the trail. These were littered with abandoned clothes and other belongings that might have not served them on the long walk across deadly open spaces of Texas. I thought it looked like a camp or a fort fashioned by adventurous boys.
The cane stalks woven together by the wind made a roof against a sky that they would come to know as an enemy in the next days. Chances were good a few would die of thirst or exposure. A few of the lucky ones would be able to jump a freight train but first they had to succeed at sneaking into town and avoiding security at the rail yards.
“We can’t catch them all,” the border patrol agent said into our television camera. “We only get a tiny percent. And you feel bad about it when you do. But it’s the law and it’s my job. Here, let me show you this.”
The pathway opened up to a muddy embankment that angled sharply to the water. The Rio Grande was moving swiftly and was darkly colored from the soil it carried from the great basins of farmland in north central Mexico and the remote canyon lands of Big Bend National Park. They would have to swim with strength and courage to reach America.
“They’re gathering over there right now.” The agent pointed upstream a few hundred yards and slight motion was visible in the undergrowth on the Mexican side. “I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be crossing that river tonight. Let’s just pull back and wait.”
We followed the little beam of his pocket flashlight and were eventually positioned at a location up the trail near the hollowed out rest spot. We squatted in the darkness for almost an hour until we heard them slipping as they clambered up the muddy embankment. The agent stood.
“They’ll be here in a few minutes.” His voice was dispassionate and clinical. After riding around with him that day on his patrols we learned quickly of his moral conflict. He was the son of immigrants from Mexico. “We all came here from somewhere,” he had told us during the taping of an interview. “I’m just not sure how or what we do about this.”
Eleven people approached and the agent turned on his larger flashlight as he heard them rustling through the cane and focused it on their faces.
“Alto. Espere aqui,” he ordered.
His voice was not authoritative but they obeyed and stopped. As he walked past each of them, he tapped them on the shoulder and ordered them to sit on the trail. This was a measure of security he took because budget cuts had put him in the position of working alone in the dark and handling people who might be filled with angry desperation. These 9 men and 2 women were no different than those who encountered almost every night of his job. They were tired and sad and wet and all they wanted was a job and money to care for their families in Mexico.
“Can you please just let me go,” one of the men said in halting English. “I just can’t go back. Please, sir. I am beg to you.”
He gave his name as Rojas. As we waited for the vans to arrive after the agent radioed for assistance, we talked to Rojas and asked him about what had led him to the river. He was the only one willing to speak but their stories all had the same texture of pain with minor variations in fact.
“I cannot go home,” he sobbed. The bright camera light turned his tears into shining rivulets. “No work there. My children hungry. My wife sick. I have to come America.”
“Where do you come from?” I asked.
“My home…..you know is Guadalajara? Little place by there. I walk here. Many hundreds miles.”
The agent paced in front of the assembled group and remained wary that someone might bolt into the brush.
“You let me go, sir? Please. What it matter? No one knows. What it matter to you? Nothing? But it big important to me. Please. My children.”
I turned to see if there was a reaction on the agent’s face behind the flashlight’s glow. He betrayed nothing and swung the beam of his light up toward Rojas and saw his bare feet, sweat pants, and torn tee shirt, and his dripping, stringy hair.
“I can’t,” the agent said in perfect Spanish. “You know that.”
The vans rolled up and the immigrants boarded and were gone within minutes. After being processed through a detention center, they were returned to the international bridge and sent back south. But they were not likely to give up.
“I’m sure I’ll see that Rojas fella again,” the Border Patrol officer said. “Or one of our other agents will. And probably the rest of them, too. Look, like I said, I don’t blame them. I’d take whatever risks are necessary to feed my kids. I guess we’re all just doing what we have to do. I don’t know anything.”
Drug cartels continue killing innocents and each other. The Mexican government’s military crackdown has not even slowed the trade. Thousands of women have been disappeared from Ciudad Juarez. Multi-national businesses that have great economic rationale to relocate to the border hesitate because violence has sometimes spilled across to the American side.
The only thing separating that misery from bright possibility is a river and a desert. So they take their chances going north. And they swing hammers and build houses and work the farms and the restaurants and clean homes and hotels and care for our children. They also have the same dreams of health and prosperity as Americans. The profit of vast industries is carried on their low income backs and is marked in their calloused hands and defined by the ache of their muscles. Our economy and our country might not function as well without their labor and there are no laws Washington can pass that will free us from our mutual dependence.
Immigration has only recently been viewed as curse rather than a heritage. And when we decided to make America the shining city on a hill, we ought to have expected people were always going to be drawn to the light.