Posts Tagged alien
By David Von Drehle Thursday, Jun. 19, 2008
The smuggler was surprised to see us. It’s his business to monitor traffic along his stretch of the border, and he had just watched from his hiding place as a white-and-green patrol truck rolled slowly past on the U.S. side. The day shift was ending for “la migra,” the border patrol, so it was time for him to move.
He urged his clients–11 illegal aliens–to get over the fence quickly. Within minutes, all were safely across the border about five miles (8 km) west of Naco, Ariz.–roughly the same spot where Coronado and his conquistadores made the first recorded crossing in 1540. The smuggler was brushing their footprints from the border road when our four-wheel-drive rental appeared unexpectedly over the hill.
He did what smugglers always do when spotted: he bolted. In an instant he was safely back on the other side, leaving his customers to their fate. They followed him, bewildered, only gradually realizing that we were journalists, not federal agents. In this way, we had a chance to see how a group of ordinary Mexicans–one a grandmotherly woman, another a 10-year-old boy–cope with the U.S. government’s new $1 million-per-mile border-security fence.
First they tossed their day packs over the 12-ft. (3.7 m) barrier of steel mesh. They had chosen to cross at a spot where the fence made a small right-angle jog, because there was a supporting post extending about halfway up the angle. This gave them a foothold, and from there, the strongest members of the group boosted the others to the top. It was no easy transit. One young woman froze in fear, a leg on either side of the fence, her face a mask of panic as she looked at the long fall into one country or the other. Her companions quickly and efficiently coaxed her over. Then the little boy–who wore a knockoff New York Yankees cap–went over, dangling by his hands from the top and dropping bravely into waiting arms. The old woman glared at us as a companion pushed her back up the fence she had just come down. Within three or four minutes–minutes freighted with visions of broken bones and heart attacks–all of them were safely back in Mexico. They would surely try again once we were gone.
A Barrier in the Eye of the Beholder So the new border fence must be a failure, right? If a billion-dollar barrier can’t stop children and seniors in broad daylight, what’s the point?
That would be one way to tell this story–but the truth is more complicated. At the Berlin Wall, guards fired live ammunition, and still an estimated 5,000 people managed to cross. And why shouldn’t the fence be a complicated subject? Everything else about immigration and border security is complicated. The border has become the rice, or maybe the potatoes, of American politics; it goes with just about everything on the menu. It’s an economic issue: Are illegal immigrants taking jobs from American citizens and driving down wages? It’s a health-care issue: Do uninsured aliens in emergency rooms push up the cost of premiums for the insured? It’s an education issue: Are local school districts across the country overtaxed by the needs of immigrant children? It’s a crime issue: Are U.S. cities plagued by Central American gangs? And it’s a national-security issue: Could bomb-toting terrorists cross into the U.S. undetected?
Presidential candidates in both parties have learned this year to be wary of a subject that shows up in so many guises on so many different plates. What tastes like common sense to one voter–cracking down on illegal crossings–smacks of xenophobia to the next, and the same rumble of helicopters and border-patrol Jeeps in the Southwestern desert sounds to some people like America standing up for itself but to others like Emma Lazarus, poet of the Statue of Liberty, rolling over in her grave.
Passions don’t shake out neatly along party lines. Republican John McCain wove frantically through last winter’s debates trying to avoid the scarlet A-for-amnesty. His sin was promoting a “pathway to citizenship” for undocumented workers. Democrat Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, tripped on a debate question about driver’s licenses for illegal aliens. Senator Barack Obama has stepped carefully with the issue, voting for the fence and for more agents on the border while saying that this covers “only one side of the equation.”
In this cloud of intangibles, the fence is something solid. After years of talking about it, Congress last year put $1.2 billion into the project, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) promptly started hiring posthole diggers. DHS aims to complete more than 650 miles (roughly 1,000 km) of barrier by the end of the year, built in sections by National Guard units and private contractors. That represents only about one-third of the U.S.-Mexico border; on the other hand, the fence clearly delineates, for the first time, a frontier that was previously just a four-strand cattle fence at best.
New fence goes up every week in Arizona and California, mile after mile of posts and plates and screens and rails marching across sun-blasted deserts and up rugged, rock-strewn hillsides. No one seems able to keep track of it all. Even agents of the newly reorganized Customs and Border Protection (CBP) department find themselves coming upon sections they’ve never seen before. The work is less advanced in New Mexico and stalled in Texas, where fierce local opposition has delayed construction–a coalition of border-town mayors and chambers of commerce has sued DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, alleging he is trying to seize land at inadequate prices. But Texas already has more than 1,200 miles (almost 2,000 km) of well-marked border in the form of the Rio Grande.
The fence is not likely to win any architecture awards. It’s a hodgepodge of designs. The best–sections of tall, concrete-filled steel poles deeply rooted, closely spaced and solidly linked at the top–are bluntly functional. The worst–rusting, graffiti-covered, Vietnam-era surplus–are just skeevy walls of welded junk. Whether you think it’s a sad necessity or a crude brutality, the fence is not a sight that stirs pride. The operative question, however, is not What does it look like? but How does it work?