Notes from a Borderland

What we learn from immigrants
By DAVID KISH  |  May 5, 2010


Arizona has declared war on Mexico. SB1070, a new immigration bill signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer, has set off national boycotts, lawsuits, protests, and denouncements. Even right-wingers like Tom Ridge are balking. The sheriff of Pima County (south of Phoenix) has called it “stupid and racist.” Although amended in its very first week of existence, this ill-conceived law still requires state and local police to demand proof of citizenship from anyone they stop who looks illegal — whatever that means. It will certainly lead to racial profiling of legal Mexican-Americans as well as desperate Mexican citizens. Logistically, morally, constitutionally, and economically the new law is indefensible.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon has criticized it, but his words ring hollow since his American-backed crackdown on drugs has led to more than 20,000 murders in northern Mexico since 2005. This bloodbath — distinct from (though exacerbating) the phenomenon of illegals coming here to peacefully work — has hurt tourism and increased poverty south of the border, while fueling fear north of the border. This fear has narrowed Arizonans’ attitudes, and trivialized the importance and ubiquity of Mexican culture on which cash-strapped Arizona capitalizes every day.

My memories are rich with Sonoran overtones: a “birthday cake” of pineapple tamales with sparklers on top; a mission-style cathedral mass with full mariachi band converting every dirge into a happy waltz; a highway overpass festooned with colorful metal panels cut to mimic Mexican paper art; young girls decked out in gowns and tiaras for their quinceañera parties; street vendors selling home-made burritos; Virgin of Guadalupe tattoos on shaved heads; grocery stores with entire piñata aisles; immaculate low-riders and their proud owners. All already state-side and legal, mi amigos!

Every November, downtown Tucson comes alive with a nighttime parade celebrating the Mexican Catholic holiday, the Day of the Dead. Thousands of people dress as skeletons and carry pictures of departed loved ones; scores more line the streets to watch. In the years I’ve participated, I have never seen a single act of violence, vandalism, or disrespect. Yet, that’s what Americans conjure when they think of cultural immigration.

This fear can be seen in the presence of the Border Patrol, their impromptu check-points increasingly popping up on southwest roads. Each time I go through the one near Tombstone it’s a little bigger, graduating from a few agents, a tent, and a couple of cruisers, to a fleet of vehicles, generators, lights, drug dogs, permanent structures, and a helicopter hovering nearby.

Returning from Nogales, Mexico, one afternoon, our shuttle van was stopped. When the fatigue-clad agent opened the side door he was clearly surprised at my Caucasian face and my perfect driver’s license. “Thank you, sir!” he said reverentially. He then checked the papers of everyone else on board, which took a while — since none had a simple license, nor a white face. A few months later that shuttle service and others like it were raided, arrests were made, and people were deported.

That very night, though, others climbed fences, traversed tunnels, and died of exposure in the harsh Arizona landscape. Border crossers pay desert guides their paltry life savings, but are often double-crossed. Minutemen militia members, armed and angry, mark their territory with hand-made signs depicting ever-vigilant silver-hearted coyotes. Liberal establishments display the common words “Humanitarian Aid is Never a Crime” in support of the drinking-water stations compassionately set up along immigration routes. The anachronistic words “dago” and “wetback” are uttered with alarming nonchalance. Thousands march for solidarity, while hundreds taunt them; it’s a powder keg.

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