I am called Ingrid and my mother is called Basilia and we left our house [in Guatemala] well. We came sad to look for a new life for my family. One risked life boarding the buses and the train fighting to reach the border. . . . There are persons that treated us well and others bad when they delivered us to the line. There were Mexicans that were telling the police how come the “guatemaltecos” came. I asked god why he had not come because that is my dream to go there.
—Entry (11/16/18) in the guest book of a migrant shelter, Tucson, Arizona
i: an introduction to border protection
On February 5, 2019, the president of the United States (a certain Donald Trump) in his State of the Union speech warned of “migrant caravans and accused Mexican cities of busing migrants to the border ‘to bring them up to our country in areas where there is little border protection.’”1 Wishing to see the border for myself, I decided to visit Arizona, where my ignorance of local conditions might save me from prejudgment.
At an hour’s driving distance from Tucson lay the internationally bifurcated town of Nogales, a perfect candidate for Trump’s “border protection.” On Wednesday night, braced by a unanimous resolution of his city council, Mayor Arturo Garino declared that Nogales would sue the federal government if it declined to remove the new coils of razor wire. The newspaper remarked: “Garino said authorities didn’t tell him why more wire was installed.” Maybe they mistook him for a Mexican. When reporters tried to get to the bottom of it, they received their own education: “U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Defense did not respond to inquiries about why additional wire was installed last weekend.”2 Duly impressed by the latest headline (driver shot after trying to run over cbp officer in nogales3—which is to say that the car coasted into Mexico, where police pulled out the unconscious driver and his cipher of a passenger, after which all sources settled into the easy glow of the no comment), I saw on the Arizona side those bright, precious new-minted coils of razor wire shining in the streetlight as beautifully as if they had been cast from Mexican silver. Sometimes they appeared pure white. They caught the light in such a way that they almost seemed to crackle or vibrate; behind them ran various ugly metal graynesses, with black slats of night between them. I waved at a little boy who was in Mexico, and he waved back. Then I went to chat with some Latinos on my side, three women and a man, who were all leaning in toward the fence at a pale form that pressed toward them from the Mexican side; they must not have intended to visit for long, since none wore jackets. The youngest woman, black-braided, who occupied the narrow white curb at the base of the wall (her companions stood in the street), was shivering and clasping her hands across her belly as she bent toward Mexico; to her left, a single glittering coil of razor wire preened like the fronds of a lordly palm tree, and the stained white base of the wall glistened like dirty snow. I told them that the razor wire disgusted me, and they said they felt the same. Their compañera in Mexico was a fortyish woman with black hair and movie-star eyelashes. Her fingers shone as bright as metal. On her side of the wall I now perceived a smiling black-eyed girl-child who pressed her spread fingers against the wall; in my halting Spanish I asked if I could photograph her, and she nodded, her smile widening until I could not tell whether it was strained.
Now, where were the hordes we were supposed to worry about? The newspaper had alerted me that “a caravan of 1,600 Central American migrants was surrounded Wednesday by Mexican authorities in an old factory a short distance from Texas, where they hoped to seek asylum even as U.S. authorities sent extra law enforcement and soldiers to stop them.”4 But this cold, dark sector was silent.
Then from the port of entry silhouettes were born, a good fifteen or more, importing backpacks and roller bags, hastening up the sidewalk around two sides of a gas station that glowed with eerie blank purity. They were practically running away from Mexico; my fixer proposed that they aspired to catch some night bus. (On such matters he and I speculated, pretending to be journalists.) Then we drove across the border. As usual, the Mexican authorities did not even inspect our documents.
ii: the silent border
Yes, it was silent, and so many times I found people falling silent.
“I’ve lived in Tucson for thirty years,” said an immigration lawyer named Rachel Wilson, who lived in a little house with a cactus garden in front. “In the old days it was not a big deal. You could just come and go. Just a minor way of passing through. It was not all these big barriers and all these officers. It wasn’t militarized, not like a war zone.”
“And when did you notice a difference?”
“There were some small changes in the mid-Eighties. The big changes happened in 1996. And then after 9/11 it really changed. We’ve seen that over the years enforcement just gets more harsh. Unfortunately, there’s this perception that it’s all Trump. But things were unbelievably bad even before Trump came into office. Obama was the first to open family detention centers. The good thing about Trump, if there’s anything good about him, is that he has forced us to open our eyes to the horror.”
In 2019 most everyone I met was guarded. (A number of interviewees declined to have their names published. The unvarying cause was worry about retaliation.) At first it seemed like old times back on the Mexican side. I walked down the street until it dead-ended at the rust-red wall, which was perhaps twenty feet high and set in raised concrete, with behind it, both low and high, the precious sheen of that new concertina wire. Nobody was walking in the United States; nothing was happening. Parked cars, empty streets, and clouds ruled over Northside until a white Border Patrol vehicle rolled very slowly by. I sat down on a bench at the bus stop, which was one road-width away from the wall, and listened to the vendors and strolling couples around me. A Mexican policeman drove by; he smiled and waved at me. Now it was time for a taco. The man who made it told me: “I’ve got sixty-five years of selling the tacos right here. I’m the only one who’s allowed to sell tacos right here. A lot of soldiers came recently and put up the razor wire. As a journalist, what do you think about this situation?”
“I am ashamed of my president and ashamed of America,” I replied.
“My opinion is this,” he said, pausing to shake hands with another customer. “These caravans were arranged by Trump and the government of Mexico to get authorization for the wall. These are smoke screens. From here all the way to Texas, it’s a big smoke screen.”
Martin and Gloria de la Rosa were eating their taco breakfast at the stand. They were a friendly couple. Señora de la Rosa said: “I come into Tucson every week. This situation is bad, bad, stupid. This strategy, Trump wants to put pressure.” Her husband wore a white sombrero. He smiled at me when I took their picture, which to my mind gained in local color from the presence of the wall just behind them.
Of course no border patrolmen would go on the record about anything anymore, not even the weather. That was why I asked the fixer, who was sweetly brash, to go and jibberjabber with those individuals, questioning and marveling at everything, while I sat discreetly in the car. For their counterpart, consider the Mexican policeman who proved quite willing to speak to my laptop but not to my recorder; he posed for a picture but covered up his face for fear of local “bad people,” who from context could have been either the very few migrants whom he considered violent and dangerous or the border thugs called “mafias.” I reminded him that the name tag on his chest still showed, so he covered that with his hand.
Concerned about retaliation from judges in the Arizona municipality of Eloy, which will figure at the end of this story, an American lawyer allowed me to quote the following only if its source stayed nameless: “The majority of the cases that I’ve seen in Eloy are simply hopeless. You argue your heart out and you can’t get them out, or you get them out on huge bonds. The Eloy court is just a black hole of justice. The Florence [Arizona] court is more reasonable. I had a client who crossed legally, with a visa. She was the victim of a car accident, and called the police, and was detained and taken to Eloy. They required her to post a fifteen-thousand-dollar bail. The bail bond company put on an ankle monitor she had to pay for for a year and a half. Now she’s a legal resident, but she had to spend a month and a half in detention. Most of the clients I can’t get out. Judges talk about me behind my back. I believe that my fear of retaliation is real.”
And consider the kind old man named Scott who volunteered for a certain faith-based organization in Tucson. He said: “We’ve had just strange kinds of games played that I think are political that ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] has been involved in. Back around the first of this year, we had capacity in our shelters, but ICE wasn’t bringing them; they were dropping them again at the bus station. Because the person who operates our shelter has a close contact at the bus station, they called her and said, ‘We have these fifty people or seventy-five people that have no idea what to do; ICE just dropped them here.’ So our people got organized, went to the bus station, brought the people to the shelters. Our contact talked with her contact at ICE, with whom she has a good relationship, and the person at ICE told her, ‘We were told not to tell you that we were going to drop people at the bus station, or that we even had people to drop.’”5
Descriptions of the most extreme conditions were laid on me by a spokeswoman from No Más Muertes (No More Deaths), a group that deserves all my praise for caching food and water to help migrants in the desert. As you will see, they kept running afoul of the authorities, with ugly consequences, so I can respect their caution. First this young woman instructed me to keep her last name unpublished, because “there’s a lot of interest in our work and I have kids, so . . . ” I asked what precisely worried her, and she said: “I mean, if we’re actually going to go into it, then I’d rather not do a photograph.” So I next agreed to leave my camera in its holster in exchange for the following explanation, such as it was: “I think it’s mostly just that we’re in a really politically divided and heightened time. I believe in the border work that we do, and I just think it’s a reasonable precaution. We’re definitely on the radar of some white-supremacist groups nationally, and I just prefer to . . . We’re a mostly volunteer organization and definitely believe in our mission, and . . . I think it’s useful to focus on the work we do and not specifically on any one member of the organization.” After the interview, she emailed my fixer asking that the “explanation” not be published either. By then I had had enough.6 (Respecting her fears, I will at least refrain from printing her first name and any description.)
iii: samuel and antonia
Let us now meet the migrants themselves. We begin with one quietly cheerful shelter for asylum seekers. Although the Methodists had started it, “We have Unitarians, we have Catholics, we have Presbyterians, Lutherans, and some people who are atheists. I even have a couple of Republicans helping out! They talk to me about the wall but are still here helping out.” In keeping with the regional mood, I was asked not to identify the place (“in the Tucson foothills”), and the co-coordinator who showed me around (she was called Diane) declined to provide her last name, because “we’re just kinda protecting our folks. We don’t want location or names or anything like that, because I worry about protesters.” No location, then, but I will say that planted in the gravel in front of the building stood a sign from that brave organization No More Deaths: humanitarian aid is never a crime—drop the charges, with a hand reaching up for a water jug somewhere between two saguaro cacti.
Diane showed me around. Here was the pantry and the dining space and a room of tightly spaced cots, each with its tucked-in sheets, blanket, and folded towel. On one bed a pair of scissors lay; on another, a little book, perhaps the New Testament; on a third, a child’s dark jacket. And over here and over there rushed that loving woman, one of many good angels, a trifle past middle age, with her sun-damaged skin, her name tag around her neck, and that sweet shining smile, gazing at me with quick-ripening trust, then helping the other volunteers deploy snacks, lunch, and toilet paper from their neatly stacked hoard.
As she told their history, “This past October we had a church up the street, Saint Pius X, get two hundred and fifty asylum seekers. And then they had a big funeral coming up, so they asked churches in the area to take some of those people, and we were one of them. We had twenty-eight asylum seekers. We had people volunteer and bring stuff; it was amazing, and it was really high stress because we didn’t know what we were doing.” After those first migrants had come and gone, “the pastor said this is an ongoing problem.”
The shelter’s adult “guests” had been kindly provided with ankle bracelets by the U.S. government, which had released them to Diane’s organization pending their reception by individual sponsors. Surprised by this humanitarian procedure, I asked the volunteer named Scott why ICE had agreed to it. He said: “They were getting into a bind public-relationswise. What first happened was that ICE was just dropping people at the bus station. People were dropped there with no resources and no idea what to do. And there was a big outcry about this, a lot of publicity about what they were doing; it was just a ridiculous situation. So people from the community started volunteering. There were no shelters; they gave them some money, some food, helped them get a [bus] ticket, helped them understand what would be involved to get going [on their way].
“The criteria for people that we get is, number one, they have to have children with them; number two, they have to have passed their initial credible fear screening; number three, they have to not have any criminal record that disqualifies them. Then they have to have a sponsor in the country who will provide them transportation to their location and will guarantee that they will support them economically for whatever period, however many months it is. They are not allowed to work at all. Once that’s done, they are released and brought here, and we help them get in touch with their sponsor, who sends them a bus ticket electronically. Then we get them to the bus station with food and warm clothes and whatever they need. Usually they arrive with just whatever they can carry in a small bag and the clothes on their back, which they may be wearing for weeks or months.
“We got involved about two years ago when ICE made contact with the bishop of the United Methodist Church, Bishop Robert Hoshibata. At that point the decision was made here in Tucson that we would start a couple of shelters.”
When I asked Diane what brought her into this work, she said: “Well, we had a person here in sanctuary for a couple of years. One of the things the pastor talked about is, What would you do for another person? This is kind of my answer to that, to show compassion, I guess, and to make their lives less miserable, because I feel like most of this is the fault of the United States.”
“What do you think about Trump’s wall?”
“I think it’s ridiculous.”
“Why do you think the people who voted for Trump want this wall?”
“My personal opinion is that a lot of them just want a country that has white people, and they’re worried about not being a majority anymore.”
Among the shelter’s inmates was a welder and solar-energy worker named Samuel, twenty-nine years old, a little heavy, smooth-skinned, with a big round face. He smiled when he spoke, sincerely or nervously or meaninglessly, how was I to know? And like so many of these people (to whom their own and others’ sufferings must have been old news), he had a way of making light of whatever he must have endured.
Squinting at me, he began in his high, pleasant voice: “I’m from Honduras, from the Copán ruins. Many trees, very many mountains. Many people. It’s a city with a lot of people.”
“What made you decide to leave home?”
“Much insecurity,” he immediately replied. “There was no future for the kids. There was no work, nothing for them there.”
“How many in your family?”
“My wife, my son, and one girl that I left in Honduras.”
“How old is she?”
“Who takes care of her?”
“My wife. I came with just my son, Nelson, and my wife stayed with her.”
When I asked him to describe their family conference, he squinted into space and said: “Well, I had to talk with my wife, and it was pretty obvious that there wasn’t a future for the kids, and we were pretty much in agreement that this would be the best option for them. In my country it’s very normal for people to separate, because everybody comes here; there’s nothing there.”
“Why are the conditions so bad in Honduras, and how long have they been bad?”
“There’s no employment. Times have always been bad in Honduras. As long as I can remember it’s been like that.”
“I don’t know. But back in 20187 there was an election with a lot of voter fraud. It’s always been this way. In Honduras, a president can never be elected twice. When that president took office the first time, he changed the laws so he could be elected again, and everyone said no, we don’t want this.”
But why should this have motivated Samuel’s migration? When I asked Rachel Wilson how she would characterize typical asylum seekers, she replied: “They seem to be mostly women and children coming from Central America, fleeing because of unbearable violence. So if you talk to people, even if the person says to you, ‘I want a better life for my children,’ if you scratch beneath the surface, they’ll say, ‘Well, I can’t make money because I can’t leave the house,’ and if you ask, ‘Why can’t you leave your house?’ they’ll say, ‘Because I was forced to be a gang member’s girlfriend, and when I wanted to leave he didn’t see it that way.’ I think that some migrants over here, they think it sounds more benign to say, ‘Look, I just want a better life.’ I think that some migrants fear that if they say what an awful time they went through, it may seem that they want a handout. The violence now is at unbelievable levels. No one I’ve met from there has said, ‘Oh, yeah, my life has been totally peaceful.’ Everyone has a murdered family member, or they’re threatened with murder.”
None of this apparently fit Samuel’s situation, though I never thought to ask him whether he had faced serious intimidation. Rachel now continued: “The situation in Honduras is slightly different from the one in El Salvador or Guatemala, but the main reason is that, as gangs have taken more and more control of the country, the belief that women are property has taken extreme hold. Someone wants to get out of the relationship, you just kill her. One of my clients, his nephews were killed in front of him because they wouldn’t join. In Honduras there’s a lot of state violence because of the election. Indigenous people are particularly targeted because they’re seen as nonhuman.”
Just across the border, in Nogales, Mexico, another doer of good works named Father Sean Carroll ran his own shelter and migrant-aid center. And he kept an intake survey. His conclusions differed from Rachel’s: “In past years, eighty-eight or eighty-nine percent are migrating from economic need, but this past month, in January, a significant percentage, about sixteen percent, state fear of violence.” But he very possibly lacked the time to, as Rachel had put it, scratch beneath the surface.
So was Samuel “merely” an economic migrant, or had he been threatened? All I can say is: I never got to know much about him.
“How many years have you been married?” I asked.
“Once you decided to separate, how was the last day at your house with your wife?”
“Very difficult. With her father, with her kid, it was very complicated.” (You will hear him employ that characterization more than once. It connotes nothing pleasant.)
“Tell us about your journey, from when you first said goodbye until you came here.”
“We left on the twenty-second of January,8 and it was very, very difficult. The route for undocumented people is very complicated.”
“How did you know where to start?”
“Lots of people come here.”
“Did you go to a coyote or did you talk to some friends who came here?”
“No. From Honduras there’s already many caravans.”
“When was the first caravan?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe in the year past. But one just left on the fifteenth.”
“How did you hear about the caravans?”
“A lot of people come on the train. I left alone. I knew that you look for the trains and you try to find the way north, the route that goes to the border. I brought a phone with me, and I was looking at a map to figure out where the border was. Some people go on a bus, some on the train. You have to ask the people.”
“What made you decide not to go on the caravan?”
“When I left Honduras, the caravan had already left.”
“Otherwise would you have taken it?”
“The caravan went to Mexico City, and that’s where they rested before they came up here.”
I asked if he minded missing it.
“Not really,” he replied, smiling a little. “The caravan is a lot of people, and it takes more time.”
“Is it safer?”
“Could be,” he said, spreading his hands.
I asked him to recount the stages of his journey.
“So from Copán we got to Guatemala by bus. We crossed the border from Guatemala into Mexico. We were eleven people who crossed. We crossed through the mountains so that no one could see us, not the police, not the Border Patrol.”
“Who were the other people who crossed with you?”
“We met up on the road with other Hondurans.”
“Did you have any problems in Guatemala?”
“Guatemala, it’s not a problem. You can travel through Guatemala with a Honduran passport.”
“What was it like going through the mountains into Mexico?”
“It was pretty simple. You find someone with a truck, you pay them. A thousand Mexican pesos9 to go three hours. All the eleven people paid, and then we got taken further. I don’t really remember the names of the cities because we were just rolling. They just leave you in the town and you pick up the next one. Pueblo to pueblo, truck to truck.”
“How much did the trip cost?”
“Total, one thousand dollars, from Honduras, for my son and me.”
“What did you think of Mexico?”
“Mexico is very complicated, especially without papers.”
“What was the most scary or dangerous thing that happened to you?”
“The biggest fear is that you get kidnapped” by the criminal groups in Mexico; “then they start to ask you for money from your family. These cartels . . . ”
“And the most dangerous criminal group?”
“Giant cartels. They’re big and scary.”
“Did anything bad or scary happen to you on the trip?”
“So, it was always pretty scary, because you’re always running. Every time you got stopped by the cops, you’re basically pulling out money.”
“Where did you sleep?”
“We always paid for places to stay: basic dormitories. And when we arrived in the center of town, we would encounter people who would offer rooms.”
“What was it like for Nelson?”
He laughed. “Well, to bring kids is very difficult.”
“How old is he?”
“What things did he say to you during the trip?”
“I was telling my son things like we came so you can have a better future for yourself, and we also need to help your mom and your sister back home. My son is very understanding. He would understand all these things. He was pretty chill10 about it. Sometimes he would get hungry, and it was difficult, but he was pretty easygoing.”
So the boy got hungry. Surely Samuel, too, went without. I never thought to ask those two how thirsty they became, because I had not yet been educated by that No More Deaths volunteer, who sometimes cached water for migrants. She said: “As someone in good health who is relatively young, it’s exhausting. For me, when I’m walking, we use GPS, we have established routes, we know where we’re going, and we have experience being in this extreme environment, and it’s still incredibly taxing to put three or four gallons in your backpack and carry two on your person and walk for a period of time until you get to the designated water drop.”
“How often do you find living people or dead people?”
“If you look at the number of recovered remains, it would even out to one every three days. But these numbers don’t actually reflect either the people whose bodies we will never find because they have been scattered or deteriorated, and they also don’t reflect the people that we know to be disappeared. So we have a missing-migrant hotline; so we do know with a certain amount of certainty about the number of people whose family members have been able to place them in this region and then just never heard from them again. The entire map of the Growler Valley, where you see that Trail of Death that has been brought up in court, there were days when our volunteers would be out for a week and they would find ten or eleven sets of remains. When you look to the west of that range and you don’t see as many red dots, it’s only because those are the areas we don’t have access to. It doesn’t mean the people haven’t died there. . . . ”
Meanwhile, all that Samuel had to say about whatever he went through was: “We crossed the river here, outside of Nogales, in the desert, without a coyote, and we got caught by Immigration, and then we came here.” He laughed. “The phone worked in Mexico, but once we got here, it was like, We’re going for it, and we just crossed.”
Which river was it? On Sunday my fixer and I rolled east along the north side of the border wall and did indeed come to a creek that flowed under a gate; a man and boy might have worked their muddy way through there, although I had subsequent questions about the mafias who controlled the southern side. As for getting caught, well, nothing would have been simpler; a white Border Patrol vehicle was idling right up the hill! Farther east flowed the Santa Cruz River. And who was Samuel? At the time, I considered him simply calm, brave, intelligent, and competent. When I said as much he self-deprecatingly replied: “Very complicated to do this.” As I think back on him, he grows ever more cipherlike to me, being someone whose motives, situation, methods, and future I have now considered for a much longer period than I spent with him. What if he had possessed the superhuman, patient openness to answer my questions for a week? Let’s just call his journey very complicated.
When I asked what had happened after his capture, he replied simply: “We signed some papers looking for asylum, and so I got an ankle bracelet. I was held in detention for three days with my son. ICE took me here. ICE gave us the bracelet and took us here.”
“What do you think of our President Trump?”
He smiled. “Trump’s talked about in all countries, and he doesn’t like immigrants, but because we have no opportunity in our country we have to come here.”
“So what do you hope for from the United States?”
“I have no idea.”
At my request, he stepped into the sun to be photographed, pulling up his left pants cuff to show my camera that black insignia of humiliation around his ankle.
Next was Antonia, four feet something. Her daughter came up nearly to her chin. In appearance and demeanor as well as height, she could almost have been a schoolgirl. Her smile—was it the fullness of her upcurved lips, baring her imperfect teeth without apparent shame, or the way that her eye corners so plausibly echoed it?—almost misled me into imagining that here was someone who had not yet learned what it was like to suffer. (For what it is worth, the fixer, just then interpreting, who had pronounced her Spanish to be indigenously accented, further volunteered that she was “extremely uneducated.” Why should she have been any different?) Her hair was neatly parted across the top of her head.
“How many people in your family?” I began.
“Me, my daughter, and my husband.” (Not surprisingly—perhaps thanks to ICE—the child feared me.)
“Why did your husband stay behind in Ecuador?”
“He didn’t want to come,” she replied.
“Were you disappointed?”
“Sí,” she said readily.
“You will stay together with him or is it like divorce now?”
“We’re together the same.”
“Can you tell us about your journey?”
“It was beautiful,” she said. I must admit to not expecting that.
“Tell us some of the things that happened.”
“In Mexico City we went to the pyramids, saw the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Coyoacán. There was a really big pretty church.” Once again she reminded me of an ingenuous schoolgirl to whom nothing bad had happened. Therefore, I must have been the ingenuous one who could not read her.
“Did anything bad or scary happen?”
“No fear,” she replied with a big smile. “It was just a really pretty journey.”
“Do you have an ankle bracelet?”
“Yes,” she said. (Of course it resembled Samuel’s. From a distance it could have been some kind of watch.) She asked what it was for—could no one have told her?—then inquired: “When I get to Baltimore, will I be able to work wearing this or not?”
“I don’t know,” said the fixer.
“Why Baltimore?” I asked.
“Because my sister works there.”
I asked where she had crossed and what had happened. She answered: “In Nogales. We came across the border, outside of town, in the desert. There was a wall, and we walked a little bit further, and then the police came. They took us in a car, and they took all our clothes and our backpacks and brought us to a little building.”
And once again, just as with Samuel, I tried and failed to imagine her experience. Where in the desert had it been, where along this lonesome border with the weird lonely ocotillos grasping darkly at nothing, and shadowed saguaros that in that scaleless desert could have been her size or the height of the Washington Monument, then faraway mountains, beautifully clear, and between her, her child, and them, glowing narrow pool-like mysteries that might have been real water or maybe mirages, and somewhere, maybe in sight, detention, rescue, or death? Since from Ecuador across Mexico to Arizona is a pretty long way, had she not perceived what to look out for, wouldn’t she have died? And what had it been like, when Northside’s official hand fell heavily on her shoulder? Suppose that her first tongue was, as it might well have been, a Native American one. As Rachel Wilson reminded me: “It’s a particularly bad problem for indigenous people, because no one on the border speaks their language. Indigenous people usually speak a little Spanish, so they [the cogs in the American legal system] think they understand everything. They’re entitled to an interpreter in court, but they have to ask for it, but if you have to ask for it in your native language and they don’t understand your native language . . . ” The fact that Antonia had been ignorant of the ankle bracelet’s purpose had been troubling if not outright diagnostic.
So I went back to the beginning. I asked her: “What made you decide to leave Ecuador?”
“I worked in the fields with the cows and animals only to eat and buy clothes, nothing more. My husband worked building houses, and sometimes there was work and sometimes there wasn’t work, sometimes no food.” The daughter was eight.
“How was it for her coming across?”
“When we got to Immigration she was afraid and she cried.”
“Did you cross with or without a coyote?”
“Without a coyote.”
“How did you know which way to go?”
“There’s just little roads. They said, ‘There’ll be a wall, look for the wall. Just keep going north and you’ll find the wall.’ We got to the big wall and weren’t able to cross it, so we walked further away and had to walk.”
“How many people were you when you crossed?”
“Just the two of us.”
Again I sensed a disinclination to recount the actual border trespass. As for what happened in custody, as with Samuel and his son, both detainees preferred to pass over it.
“You’ve heard about the freezer?” asked Rachel Wilson. I said no. “The first place migrants are detained is called the freezer. People’s fingers will turn blue. There are instances where children have diarrhea and are throwing up and have no clean clothes. Then they’re moved into the so-called dog cages where they have Mylar blankets; at least they’re not sleeping on bare concrete. Here in Arizona, at least, they’re not in the dog pound part.”11
“Why is the freezer so cold?”
“We can’t get a straight answer from CBP. The A.C.L.U. has been trying to find out.”12
Neither Samuel nor Antonia mentioned the freezer. Every other detainee I interviewed did. In this shelter was a binder of handwritten migrant stories and facing-page translations. Here is what a girl named Maybek wrote on November 16, 2018: “We came in buses and enclosed trucks in which we couldn’t breathe. After [that] they left us in the desert. After six hours there immigration arrested us. And took us to a hidden house and it was very cold. They took our sweaters. Afterward they asked for our data. . . . ” Then came another “hidden house,” where they were kept for three days, then a church called Alverca, then another church. Maybek ended: “My dreams are to learn English and go to school and pursue a career.”
Many entries were sunnier, such as this one: “My name is Alex. First, thank God for all he has done on our trip since we left on the fourth of this month. . . . We were seven days in immigration and on this day they brought us to this church where we can see the world and hope God will bless you always.”
Why not? Those people numbered among the lucky. Because they all had sponsors, their detentions were brief, as were their stays at Diane’s shelter. Most stories I would hear were less pleasant. In other words, border protection works in wondrous ways.
iv: the mafias
“Just keep going north and you’ll find the wall,” Antonia’s well-wishers had advised her. Then what? “We got to the big wall and weren’t able to cross it, so we walked further away and had to walk.” So that was what she had done, simply pushing on and pushing on, like the Little Engine That Could, until she won the victory, which is to say, the ankle bracelet. But had it really been that easy? First of all, once she encountered the wall, how much further away had she and the child needed to walk? In most such interviews I came to learn that migrants possessed only the sketchiest notions of the localities, roads, and distances that confronted them. But I could not immediately perceive this fact, and so when I got to the Mexican side of Nogales I assumed that either westward or eastward the wall must end in what I thought of as walking distance.
“It goes maybe twenty-five miles,” said the previously introduced Mexican policeman who covered his face. “I believe it’s all wall up that way.”
“What’s the saddest thing you’ve seen?” I asked him.
“We can start from today. I saw a kid who came from Guerrero. He actually had a bullet sticking out of his shin. He was feeding his animals out on the farm, and shooting broke out, and he felt something burning. He went to the hospital, got a letter from the police saying he had no bad record. I just gave him a little advice on what to do, how to stay off the streets. He just went to the shelter.”
“Is it true that the Mexican side of the border is dangerous to both east and west?”
The policeman insisted: “As long as you’re not involved with anything suspicious, you can go anywhere you want.”
But I asked five taxi drivers in a row for a wall cruise, and they all turned me down, citing mafias. It was almost five at night when I got into a taxi and swung down the bumpy road. The driver said that it got dangerous past the next crossing on account of mafias. We were headed west. He said it was worse to the east. Before I knew it, we had passed the renowned Motel Miami, whose restaurant boasted tv color; next came a sandstone cliff with the wall on top of it, a declamation of palestinia libre boicott israel, and a handwritten sign for a car wash, and we ascended the hill that followed the wall. Two pretty girls leaned against a white car as the gray sky began to darken. The wall blocked off the back yards of many tiny houses. By now, Nogales’s Arizona incarnation had ended; through the border slats I saw nothing but grass and brush. That was my America right there: pastel greenish-brown of grass furring the rolling hills. Finally we glimpsed a white Border Patrol car with its lights on. And the wall continued, jigjagging up a dry hill, with the driver now worrying about the bad part, for we had nearly reached the Mariposa Port of Entry, which he described as “the big one where the trucks are, then it gets dangerous.”
“What would happen?” I inquired.
“Many things,” he said sullenly.
Creeping down the hill into Colonia Reforma, we turned right and left, achieving a place where the local wall was sheet metal and the American wall was out of sight. Here came a graveyard, dry and crowded with tombs.
The driver kept crabbing about how dangerous it was, so I told him to find me a mafia princess.
“There are definitely princesses here. Mafia princesses, I’m not sure.”
There by Taquería La Niña was the Mariposa crossing. I saw a sign pointing toward Hermosillo and a long line of America-aimed cars on one lane of the curving, otherwise empty road. That was as far as he cared to go.
“See that white truck right there?” he said. “That could be a mafia truck.”
“What makes you think so?”
He would not answer, leaving me ignorant and skeptical.
“I can drop you here if you want to take pictures,” he eventually allowed. “Even if you were shot I would wait for you.”
“But if I got shot, how would you get paid?” He frowned at that.
So I got out, leaving my laptop on the back seat, and (thanks to some recent abdominal surgery) crept rather than scrambled up onto a reddish berm of sand, where I found myself amid a line of old trucks, all of them with dark-tinted windows, looking down on the border station. As I wandered forward, meaning to photograph this dreary vista, just beyond the trucks, low, weed-grown hummocks of garbage and broken concrete marked the edge of my vantage point, and then, considerably below, that narrow-looking black ribbon of border wall ran straighter and smoother than usual, behind which lay some sort of enclosed park for white vehicles (belonging, I would guess, to the Border Patrol). Then came an immense rectangular bureaucratic edifice whose roof sloped up away from Mexico. Just rightward of this stretched the many tunnel lanes of the actual port of entry, with traffic backed up as usual. Directly in line with the latter, on a nearby Mexican hill, rose a corrugated-roofed shrine: Between two concrete pillars, the Virgin of Guadalupe clasped her hands. A long rosary streamed down from her wrists, and a tilted cross stood knee-high before her. Flowers grew from a plastic bucket beside her, and a baseball cap lay at her feet. Raising my camera, I twice tripped the shutter, and from inside the truck on my immediate left came the soft wails of women and children. I believe with all my heart, but of course cannot prove, that I was hearing would-be migrants waiting for darkness to be sent over or around the wall, whose termination some people in town had said was another two or three miles from Mariposa, although others claimed it ran much farther to the west. I had been hoping to see a spot where Antonia, Samuel, and their children had crossed without help, but since the driver had reached his limit, and the prickling at the back of my neck advised me to get out of there immediately before some mafia or other penalized me for disrupting business, I retreated down the berm.
Nothing like this had ever happened to me along the California-Mexico border. To be sure, even there were places that it was inadvisable to go at night, but never any twenty-four-hour no-go zones. Mentioning this fact to the driver, I asked: “No one was ever afraid there, so what’s so different here?”
“I’ve never been there,” he predictably replied. “I’m from here.”
Again and again on the way back he insisted on the mafia border menace.
“What do you think of Trump?” I asked him.
He laughed. “I don’t know.”
“I hate Trump,” I said, “but all these things you say about the border, they sound like what Trump says. He goes on about cartels. . . . ”
As usual, the driver would not answer.
We began to drive back down along that snaky rust-red monster of wall. I had him stop from time to time so that I could take more notes and photographs. One place was painted white with an invocation to liberty, migrando a la libertad,13 each slat wearing a doubled letter, so that it looked like this:
ll ii bb ee rr tt aa dd
three white pairs of stylized handprints marching down the dark metal beneath each letter pair, with crisscross fence wires and white American houses behind and between them. It was as if tiny children had pressed both their palms against that concretion, in tidily understated protest.
I remember a high hill of dirt with concrete houses on it, and right by this an installation of small white crosses. One cross read peace and joy. On another dark slat, three interlaced crosses spelled out la madre and carlos and (this one probably courtesy of some Anglo activist) our love radiates. Other crosses skittered across the wall at odd angles and spacings, then skittered out, overwhelmed at last by the wall’s obduracy.
In a different spot (which must have been closer to the American side’s central district, for beyond the boundary the houses stood grander), a row of weathered wooden crosses leaned against those dark posts, and upon the wall’s slanting, coarse-grained, concrete base someone had written ¡chinga la migra!
Another cross was for jorge solis palma. His presumed death doubtless kept Americans safer. The same could be said of juan mendez, age 18.
Now we had returned to the taxi stand. Once more I tried asking the driver to roll east, and again he refused, since that would entail taking a hill through a neighborhood that was “off limits.” And again I wondered how Antonia and Samuel could have gotten across without a coyote. They might have walked some dreary distance as a matter of course, or perhaps they had paid their respective passages after all, under conditions of mafia intimidation that led them to keep that secret.
Very late that night, a man I met on the street downtown three blocks from the wall (he was a kindly person who offered me crystal meth for free) assured me that the mafias were not gangsters in any bad sense but a sort of local police who protected everyone by “cutting off the hands” of evildoers. He said that poor people who needed to cross the border could count on receiving help from them. Hearing this, I wondered whether Antonia and Samuel had been allowed to pay on a sliding scale.
That was on Saturday. Sunday morning found us back on the Arizona side of Nogales, watching a long freight train clank through a gap in the razor wire and into Mexico, while someone in a black CBP raincoat turned away from it, trudging into the drizzle. Then another man in a black uniform with some kind of official patch on his shoulder inspected the exit place with a weary officiousness. The fixer and I had driven to the Morley Port of Entry because the fixer craved his American chain coffee, and while the Mexican-American barista made it, I asked where the nearest dangerous patch of border might be, because we wanted to see some mafias. Chuckling at my whimsicality or stupidity, she said, “Morley,” so here we were. I must now sorrowfully report that we never got decapitated or even shot, although we certainly garnered eyefuls of the president’s razory tinsel.
We began our safari at the pay phone sign for 4 minutos 50¢ a todo mexico, right there at the crossroads of North Morley Avenue and East International Street with fence and wire commencing at warning—no trespassing—restricted area—keep out—authorized personnel only—u.s. customs and border protection—danger, and there rose the wall with coils of razor wire on top, and before it a low fence to no-man’s-land. The wall itself bore six rolls of razor wire, one on top of the other, with Mexican Nogales (a hill studded with white little houses) on the right-hand side of it, American Nogales already ending on the left, that razory wall marching up the steep hill and over the horizon, shaggily silver-white against that dark wall, a hideous horror that continued east. Silhouetted razor circles dominated the drizzly sky. After a few bends and dips, it lapsed into something more picayune: merely those high dark vertical slats topped with metal plates and spiced rather than saturated with razory wriggles. The Mexican colonias kept on, but our side, the American side, had become beautifully wild desert.
Every time we saw a Border Patrol vehicle, the brash fixer would run over to talk to its occupant. “That guy, he knows everything!” the fixer enthused. “He is sitting here watching for people to cross. As soon as he looks away, a spotter will send them across. Right now, they just take that wire, they cut it, and come on through. He said we can take a dirt road for eight miles and the Army’s still putting up razor wire; it’s all for show. On the other side, it’s not too dangerous, but people do come through. He just said it’s ridiculous, just a game. This is Morley Gate.”
Our newly adorned Great Wall of China kept snaking up and down the red dirt hills, with white Border Patrol trucks at intervals; the eye followed the dark, rusted wall with its silvery razor-wire loops (two rows almost touching just below the top dark rectangles, and a third not far above the halfway mark). Before we knew it, we were at location E8 (the letter designations are used as landmarks, CBP explained), the great silvery Nightbuster lamps shut off just now, of course, the drizzle increasing, the low sprawl of Nogales, Mexico, whitish and grayish and red-roofed behind the slats, while behind me ran that lovely rolling desert. It was almost pretty how the wall frozenly swayed with the land, the lovely sinuousness of it and the narrow vertical rectangles of dark gray sky between the slats achieving if not hospitality at least a sort of geometric excellence.
The fixer leaped out to make friends with the next border patrolman, whom I’ll falsely call Sid: “One thing he said was once they catch them they have two options: give up, or cross illegally again and take your chances. If they’ve only crossed once or twice, they send ’em back, and they probably come back the next day. If you’re legal, once you get your court asylum date, they drop you off at the bus station.” (I remembered what Scott at Diane’s shelter had said: “Back around the first of this year, we had capacity in our shelters, but ICE wasn’t bringing them; they were dropping them again at the bus station. . . . ”) The fixer went on about Sid: “What he said was that ninety-five percent of the people can’t make their court date.”
Then up another road we rolled to E14, where a brown-green creek flowed out by some gates and the wall snaked up over itself. At another stop, someone’s empty water bottle stood tucked into a belly-high niche between two great slats of border security, and now lovely desert trees and scrubs ruled the Mexican side, with no more Nogales anywhere. Here was another immense gate, and we arrived at E16, then entered heavier rain, with a small herd of brown and palomino horses behind us. Another border patrolman, a fat sullen one who looked Mexican-American, spied down upon us. The fixer asked him if the razor wire deterred anybody, and he couldn’t rightly say. He told us we weren’t allowed to be here, because this was private land. The fixer said that the very first border patrolman, even before Sid, had told us to roll on ahead, and that shut him up.
E20 was another small gate, then we were looking down a steep gulley into E21. At E25 we chatted with a border patrolman through our respective windows, and the fixer asked: “Does the razor wire slow them down?”
“That’s exactly what it does; it slows them down.”
“Does it stop them?”
“Nothing’s gonna stop them,” replied the young officer, who had just received his degree in unmanned aeronautic systems, which I cleverly guessed to mean drones. Would it have been neighborly and kind to assure him that on the other side of the border, people were more impressed by his razor wire? Old Jorge, for instance, who hit me up for help because he was hungry, and after I bought him tacos hit me up again, estimated that he had been here by the wall for twenty-odd years. “Sometimes you don’t see that many tourists around the first block of the city,” he told me. “Four days are good and three are bad. You don’t see pollos around here that much, because there is a lot of police around this area. Outside the city, that’s where they have that kind of movement.”
“What’s your opinion of the wall here?”
“Many years ago, it used to be all kinds of people getting across the border. Now with this wall, you barely see them. To me, it’s better,” he said, maybe guessing that this was what I wished to hear. “There are many accidents, many things happen. Long time ago, when people got across, you see many people injured.”
“What do you think when the people from Honduras and El Salvador come here?”
“We just gotta give ’em a hand because they need it. They come from far away.”
Three steps on, a man named Simon stood with his hands folded across his crotch, trying to lure me into his pharmacy. He looked great in his dark glasses.
“It’s very tranquil,” he said, “but sometimes I see a bit of fear. They just put up the razor wire, so now it’s more risky. Now I’m thinking it’s gonna be more difficult to cross over from there. A normal day is like today. . . . ”
“What do you think about the people from Central America coming here to cross?”
“They’re coming for food, and a lot of them are cold, but they are causing problems sometimes for the people who live here. They’re gonna stay for the housing and the jobs,” he thought. Then he said: “They’re looking for a better life, and we have to support that.”
In short, even though Simon and Jorge might disagree with the Border Patrol, not to mention the Trumpeters, as to whether the migrants should be “supported,” at least they believed that the razor wire was effective. It is always lovely when the minds of two nations can meet on something. Thus uplifted, the fixer and I said goodbye to the young officer who had studied drones. From here one could see Mount Washington, which marked the next sector. The border patrolman said that it was merely two more dips down to the Santa Cruz River, where the wall gave way to Normandy fence, as one called arrangements of those caltrop-like entities, similar in shape if much inferior in size to the Nazi defenses off the coast of Normandy, which showed up here and there on the Mexican side to discourage vehicles. I sat looking through the white-speckled windshield at the river streaming through the comb tines across the frontage road and then down past canted strata in sedimentary rock of a dark red-brown color. The creek wound down through gravel and grass toward a white bird that I thought too small to be an egret; maybe a heron. On the way back we saw real cowboys.
On Monday afternoon I thought to try the eastern way again from the Mexican side. The fixer and I, in company with our just-arrived interpreter, were returning from some interviews at Father Sean’s migrant center, which, as it turned out, lay only one long block south of the Mariposa Point of Entry. I had asked this fine priest, whom even the atheistic interpreter was willing to consider nearly saintly, whether he had experienced mafia difficulties, and he replied much as had the face-covering policeman: “I mean, there’s a cartel here, but I’ve never had that. . . . During the day it shouldn’t be a problem.” But the taxi driver who brought us back allowed that “from here to the railroad tracks” there were several gangs, and on the other side of the tracks only one. He knew those characters pretty well. They were his passengers; they pulled their shirts up and showed him that they were wearing pistols. Thus informed, we all had lunch, and then it came time to snag another taxi driver, who agreed so long as his conditions would be respected. Usually my fixer sat in the front because he liked to make movies. This time I sat up there with my laptop open as usual, while the fixer and interpreter sat discreetly in the back.
Following the sign for usa retorno, we then made a U-turn at the train tracks, which is to say (according to the previous cab driver) the mafia border. Passing a long string of graffitied grainers, a boxcar, and some stack cars, we ascended an overpass toward the U.S.A., then zoomed down, accompanied by a bright yellow railing, toward Garita Peatonal No. 2. As we began to climb a winding street, the driver’s conditions came into force. The laptop was unproblematic, but neither my camera nor the fixer’s cinematic apparatus was allowed. As at Mariposa, I could see no hint of danger anywhere. Truth to tell, I would not have taken the driver’s say-so had not so many other drivers previously darkened the picture. I saw small concrete houses and walls of stone and brick, a barbershop, and we continued up the narrow street. There was hardly any traffic. We turned left onto Lagunas de Tamiahua, then suddenly came the wall. From here on out the driver permitted me to take two or three widely spaced photographs, but only from inside the taxi, and, needless to say, he made me promise to include him out. We ground up a steep gravel road, not without strain on his car, heading toward the summit, with that reddish border wall at some distance on the left; then came sky.
“If they come it’s very dangerous,” he said.
And maybe one of them did come, although I failed to see him, being busy with changing a roll of film. The driver grew quiet and ducked his head. The fixer said that there was a man in a truck with a German shepherd, and that this man looked at him. Like most fixers, he was cheerfully, aggressively rash (he had filmed terrible things in El Salvador and went right on fixing); in our trips together my cautiousness sometimes disappointed him, and so the only evidence I have that this man might have been mafia was that the fixer, who looked back at him, sounded convinced, maybe even cowed, and described him as a thug. I asked for a description, and he said the man was wearing a dark blue shirt. Was I supposed to piss my pants over that?
The driver very evenly remarked, “Well, sometimes they take your license plate number, and then they come find you, but this time they didn’t seem to take anything down.”
On the summit came a brief stretch of pavement; then the road returned to rocks and dirt, with the wall on our left and nothing but nature on the American side. This place was called Colonia Buenos Aires. Now the driver enacted another condition: we began winding left and right on paved streets, since the dirt road by the wall had now become too “dangerous”; for all I know, he meant only that it was too much for the vehicle’s suspension. We climbed a hill toward the Parque Industrial.
“Do any of these mafias have a name?”
“I wouldn’t know what to say.”
We were now some distance from the border, with dry hills hummocking the wall out of sight. When we reached a huge spiderlike agave I could see it again, so I asked whether it would be safe to stop and take a photo.
“No,” he said, “because they have checkpoints along here and you don’t want them to stop you.”
“What do the checkpoints look like?”
“Several cars blocking the road, and armed guys.” He added: “You don’t always see them. They’re sometimes hidden behind the bushes.”
Another truck went by, with dogs in the back and tough-looking men in front. The driver called them mafias, but how would he or I ever know for sure?
There was the tiny red ribbon of wall and a Border Patrol vehicle beyond it. Very likely its occupant was someone whom the fixer and I had met on the previous day. “That’s where the people go,” the taxi driver said, referring to the migrants. But there was still wall, so Antonia and her child must have gone farther, one way or the other.
The road improved and the yellow grass got greener when we began to swing south into the Lomas de Anza, or De Anza Hills.
“Who lives here?” I asked.
“People who work in the factories.”
“Are they afraid here?”
“Well, they’re afraid, but they just have to tough it out. What else can you do?”
“Is it just as dangerous here, or safer as we go away from the wall?”
So we swung west again toward usa and nogales centro, riding the highway called Plutarco Elías Calles, and I never saw anything provable. When I had paid him, I asked the driver why he had taken us if it was so dangerous, and he replied, “Well, someone had to take you.”
So, reader, what should you or I conclude about these mafias? Fortunately, I can now proffer an utterly, awesomely apodictic source: the Trumpeter Swans.
v: the rally
Thursday’s Arizona Daily Star had announced that “some of the most dedicated allies to President Trump’s vision to build a new border wall are holding a town hall in Green Valley on Friday.” These allies included the famous blowhard Steve Bannon, former Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo,14 and Brian Kolfage, a triple-amputee veteran who began a $1 billion GoFundMe campaign to privately finance a proposed border wall. Appropriately named We Build the Wall, the group hosted its event at the Quail Creek Country Club. Initially, it was free and open to the public, but by Thursday it was open only to members of the Quail Creek Republican Club. On Friday one of Diane’s volunteers told me: “Earlier in the week they said everyone was welcome, and now they say that only Republicans are welcome. In the paper they said they are only going to allow Quail Creek Republicans in there.” Green Valley being perfectly located on Interstate 19 between Tucson and Nogales, I decided to be a Trumpeter along with the rest of them, especially since I wore a red, white, and blue baseball cap that read butchers of america. (A week later, since it had served its purpose, I gave it away to a nice girl in Raleigh, North Carolina.)
It was a wide room, filled almost entirely with white people like me, most of whom were old, but right in front of me sat a young man whose hair went down to his shoulders. He wore a black T-shirt whose back read patriot movement az; on the front, in homage to the old Pink Floyd album that had called upon us to tear down the wall, was a brickwork vista inscribed build the wall. His friend beside him wore the same getup.
The great Mr. Bannon would not take the limelight for a good half hour yet; when he did, he spat out such oratorical pearls as the following:
moderator (a certain Neil McCabe): Steve, how did you get involved in this?
steve bannon: Someone gave me a call right after, well, I’ve known Brian for years. . . . And he just said, you know, he might want to think about flipping this from funding a wall where the money just goes to the U.S. Treasury . . . to a citizens’ action initiative to actually build a wall! . . . And Brian talked to the GoFundMe people, and here we are today! . . . We put the original gangsters or the O.G.s of the MAGA movement together to help.
“And if anyone who’s not media wants to ask a question . . . ,” said an event worker. Since I had situated myself beside a friendly old man who said, “Please,” inviting me into an empty seat, I upraised my un-American ears just in time to catch Brian Kolfage trumpeting:
We definitely need that. We need to know that intel of where people are coming across. We don’t wanna slap up wall where it’s not having an impact. We want our sections of wall to have . . . the biggest impact right away.
Three glare-washed men sat on the stage before a kind of triptych that spelled out: we build the wall we the people will build the wall. This latter profundity occupied me for nearly a second.
“Do you want another question?” asked an event worker.
“I’m a resident here. What type of feedback, if any, have you gotten from the Trump Administration?”
The triple-amputee veteran replied:
Feedback has been positive. . . . The president supports what we’re doin’. He approves what we’re doin’. And when we start breaking ground, we’re gonna be basically supplementing what President Trump is doin’, if he ever gets the funding!
And the audience chuckled sympathetically.
I think they’re projecting two hundred and fifty miles of border wall in strategic locations. We are gonna match whatever the president does. If they do two-fifty, we’re gonna shoot for two-fifty, because we all know that that two-fifty that he’s doing is not enough to impact everything that we need. We have two thousand miles of open border, and the cartels are very adaptive, and we need to secure our entire border.
“Brandon,” McCabe was saying, “I don’t think there’s anyone who knows the border like you do.”
We’ve been trying to expose cartels and tell the stories of Border Patrol agents and communities along the border, on both sides of the border. It’s not just the U.S. side where people are getting hurt by cartels, right? And we’ve been tryin’ to tell the story for almost a decade now, traveling all nine sectors, going into Mexico, and we’ve developed sources that are just unbelievable sourcing in Mexico, so we have sources on both sides. And to see so many people fired up and supporting Brian’s effort, and to see my old boss Steve Bannon join the effort, and to see so many people like you come, it, it, really, honestly, I could get choked up, because I see that we are, we are gonna win this. We’re gonna win this. We’re gonna fight for this!
And everyone around me cheered. When I forgot to clap, a lady stared at me.
So here’s the bottom line. I was very hesitant to get involved. We have been trying to stick it to cartels, to Mexican cartels, and make people pay attention in this country, to what specific Mexican cartels are doing to our country. And it feels like we’re yelling at, at a roof, like our ceiling, like no one’s hearing us, or very few people hear us. And when I started to realize that this group was going deeper, it’s like, like, hey, we need to build the wall. That’s one part of a multitiered solution to a very complex problem. But we also need to stick it to cartels, right, like we have to secure our country. When I realized this group was all about it, I joined in, and I’m honored to sit on the stage with you, and I really appreciate what you’ve done.
Uplifting their heads, my fellow citizens applauded, cheered, and murmured to one another. A woman’s spectacularly eye-shadowed peepers were shining with excitement. The lady who had caught me not applauding now repeatedly turned to glare at my laptop’s clickety-clack. (Had I been outed as a media agent?) A white-haired old man shared yet another secret with a middle-aged blonde’s ear, which neither twitched nor wiggled. A man in a pinstriped shirt was beaming, and a man in a soft sweater leaned thirstily forward. Ladies and gentlemen, I dub this democracy!
mccabe: Is a wall possible and useful at certain sectors of the border?
brandon darby: The bottom line is this. If you build a wall across the entire border, all the way to the moon, then the cartels are going to switch to come in through ports of entry. And if you secure ports of entry, then they’re gonna find a way to go back and get between ports of entry. The facts show that fencing, barriers, walls, depending on what’s needed in a specific area, absolutely work. Do they work one hundred percent? Do they end all of the cartels and make Mexico okay again and America okay again? No. Are they a vital component of that? One hundred percent. And I don’t think a serious person could allege otherwise. . . . Fencing and walls are a part of a larger solution—a big part.
He was correct. Let’s hear it from the horse’s mouth! Asked about the razor wire, the Mexican policeman who had covered his face assured me: “It does make a difference. This side, they don’t have to worry much about people crossing over. In November I did see a guy trying to cross and he got stuck up there; the wire did its job. He ended up getting helped down. . . . ”
So much for the deterrent. Now what about the threat? I mean, what about these mafias? Bannon’s boys laid it out:
darby: If you look at the DEA map of the cartels . . . they’re gonna say the Gulf Cartel controls from the Gulf of Mexico to Zapata, Texas . . . Del Rio sector and then it’s Sinaloa . . . and then the Juárez Cartel . . . and all the way to Tijuana, Mexico. But that’s just not true. Well, it is true, but it’s not true. The Sinaloa Cartel is made up of hundreds of different organizations. And those hundreds of organizations operate under the banner of the Sinaloa Federation. But they’re all different cartels, and they all have different temperaments. Some grow marijuana. Some grow poppy. Some manufacture fentanyl and methamphetamine. Some simply traffic drugs. Well, changes that we made in this country ultimately led to some of those groups saying, hey, we can’t make money off of our horrible marijuana anymore. So we need to switch to something else to replace our profits. And when you look at the Gulf Cartel, the Reynosa faction, they switched to human smuggling, and so now they make as much or more from smuggling people into our country! . . . Most of the guys you’re dealing with in Arizona still focus on drugs, but now they’re starting to say, wait a minute, we can focus on human smuggling, too, and we’re going to make all of the money from that as well. So this has become, illegal immigration has become, a fuel for the cartels in Mexico. So the liberals who think that they’re helping people in Mexico or Central America by allowing this to continue are actually fueling the very groups people are trying to get away from in the first place.
mccabe: What is it a head?
(I myself am seeking to turn myself into a human calculator and am dusting off three integrals and contemplating the square root of two when . . . )
mccabe: What do they make a head?
darby: It depends on the group. If we’re talking about the Reynosa faction of the Gulf Cartel, which is the most prolific, then I’ll tell you this. They generally charge somewhere between five and ten thousand a head. . . . And they’ll say: Here’s the deal. If you wanna go there and you wanna request asylum, we’ll let you do it for five grand. But if you wanna go there and you want us to sneak you in and really get you to Houston or Dallas or Tucson or Phoenix, then we’re gonna, it’s going to cost you even more, maybe twelve to fifteen thousand. So these groups are really making money. . . . And it’s a fact that last year, there was eleven to twelve hundred people per day apprehended. And remember, we only apprehend half of ’em, right? Approximately. Eleven to twelve hundred people per day apprehended, crossing our southern border. Per day.15 Now you think about the amount of money that is to those criminal groups—not only the amount of money that it’s going to cost you in the long term to educate those people and provide health care. . . !
The Trumpeters weren’t making it all up. The Mexican policeman who had covered his face, and now sat so agreeably beside me on the bench as we watched the asylum seekers and lucky card-holding border crossers go by, definitely believed in the mafias. When I asked how many migrants he saw at this port of entry, he answered: “I could say right now there’s more people. For the situation in Mexico, the violence, a lot of it in Guerrero . . . ” His voice trailed off.
“How many migrants cross per day in this sector?”16
“Maybe a hundred illegally.”
“And how many legal asylum seekers?”
“In our shift, maybe twenty-six daily.”
He estimated the current list of asylum seekers in Nogales at maybe within one thousand. A young man whom I had interviewed here the previous day (he is one of two Nicaraguan Josés in this essay; the other you will meet at the Eloy Detention Center) was number 988. His initial entrance interview would come up in another three or four days. A migrant coordinator named Brenda, who worked in Nogales, explained to me that if he were rejected out of hand the Americans would send him back across the line; otherwise he would win the great fortune of getting his merits further considered, in which case, being a single male, he would sit (estimated Brenda) in detention for something like six months17—a fabulous method for converting him into an America lover.
The Mexican policeman must have been correct about Guerrero. At the next border crossing, which lay a ten-minute taxi ride westward, Victoria, dark, beautiful, and number 1,036 on the asylum waiting list, stood in the chilly sidewalk queue for Father Sean’s soup kitchen. She hailed from Guerrero: “There’s lots of violence; I fled from fear. My daughter wants to study. . . . ”
“Where does the violence come from?”
“The mafia controls that sector, and they are killing people.”
They had threatened her neighbor “directly,” and her ten-year-old daughter could not even safely walk to school. “The mayor doesn’t stand up for the community.”
“Why do they do this?”
“Nobody knows why.”
Their journey thus far had taken two nights and days. Victoria had wrangled rides in cars and trucks.
“What do you hope and expect?”
“My compañera, the godmother of my daughter, lives across the border. I hope to get my daughter into school and treated for asthma.” So the Trumpeters were exactly right in their fulminations regarding “the amount of money that it’s going to cost you in the long term to educate those people and provide health care. . . !” Wicked Victoria!
Behind Victoria stood Mariella, whose migration thus far had taken four days of “hitchhiking in cars.” Her group consisted of two families. “Everybody was kind, thanks to God. We want to request asylum. My brother’s in Arizona.”
“What made you decide to leave Guerrero?”
“The violence,” she said patiently.
“Were you threatened directly?”
“Lots of people appear dead in the streets. Sometimes they’re shot and sometimes they’re hacked into pieces.”
“Nobody knows. It’s better not to ask.”
The policeman said that increasing numbers of the migrants were children. “It’s more about mafias; they’re trying to recruit people that look younger, and that’s because they last a lot longer. In my shift today, we received, I think, five or six from the first caravan. I received a kid underage who said he was in a caravan. So we passed him through.”
Well, didn’t that likewise prove the Trumpeters’ point? Darby enlightened us as follows: the cartels (who may or may not have been the mafias) might overwhelm a certain border sector with children, and while the poor Border Patrol agents were coping with those, in zipped a monster load of drugs! Oh, oh, oh, how diabolical those cartels were! And that Mexican policeman, hardened in sin, kept facilitating their evil projects: “I’ve gone to the spot where there’s some woman about nineteen who had nothing, who came with her kids, and she had no money. So I gave her ten dollars plus a hundred pesos that I had in my pocket; she had a one-year-old baby.”
vi: “so happy to be in safety”
To address the Trumpeters’ arguments I would now like to invite you through the three gates of ICE’s Eloy Detention Center, then past the security man and to his metal detector. My butchers of america cap needed to be locked up because red, white, and blue might, as the security man explained, incorporate gang colors. Having passed my scan, I stood behind his workstation waiting for the interpreter, who had to run back out to the parking lot to verify the rental car’s license plate number, so that I had full opportunity to admire the two charity-purposed vending machines; one sold phone credits, and when I asked the first interviewee, Eulalia, which gift would best delight her, she chose that one, both of us being ignorant that international calls were prohibited. (A Harper’s Magazine fact-checker found out that they weren’t.) Since all these detainees were from elsewhere, the phone credit would avail her about as much as the security man’s hypothetical good wishes. (He was actually a convivial sort, who cracked jokes with incoming guards; and while I awaited the interpreter’s return, we even carried on a conversation about the weather, the faraway end of his shift, and the famous Indian ruins of Casa Grande; they were a quarter hour’s drive away, and he had never been there.) The other vending machine sold commissary credits; at least that was what I thought he said. But at the end of the two interviews, when they let us out of there, the interpreter successfully masking her angry grief, I was told that the only method of contributing to a detainee’s account was via that reliable old gouging service Western Union, so that was what Eulalia would get. Western Union took a smaller bite if one sent the money electronically than if one walked into their office, so I gave the interpreter a hundred-dollar bill and she contributed a hundred of her own, then did something on the computer; Eulalia therefore would theoretically eventually win ninety dollars, although I wonder what she made of my apparent breach of promise to give her the wherewithal to telephone her home country. Well, why dwell on bad things, especially when they happened to other people? I myself had much to praise Providence about. For one thing, nobody searched my anus that day. (The U.S. government has done that only once in my life, back in my hitchhiking days, so I should have gotten over it, but for some reason I hold a grudge.) Better yet, not only did they let us in, they did (I reiterate) let us out! And so we were smoothly promoted from the security man’s domain into the shiny-clean white room behind and to the right of it, complete with two mirror panes, a soda machine, a snack machine, and a regiment of molded foam chairs—seamless and crackless, you see, so that nobody could hide contraband in them. I also noted a line of restrooms and a small TV that was broadcasting an unwatched thriller.
A guard now asked which detainee I would like to see first. “The lady,” I said, for I have always been a ladies’ man.
So there we now were, in one of I don’t know how many windowless side rooms, ensconced in two of the chairs in that row on one side of the wooden partition. Right away they brought in Eulalia, who sat down in one of the chairs on the other side. There was no transparent wall between us, Eloy’s security flavor being officially “minimum.” Nor did any guard stand listening. For all I knew, the room wasn’t even bugged.
The interview arrangement procedure had been as follows: One could hardly just wander in, as I used to do in Mexico, and ask a guard whether any captives felt like talking. Oh, no! That would never be consonant with border security! Therefore, to keep you and me safe, one had first to inquire of an immigration lawyer whether any detained clients felt willing; if yes, one had to order up these persons by name and alien number. The third step was to be approved by ICE. Next, ICE required verification of the media outlet under whose auspices I was going to have this pleasure. (My editor at Harper’s vouched for us expeditiously.) The final step was to find the place: 1705 East Hanna Road in Eloy. So we drove to that town, but at the convenience store they didn’t know anything about it and seemed almost uncomfortable that I had asked in front of the customers; or maybe its existence depressed them since they were all Latinos. Finally, a lady in the back directed us to return south to the previous town, then drive east, at which point the detention center lay alone off a long, flat sandy stretch, being a long, pale rectangular block of slit-windowed nastiness behind a fence less impressive than the border wall but hardly welcoming.
Now back to Eulalia: she was tiny, with bright black eyes and a long braid, and projected a flat affect in keeping with that ugly room in that hateful place. The interpreter, who was a linguist by profession, with special qualifications both academic and practical in Mesoamerican tongues, informed me that her Spanish was mostly excellent, although she could not conjugate certain verbs, her native language being a Mayan one called Kanjobal. She had been educated up to the third grade. Her home was the little pueblo of Santa Eulalia, near the large city of Huehuetenango.18 They had dressed her in orange.19
“What made you decide to leave Guatemala?” I asked.
“I left because there were some very, very bad men, and my mama said20 our father had left when I was little. So I had no protection. These guys kept trying to take me away with them, and when I refused, they threatened to kill me, so I ran away to a ranch. I didn’t know them; they were just crazy.”
“What did your mama say?”
“The last time they bothered me I was walking down the street with my mama. They said they would kill my mama—”
“So we both decided to leave. We decided that I would leave first, because I was in the worst danger, and causing danger to my mama. I left on June 25.21 Our plan was that I would find safety and then meet her, because she cannot read or write or use the telephone. . . . ”
Thus my consolation for failing to buy her international phone privileges: her mother couldn’t have talked with her anyway!
“A neighbor lady,” said Eulalia, nodding her head and speaking softly and rapidly, “was to take Mama to some ranch, and I could call this neighbor lady.”
“Why didn’t your plan succeed?”
“I have a relative here in Arizona who could contact her. Mama’s at that ranch. . . . ”
And so I should have bought Eulalia phone privileges after all. I recorded a few more details and potentially failed to do Eulalia the one kindness she requested.
“How did you cross into Mexico?” I asked.
“I had always heard of the United States, where there was safety. I met an old lady who was trying to get work. So I traveled with her on a bus, and when I woke up on the bus, the old lady was gone. . . . ”
“And this was in Mexico?”
“Yes. I don’t know how many days I was on the road in Mexico. When I woke up, I got off at the next stop and started walking north . . . ,” with that bright or actually desperate innocence that had impelled Samuel (“It was like, we’re going for it, and we just crossed”) and Antonia to “just keep going north and you’ll find the wall.” It is only now when I transcribe this that tears come to my eyes. What might have been the duration of her journey? In Father Sean’s migrant center in Nogales I met Martin from Guatemala; it took him twenty-five days to reach the border, walking part way, hitchhiking, riding buses when he had to; at night he’d ask for shelter, “and some were really nice,” he said. Let’s suppose it was like that for Eulalia. There would have been unknowable cities, strange roads, and maybe more bad men, cold nights, and the curving half-silhouetted tridents of saguaros rising from the brush like mutant phalli sprung erect from wiry pubic hair, and finally the border.
“Then suddenly I saw some policemen wearing the same coat as you”—my jacket was dark green—“and they grabbed me.”
“Was there any wall?”
“No. Only rocks like this”—she pointed to the wall—“that you could crawl through.”
By now I knew it would be fruitless to ask where she had crossed. How would she know? Had there been mountains, mafias, a river, or the hairy disks of prickly pears shining in the sun? You may remember that on our eastward safari along the wall’s Arizona side, a border patrolman had told the fixer that after merely two more magnificent dips this structure of metal plates and high dark poles and concertina wire finally gave way to the much less forbidding Normandy fence; it might have been here that Eulalia had crossed, or for that matter Antonia. How far did the wall go? I wish I knew. According to the Quail Creek Republicans, it most certainly did not go far enough:
audience question: Is there a specific place in Arizona that you have in mind to build the wall? Is there a specific place that you think needs it more than any other? ’Cause we have a huge unprotected border. A couple strands of barbed wire . . .
brian kolfage: The issue with Arizona is there’s very few private property landowners. A lot of land is federal or state, so we can’t touch it. What we’re doing is working with private property landowners. We have narrowed it down to a select few zones. We don’t wanna basically let—we can’t go public with the information exactly, because there are groups, different liberal groups, who want to attack it and wanna do everything to stop it, and we’re not ready to release that. But I can tell you that we have selected various areas in Arizona to build this wall!
Fortunately, their border protection had succeeded sufficiently to catch that criminal called Eulalia.
“What was the first thing these policemen said?” I asked her.
“They didn’t ask me anything at all—just name, date of birth, country. I had my Guatemalan I.D., and I gave it to them.”
“How old are you?”
“I will turn twenty-four soon, on October 28.”
“After you were arrested, what occurred?”
“They put me in a white car for an hour. For a while they just left me there alone, sitting. Then they took me away with four other people.”
“Where did they take you?”
“To the cold cell. We were mothers, children, young and old, maybe ten of us. We couldn’t sleep.”
“Why is it cold?”
“I don’t know what the reasoning could be.”
For four days they kept Eulalia there. Then they took her “somewhere else, I don’t know where, then here.”
“How many people in your cell now?”
“They call them ‘tanks.’ Fifty people in each one, all women . . . ”
“How well do you get along?”
“Sometimes other women argue, but I am so happy to be in safety that I am happy.”
The Trumpeter Swans would have been disappointed to hear that! Even after the cold cell, with indefinite detention ahead of her, Eulalia considered herself better off! I guess they should have tightened the screws.
“How long do you think you’ll be here?”
“Well, there are groups fighting to get us our freedom, but it’s up to the judge or governor,22 who will decide how many years I have to stay here. I don’t have a lawyer, no money; my relative in the state can’t get any more money. . . . ”
Months or years, whatever it took to protect the border from trespassers like her! Send her back, let those men rape her and kill her mother. Why was that our American problem? But one utterance at that rally in Green Valley did make me wonder about consistency. Do you remember the Trumpeter Darby who had fumed about “the amount of money that it’s going to cost you in the long term to educate those people and provide health care”? That was of course what exercised the Trumpeters far more than how much the cartels hypothetically profited in some other country. That their argument was precarious as well as ungenerous may easily be seen. How does an illegal alien get work in the United States? He or she presents a false Social Security number. I have interviewed and photographed illegal farmworkers holding up their pay stubs. Their Social Security fees get deducted. They will never collect Social Security income in their old age. They are not robbing us but themselves. Surely this must go far to offset the cost of their education and health care. Now, what about the expense of incarcerating them? Eulalia had been cooling her heels in Eloy for something like eight months, with an unknown stretch ahead of her. I would love the Quail Creek Country Club to assess that cost.
vii: cameo about juan
My argument needs shoring up with another example, so let me make use (why not? everybody else did) of a former landscaper named Juan, who had been deported from Phoenix and was now situated in a bright, clean dirt lot across the street from Father Sean’s migrant center by the Mariposa Port of Entry. His face was brown and lean; his beard was going gray. Given how he had to live, he kept himself extremely clean. His eyes were clear, almost gentle, and he smiled at me even before I gave him money. A long line of stalled white trucks awaiting international inspection composed the horizon behind him. I inquired about his time in the United States, and he said: “Well, the life was fine; it was good, but sometimes one commits errors. The people I was working for didn’t want to pay me, so after two weeks they called la migra, and I was deported. I was staying at the boss’s house, and I told him I didn’t want to work anymore, so he called la migra. We were getting ready to get on the trucks to go to Dickinson, and I didn’t wanna go since I hadn’t been paid, so the police came first and they checked my papers, and then they called la migra. I worked really well; I worked hard. I tried to talk to a lawyer who ignored me. Said there was nothing they could do. The police called la migra and they took me away.”
Juan could not get over it (I might have felt the same), so he kept telling over and over again the wrong against him: “The first time when I crossed over to work, I arrived at a depot and they were saying, no, don’t go, don’t go.23 I was there with la migra and everyone else had gone away to Dickinson, and the boss said,24 ‘Oh, just stay here, and I will send my brother back with your money.’ When I went before a judge and told him about my wages being stolen, the judge said there was nothing he could do. I was put in prison for three years. In Fargo, North Dakota.”
To recapitulate: Juan had worked for nothing. He (as my literary agent would say about her own efforts) added value to our economy, which returned him nothing. From a Trumpeter’s standpoint, what’s not to like? And then the Trumpeters’ supposed best friend, la migra, took over. And instead of booting him expeditiously out, they drilled the taxpayers for three ever-loving years! Juan had become a very expensive migrant indeed.
“What did the prison look like?”
“And what did you do any day?”
“We did the same thing all the time, just watched TV. There were eight of us. We got to go out one hour a day for exercise. That was all.”
“Was there violence in your cell?”
“I didn’t have problems. The people who were there for a few months were not violent. After three years they put me on a bus, with handcuffs.27 It took two days. There were only about two women on the bus; the rest were men.”
“What happened when someone had to go to the restroom?”
“They unhooked one [handcuff] and then hooked one to your belt.”
“They left me right at the line,28 and then they watched until I went across.”
“Where had you come from?”
“I was in Ciudad Obregón.”
“So what made you decide on Nogales?”
“It’s a nice warm climate, and I had no reason to go back.”
People with fortunes as fine as Juan’s generally get luckier and luckier. “I have had two months of work here,” he said. “I sleep here on the other side of the wall. I was on the highway digging out the little canals where the water runs down. They told me they were gonna pay me one rate, and at the end of the month they paid less, so I left. We were working seven days a week, sometimes at night, and it was all lies. They told me the work was from seven to three at three hundred pesos a day, but it was only one hundred. Sometimes I eat at that shelter, but they haven’t called me there today. Then I look around for day labor . . . ”
Remembering what so many taxi drivers had told me, I asked: “Is it dangerous here with the mafias?”
“If I don’t mess with them, they leave me alone.”
“What if you said, ‘I want a job with the mafia?’ ”
“Well, I don’t know. You don’t wanna get involved.”
His baseball cap bore the American flag and eagle, and his jacket memorialized san francisco. How could the brassiest Trumpeter bray against that?
He camped a few steps from where I’d found him, in a niche in the cinder-block wall, on which someone had employed large capital letters to inscribe something about God. The front of his space was entirely open, and one of the side walls went as high as his shoulder. This was no fortified lair but a place for a strong, desperate, or well-connected man. I saw two mattresses, with blankets on them; one bed was made and the other awry. He said the second mattress was in case anyone else needed a place to sleep. The floor was grimy black. In one corner I saw an empty plastic cup on its side, a disposable dish with a bit of food still in it, and a tied-up plastic bag containing something unknown; in another, a scrap of rope lay upon a scorched place.
Since I was supposed to ask him about border security, I inquired: “How often do you see the pollos crossing?”
“Before, yes, but they don’t come through here anymore.” Hurrah for border security! On this subject Rachel Wilson remarked: “Actually the number of people seeking asylum at the port of entry has not increased. So this strategy appears to be a deliberate attempt to make us think the border is overwhelmed.”29
Remembering Antonia and the others, I asked: “How far would you have to walk to come to the end of the wall?”
“Oh, it’s pretty far. You have to take a car. I don’t know, because they’re building the wall . . . ”
viii: eulalia’s story (concluded)
So there was Juan, and here was Eulalia, gesturing, speaking steadily and flatly, clasping her hands against her heart, her dark braids flashing against the white walls when she turned her head.
“What do you hope for?” I asked her.
She named her judge and continued without apparent feeling: “When he saw me the first time, he denied me asylum and said I could appeal, so I appealed.”
“If you get asylum, what is your plan for your life?”
“If I get out, I’ll live with my relatives here and I’ll study English. We had no money in Guatemala, so Mama could send me to school only to third grade. I want to go to school very much.”
“Is there anything we can do for you?”
“I give you thanks for talking and listening to me and for your support.”
We rose and I shook her hand. She departed, and while waiting for the second detainee, José, I noticed that on the wooden partition someone had written jesus.
I wonder if Eulalia ever did get out of Eloy. Where would I like to imagine her? For those three-odd days of typical sheltership she might have rested with Diane, that good-hearted Methodist whose smile and neck-looped name tag were what first met me when I began this story. About her flock Diane said: “These are the most loving, compassionate people I’ve worked with. And in the short time that we have our people, which is anywhere from three hours to a week, mostly about two days, we get to love them, and they show us a great deal of love.”
ix: kataleya’s story
And now as I commence to tell Kataleya’s story I want to honor another good person, named Genevieve.
Kataleya was a beautiful T-girl with a dreamy half-male voice who lived with five others near South Tucson, in the home of her sponsor, the quiet, artistic, horse-loving Genevieve. (The interpreter and I both considered Genevieve to be in equal parts noble and modest. About her house she said: “On paper I own it; we all contribute and have house meetings.”) On the adobe wall outside had been posted a Spanish-language version of that No More Deaths message: humanitarian aid is never a crime—drop the charges.
We sat around the kitchen table, with a calendar of Aztec lovers on the wall not far from three nested baskets, one of garlic, one of little potatoes, one of lemons and limes; then some shelves of pumpkins, squash, corn, and onions. Genevieve poured coffee and hoped we could stay for lunch. And Kataleya was out and free, maybe forever.
While I watched her fingers as she fitted them together, with her lovely black hair knotted on top of her head, Kataleya began: “I left my country because of delinquency. Ever since I was twelve years old, it became hard to leave the house because people would start giving me bad looks and saying things to me and starting to accost me physically. So then I had to go to Mexico and leave my country to protect my identity and my safety.”
“Did you take any hormones before you left Guatemala?”
“Yes, at fourteen years old I started taking them. When I got to Mexico, I started injecting hormones and going through a lengthier process.”
“Were you able to get them openly?”
“I always went to the pharmacy, and they always sold them to me.” The stuff was called Cuerpo Amarillo (“Yellow Body”).
“How old were you when you went to Mexico?”
“Did you go by yourself?”
“What made you decide to go to Mexico and not to another country?”
“It was the closest country in which I felt I could be free.”
“Then what happened?”
“I was in a shelter. I suffered discrimination, sexual abuse, as also in my country, and so I came to the decision to go where I could be safe and study and also work, because people with my identity they don’t give work to.”
“How did you support yourself in Mexico?”
“At the shelter they gave us food.”
“How long were you there?”
“I got there January 17, 2017, and left in May.”
“Then what happened?”
“I met my sister Génesis, a transgender woman from Honduras. So we decided to come north, looking for liberty. We met an activist, a trans woman, and we decided to start our own caravan. It was the first transgender woman caravan of 2017: sixteen people.”
“Where did you meet the others?”
“We met some in some other shelters, and then we picked up some more, and then in Saltillo30 we picked up some more. And others came from Chihuahua, and some from Mexicali.31 It was in Nogales [Mexico] that we all got together, six gay men and ten transgender women, in the Kino shelter. That’s where we were after we turned ourselves in.”
“So you met Father Sean?”
“What do you mean that you turned yourself in?”
“We turned ourselves in to Immigration to ask for asylum. It was a really hard process to go through. We had to say goodbye to the male members of our party. We had to get split up. We knew it would be a very long process before we could reach freedom.”
“Why did you have to split up?”
“Because of U.S. laws. They did something else with the men, but the transgender women had to go to a special facility. Cibola, New Mexico, is the only facility for transgender women. We said goodbye to the other people. They put us off to one side; they checked us from head to foot. We were just trying to turn ourselves in in a normal, orderly way. They took us and they chained our feet and our hands and our waists. They chained each one of us separately, and they took us into the refrigerator cells, as they call them, and there they started questioning us as to where we were from, what country we came from. They gave us those aluminum foil blankets, whatever they’re called, and then we waited three days, and then they took us to Florence. They didn’t give us food. Some of us—we were all chained up—some of us didn’t have sweatshirts or anything. So we were really cold, and they put us in really cold, cold cells, and we started yelling because we were cold, and they just made it colder.”32
“How many in a cell?”
“The male members were still with us; they weren’t separated until after Florence. We were all together in the truck that took us to Florence.33 They wouldn’t let us go to the bathroom. They would watch us while we buttoned and unbuttoned our pants; they would make us pee standing up, not sitting down as we were used to. When we got to Florence they gave us food. There were other people in this detention center, and we asked to all be detained together, and they put us in a room including the gay men.” (“Florence is all male,” the interpreter reminded me.) “And then they took us all to Cibola, New Mexico; that’s where they separated us.”
Since it seemed relevant to this matter of forced standing, I asked: “Did most have the penis?”
Indirect answer, said the interpreter, who then translated: “On the truck ride there, we had to pee standing up because we were given no option, and then at Cibola they gave us uniforms and put us in a room and then we had no more contact with men.”
“What color was the uniform?”
“Usually it’s orange, but since it was our first time in the U.S. we were given blue ones. If you have already been to the U.S. and been deported once it’s orange, blue if you’re a first-timer.”34
When I asked what might be the purpose of the cold cell and other such needless subjections, she replied: “In my opinion, it was because of ignorance and racism against Central Americans. We turned ourselves in peacefully, in an orderly fashion, and they chained us up and treated us this way.”
“When exactly did they begin to chain you?”
“Right when we crossed the border from Nogales, they chained us up.”
(Genevieve added here that Kataleya and her compañeras all carried letters from doctors in Nogales stating that they were transgender women who had been abused and tortured in their home countries and therefore should not be subjected to inhumane treatment. “They just ignored them,” said Kataleya. “They always chained us up.”)
“When people had to move their bowels, did they unhook the chains?”
“No. We just helped each other. They didn’t unchain us.”
Hearing that, for a moment I ran out of questions.35
“So when we got to New Mexico,” Kataleya continued, “they took the chains off, and they took pictures of us and began to question us about where we were from, and then we got the uniforms.”
“What do you think was the purpose of the cold cells?”
“The majority of us figured out that it was because they wanted us to ask to be returned to our countries and not stay in the U.S. We had no other option but to endure it. We had no other option but to huddle up next to each other to get the little bit of warmth that we could.”
“If you had asked to be returned, would they have done so immediately?”
“They wait until they have enough people. If they almost have enough people to fill up an airplane it might be the next day. Otherwise it could take three days or something.”
“Did anyone ask to be returned?”
“One compañera did ask to be returned. She had oil in her breasts36 that were leaking. And they kept drawing blood from us; we didn’t know why. When we first got there they tested us for AIDS, and we thought that was very normal, but they kept drawing blood, a lot of blood, and we had no idea what it was for.”
“Do you have any guess as to why?”
Spreading her slender fingers, rubbing her wrists, Kataleya said: “Well, we don’t know why, but there was a very thin woman who was always the first to be taken away to have her blood drawn, and she got so very thin and white that you could see her veins standing out on her hands. It made us very depressed when we kept having blood drawn. I don’t know why they did it. We were getting very depressed. They did it every day. We were crying because we were so upset about it, and we would try to hide.37 They kept saying that they lost the results of the test for me, and that’s why they had to keep doing it. Every day they drew blood, and it was eight or nine of those vials.”
This baffled me more than the business of perpetual chaining, which must have left the lavatories in a filthier state, or the cold cells, which required only tax-paid thermodynamic work. Wouldn’t the constant drawing of blood require a disproportionate effort to achieve its presumed sadistic effect?
Anyhow, ICE could not provide an explanation.
“They said they were doing it to check our hormone levels,” said Kataleya. “Once I got out, I saw a doctor here, and she told me there was no reason to check the blood that often. They did it every day for four months, the whole time we were in Cibola.”
The rest of her detention story was drearily unremarkable. Kataleya was spirited, or, as a guard might say, insubordinate: “The officials there treated me badly. One time I was walking down the hallway talking to my sister, not in a loud voice, and the official told me, ‘Shut up!’ I don’t understand English, so I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re saying,’ and he told me, ‘Shut up, shut up!’ I said, ‘You can’t shut my mouth up; it’s mine.’ So I shut up that time, but the next day I went to eat, but I wasn’t hungry, so I wrapped up my food in napkins and took it in the closet, and an official took it and threw it in the garbage and I didn’t know why. Ms. Galindo was the only one who was nice. She understood us because she had also crossed the border without documents. She gave us love, which we really needed. It was a really ugly thing, being detained. We were supposed to maintain silence, and they kept the lights on, so we didn’t know day from night. We got one hour outside for exercise. . . . There were times when I almost asked to be deported, and at one time a Mexican woman was put in our cell, and this woman would stand in a certain part of the cell and she would say, ‘Come over here, where the cameras can’t see,’ and Génesis would say, ‘Don’t.’ The woman would say, ‘No, come over here, or I’ll teach you respect.’ She meant to hit me. I had already won my case and she had lost. After this argument with the woman who was trying to get me to fight, they said, ‘You have to go see the doctor,’ and she said, ‘I’m not sick,’ and they said, ‘You have to.’ And after I went to the doctor they put me in a little room, and then they left me alone for a long time, so I lay down, and then they put me in a hole for fifteen days as punishment for that argument with the Mexicana. The Mexicana was in there, too. It’s a little tiny solitary cell, totally enclosed, and they put your food under the door.”
“What happened to the Mexicana?”
“They put her in too.”
“Could you hear other people in other parts of the hole?”
“No. The only thing that happened was that officials would go by and peek in to see you were okay and then bring food and knock on the door and push it under your door. After that I went back to the cell but not with the Mexicana. They didn’t want us together anymore. They kept the Mexicana in the hole until I got out. She had said that she would get a marker pen and stab it into my ears when I was asleep, and two other women witnessed it and made a complaint, so that’s why they locked her up longer.”
“Why did she dislike you?”
“Because I talked too loud!” cried Kataleya with great good humor. “I do have a loud voice, and we were in a very enclosed space, so they could hear me all over! It sounded to the Mexicana like I was arguing or yelling when it was just my normal tone of voice.”
“How long did they keep you there?”
“It was either the sixteenth or the twenty-sixth of August 2017. I don’t remember when we were released, because it’s better not to count the days.”
“Was it after Christmas?”
“Before Christmas. I came out on parole May 2018.”
“So it was something like nine months?”
“On January 17, 2017, I left my country. Then I was in Shelter No. 72 in Mexico City, and then we started the caravan, heading for Nogales. We got to Nogales in August 2017, and in that same month we asked for asylum. We didn’t get our freedom until 2018. I was the last one to be out of detention of the transgender women.”
“Why were you the last?”
“It depends on when your sponsor can meet all the requirements to accept you.”
“What happened on the last day?”
“So on the last day Ms. Galindo came and told me I would be free that day, and she told me to behave well when I got out and never bow my head before anybody, because everybody was equal and nobody was better than anybody else. And she told me to do in life what made me happy. So they put me at liberty and I left.”
“How did Genevieve become your sponsor?”
“I had another sponsor at first, but that person didn’t have anywhere for me to stay, so then Genevieve came . . . ”
“And did they put you in an ankle bracelet?”
“I think I didn’t get one because we had those letters saying we should not be abused. We left under humanitarian parole.” The slender necklace was trembling on her smooth brown throat.
She won her asylum after a year. In another year she might win her residency permit; three years later she could apply for citizenship. I asked what her protective document looked like, and she let me hold in my hands her laminated Department of Homeland Security document, with her very own nine-digit admission number, then a two-digit process number and that blue stamp:
Immigration and Nationality Act
OCT 02 2018
above her male birth name, her date of birth (she was twenty-two), and her native country. On the card’s other side was a color identification photo and
Since I wished to photograph her, she went to put on makeup. (Genevieve said: “It’s a wonder how quickly she transforms!”) She had always been beautiful; now she looked like a model. I learned that Vogue had recently done a shoot of her.
“What do you think of the U.S.?” I asked, and she answered as I wished that all the migrants in this story could have: “I have liberty to work and study and nobody insults me.”
x: rachel’s happy days
How can I, a fly-by-night journalist without the power to see through prison walls, tell any credible story about migrant detention? I can quote more informed observers, such as Rachel Wilson, whose fact-gathering went as follows: “I usually have three or four consultations for new clients. They come in and give me extensive background on their immigration history, and then I see what I can do for them. I also bring in family members of people who are detained. The reason I’m not taking detainee cases right now is because it’s too emotionally draining for me.”
“What does it look like inside one of these detention centers?”
“It’s completely devoid of color. Eloy is that weird institutional blue paint,39 Florence is tan; white cinder block. Everything’s loud because it’s a hard surface. I’ve not been inside any of the cells, because I’m not allowed, only into the consultation room. There’s a weird table with a divider. Sometimes ICE won’t let me be on the same side with my client.
“Immigrants are also detained in regular prisons where space is rented out by ICE. The Central Arizona Prison has no individual rooms to meet with clients, so they’re all in a big room and everybody has to whisper.”
“How often can families stay together?”
“The men are separated out and sent to detention in the men’s area. Women and children are sent to one of the family detention centers in Texas. It’s life-changing to see infants in jail. If the family presents at the border and the woman is pregnant, if she’s really, really pregnant, they’ll put an ankle monitor on her and let her into the country because they don’t want to deal with an inmate giving birth.40 Every now and then they are allowed to see each other in the visitation center, maybe once every week or two, for up to an hour, but they’re not allowed to touch each other. But if there’s no room, they send them across the country.”
“And then they never see each other?”
As for me with my paucity of knowledge, what I can best do is keep relaying the migrants’ stories, one after the other.
xi: josé’s story
Herewith, the second Eloy detainee: José was a handsome young Nicaraguan, well groomed, with a nice haircut; like Eulalia, he looked good in orange. So far he had been detained for five months and either six or seven days.
He said: “I was in danger of being captured by the police for political reasons. I was in my second year of studying veterinary medicine,41 and after the confrontation between students and paramilitaries they closed the university.
“My group used the phrase ‘freedom or death.’ The government called us a right-wing movement.42 In my town I didn’t have any confrontation with the police, but on Mother’s Day we went to the capital to protest for all the mothers who have lost their children, and at the barricades I saw policemen with rifles, and I was face-to-face with them. My only way to protect myself was by throwing four to six rocks and then fleeing. We all ran away, and then we hid in different peoples’ houses.”
“When did you decide to escape from your country?”
“I went back to my town, hiding in the mountains. At home two messages made me feel panic. One said, ‘Now that the government has taken over the student checkpoints, who will defend you?’ The other said, ‘You better watch out—nothing to protect you!’—along with obscene words. I got those messages on August 2, 2018. So I got bus tickets to Guatemala along with my cousin, who was also involved. They let us into the country just with our student I.D.s. When we got to Mexico, some official got on the bus and said, ‘Where are you going?’ I just said, somewhere in Mexico, since we did not want to tell our destination. We were three or four days in Guatemala and twelve days in Mexico. The first day and night on the bus, we couldn’t sleep. In Chiapas we slept on the bus. In Sinaloa we slept in the bus station. We aimed for Arizona, because that was the closest place in the U.S. We had family in Miami. We didn’t really have a plan, just talked to people on the way, but mostly we kept quiet so people wouldn’t know we weren’t Mexicans. They asked where we were going; we decided not to say Miami. So we took the bus from Sinaloa to San Luis Río Colorado . . . ”
“And then what happened?”
“We came to the border at a place not far from a sentry box. Watching the patrols go by, we found a place without walls. Water . . . ”
I guess that he crossed at the Colorado River, which in that place, thanks to ever so many diversions, has dwindled from the cataract that formed the Grand Canyon into a stream a child can throw a ball across. José said: “There was a little booth a hundred and fifty meters away, then an area with no wall, a river, very narrow . . . We walked through and turned ourselves in.” Smiling at me, he said: “We thought it would be a quick process to get asylum, but here I am.” Or, as a great mind explained to the Quail Creek Republicans:
darby: And what we discovered was that there were people from seventy-three nations coming across our southern border at that time.43 A lot of those nations were Middle Eastern nations, greater Middle Eastern nations: Pakistan, Afghanistan, obviously the Horn of Africa, which is a terror hotbed.
(In his soup kitchen in Nogales, Father Sean assured me: “Here I haven’t seen anyone from the Middle East.”)
darby [Continuing his monologue]: It doesn’t mean those people who came were terrorists. I get that. But it does show that there is a pathway from those terror hotbeds to our southern border. And that’s obviously very concerning, right?
mccabe: And then when they come, what happens?
darby: They ask for asylum.
mccabe: And then they get on the bus to go wherever they want?
Doesn’t this sound just like what happened to that brown-skinned terrorist José? In other words, he and his cousin were taken to “some icebox44 I don’t know the name of.”
“Why was it made so cold?”
He smiled again and said: “Everyone talked it over and decided it was to make us want to go home.”
So for three days he literally cooled his heels—a day less than Eulalia. People kept getting taken in and out. “We had to live on the floor with aluminum blankets”—evidently the flimsy Mylar “space blankets” that canny winter hikers carry for emergencies. There were “little bathrooms one after the other, with the doors open.”
“After the icebox what happened?”
“Florence for two days, then Eloy on the fourth of September. On the twenty-ninth of August we crossed the border . . . ” He carefully counted off days on his fingers.
Why didn’t he meet the criteria for admittance into Diane’s shelter? He had (to my mind) credible fear, a sponsor in Miami, et cetera. Oh, to be sure, he had come without a child, and let’s not forget that he had crossed the border illegally. So ICE had perfectly good reason . . .
“How many in your cell now?”
“Fifty in my tank, but we have two-people cells to sleep in.”
After the icebox, from which his cousin was removed one day earlier, those two were separated; José glimpsed him once in Florence. Here in Eloy he passed him going to the doctor. Then the cousin was released on a $15,000 bond. The cousin’s father remitted it to an aunt, who paid it, and so now the cousin lived free in Miami.
“How have you been treated?”
“Generally well, but there’s some people who are racist and yell a lot. One guard, a young man, would yell; others also yell . . . But the guy in charge of the whole unit is really nice; you can complain and he will call others on the carpet. We get two hours in the yard; the rest of the day we watch movies on TV and chat with friends. They give a schedule of movies; some guards are nice and let us watch movies more than once . . . ” (Well, well, I was wrong; border security was just wonderful.) “People with money can get better food.”
Like Eulalia, José had been brought before a judge, whose name he even knew. “On January 8 I was supposed to have a hearing but was sick, so ICE45 set my bail at $73,500.”
“Is it still possible that you will get asylum?”
He nodded. “My next hearing is on the thirteenth of May, and I am trying to get it moved up.”
“Has your cousin visited you?”
“No, he’s in Miami. Only my aunt calls me . . . ”
“If you got asylum, what would your plan be?”
Sighing, staring down at the table, he said: “Bueno. I would stay with my aunt. I don’t know if I am able to study or get a job . . . ”
“In your tank, who’s been there the longest?”
“Four years. A guy from Mexico.”
“If you got tired of being here, could you give up and get rapid deportation to Nicaragua?”
“No. There are people who have been asking since November and they’re still here. Mexicans get deported right away,” he added.
He smiled sweetly when he talked about his novia back in Nicaragua, so I asked why he had not brought her with him. He said: “It wasn’t right to put her in that kind of danger.”
“Was she sad not to be invited?”
“She begged me not to do it, but I told her I was in danger.”
“What do you think of the United States now?”
And he said, in almost the same words as Eulalia, but more defiantly: “I just feel safe here.”
“What if you were to bring your novia to Guatemala?”
“There’s nothing there.”
“Why not ask to be deported to Mexico? Then you could marry her and be in freedom already.”
My intention had been not to discourage him but simply to learn why it was that he was so hell-bent on America in particular. What was wrong with Mexico? Firmly he replied: “I haven’t thought about it.”
xii: another josé’s story
On the Mexican side of Nogales I met another José from Nicaragua, with nearly identical political opinions. I met him in the long arcade where a man in a thick flannel shirt hugged himself against the cold, with his eyes closed and nobody buying his bags and jars of nuts. Next to him a Mexican blanket on an unattended table displayed more nuts, with some Aztec calendars for variety; on the other side of him a man in a red nogales cap was vending wooden birds and cheap jewelry. Then came the Farmacia La Plaza, and so on and so forth, all along that tan wall, and in front of it, beneath the corrugated plastic roof strips that let in the gray light, a line of document-possessing Mexicans and Americans approached the first turnstile.
To their left sat a newly arrived family from Guatemala, four of them, having spent fifteen days on the road, taking buses and trains; they were road-tired, hungry, and cold. To their right, earlier arrivals stayed warm behind a clear plastic sheet, protected by a pretty policewoman, and down those stairs Brenda, the volunteer, now came to meet the new Guatemalans.
The policewoman was now hugging some kids. She asked if they had eaten and they had not, so with her own money she went to that farmacia and bought them juice. Then she got them each half a sandwich.
José’s face was narrow. He had a sharp nose and his hair was slicked back. He kept himself shaven and clean. Against the cold he wore a down or synthetic vest over a shirt and a zippered sweater. I offered him money in exchange for his story; at the end of our conversation he said he was so grateful I had listened that he didn’t want anything. I forced some pesos into his hand, for the sake, I said, of his brother’s child; the child was shivering. The queue to America went on, and he stood there on the side, watching.
I sat on a bench beside him and watched the line pass through the covered way. A man was selling candy for a charity that seemed to be himself, so I hired him to interpret the following:
“I am a member of a movement called Nineteenth of April,” José said. “They have catalogued us like terrorists, persons that are probably thinking to hurt the government. And the national police sustains the regime. They have to incarcerate us so that we will not protest anymore. The nineteenth of April is the day in 2018 that university students decided to go against the state, because the state has no respect. And it started because we rose up against the social security, and the elderly folks, they also protested, so they were treated in a brutal way. The old people rose up on the eighteenth. So the next day, on the nineteenth, we came out to protest. That same day, on the nineteenth of April, we were shot with rubber bullets at close range.
“The youth are used as sort of like an apparatus to repress. In Nicaragua they are called the ‘bloody youth.’46 Before the police, they’re the ones who initiated the beatings of the protesters. They started off with sticks and rockets. They used helmets to cover their heads, and they would beat the older people. That is the third force. This is not a fight of ideals, but more a fight of liberties. But we do consider ourselves people of democracy.”
“So what happened to you?”
“I’m from a place called Jinotega. In Nicaragua there’s only one channel of open press and one newspaper only. So us, the people, we started seeing the aggression that was occurring in Managua, and this disturbance was multiplied throughout the country. So us in Jinotega, frustrated about what’s going on and what’s happening, we organized protests, walks, flags that were striped with blue and white, no emblems of political parties. We were in a place that was called Barrio Sandino. Our protest was the strongest. One day, on the eighth of June, 2018, we found ourselves somewhere around eight-thirty in the evening. We were about to leave the place and we were going home. It was rumored that we would be attacked by the paramilitaries, by the bloody youth. (They call them also ‘para police.’) That night the bloody youth, they came armed. These were campesinos with big high-caliber weapons, AK-47s, and they began to attack us from the north and the south. There was around a hundred and fifty of us. They didn’t ask us to stop doing anything. They just started shooting. We ran from the north to the south. That day there was a lot of people who were hurt. There was signs of construction on the road, and we were barricading ourselves behind those to hide. Whoever was able to grab rocks and toss them was hurt. I was running, and one of the guys that was running with me was shot in the forehead. His name was Abraham Castro; he was seventeen.”
“Did you go home to your family?”
“No. We hid inside neighbors’ houses. The ones that were able, we hid. And the officials, they were there all morning. Through cracks in the walls we were able to see them searching. So that made us protest all the more because of the death of Abraham Castro. We lifted barricades, blocks; and we stayed there until the twenty-fourth of July. The day of the death of the young boy happened on the eighth of June. The population would help us out with water, food, medications when we needed it. In that place we had a medical center that was financed by youth and some doctors whose identities are maintained in secret. And some of those doctors who were detected were confined or exiled. Around the time eight in the night, we were in the barricades, and the police and bloody youth threatened us to ‘Stop protesting or else we’re gonna get you out of here with gunshots.’ They have a saying, ‘That’s lead to the hitter.’ It means that the bullet is made of lead, for us hitters against the state. So that day we, because of fear, could not go home that day anymore, because they would go there and yank us out. There’s a group of people in each neighborhood that passes information to the police.
“On the twenty-fourth of July, the citizens came to back us up, to be with us, and the police and the paramilitaries came, and without concern that there was children there, older people, and women, they started firing, and the people that were able to got away, and the rest of them refuged inside of people’s homes, anywhere that was not your own home. We were using our slingshots to fire against the police. But the police had already received orders to get us out of there no matter what. So we ran to the mountains, and three of us were killed. One boy of fifteen years, in his back pocket he had marbles,47 and he was killed without mercy. So I ran through the mountains.
“I was in a house called the house of security. We could not go back, because of threats from the Sandinista. We thought we could still go on, just go to the south side of the country. So we were on the south side, right near Costa Rica, two months, three months, waiting for the repression to end. But we were catalogued as the leaders of this movement, and as people of free thought.”
“And were you one of the leaders?”
“Yes. And so we were there for two months, until it came to about December, and we were waiting maybe four months . . . ” He had to count up on his fingers. Then his tally became five months. “But we thought that with the sanctions, with the unilateral sanctions of the United States toward Nicaragua, it was going to crush the regime. But it actually increased the repression toward us. And they had orders, arrest warrants, for all of us leaders. The majority of my friends are dead and some of them are detained. I have pictures of all my friends who are detained. So I came back at Christmas and thought that I was gonna be okay, because I wanted to spend Christmas and New Year’s, but Jinotega is a very small town, and they found out. And one neighbor of mine, she told my mom that she knew I was there and she would call the police. Ortega is like a commander who is all powerful, like Maduro.48 So I went to a place called Jalapa. Before all this I used to do motocross racing, so I had a lot of friends in Jalapa. And they gave me a place to stay. It is located on the border with Honduras. They know all the mountains, so they guided me into Honduras. I left my country hidden. I have also left by something called ‘blind point.’ It’s a place where you cannot find any police or military. I left my country illegally.”
“What was it like the last day?”
“It was something beautiful, because I almost died in the days of the battle, and then to see my family, I didn’t care exactly, being afraid, to be captured. I just wanted to spend the time with my family.”
“And what did your parents say on the last day?”
“They told me they would prefer communication with technology instead of seeing me, because political prisoners in Nicaragua, they have no rights. They did not support me, because they knew that I might die, but in the end they defended my idea, because they knew the country was not good.
“I had some money in my race bike, so I sold it for two thousand. It was worth a lot more, but in the emergency I just sold it for whatever I could get. I had a wonderful life; I never suffered.”
“How long did it take you to cross Honduras?”
“It took me four days to find the right time to cross. Then we were able to get out through a Honduran place called Trojes. I was in Honduras just one day, and from there I went to Guatemala. Since we had friends that were runners, they would have communication with Honduras and they would be able to enter legally, and that’s how we could get our stamp of entry to stay in Honduras. We crossed. I was with my brother and his wife and his son.”
“Did you have a novia?”
“Yes, my girlfriend stayed there. My studies, I have not even picked up my notes from the university. If I go there, they report.”
“And what happened the last time you saw your novia?”
“I was in the same final reunion with the family. She wanted to see Nicaragua as a free country, but she is also a person that protested in a sort of scared way. Not like me. And she said that she preferred me to be far away, not dead.”
“Did you finish with her?”
“We’re still together, because I haven’t closed that cycle of my life. I’m here not because I want to make a new life but because I want to return to my country after Ortega falls.
“That day from Honduras I left at seven. The following day, I was at the border in Agua Caliente, and then I was in Guatemala City. I stayed one day and then we took a bus and crossed the river at the Mexican border. That day when we crossed, men in face masks stole money from us. They had machetes. They were Mexicans, crossing the river. In the morning we went with a police official to Hidalgo, and he told us that we had to go to the ministerio público to put in a formal request, and at that moment the official told us we had the right to a humanitarian visa, because it was a serious crime.”
“When did you arrive here in Nogales?”
“And where are your brother and his family?”
“In a hotel.”
‘What’s your plan?”
“I’m here because I’m seeking protection. I’m following the steps to make use of the process to seek asylum.”
“You want to go to the U.S.?”
“For the moment. Right here they give you a number. But the obligation of each person is to study to see if your case is eligible. Somebody came, American lawyers. My number is 988. The people that are here, they have a refuge.49 They let them know directly. Because I am in a hotel, I have to come here to find out and inform myself. I come every day to talk with the police officers. They’re very nice with me.”
“What do you think when you see this wall?”
“I don’t think anything really. I don’t see anything really. Because my work is in Nicaragua. I just want protection for the moment.”
“So why would you rather be there and not here in Mexico?”
“Basically it’s a problem that’s very big. The president here has ideals of a leftist. He’s one of the few presidents that recognizes Maduro, and Maduro is the principal sponsor of Daniel Ortega.”
“What do you think of President Trump?”
“I think that he is just protecting the rights of the Americans. And probably to a lot of people he gives them a lot of racism, but I see at the very bottom he’s like a muscle.” (Poor José! He mistook Trump for the Contras’ long-dead champion, Ronald Reagan.)
Brenda informed me that José had so far been here four days. He had five more days until his interview, then he would be taken to make his case. If he were rejected out of hand, they would send him back to Mexico; otherwise, being a single man, he was, as I have said, looking at maybe six months in detention. Leaning against a pole, he stood watching people walk legally toward America, and he folded his hands behind him.
xiii: faces in a soup kitchen
“I really don’t believe in God,” Rachel Wilson had said, “but Father Sean is sent by heaven. It got to about two hundred people sitting outside the port of entry, waiting. They were only processing two or three people a day! And then Father Sean started finding shelters for these people and setting up a wait list. His mission is to provide humanitarian help in whatever way he can, so he is not trying to ruffle more feathers than he has to.”
This youngish, bespectacled man was slender, a trifle pale, groomed and dressed like the wage slave of some office whose dress code was moderately casual; he wore a nice plaid button-down shirt, although its collar was wilted. His smile was sweet and almost feminine. He had long, elegant-fingered hands that he often fitted together when he spoke. Within a few steps of the great, high sign for the frontera usa, his soup kitchen, “a migrant aid center but everyone calls it the comedor [dining room],” sat right up against the grass-topped dirt-flesh of the road cut, chicken-wired and fenced in, and even along the side razor-wired above what in my country would have been a temporary rent-a-fence. He told me about the origins of the Kino Border Initiative (K.B.I.): “It began with a couple of women in the neighborhood. In 2006, a lot of people were being deported through this port of entry, and these women wondered what could be done, because a lot of people were being deported with blistered feet, dehydrated, with not enough to eat. So they decided to organize themselves, with one of the sisters,50 to start serving meals to migrants. So they organized their local community to do that, and then the Jesuits from the Southwest United States helped them. We were doing a needs assessment from 2006 to 2007. A lot of people were migrating through Arizona at that time, and a lot of people were dying, and there was a lot of contentiousness.” In other words, plus ça change . . .
He was sitting across from me at one of those communal tables, while the volunteers (whom, once the interview was finished, he quietly assisted) began laying out utensils, paper napkins, and bowls of brownish salsa the consistency of apple sauce. (These helpers came from churches in the United States and Mexico; at least two women were here for the first time.) It was midmorning. Something like thirty-five migrants, about a quarter of them men, were settling in. All the while, a wall-mounted television monitor kept on displaying various advice messages: Always tell your family your crossing route; up from Guatemala along the east is the highest zone of danger, and also all along the top along the border. (“A lot of people are coming from Guerrero due to violence,” remarked Father Sean.) And the monitor dispensed more rules of the road: It is no crime to travel through Mexico without documents; you have a right to medical attention; if something happens to you, here is what information you ought to retain in order to make a report; be sure to make it known if you feel afraid to return to your country because your life is in danger. Now came a breakdown on various abuses of migrants: robbery, extortion, et cetera.
“I remember reading about liberation theology back in the 1970s,” I told Father Sean, and then asked, “Would you describe what you do in those terms?”
“I think this work and the focus of K.B.I. is respect for human dignity: freedom from oppression, freedom from what violates their dignity, the meals, the support, trying to raise awareness about this situation, trying to change policies that are oppressive, trying to help people experience the life that God wants them to have.”
About No More Deaths he said: “They’re responding to a humanitarian need. People are dying in the desert. Volunteers are trying to save lives.”
“Why are so many folks on the move?”
“The vast majority are migrating for a more dignified way of life, whether it’s from economic need or fleeing violence.51 What we have in the United States are laws that don’t respond to that situation. We need laws that address issues of safety. And if that can be done . . . ”
He did not finish, perhaps because he knew quite well that it would not be done.
“How many people do you serve?”
“Yesterday afternoon when I was here, maybe a hundred and twenty people. Meals, clothing, check-cashing, first aid . . . Shelter we provide just for women and children.” Then he added: “Close to half of those who are waiting for asylum are children.”
Like a good Trumpeter, I inquired: “How many have prior criminal records?”
“It’s really hard to say. Large groups have been received by the Border Patrol . . . ”
I asked him to help me guess where Antonia and her daughter might have breached our defenses.
“I know in the past,” said Father Sean, “that what many people would do is go about a two-hour-and-fifteen-minute drive to the Sasabe crossing, and then be taken to an area on the Tohono O’odham reservation.”
“How far would you have to walk to find open border?”
“Obviously there’s a wall here, and on the reservation there’s a vehicular barrier. It would be west of Sasabe. Here we’ll see large numbers of migrants crossing the border. It’s similar to what we see in the Rio Grande Valley with families crossing . . .
“A year ago it was eighty percent men,” he remarked. (Fifteen and twenty years ago, when I was researching the California-Mexico border, the pollos had been almost entirely male.) Regarding the separation of families by ICE, he said: “That’s a constant reality.”
Now the tables were almost full, and the migrants were drinking water from plastic glasses; a child was crying; a woman on a microphone invoked applause, which they gave. Here came a prayer; it was innocuously brief.
And the hungry came in. When each shift of migrants had finished eating—a good meal of frijoles and some kind of stew, with salsa and hot fresh tortillas on the side—the volunteers soaped dishes in a plastic tub, while the next batch waited outside on the sidewalk. I could see them through the glass door, standing in a patient queue, probably not for the first or last time. Now the next throng came through the door, some of them looking away, others smiling at me or watching the food with shining eyes.
What can or should I write about that mustached, worried-looking man with the greasy hair and the heavy jacket who warily submitted to gazing over his shoulder into my lens? He saw me and I him. I never learned the story of his life. His mouth might have been considering a smile, or maybe that was just how it was made. Anyway, his eyes did not smile; I suppose he looked at me because Father Sean had asked whether anyone objected to my photographs, and nobody answered, perhaps because it was harder and for all they knew potentially more disadvantaging to say yes than to say nothing. (And the head-shaved, hairy-armed man in the white tank top who posed for me patiently and wearily, what would he get out of it? Nothing personally, and nothing for any of them if my president got his way.) Here were two dark-haired children who huddled together for me and smiled, one of them hooded against the cold and the other in a fleece jacket that announced in Spanish that she loved Jesus Christ (another criminal most properly put to death by the Trumpeters of His time). Beneath the crucified Jesus on the cinder-block wall (accompanied by a rosary, a Virgin of Guadalupe, and a medallion that evidently represented Christ as King), two pairs of child hands simultaneously lathered up in the sink, whose plastic spray bottle of advanced hand sanitizer happened to be a $1.99 amazing value, so it came from across the border.
xiv: “i worked hard for everything”
From Guatemala and Ecuador and Honduras and Nicaragua they were coming, and at Father Sean’s migrant center a man held up his little girl for you and me to remember. She clasped her chubby hands together; her mouth and eyes went wide at me; her forehead was studded with measles or chicken pox or maybe insect bites. I remember the open smile of another small child, while its mother smiled at me more sadly or wearily. And not far across the line, up in Green River, Arizona, a man raised the main question:
audience member: Larry here, at Quail Creek: You know, you’ve said a lot of things that most of us in here believe. There are a lot of people that don’t believe what you’re saying. Is there any thought process or thinking about how do you get through to people who are just denying that this even exists?
kolfage: Well, I think the people who are just flat-out denying it, it’s very difficult to convince them otherwise, because they’re not open-minded enough to see the issue. . . . But we have sixty million people who voted for President Trump, and we believe that those people all supported border security.
mccabe: Might be some here tonight!
[Stormy applause, with whoops and at least one delighted goddamn.]
kolfage: We have been receiving many donations from Democrats as well, and they tell me, Brian, you know, I don’t support President Trump, but I know that border security and protecting the American people is an important issue. . . . I think it’s a slim amount of people who don’t support it . . . and they want, they want our country to be invaded, more or less. They don’t care. They’re socialists; they think that America has everything and everyone else should have everything. I don’t believe in that. I worked hard for everything . . .
Rachel Wilson must not have worked hard for everything, because when I asked her what percentage of legals and illegals should be denied entry, in order to prevent rape, murder, and terrorism, she replied: “The thing is, because I don’t believe that immigration enforcement is the way to prevent rape, I don’t believe in limiting the number of people who come into the United States.”
“What should be the role of ICE?”
“I would like to shut them down completely. From my point of view, the problems that people see with immigration are not the result of immigration. They’re the result of other things. For instance, some people say more immigration means more Americans out of jobs. But that can be fixed by upholding our labor laws, establishing a minimum wage. Other people say there’s more crime, and that’s not true, and anyhow we already have laws against crime. We humans have been migrating around the world since we came into existence. We crossed the Bering Strait to get onto this continent.”
The No More Deaths volunteer said: “I think there’s this idea that people are safer in enforcement nation states. I don’t think that ICE has a place in any cooperative society.” She must not have worked hard for everything, either. The same went for four of her fellow volunteers, who had just been found guilty of trying to save other human beings from dying of thirst. What right did they have to give away our American water?
About the latest little contretemps (the one that the drop the charges sign addressed) she said: “So our volunteers who just got convicted—and we’re appealing—were putting water out on Cabeza Prieta, which is the wildlife refuge next to the bombing range in the west desert. It’s one of the longest stretches of remote land that people have to cross. The ambient temperatures get very high. There is no water. There’s just a handful of Border Patrol beacons, but, depending where you are, they’re hard to locate, and there is no water at them. We had previously been getting permits to go out to that land base, and when they explicitly preclude[d] people from putting out aid, then, in the incident in question, which happened in August, our volunteers didn’t get permits because they did not want to sign a document saying that they would not put aid out.52 And what’s happening on Cabeza Prieta is that there’s a very high concentration of remains recovered in that area. When we first started going out, our volunteers were finding multiple sets of remains on day trips. . . . ”
I asked what specifically those Good Samaritans had been convicted of.
“Basically, the judge did find our volunteers guilty of abandonment of personal property and driving on designated roads, because it is in a protected wildlife area. And there’s miles of roads in Cabeza Prieta. So the idea that they’re protecting a pristine wilderness is a bit of a misunderstanding of the case. Cabeza Prieta used to be a bombing range and is still covered with military ordinances.”53
I asked whether she suspected that the authorities had decided to make an example of the four volunteers.
“It’s hard to say really. I will say that for example we have another of our volunteers, Scott Warren, facing twenty years in prison under felony charges.54 And that case is going to go to trial in May. He was arrested eight hours after we released a report about Border Patrol destruction and interference with our humanitarian aid supplies. If you look at the media coverage of that case, there is a large amount of discovery involving communications between Fish and Wildlife and Border Patrol in regards to surveillance of our organization. So I can’t speak to the specifics of the Cabeza misdemeanors, but it certainly seems retaliatory in nature.”55
(Evidently, Fish and Wildlife could not speak to the specifics either, because they refused to comment. CBP, when asked whether it had coordinated with Fish and Wildlife in this way, said, “Absolutely not.”)
This volunteer continued: “We have a higher moral calling as people of consciousness in the borderlands to provide food and water to people when we meet them in the desert, regardless of status. Our volunteers have dealt with criminal prosecution in the past. In 2005 two of them were charged with human trafficking, and those charges were ultimately dropped. So I think this in some ways is just a replay of criminalization of our aid workers.”
But, after all, what if those border-sneakers were rapists? Hadn’t the president said so?
“What percent of the migrants are criminals?” I asked the Mexican policeman who had hidden his face.
“Maybe ten percent.”
“What’s your personal feeling about the border wall?”
“We’re all the same. We’re going to the same spot,56 so there should be no border wall.”
Then he said: “Oh, it’s not the way that people tell it. It’s not how the news puts it out. I’m no one to criticize, but only the people who are going through it are the ones can understand what they’re going through.”
I tried to understand it—oh, I did, riding around in cars, with my wallet full of money and a warm hotel room every night! Sometimes it felt strange that I had so much and these others had nearly nothing, but hadn’t I worked hard to be born American? Back and forth the taxis whizzed me, paralleling those tall slats of rusty wall with their new sproutings of razor wire on Quail Creek’s side, while on this side, the side that President Trump stood so generously determined to protect me from, were affixed white wooden crosses bearing such names as boy child 2 months and victor santillan de la cruz age 36. (Think of all the money both criminals’ deaths saved Joe Taxpayer!) Peering through the wall, I discovered that the Arizona portion of Nogales had already recommenced. I saw a fancy golden pickup truck and a shiny red sport-utility vehicle parked in front of opulent houses, one of which kept two porch lights on, let’s say, to welcome any migrants. Here on the Mexican side had been planted two metal stick figures: the green one, whose faceless head-sphere read us border patrol, chasing a red one whose head bore a compasslike conjunction of two four-pointed stars, the white one beneath the dark, while the torso wore the likeness of a soldier standing vigil by some sort of draped altar from which a cross sprouted. What did that mean? The border patrolman ran jerkily in place, its arms threateningly outstretched, while its quarry sprinted rightward with more apparent fleetness, for its front knee bent deeply and its rear leg pressed not only backward but upward.
xv: america saved
I left Tucson on February 14. On Saturday, February 16, the New York Times headline ran: trump calls emergency, defying congress: constitutional clash as critics confront “power grab” on wall.
In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s doomed and dashing hero gets asked by his Spanish Civil War comrades whether our United States could be likewise infested by fascists. He informs them: “There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes.”