By Greg Moses
The bus to Laredo is hushed and nearly full as I step aboard in Austin, taking a seat next to a thirtyish man who occasionally speaks across the aisle to a young woman who mostly sleeps.
In San Antonio, I connect with the El Paso bus, sitting next to a grandmother who clutches a purse with both hands. She glances occasionally across the aisle at a restless young boy who sometimes stands upon his seat, sometimes lays his head on his mother’s lap.
The drivers make announcements first in English then Spanish, but looking and listening from where I sit, it would be more practical to reverse that order of things. As these buses move, so moves history. "La Quinta. Spanish for ‘growth spurt’," says a smart little placard at a Kerrville, TX motel. Dots scatter across a map of the USA. Dots between Laredo and Chicago might as well mark the movement of la migra, Spanish for people seeking work.
There is so much human value on these buses. In terms of labor force alone: cement workers, roofers, landscapers, mechanics, cooks, janitors, clerks, musicians, and housekeepers. Foreign-born Hispanic men have a labor-force participation rate of 85 percent (says a 2002 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics) making them the most active subgroup of workers in the USA.
Clusters of travelers speak also of families flung apart, hearts stretched across America. Along the highways of the Texas vastlands, we gaze out windows and think through our lives.
La Raza Cosmica is what Mexican philosopher Jose Vasconcelos imagined for the peoples of these vast and handsome lands. La Raza Cosmica, Spanish for the cosmic race or the cosmic peoples. Out of the intermingling histories of los Indios, European, African, and Asian peoples, Vasconcelos prophesied not a master race but a cosmic blend of talent and virtue. In the peace of the bus, with the skin colors all present, the landscape seems to ask why not?
But outside the bus, an hysterical politics is being watered and fed that would turn this landscape into a territorial imperative, culminating in the construction along the USA-Mexico border of something called an unclimbable wall. With my mind’s eye on the placard map, I trace the crooked line that starts at the boot-tip of Texas and runs west-north-westward along the borderlands of New Mexico and Arizona up to the left hip of California at the Pacific Coast. An unclimbable wall to separate Latin Americans from El Norte.
In the President’s radio address Saturday, the issue of immigration was framed in terms of homeland defense. "To defend this country, we have to enforce our borders," he said with a twist of grammar, as if a border is something inherently enforceable.
"When our borders are not secure, terrorists, drug dealers, and criminals find it easier to sneak into America," he warned, ignoring plain statistics that suggest the vast majority of immigrants come here to work and grow families. "My administration has a clear strategy for dealing with this problem: We want to stop people from crossing into America illegally, and to quickly return the illegal immigrants we catch back to their home countries."
Here the President’s anti-terror logic gets applied to Latin America. Some people crossing the border might be terrorists; therefore, in order to solve "this problem" we must make war on all people "crossing into" America. And the phrase "crossing into" says a mighty lot about how the President’s strategy draws us closer to an unclimbable wall. He didn’t say "crossing over".
At the turn of the 20th Century, 85 percent of immigrants to the USA were "crossing over" from Europe, but today those numbers are reversed. In addition to the 15 percent who still come from Europe today, 25 percent cross the Pacific from Asia, and eight percent from places "other" than Europe, Asia, or Latin America.
But these days, Latin America provides fifty one percent of the foreign born residents in the USA, and about half of those Latin Americans are not from Mexico. Or to put it another way, for every Mexican migrant "crossing into" the USA from the South, there is nearly another Latin American who is not from Mexico.
The President on Saturday made reference to this non-Mexican immigration when he announced that a new Homeland Security bill will allow him to "expand the holding capacity of our detention facilities by 10 percent."
"This will allow us to hold more non-Mexican illegal immigrants while we process them through a program we call ‘expedited removal,’" explained the President. "This will make the process faster and more efficient. Putting more non-Mexican illegal immigrants through expedited removal is crucial to sending back people who have come here illegally. As Secretary Chertoff told the Senate this week, our goal is to return every single illegal entrant, with no exceptions. And this bill puts us on the path to do that."
In this part of the President’s address, it is no longer a question of whether the border-crosser may be a terrorist, etc. One is simply an illegal non-Mexican who must be deported, each and every time. (Are there no prisons? asks Scrooge. But nowhere near enough for the non-Mexicans, sir, replies the First Gentleman.) And what about those who are Mexicans?
"For Mexicans who cross into America illegally, we have a different plan, but the same goal," sez the Prez. "Now, most of the 900,000 illegal immigrants from Mexico who are caught each year are immediately escorted back across the border. The problem is that these illegal immigrants are able to connect with another smuggler or coyote and come right back in. So one part of the solution is a program called ‘interior repatriation’ where we fly or bus these illegal immigrants all the way back to their hometowns in the interior of Mexico. By returning illegal Mexican immigrants to their homes, far away from desert crossings, we’re saving lives and making it more difficult for them to turn right around and cross back into America."
Actually, the option to catch a chartered ride home has been offered for two years. During the first year, about 14,000 people were taken south on about 150 airplane trips, at a cost of about $1,000 per person.
Although the program is supposed to be voluntary, two-thirds of the people caught have so far declined to risk consideration. Of those who do opt for the screening in Tucson, half decide against the free trip home. Yet, if among the caught crossers USA officials diagnose certain health risks such as blisters on the feet, Yanqui authorities may recommend ‘interior repatriation’ for health reasons. During the first year of operation, the USA made such "properly documented" recommendations to Mexican authorities. "In every single case," says a report on the matter, "the principle of willingness was expressed before the Mexican authorities." An astounding conversion rate.
"As we improve and expand our efforts to secure our borders," said the President, "we must also recognize that enforcement cannot work unless it’s part of a comprehensive immigration reform that includes a temporary worker program." Here the President’s logic narrows into the proverbial bushwhack canyon where there is only one way out. Since there is obviously no way to prevent Mexicans from finding work, we shall have to tell them where and when they shall be allowed to find work. At this point turn around and watch all the state minimalists in the room nod in rigorous agreement. That’s right. W
e need a GOVERNMENT PROGRAM to tell Mexicans where to find work and when to stop.
The idea of a guest-worker program is also popular in pro-wall talk. The only good Mexican is a working Mexican. And the only good working Mexican is one who takes his orders from Uncle Sam. Never mind that without any government assistance in this regard, Mexican-born men are already outworking everyone else. And never mind that the old guest-worker program known as the bracero system was long ago dismantled owing to eyewitness experiences of the human rights abuses that ensue whenever you reduce human beings to corporate labor.
Word by word, headline by headline, the issue of borderland security is being turned into a question of national defense. And the image of defense is bleeding into images of guns and high walls. Meanwhile, lurking in the mix of this prodigal mind is the idea that the only rightful existence for a human of Mexican origin is strict corporate servitude to Yanqui employers. At this rate, it won’t be too long from now, when those of us in the Southwest who have watched with horror how the war on terrorism has played out overseas will have things nearby to see.
Abraham T. Mosisa. The role of foreign-born workers in the U. S. economy. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Monthly Labor Review. May 2002.
Julia Gelatt and Jennifer Yau, Migration Policy Institute. Free Flights and New Enforcement Proposals Address Unauthorized Migrants. Migration Information Source. Policy Beat. July 1, 2005.
See also link to IRP Joint Report at Gelatt and Yau above.