Guest Columns

SMITH: THE PEOPLE BEHIND THE FACES NEAR THE FENCES

What some see as border security, others see as border hysteria in Mexico

The Colorado Statesman

“Stop with the propaganda, your only making yourself look like a dumbf—k.the whole WORLD has seen multiple videos of drug gangs with machine guns and drugs crossing the border,” writes Karl Snyder on 8-28-13.

In a few days Congress will be back in session and the question of immigration reform will be front and center. The danger is that people who think like this Snyder person will dominate the debate and that the key question once again will be border security and an excessive hysteria about Mexico.

About every three weeks I cross the border into Mexico at Juárez, Santa Teresa just to the west, Palomas south of Columbus, N.M., or on foot at Nogales and Tijuana. Crossing also involves navigating other US checkpoints north of the border and Mexican check points to the south — perhaps as many as 20 checkpoints each trip. What you see is a staggering amount of manpower. Nonetheless the Senate Democrats who passed the immigration bill last June added much more security in order to gain Republican votes. Their bill would effectively double the number of border patrolmen, add hundreds of miles border fencing at a cost of $3.9 million per mile, and commit to more billions in various types of high tech gear. Even with those increases, House Republicans have said that the bill is “dead on arrival.” Although arrests for illegal crossings have declined from 1.2 million in 2005 to 365,000 in 2012, fanatics like Snyder or representative like Steve King (R-Iowa) want even more of this border militarized. This siege mentality and demonizing of Mexico and Mexicans is wrong and threatens to undercut the proposed legislation.

A Mixteca Indian sells sombreros at the border of Juárez, Mexico just yards from the big fence. Columnist Morgan Smith makes the crossing into Mexico about every three weeks.

What actually happens just across the border? Here are the kinds of people you would actually meet.

Cecilia Vasquez, a Mixteca Indian from Oaxaca who migrated to Juárez some 10 years ago, sells hats and ceramics next to the border fence.

Cecilia Vazquez is a Mixteca Indian from the state of Oaxaca who migrated to Juárez some 10 years ago, lives in the Anapra area with her family and hitchhikes to the Santa Teresa, crossing every day to sell sombreros, crosses and other trinkets. She is part of a small colony of these Mixtecas who stand in the boiling sun or the winter wind, trying to eke out a few pesos from people waiting in their cars to cross the border.

Reina Cisneros in Palomas, Mex., with Santiago, one of the older people she cares for. The $100 bill was donated by a friend in Denver.
Photos by Morgan Smith/The Colorado Statesman

Reina Cisneros lives in the tiny town of Palomas, 60 miles to the west and just across from Columbus, N.M. She cares for elderly people who have been abandoned by their families. Years ago she founded the orphanage, La Casa de Amor Para Niños. Bethzaida (5) is her granddaughter, a bright little girl with great potential who can recite about six poems by heart.

Irene Garcia lives in Nogales. Her husband, Jaime is a taxi driver and has taken me on a number of tours of the city. When I first visited, she was working in a pharmacy right by the border but business collapsed because Americans were scared to come across and buy low cost medications. So she lost her job. Now she makes tamales to sell at construction sites.

Manuel lives in the Anapra section of Juárez. One morning I saw him pushing a wheelbarrow up the road that flanks the border fence. He said that he was going to gather firewood. Later I followed him, suddenly realizing that there were no trees where he was going, so how could there be firewood.

He had dug a hole at the base of a mesquite bush about a hundred yards from the border fence and was down in the hole, chopping at the mesquite roots with an axe. That was the firewood he was talking about.

Hugo Maldonado leaves his house on foot at 6 a.m., carrying two big burlap sacks, and heads west along the highway from Juárez looking for cans. He may end up walking for 10 hours to find enough cans to sell for the equivalent of $5.

Yeira Rubi Beltrán is the granddaughter of Elvira Romero, the former cook at the mental asylum I wrote about on August 21, 2011. I came to know her and her older brother, Hector because Elvira would bring them to the asylum every weekend. It was too dangerous in their neighborhood for them to stay home alone. She is exactly two weeks younger than my oldest granddaughter so I couldn’t help but constantly see the enormous contrast in their lives.

Saturday, August 24 was her “quinceañera” or 15th birthday, an enormously important event in the life of a young Mexican woman. She had been planning it for over a year and saw it as a major turning point in her life.

Many of these people live just yards away from the big fence, only a mile away from the tall buildings of downtown El Paso and the wealth of the United States. What they are concerned about is not storming into the United States but simply trying to survive in an environment that’s harsh beyond our imagination. Let’s give them a little respect.

Morgan Smith is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and Commissioner of Agriculture. He writes frequently about border issues and can be reached at Morgan-smith@comcast.net.

See the Sept. 6 print edition for full photo coverage.