The Desert Border
Last September I drove out to Tucson to scout out the issue and rode along with Maria and her daughter as they drove along the backroads around the Arizona-Mexico border. Maria belongs to a volunteer non-profit organization called the Samaritans, who ride out with medical supplies and water and snacks, hoping to help any migrants they may come across. They were founded about 10 years ago, and though they never help transport migrants to their destinations, they operate on the premise that "it is never illegal to give water, food and medical assistance to another human being in distress."
I learned a bit about the organization and I saw for myself how the border patrol swarmed over the area. I passed several mobile checkpoints driving into southern Arizona, and on our day trip we ran into a couple more. At one point, we stopped by the side of the road to hike into the brush and check out an area over which many many carrion birds hovering. Within a few minutes, a patrol car dragging a couple of ATVs had pulled up to see what we were doing. An agent told a story about a dead cow that was dragged off the road by a rancher, but added a warning about "backpackers with guns," which we interpreted as an attempt to scare us off by mentioning drug runners (apparently the cartels have all but taken over the coyote business). Whether the rancher story was to be believed is hard to determine, but soon after we got back into the car, we passed several agents watching over a couple of migrant men.
At the end of the day, we passed a ranch where Minutemen used to assemble to stage their patrols. Activity has died down in the wake of an incident in which a 9 year old girl was shot and killed. However, the area is still prone to vigilantism - Sheriff Arpaio has directed armed volunteers to patrol schools in response to the events of Sandy Hook. This is the Arpaio who ardently supported Jan Brewer's SB 1070, which allows law enforcement to check the papers of anyone they suspect is an undocumented immigrant. This is the Arpaio voters re-elected in November.
I asked Maria what immigration reform should look like. She answered that there should be more legal avenues for seasonal workers to back and forth across the border. Many want to work seasonally but do not intend to stay, yet are forced into semi-permanent residency because they fear that if they go home, they will never be able to enter again, what with the patrols and the physically demanding crossing. Regulated legal crossings would be more humane and less expensive than ineffective attempts to seal the border with the likes of fences and Raytheon's motion sensors.
I asked her whether things have changed now compared to the past. She replied that the number of crossings have decreased - the market crash has its effect here as well. So I asked about jobs. Being a border agent is a good job in the area - well paid and relatively secure in comparison to jobs at the huge call centers that service the major phone companies.
I asked her where the local Tohono O'odham Nation stood on the issue. At first they put out water and were sympathetic, she said. Now they have gotten tired of the volume of migrants and have put up barbed wire fences.
I asked her if she has ever been too late to save a migrant. She told the story of attending a small memorial service at the spot where a body was found. Though the body had been removed, a black stain in the shape of a person remained where the oils, fluids, life of the migrant had seeped into the desert floor.
And had I heard the story of Lucresia? Yes, I said. It's what got me out here. Well, Maria said, her father received a humanitarian visa to search across the border and her remains were found on that ranch I mentioned earlier, the ranch that we just drove past.
This ranch, which the Minutemen used as a staging area, where they found Lucresia, which we circle on the lookout for migrants. This ranch that still hosts citizen patrols. I wondered if I could show up at one such gathering and ask some questions, take some photos, ride along with the owners as they shore up the fences and water troughs damaged by migrants. As much as I don't want to admit it, I felt afraid. I don't want to meet these people. Maybe I would be more comfortable if I were white, but as it is, I feel ill thinking about it.
Am I afraid of the people I disagree with or am I afraid that when I see their perspective, I will change my mind? Do I want to take their portraits - to ground my work in one particular time, to engage the social aspect of people's mental circuitry that automatically gauge's a person's class, attractiveness, the level of their "otherness"? Can they be neutral documents of a time and an attitude or if it would inevitably come across as either an indictment or a glorification?
I began to panic about my work. Am I willing to do what it takes? Would it be more of a failure if I asked and was denied permission, or if I succeeded in gaining access and ended up making photos that could be used to support views I opposed? I want to lean toward being open to both sides, but stories like how the Republican party turned Chris Floyd's photos from the border into campaign ads make me overly cautious. (Floyd himself comments in a follow-up: "It was exactly the same story as what took place in The Grapes of Wrath but with darker skin.") Granted, his photos were licensed through Getty, but it is clear that how a photographer intends a photo to be seen and how a photo is seen by an audience are not the same thing. I do not want my photos to bear a partisan stamp.
The whole thing makes me very nervous, and I cannot pretend to be neutral. My family immigrated after all, albeit legally by plane.
The Romance of the Past, Fear of the Future
When I think about these meta questions, my mind wanders back to the Lucresia. Would there be anything to see in a nondescript spot in the desert where one woman died so long after the fact? Is there any point in picturing human remains, which after all, look so inhuman and unrecognizable?
She was left behind in the desert by the coyote after falling behind their migrant group. Her son stayed with her and, when she was no longer mobile, left in order to find help. When he managed to wander out of the desert, days had passed and Lucretia was presumed dead. Deported home, her son informed his grandfather of what had happened, and they returned, on that humanitarian visa, to bring her remains home.
I imagine (but really, I can't) Lucresia abandoned in the middle of nowhere, with no one to witness her last moments, to hear the things she might have wanted to say at the end. I recall the story Didion tells about pioneers who come upon a couple of orphaned siblings along the westward trail. When their parents passed away, they had been abandoned by the wagon train since they were too young to take care of themselves and pull their own weight.
If it was going to be us or them, which one of us could not have abandoned the orphaned Miss Gilmore and her brother on the Little Sandy? Which of us did not at some level share in the shameful but entrenched conviction that to be weak or bothersome was to warrant abandonment? Were not such abandonments the very heart and soul of the crossing story? Jettison weight? Keep moving? Bury the dead in the trail and run the wagons over it? Never dwell on what got left behind, never look back at all?
- Joan Didion, Where I Was From
The heart of any migration story is the hard decisions made along the way and their consequences. And that is really about what type of person we think we are, and how wrong we are about that when the time comes. Did anyone think they would be the type to abandon two orphans along a harsh trail? Did the Donners think they were the type of people to eat their neighbors? That is why I am nervous - would I believe the things I do if I lived on a ranch in southern Arizona?
I'd like to think that I still would.
The nativist attitudes that surface in any debate about border politics seem devoid of any acknowledgment of the irony of the situation. We are claiming this land as ours and yet, once upon a not-so-long-ago time, it wasn't ours. So many Americans feel that their jobs are threatened by migrants despite the truth that, motivated by competitive capitalism, our own companies are hiring migrants with eyes wide open in an effort to cut costs and slash prices. Low prices that we all enjoy. People have become so incensed about migrant trespassers that they become automatically defensive, feeling the need for patrols and fences, when there is another obvious solution: if migration ceased to be illegal, then migrants would no longer have any need to cross into private land in an attempt to avoid detection.
The potency of threat, of fear, is why Indian raids loom so large in our cowboy and settler myths despite the truth that the number of natives who died by the hands of settlers far outnumber the number of settlers killed by natives. We build a home somewhere and are sensitive to the perceived threats of those who were there before, or those who will come after. There is a primal fear in the idea of being alone in a harsh land, of being having to defend yourself against many. Do the vigilantes also feel alone in the desert? That they have been abandoned - by the government, left to fight their own fights, with their own guns, along the border?
In Dave Eggers' latest novel, A Hologram For the King, an expert salesman teaches a rookie about the four sure-fire ways you can sell something: Money (appeal to the buyer's sense of thrift), Romance (appeal to the buyer's lofty ideals), Self-preservation (appeal to the buyer's fears) and [brand] Recognition (appeal to the buyer's desire for status).
Politics operates under the same principles as sales. Certainly border politics are inflamed by our lofty ideas (Romance) about our past and our fear (Self-preservation) of a future in which we are outnumbered in our own land, our own home. This fear is after all substantiated by American history (again). Settlement can be a tool for an attempt to redraw borders (see West Bank history), and the pioneer is that romantic first soldier on that front line, on that frontier.
What is a frontier but someone else's land into which we hope to make inroads ourselves?
A condensed version of this essay is featured over at Gallery Carte Blanche.