WHAT WE SAW:
Today, following our overnight visit in the New Hope community center in Agua Prieta, we got up bright and early and loaded up the van at 6:00 am. We first traveled to Nogales, Arizona, crossing back through to the US-side. There, we got close up to the border wall in Nogales, where we began seeing messages on the border saying “RIP José” along with stickers with José’s face on them. We wondered who he could be as we stared at Nogales, Sonora through the gaps in the fence. After crossing back into Mexico, we got up close to the shrine for José Antonio Elena Rodriguez, where we began to learn more about who he is.
16-year old José Antonio Elena Rodriguez was walking home from school on October 10, 2012, as two men smuggling drugs over the border wall were being apprehended. People began throwing rocks at the border patrol as this occurred, which, in the Border Patrol’s view, constitutes enough risk to respond with lethal force. They opened fire and José, who had no connection to the situation, was shot 10 times, from behind. As our guide explained to us, José’s story is just one example of the ways that border militarization has become deadly to innocent people. We continued along the border wall, observing shrines and paintings of José, along with paintings that read “Chinga la Migra!” (F*ck Border Patrol!) and other art pieces, making statements against the wall and honoring those lost crossing.
We then went to visit Grupo Beta, the Mexican equivalent of “border patrol.” Instead of apprehensions and consequences, however, Grupo Beta focuses on providing resources to migrants who have crossed and been apprehended, or are planning to cross in the near future. We entered through an administrative building, where we were given an orientation to the activities of Grupo Beta. We then went out to the back of the building, where there was a larger, empty building where many migrants were getting their hair cut. We saw about 15 or 20 migrants in the yard and the building, which had been turned into a peluquería for the day–just one of the many uses for this building. The men there seemed relaxed, chatting with each other, sharing youtube videos, and laughing. We noticed that a few of them had camouflage backpacks, hinting that they had already crossed or were preparing to go.
After a lunch break, we crossed back into the US, where we had a much different experience compared to our crossing into Mexico. In Mexico, we saw almost no security. We walked straight through the checkpoint without even showing our passports. On our way back into the US, there was a long line to be vetted for at least 2-3 minutes each and have our bags searched. The ICE officers had large computers and fingerprint machines, while we didn’t see any of this technology while crossing into Mexico.
Once in the U.S., we headed to the Tucson’s Border Patrol station. Upon entering the facility, we were immediately greeted with pictures of officers who lost their lives in active duty as a border patrol agent. After we signed in on a roster and received badges, we were given a tour by officer Lenny and his colleague. Cy was not allowed to join us on the tour, as she wasn’t put on the list to get background checks that was submitted months in advance. As we were shown around the facility, we stopped at several locations to learn about the history of border patrol and the wall. We were given the opportunity to hold a pepper spray gun, thermal binoculars, ceramic vest, and other “toys” as described by the border patrol agent. As a final touch, we were shown the communications room, where no photography was allowed. There is where we began to witness live surveillance of footage along the wall. A red outline began to blink on several screens and that indicated movement in the area. Quickly, an agent was able to zoom in and eliminate the movement, as he found it was only a herd of cattle.
WHAT WE HEARD:
At Grupo Beta, we had the opportunity to talk with the migrants that were receiving aid at the facility. After our introduction with one of Grupo Beta’s office representative, we formed into smaller groups. We then used this small group setting to talk to different migrants, sometimes having to translate between Spanish and English to foster a more effective conversation. Overall, we found that the migrants were more than willing to chat with us and share their stories despite our varying levels of Spanish ability. Two of us were able to sit down with four men who told us about their different situations with crossing attempts and their connections to the US. One man told us that he had been separated from his wife living in Oregon, and wanted to be reunited with her, but that there were several obstacles preventing him from achieving this goal. Another man, from Mexico City, told us that he had attempted to cross three times but was apprehended each time. The last time he was apprehended, he spent two months in detention in Phoenix, Arizona before being deported. Two men from Guatemala and Honduras had traveled long distances from their homes to attempt crossing into the U.S. Many of them now live in migrant shelters in Nogales and spend their days at Grupo Beta. Despite their tough situations, the men seemed happy to talk and laugh with us. The four men got out a large map of Mexico to point out their hometowns, as we were unfamiliar with the locations they were describing to us. One even invited us to come and stay with him in Morelia, where the food is apparently much better than in Nogales.
In stark contrast to our experience at Grupo Beta, where we heard genuine and difficult stories of human suffering, at the Nogales Border Patrol station we heard from the people who enforce the laws that cause the suffering. First, unlike the other organizations we have interacted with, the Border Patrol agents referred to the migrants as “illegal immigrants” or even “illegal aliens.” From the start, there was an air of defensiveness, along with an extreme macho attitude, from the two officers who led our tour. After starting the tour with a lewd comment about how Britney Spears is “hot,” when we asked the officer why there were only 5% women officers in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), he responded that we should “ask the females” what they think.
There were many other comments that piqued our interest at border patrol. The officers continuously referred to their weapons as “cool toys,” as well as repeatedly describing their job as “cool.” When asked about the use of this term, they explained that it is “cool” to know that they are apprehending real “bad guys”–rapists, murderers, felons–and keeping both US citizens and migrants safe from dangerous coyotes and bandits. One officer told us that no migrant can cross without association with or help from a drug cartel, as the cartels now have a monopoly over the highly profitable smuggling industry. When asked, they did not seem to see a connection between the policies that make crossing more difficult and the increased smuggling among cartels.
The officers also said that it is “cool” to be able to help people and provide humanitarian aid, such as when one officer was able to reunite a child with his aunt after he was sent to cross by himself with a smuggler. The officer explained that they also do “humanitarian work.” When asked about the videos that No More Deaths showed us of officers slashing and kicking water jugs left out for migrants, the officers explained that those officers were just “a few bad ones” and that the rest of the CBP officers were outraged at the video. An officer outside our tour joined the conversation to comment that what we do not see are the numerous accounts of border patrol officers sharing their “own personal water” and food with migrants.
Finally, the officers explained to us that they “enforce, not interpret.” Despite the sympathy they may have for migrant’s “personal plights,” the officer explained that they are simply doing their job. Since there is no way to know which migrants are the “bad guys” and which ones are simply crossing for a better life, there is no choice but to apprehend everyone they see. The officers became very defensive at our questions regarding Prevention Through Deterrence and the way in which the policy funnels migrants into dangerous desert terrain. The main officer leading our tour went so far as to say that he “hasn’t seen that policy anywhere” and that the goal is to funnel people not into the desert, but into “legal” ports of entry.
WHAT WE FELT:
Even after going to the border wall yesterday on the Agua Prieta/Douglas divide, something about the wall in Nogales felt different. The fact that you could see a community divided into two, with people walking on both sides, made it more “real.” Knowing the wall acts as a constant reminder of division for the people living in this border zone, we could feel the power this wall generated. Once we came upon José Antonio Elena Rodriguez’s mural and shrine, these symbols gave the environment a sense of reality; the lives of those who are lost because of the militarization of the border are always remembered. The wall was something more than a physical divide between two countries. It was also a division between communities, neighborhoods, and families.
We initially felt some discomfort about being invited to speak with the migrants at Grupo Beta, who were there to get haircuts and hang out and were not necessarily warned that we would be coming. It felt invasive to ask them about their crossing experience while they were going about their daily business. However, once the conversations began in the small groups, the migrants seemed happy to share their stories with us and seemed to speak easily about their experiences. This was the first time we had gotten to speak to migrants about their experiences, which made the stories all the more real and present to us after reading so much about life on la línea (the area just south of the Nogales border).
Our group had mixed feelings about the visit to border patrol. Mainly, we felt discomfort being in a space that has caused the suffering we have been reading about, and had just witnessed at Grupo Beta through structural violence. Many of us also felt uncomfortable around the weaponry that the officers were wearing and showed to us, because we know they are used to hurt and kill migrants. Many of us felt that, after a few minutes, we no longer wanted to be there or hear what they had to say. Others felt that our visit complicated the border issue, as the agents did not seem quite as evil as they sound in the books we have read, and seeing them in front of us, as humans who truly believe that their way is best, was slightly jarring and confusing. We were disappointed that our conversations seemed to be stifled in a way, both by the defensiveness of the officers and the sheer distance between the beliefs of the officers and those shared by our group.
Todays events leave us with the following questions:
What would it look like if the US border patrol began to align their mission with that of Grupo Beta? Is this feasible and what would the effects be?
We learned today that the “border zone” extends 100 miles from the border, encompassing 2/3 of the population. What would the effects of reducing this border zone be?
Another issue that was discussed was the idea of sanctuary cities and how they are used to protect illegal immigrants from being deported by allowing their residence in these specified areas. Thus, how can we hold sanctuary cities accountable to keeping their missions of not deporting individuals?