“Immigration is the sincerest form of flattery.”
— Jack Paar
Near Jacumba, Calif., and at El Paso and Fort Hancock in Texas, we were right on the border.
As we attended an outdoor parish festival at Santa Teresa Catholic Church in Fort Hancock, we could see the lights of the Mexican towns of Francisco Sarabia and Rinconada de Gallegos just across the Rio Grande.
Because of the proximity to the border, bicyclists traveling the Southern Tier route have frequent encounters with U.S. Border Patrol agents. Dressed in olive drab and with sidearms at their hips, they man the checkpoints on roads out of Mexico. Their helicopters flit through the border airspace, and their white and green vehicles race along the highways and creep through cotton fields in their search for “illegals.” Huge truck tires with chains attached are towed through the sand and dirt between roads and fields to smooth the ground so that fresh tracks can be spotted easily.
As cross-country cyclists, our interactions with Border Patrol officers, usually young men, were generally pleasant. They first asked whether we were U.S. citizens and then where we were headed. When we said, “Florida,” the reaction was something along the lines of: “No shit?! You got to be kiddin’ me! Man, there’s no way I could do that.”
Only once, on a long desert stretch of California 78 between Brawley and Palo Verde, did I see any people detained. At a Border Patrol checkpoint, where we refilled our water bottles from gallon jugs of water brought by a local cyclist from Brawley, two downcast young men stood beside the checkpoint building. A short time later, a California Highway Patrol trooper, apparently summoned by the Border Patrol, pulled over and began questioning the men. They were apparently illegal border crossers, but I had to move on and I never learned their fate.
Texas author Larry McMurtry frequently travels the border roads. In a 2000 book Roads: Driving America’s Great Highways, he wrote of a similar experience near Ajo, Ariz., where two exhausted teenagers had been run to ground by a Border Patrol chopper.
“Against such technology, the kids and their families who make their way north would seem to have little chance — but thousands keep coming, and some get through,” McMurtry wrote. “Even the Border Patrol can’t be everywhere. All along two thousand miles of border, from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, such scenes occur every day; in California and Arizona the Border Patrol seems mainly to be trying to turn back immigration, whereas in Texas the same force is bent on turning back drugs as well. Driving up to a Border Patrol kiosk at night in west Texas usually produces a small tic of anxiety, even in legal citizens. The drug dogs, loosely restrained, are almost always German shepherds; however, the image that registers in the mind, as you drive slowly toward the uniformed policeman with the big dog, is an image from the iconography of Nazism. The association might be unfair, but it’s unavoidable. The struggle of the poor brown people of the south and the more affluent northerners who seek to retard their entry is unrelenting and, as I said earlier, corrosive. It poisons the whole border, makes it not a pleasant place to be.”
I don’t believe that work as a Border Patrol agent would afford me much satisfaction. I’m aware of the arguments that it’s a job that must be done, that a nation has a right to secure its borders, that the southern border is an avenue for drug traffickers, killers and terrorists, that the “illegals” are a drain on our economy. But I’m also aware that much of that sentiment is fueled by a virulent strain of xenophobia that has greeted every wave of immigrants that has landed on these shores — Germans, Jews, Irish, Italians, Chinese. In the 1750s, for example, Benjamin Franklin railed against the influx of Germans to Pennsylvania, saying they were too stupid to learn English and would never assimilate.
As a descendant of immigrants — and most of us are — I can’t help but believe that the vast majority of the people who cross our borders, illegally or otherwise, come here for the same reason that my forebearers came here: the search for a better life for themselves and their families. And I believe that if I walked in their shoes I’d do the same thing.
A fellow rider on on transcontinental bike trip sent me an e-mail after reading my Jan. 8 blog post, “Highways and byways,” which touched on McMurtry’s border travels.
“There is something troubling about the unfriendliness of our borders, that ugly and stupid fence that doesn’t seem to be capable of working anyhow because it has big gaps in it,” my fellow rider wrote in his e-mail. “Maybe because I am an immigrant with my parents, it does not fit the image of America that I embrace. … The financial cost of ‘protecting’ our borders has to be enormous, but the cost to our values and image are even higher. Maybe post-9/11 anything like that can be easily justified, but not for me.”