Border thoughts

“Immigration is the sincerest form of flattery.”
Jack Paar

Highway sign near San Diego

The Adventure Cycling Association’s Southern Tier route is never far from the border with Mexico as it passes through the desert Southwest. At some points in California and West Texas, the route passes right along the border, and Mexico can be seen stretching off to the south beyond the Rio Grande or across an ugly border fence.
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.

Border fence near Jacumba, Calif. Photo by Mike Ullner

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.

Border Patrol vehicle at Fort Hancock

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.

An 1891 anti-immigration cartoon

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.”

An 1888 cartoon in The Wasp, a San Francisco magazine, reflecting anti-immigrant sentiment

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.

An 1854 ad in The New York Times

“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.”



Filed under Americana, Cycling across America, Journeys, Texana

16 responses to “Border thoughts

  1. Pingback: Texas Bicycling Blog and News Roundup for January 20th «

  2. I am jealous of your style, the notion that your site is a little bit unlike others makes it so interesting, I get tired of seeing the same-old-same-old all of the time. I’ve now stumbled this page for you

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  4. John Vandevelde

    Like always, you captured the essence of our shared experience. As you well know, rolling through those scenes at 15 mph on a bike, instead of at 75 mph in a car, allows one to see more detail and sense the tension in the quasi-military operations. After being in the middle of a few of their deployments, one can’t help reacting to it all. I definitely felt worst for the underdog, the would-be immigrants, but unexpectedly I also ended up feeling bad for the border agents, who often seemed like young soldiers far away from home doing a job that at various times had to be boring, dangerous, and dehumanizing. Unfortunately, as you point out, it seems the underlying political issues have a very long hate-based history, so no doubt some level of border tension and conflict will be with us for a long time to come. A shame and a waste from my point of view.
    Meanwhile, keep blogging!

  5. Hey I came across your blog by luck on msn while trying to find something really unrelated but I am really happy that I did, You have just earned yourself another subscriber. 🙂

  6. Ty,
    Thanks for taking the time to look at the blog. It’s harder now to do daily posts now that my cross-country ride is finished.
    Take care.

  7. flashriversafari

    Hey Jim – really enjoyed this post – especially the opening quote. Have learned here in Hannibal that the one time Twain had considered ending it all was in a hotel in San Francisco – after having just been fired for writing pro-Chinese immigrant sentiments for the paper. He had a gun in his hand and he was broke. I wonder with awe at the courage it would have taken to stand up like that – to purposefully make oneself penniless – all for a simple stand. The ethics of it all! I hope I would have come down on the side of the Chinese as well. Cheers and best, Neal

  8. Betty

    I’ve been reading since Mary Anne gave me the link. It was fascinating to follow along on your ride (especially for someone who has been called the worst bike rider in the world)
    This post just hit a nerve and I wanted to let you know how much I agree with your thoughful comments.

  9. Hi – really good site you have created. I enjoyed reading this posting. I did want to issue a comment to tell you that the design of this site is very aesthetically sweet. I used to be a graphic designer, now I am a copy editor for a merchandising firm. I have always enjoyed playing with information processing systems and am attempting to learn code in my spare time (which there is never enough of lol).

  10. Hey I just wanted to let you know, I really like the writing on your web site. But I am using Firefox on a machine running version 8.x of Xubuntu and the UI aren’t quite proper. Not a strong deal, I can still essentially read the articles and search for information, but just wanted to inform you about that. The navigation bar is kind of hard to use with the config I’m running. Keep up the great work!

  11. “Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

    I think I saw that on a statue once…

  12. Super-Duper site! I am loving it!! Will come back again – taking you feeds also, Thanks.

  13. Barbara Taylor

    My grandmother was sent to this country at age 9 by her parents, from the Czech Republic, to have a better life. Landed on Ellis Island, sent to her uncle’s in Chicago, she quickly learned English, grew up, and made her way in a most interesting manner, catching seals and training them for a water circus, doing high-diving into a vat of water in traveling shows. We ALL came from immigrants, and the very nature of this country is built on that concept. This world makes no sense if we don’t take care of one another, and not just our own flesh and blood. We ARE our ‘brother’s’ Keeper.

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