LUKEVILLE, Arizona — Here at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, his “big, beautiful wall” destroys natural splendor, sacred Indian sites, wildlife habitats and watercourses. But more, it causes needless death and misery, showing a scornful world that the Statue of Liberty is a cynical sham.
In places, steel uprights at their base appear to mimic metal Picasso sculptures. Cartels cut holes in minutes at night with generator-powered saws. Welders patch in cross pieces, but they’re soon open again for crossers who trek miles to declare themselves to the Border Patrol.
Solutions would be deceptively simple. But self-focused legislators want to keep out conflict and climate victims. Their isolationism creates yet more refugees. Border talks tied to military aid weaken Ukraine as Russians advance. War widens beyond Israel and Palestine.
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If voters don’t grasp reality by November, a misconstrued “border crisis” could turn that hallowed American dream into a nightmare.
Donald Trump’s own brutal policies caused the backlog that overwhelms a broken system, yet even many Democrats blame Joe Biden. At caucuses in icy Iowa, a galaxy away from the rugged sunbaked frontier, polls showed voters worry more about an “open border” than inflation.
Strict controls at official entry points are essential. That requires temporary shelters while qualified magistrates quickly assess asylum claims — what U.S. law calls credible fear. Others, “economic migrants,” should be sent back to apply for more generously granted work visas.
Slamming America’s doors is futile. Try this at home: Pour a gallon of water onto a rough wooden table and use a kitchen sponge to stop it from spilling onto the floor.
Humane Borders, a Tucson-based volunteer group, posted GPS coordinates and emergency numbers by a hole in the wall near Lukeville. Someone scrawled “Fuck Biden, Fuck Democrats” below, with a sardonic question: “Why not just give them a sack lunch and a job interview?”
In fact, that would be a good start.
Well over 100 million refugees worldwide have already been forced to flee their countries, along with an immeasurable tide of others who just want a better life. The long-term challenge is to defuse conflict, blunt climate collapse and alleviate extreme poverty.
But for now, America badly needs more controlled immigration. At the present birthrate, demographers calculate the United States requires four million new taxpaying workers each year to remain competitive and to top up dwindling Social Security coffers.
Official numbers, which independent experts contend are grossly inflated by dubious counting methods, say agents encountered 2.5 million crossers during fiscal year 2023, 83 percent of them far from ports of entry. Another estimated 600,000 slipped by undetected.
The mix is evolving fast. Up to 90 percent of people who now arrive at the border are from Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Under Geneva Conventions that America championed in the 1940s, they have a right to make a case for credible fear.
Security analysts worry that foreign agents are slipping in, especially from China. A Chinese couple, both in their 80s, recently came through the wall near Lukeville, more likely escaping Xi Jinping’s harsh rule than spying for it. There are easier ways to infiltrate.
Exhausted families with terrified kids and weary elders can pay up to $20,000 to cartels. Corrupt authorities and bandits rob them along the way. They are left on the U.S. side without food or water to seek out Border Patrol agents and begin a Sisyphean quest for asylum.
Laurie Cantillo, director of Humane Borders, has talked with many at length. “I haven’t seen any rapists or thugs,” she told me. “These are just people who want to live without fear, work hard, and raise kids who maybe someday will find a cure for cancer.”
Few Mexicans qualify for asylum. Without close family in the United States or a work contract, they can wait a lifetime for a residence visa. The criminals Trump reviles use false papers, small planes or speedboats from Tijuana. Poor ones come in the hard way.
The International Office for Migration tallied 686 deaths in 2022 along the U.S.-Mexico border, calling it the world’s most dangerous migration route. That is an undercount, leaving out decayed remains and bleached bones discovered months or years later in hostile terrain.
Crossers walk for days across desert and low mountains, unable to carry enough water to survive, let alone drugs or contraband. Few of those who make it risk deportation by breaking laws.
About 95 percent of the fentanyl that Trump blames on Mexican smugglers is secreted through ports of entry by U.S. citizens. Cartels, moving on from drugs, earn more at no risk by trafficking people to the permeable wall. Unlike those old coyotes, cartel guides stay in Mexico.
“Open borders” is a lie. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are spending $25 billion this year to surveil the frontiers, more than last year. On the contrary, immigration policy is too rigid.
The United States is far from “full.” With more applicants than job openings, few Americans are willing to do low-paid scutwork. Production suffers, crops wither, imports soar. That feeds inflation and high interest rates, which bedevil the Biden administration.
Whether for human charity or just blind self-interest, Americans need to consider the message on a t-shirt I saw on the border: “If you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher wall.”
State governors understand what can be done, but some instead pander to voters’ fears. In the Trump-polluted Republican Party, being soft on immigration amounts to political suicide.
Greg Abbott, an ex-Texas Supreme Court justice, flouted the Constitution by seizing control of the border at Eagle Pass. State lawmen prevented federal agents from saving a mother and two children who drowned in the Rio Grande.
Ron DeSantis in Florida faces only sporadic boat arrivals from the Caribbean, yet he helps other governors use travel-weary families as human pawns, sending them to distant Democratic-run cities. In May, Abbott dumped busloads on Kamala Harris’s doorstep in Washington.
But focus on Arizona. Ex-Gov. Doug Ducey squandered $200 million on two ludicrous sections of shipping-container “wall.” Kari Lake, who still insists she was elected governor, spews border lies in hopes of being Trump’s vice president.
Mostly, government policy is to hunt down “illegals” rather than protect lives. Caring for refugees and migrants is left to non-governmental organizations, charities, church groups and ad-hoc volunteers. Humane Borders, operating since 2000, stands out among them.
Cantillo, the director, praises Biden’s effort to let people apply for asylum at home or on the road with a mobile app before reaching the border. “But that’s not enough,” she said. “If your daughter is raped or your husband is beheaded, you don’t wait for months. You just go.”
Humane Borders delivered 43,000 gallons of water in drums last year to clandestine crossing points and along routes identified by “death maps,” waypoints where migrants’ remains are found.
No Más Muertes (No More Deaths), among other groups, roams the deserts to leave water and follow circling vultures toward migrants in trouble. “The Border Patrol keeps threatening us with felonies for interference,” one volunteer told me. “So far, they haven’t acted.”
New arrivals face cursory screening at a Border Patrol outpost. The lucky ones are bussed to shelters like Casa Alitas in Tucson, where they are fed, equipped with clothing and essentials, then sent on to sponsors across the country. Many aren’t lucky.
Repeated trips to the border and interviews, some off the record with conscience-troubled Border Patrol agents, reveal a complex reality all but impossible to fathom at a distance.
Many agents work hard to help people, sometimes at their own peril. Others are the opposite: lazy, callous and contemptuous. I was stunned by one video of a beefy Border Patrol officer kicking over water containers in the desert and arresting the volunteers who brought them.
Trump’s demand for more agents produced hastily trained misfits with little screening and lax supervision. Jenn Budd, a former senior Border Patrol officer, describes failings in a damning book and prolific online posts based on official documents.
Budd says Border Patrol officers are convicted of abusive crimes at five times the rate of other law enforcement agencies. She describes a macho environment that, with exceptions, feeds systemic sexual harassment and frequent violations of official policy.
Mainly, critics say the Border Patrol does too little to help people in trouble. In Sasabe, east of Lukeville, I covered a vigil to draw attention to hundreds of Mexicans — parents and kids — caught in bitter cold weather in mountains within reach of jeeps and helicopters.
It was organized by Dora Rodriguez, a diminutive sparkplug from El Salvador who made it to Arizona on her third attempt as a teenager in 1980, during which she was robbed and brutalized. After a few hours, I began thinking of her as Saint Dora.
Besides work with Humane Borders — she was director until recently — she runs her Casa de Esperanza reception center on the Mexico side of Sasabe. She can’t get there now; two factions of the Sinaloa cartel are at war. A once-thriving town of 2,500 is down to 100 inhabitants.
Dora constantly travels the border from the California line and into New Mexico helping people in trouble. She keeps close relations with the Border Patrol, softening criticism with friendly banter. Her baseball cap reads “Be Kind.” At the Sasabe vigil, she fought to contain herself.
“It’s freezing up there,” she said. “Children are dying.” She repeatedly called 911 and was transferred to Border Patrol dispatchers who did not respond. Direct calls to officers did not help. One agent told her, “They brought it on themselves.”
Dora left El Salvador just before Ronald Reagan’s support for rightwing Contra “freedom-fighters” normalized harsh torture and “disappearances” in Central America. Over the years, she has watched successive administrations deal with the exodus northward that produced.
Bill Clinton tried a cruel approach. Prevention Through Deterrence forced migrants away from heavily patrolled areas into the blazing hot Sonora desert. Harsh environment, not government policy, could be blamed for a rising death toll.
Bipartisan commissions sought better policy. Corruption stymied Barack Obama’s attempt to stem the flow with aid and diplomacy. Then Trump cut aid and skipped diplomacy. He forced asylum seekers to stay in Mexico and separated migrant parents from their children.
When Covid-19 struck, Trump invoked Title 42, a legal provision that allowed him to turn away refugees and migrants alike for health reasons. When Biden took over with more humane policies, an overwhelming backlog besieged the border. With more resources, it is manageable.
In short, it comes down to a question of blue and green.
CBP officers in blue uniforms at ports of entry are so understaffed that a recent wave of arrivals to Nogales were let through unchecked: a “street release.” The Border Patrol, in green, watches a 1,951-mile frontier for people who sneak in. More of the former requires fewer of the latter.
For Americans who berate newcomers at the border, Dora has a simple message: “Not that long ago, your own family had to make the same journey.”
Global Geneva contributing editor Mort Rosenblum is a renowned American journalist, editor and author currently based in France and Tucson, Arizona. He has travelled and reported the world more years than he can remember. His regular column, The MortReport, is available online and by email. Also see Mort’s most recent book: Saving the World from Trump.