All our backs are a bit wet


RIO RICO, Ariz. - While driving to the supermarket, I spotted a border-crosser trudging north. He clearly was an illegal Mexican National. He looked weary, but I resisted an impulse to ask if he needed help.

On my way home, I saw the man slumped alongside an unmarked Ford Taurus, nabbed by a plainclothes police officer. As I drove on home, I couldn't help but remember the story of my great-great-great-grandfather, who booked passage on a ship from Ireland back in 1840. He had utterly no assurance that he'd be allowed into the United States. So many Irish immigrants were sent back, for the flimsiest of reasons. William McGarvey was lucky. I am, too, to be living here in Arizona.

The reasons this migrant was caught are different. This dejected man was illegally trespassing into Arizona, and the officer was only doing his job. But I identified with the migrant, my back still a bit "wet" from 160 years ago, I guess.

I suspect I'll recognize this man again, walking north along the Santa Cruz River Valley. The officer, I am sure, turned him over to the Border Patrol, which vanned him back to Nogales, Mexico. But there's a cat-and-mouse game going on here where I live, just 14 miles north of the Mexican border. The cats catch the mice, but the mice don't stay caught.

The man wore the brown skin that fits the profile our Border Patrol uses. That has some logic, I suppose. Most south-of-the-border folks are indeed wrapped in brown skin.

And brown skin is a sensitive and unpopular issue. I've heard no stories about "The New Canadian Wall," like stories about "The New Mexican Wall." There's a wall at Nogales, just a 20-minute drive south of Rio Rico. At night, it looks like the DMZ between North and South Korea. Meanwhile, the United States has a slack, barbed-wire fence along the Canadian border.

Could that be because most Canadians have blue eyes and fair skin? The fair Canadians, who come here to live and work illegally, rank second in numbers to the darker folk coming from south of the border. There are also the ruddy Irish - some of whom might be my kinfolk - who illegally reside and work in Massachusetts: 57,000 of them, according to the last estimate I read.

And so why has the Immigration and Naturalization Service, represented here by the irritating, oppressive Border Patrol, shifted a huge chunk of its $4 billion federal budget into my neighborhood? It's placed 7,780 police along the 2,000-mile-long Mexican border and a piddling 289 agents along the 5,000-mile-long Canadian border. I'd like to believe it has nothing to do with brown skin.

But it does. The INS clearly uses a racist profile, a profile that was recently challenged by an affluent, second-generation American Rio Rico neighbor. She looks "Mexican" and was stopped at the Border Patrol blockade along Interstate 19 while she was headed up to shop in Tucson in her expensive car. A federal judge agreed with her, and ordered the gung-ho Border Patrol to cease using its racist profile. Meanwhile, I, as a fair-skinned American, have never been stopped at the Border Patrol's blockade. "How you doing, sir?" is all I hear.

One time, though, during a morning hike, I was flushed out from under the mesquite trees above the banks of the Santa Cruz River. The Border Patrol helicopter pilot buzzed four passes over my head. He veered off north when he saw my fair, upturned, angry face. I was frightened, and felt like a hunted animal. I think I gave him the finger.

I'm not sure my fair skin caused the pilot to veer off in his taxpayer-owned $1.6 million helicopter. But there's one thing I know: The greater the pressure the INS puts on the Mexican border, the greater the risks the migrants take. One thousand six hundred interlopers died between 1993 and 1997 while trying to cross the arid, dangerous border, a study by the University of Houston found. New statistics will be even more alarming. I've met limping migrants suffering from the first stage of dehydration, which is leg cramps. Of course, I give them water - as some of my friends and neighbors here in Rio Rico also do.

The migrants I meet in the valley are not innocents. They are experienced and highly valued farm workers. This hot July, they headed up - as they have for decades - to pick cantaloupes in Arizona, then on to gather watermelons in Colorado and late-summer vegetables and fruit in Idaho. Then, they moved west to Oregon and Washington to pick the apples.

Around October, most return to the wife and kids in Mexico. But more and more migrants I meet in the valley tell me they plan to stay. They'll use their harvest-circuit money - usually about $6,000 - to import the family to settle here. That's because the border has become so dangerous to cross.

Will they succeed? Yes, most of them will. There are those slips of paper they show me with the telephone numbers of cousins who live here - illegally. And, too, the telephone numbers of all their affectionate, illegal employers throughout the West, who so clearly depend on their hard and good work.

Jack McGarvey is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He writes from Rio Rico, Ariz.

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