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The Immigrant's Trail


Note: this essay introduces several feature articles in a special issue about the West's immigration landscape.

Last month, as immigrants and their supporters geared up for the May 1 "Day Without Immigrants," and the Senate considered another comprehensive immigration bill, an 18-year-old Mexican woman gave birth amid the cactus and mesquite trees of the Arizona desert. Under the searing sun 25 miles north of the Mexican border, the young mother cut the umbilical cord with a nail clipper before she was rescued by a Border Patrol helicopter. Mother and baby survived the ordeal — the child as a United States citizen.

While the halls of Washington echo with debates over guest-worker programs, border fences and amnesty, hundreds of untold human dramas unfold along the Southwest’s borderlands and in communities across the West. Economic forces push and pull hundreds of thousands each year to hit the trail north, risking everything for a taste of opportunity.

Such stories of desperation and hope have played out in various forms since the earliest immigrants first flocked to the West to reap its promise of abundance. The latest chapter in the drama began in 1986, when Congress passed the Immigration Reform Act in the hope of stanching undocumented immigration. In the years since, however, the flow has only increased. Last year, the issue at last exploded into the political and media spotlight.

In August, the governors of New Mexico and Arizona responded by declaring states of emergency. More recently, state legislatures have considered dozens of bills on immigration, ranging from denying public services to undocumented immigrants to offering them in-state tuition at colleges and universities.

In Washington, D.C., the House of Representatives passed a bill that would beef up security along the border and criminalize undocumented immigration, now just a civil offense. The Senate responded with a compromise bill, currently stalled, that combines increased enforcement measures with a guest-worker program and a path to legalization for the 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States.

As each side of the debate gels, strange alliances form: Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy and President George W. Bush go hand-in-hand in support of a guest-worker program, while conservative Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., finds himself allied against immigration with green-leaning former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm, D, who worries about overpopulation and its environmental consequences. Leftist human rights activists stand beside corporate CEOs, arguing in favor of immigration rights and hoping enforcement won’t go too far.

Faced with this morass of ideology and emotion, High Country News turned, as it often does, to the stories of people on the ground in the West, from the Mexican state of Sonora to the farm country of eastern Washington. If we learned anything during this journey, it’s not that immigration is good, bad or something in between. Rather, it’s that current immigration policy is indeed a failure: Millions are undocumented, living in the shadows here, and nearly a half-million more arrive each year. A border fence may slow the flow, but it can’t stop it, and even a guest-worker program is only a partial fix. A few of the bills and ballot initiatives pondered by Western states may provide some local relief, but they won’t begin to touch the larger problem.

The solutions, if there are any, lie in fundamentally altering the root causes of immigration. And that isn’t likely to happen until the decision-makers in Washington, D.C., and Mexico City understand that the issue goes far beyond the border the two nations uncomfortably share. There are huge forces moving people north. And those forces — rooted in the capitalistic urges of global supply and demand — will overwhelm any walls and laws we throw at them.

If that’s clear anywhere, it’s out in the Arizona desert, where an expectant young woman ventured into a desolate land of heat and rocks, risking everything so that her child would never be called "illegal."

Other feature articles in this special issue on immigration:

Abandonment - Small Mexican farming towns such as Francisco Villa in Sonora are emptied of their young men when the lack of good-paying local jobs sends them north of the border

Perseverance - Illegal border crossers face a dangerous journey filled with heat, dust, flies and thirst, and always the danger of capture and deportation

Apprehension - U.S. fish and Wildlife Service Officer John Schaefer is one of only two officers patrolling the 860,000 acres of Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, a thoroughfare for illegal immigrants and armed drug smugglers

Contradiction - Once in the U.S., immigrants find themselves in a land of contradictions, facing an uncertain welcome, sometimes even from other Latinos

Hope - After 16 years of living in the shadows in Pasco, Wash., Wendy and Erendira Santana finally win legal residency