Both my paternal and maternal families have traversed the U.S.-Mexico border back and forth for generations; some uncles and aunts were born on one side, some on the other. Like hundreds if not thousands of other border families, we have maintained family ties and led lives across national boundaries. As a result, we are not your typical “immigrant family”: my mother, after all, had been born in Texas — so returning to the United States from Mexico in 1948 was a kind of coming home.
For all my relatives, those who remained in Mexico and those who migrated to the United States, life has remained split. One cousin, Alicia, went to live in Los Angeles, leaving her daughter with my aunt and uncle in Monterrey, the capital of the Mexican state of Nuevo León; another cousin’s child paid a coyote and came to the United States, only to be robbed and forced to return penniless. One cousin, Gonzalo, crossed the river, settled in Chicago, married, had a family, and then returned to the small farming community of Anáhuac Nuevo León, where he was murdered in a bar brawl. His family in Chicago remains unknown to us. My mother, while U.S.-born, lived in Mexico and crossed to work as a maid in a banker’s home until she married. Now in her eighties, she recalls how she traveled by train every week from Laredo to Rodríguez, Nuevo León, carrying goods for my grandmother and my aunt.
As children we traveled back and forth constantly, sometimes with my parents, sometimes alone, to visit grandparents, purchase certain goods, or just visit friends and have dinner in Mexico. The same freedom was not there for many family members who did not have papers to cross into the United States. In the past, my family had moved pretty freely back and forth. Some of my father’s siblings were born in the United States. As a child I often wondered why we even had a border and what it all meant to have to declare “U.S. citizen” to the uniformed young man who waved us through. But all the same, I knew it was serious business.
One time, we were returning from one of our visits to my paternal grandparents’ house in Monterrey. The immigration officer asked the usual, “Where do you live?” and my sister, who must have been about five, dashed off, stating, “Voy a tomar agua” (“I’m going to drink water”) as she ran to the nearby water fountain. Her answer meant that we all were ushered into a small room where another official questioned my parents, my brother, and me separately. We had been trained to answer the question with “Laredo, Texas,” and from a really young age we memorized our address: 104 E. San Carlos Street. But for some reason, my sister chose to ignore the question. I remember being scared and anxious. I was about nine or so. Ultimately the officials were satisfied with our answers and allowed us to go home.
Unfortunately, these stories persist. About five years ago, some friends from Houston were visiting and crossed from Laredo to Nuevo Laredo. On their return, something triggered a secondary inspection, and the immigration officers questioned the children separately from the parents. My friend’s daughter, who was about nine at the time, is still traumatized. Of course, I am certain that, had they been white, they would not have been suspect and would not have been interrogated.
Imagining a World Without Borders
Sometimes I try to envision a land without immigration and without migrants (at least without political or economic migrants): a land where people move freely and where the only motivation to travel is sheer pleasure and adventure, not economic need, or the need to flee violence or corruption. At one time, I believed that the European Union was seeking to attain such a goal — a borderless continent! But although it seems to be working out the details of free passage for its citizens regardless of country of origin and making it easier for citizens to travel for work-related endeavors, the European Union’s socio-economic policies and immigration decisions leave plenty to be desired (the militarization of its borders becomes particularly apparent in its response to migrants from Africa settling in the EU countries without legal documentation). Yet, it is still a benefit to travel without having to show passports and get visas from one country to the other.
Such thoughts lead me to ask, “Why can’t we do the same in the Americas?” Indeed, why not dream on an even greater scale and advocate for a Global Marshall Plan, as suggested by Michael Lerner, and for the eradication of all borders? The reimagined “world order” would be one of cooperation and mutual respect. A Global Marshall Plan would address the economic disparities that drive people out of the global South. It would enable “first-world” countries to eliminate many of the reasons for emigration. Why would someone leave their home, their loved ones, and the landscape they know and love, to come to an alien and often hostile place?
Unfortunately, the current reality is a nightmare in which NAFTA and drug trafficking continue to wreak havoc on both sides of the border. I am not naïve enough to believe that within my lifetime such a reality will exist, but I can still dream of a true borderless world where even between the various continents we will be able to visit freely and learn from each other. Borders are, after all, arbitrary, established by political exigencies, and almost always a result of treaties that end wars between countries or establish coalitions among groups of people. Borders are essentially arbitrary and tenuous.
I caught a glimpse of the changeability of borders in the late 1990s, when I visited Vietnam, where my brother had been killed thirty years earlier. We stopped at what had been the border between North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese territory: a small marker at the seventeenth parallel that honored those who had died for their country. Tears came as what I knew became palpable: my brother’s death — along with the deaths of more than a million Vietnamese people and 50,000 U.S. troops — had passed into history. All that remained was this simple marker. I imagined what the Texas-Mexico border would be like in some future without borders, without the guards and the customs officials, without the lively commerce, without the pollution and oppression of what Chicana scholar Gloria Anzaldúa once called an open wound “where the third world grates against the first and bleeds.” I wondered if there would be a marker honoring all who had died crossing the Rio Grande or La Línea, all who had since 1848 suffered life on the border.
Such a vision of a future without a real border and with a marker acknowledging the history of that strip of land is comforting somehow. I am heartened by those who advocate for a change not just in the current debate on immigration from Mexico but at a more radical and dramatic level. Let’s work to change our government’s policies and build international or global organizations to accommodate a truly free people who can come and go, moving to where they feel they can contribute the most.
Where We Go From Here
So what now? Arguably, what can happen at a local, concrete level is a concerted effort to remedy the situation of thousands of tax-paying, hard-working U.S. residents who might not have the requisite papeles (papers) to grant them the same rights and privileges of others living in this country. It’s important to raise awareness about the historical inaccuracy of the “us vs. them” mentality. Unless we are talking about Native Americans, and to a certain degree the Mexican American and Puerto Rican communities, the “us” was a “them” at some point. This is a nation of immigrants.
Like most of the world’s countries, the United States needs to re-imagine immigrants’ status vis-à-vis the capitalist empire-building infrastructures that undergird our global social order in the twenty-first century. In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein demonstrates how capitalist mechanisms that undermine people’s sense of self-reliance destroy social structures built on the values of humankind and replace them with destructive structures that benefit multinational corporations. It is no accident that the immigrants who came to work in post-Katrina New Orleans were abused and violated, or that those who work the jobs no one else wants are the most reviled by the conservative, right-wing Tea Party members.
“Go back to where you came from” — a phrase flung at me as I was taking a walk in Wisconsin a few days after September 11 — has become all too familiar to many brown people in the wake of that tragedy. This phrase says more about the psyche of the collective than about the individual who, emboldened by right-wing media and political demagogues, finds a need to spout such venom. It is a violence born of ignorance and of fear. A world free of borders and of the violence perpetrated by such borders also means a world free of fear. That is the aim.
Healing from Fear
When the wound in this country is treated, it will heal. We may have to cauterize it with policies to assuage the disease-like fear that is causing this wound. This wound has festered for over 250 years, at least since the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. It opened when Spanish conquest rent Indigenous culture apart and established a paradigm for violence. It will require bold action and daring policies to overcome this legacy of fear and ignorance. Fear on various levels has created a culture of distrust and hatred perpetuated by the militarization of the border zone, la zona fronteriza, first by the military, then by the Texas Rangers, and most recently by the Border Patrol and other Immigrations and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agencies. Inherent in this militarization one finds abuse and racist policies.
Our country stands at a crossroads. Even as we work on legalizing the status of the thousands of immigrants who are already part of our social fabric, we can work toward eliminating the fear and ignorance that stoke anti-immigrant sentiment and eliminating the economic factors that push people to emigrate. The massive global economy that drives migration must be re-imagined and re-conceptualized. It’s time for us to update our notions of what constitutes a nation-state and what it means to be a citizen of the world with rights and privileges that all nations must respect.
At the core of the argument of those who would “close the door” to new immigrants is fear — a fear that those who come will change the landscape and the “face” of who we are as a society in the United States. The reality is that in many areas of the United States, this has already happened. An aggressive educational campaign focused on the multicultural nature and plurality of our society could, I believe, eliminate the ignorance behind that fear. Xenophobia can be eliminated, but I am not sure it can ever be totally unlearned. What will work is a radical dismantling of the structures that sustain fearmongering and a lack of knowledge about the “other.” When there is no knowledge of a people’s history, language, or culture, it is not difficult to become fearful and to develop policies based on that fear.
For fairness and justice to triumph, we must all work together to bring about changes at the individual level, reaching out to people in our own circles to inform those who may not have access to information. We must call on all governments to establish immigration policies that honor immigrants’ human dignity and needs. And we must begin to create links with groups across borders to work toward a borderless world.