Immigration: Across the great divide
Voices on the border range from fearful to political to hateful
“All borders are dangerous. If left unguarded, they could break down, our categories could collapse, and our world dissolve into disorder.”
—Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre, and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, 1984
“Superstition, bigotry and prejudice, ghosts though they are, cling tenaciously to life; they are shades armed with tooth and claw. They must be grappled with unceasingly, for it is a fateful part of human destiny that it is condemned to wage perpetual war against ghosts.”
“What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
—The prophet Micah, from the Old Testament, as quoted by Cesar Chavez during the grape boycott of the 1960s
The first thing Rocio Guido did when she got to the United States was empty her stomach, throwing up just a few miles from the border checkpoint where she’d lied to a U.S. customs official, telling him that she was an American citizen. She was 25 years old, and her 3-year-old son was asleep in the back seat of the car. She’d given him a sleeping pill a few hours earlier, terrified that he’d begin speaking Spanish just as she was trying to deceive the man who stood between her and the future she was so desperately seeking.
Every day of the previous two weeks had been spent rehearsing that moment, practicing in English the answers to questions she had been told she might be asked, working over the syllables that were clumsy to her tongue, and memorizing how to make the sounds of some of the words she did not quite understand. There was a phony address she was prepared to give the authorities, for a home that didn’t exist in Phoenix.
When the dogs came to sniff the car over for drugs, Guido was beside herself, and it required all the strength she could muster to maintain a masquerade of calm, to present the face of a U.S. citizen to the border guard.
“I was terrified,” she recalled, and it was those moments of terror at the border that caused her to puke. She didn’t quite know it then, but there were more than a few other reasons for her fears at the crossing. What awaited her were various hells known to many of those who come from Mexico to find work here.
Without papers, workers are powerless against all who would exploit them on both sides of the border, and many of those exploiters are drawn to the towns along that border for just that reason, the sorts of vultures that circle at the first sign of distress or desperation. On the Mexican side, there are the “coyotes” who have been known to take money from those who pay them to cross into the U.S., then leave them stranded in the desert, miles from roads or water. On the American side, there are those who will employ the undocumented workers, then not pay them for their labors because those workers are utterly without recourse. What are they going to do, lodge a union grievance? Call a cop?
So, when Guido drove her battered ‘76 Cadillac across the border from Nogales into the U.S almost 20 years ago, she was on a hard road.
“Nogales was a scary place,” she said, “dark and dangerous. When I came here to this country, I was young, and very naïve, but I came from a big city, and I was more educated than many who come from Mexico.”
That didn’t spare her much, though the stories she now hears from the immigrants she works with at Butte College give her the knowledge that her own experience, as bad as it was at times, was not nearly as bad as some.
“After I crossed the border,” she said, “I headed toward Tucson, which took me a while because I had to adjust to the driving here in the United States. I remember being terrified of the speed on the highway, especially when getting close to Tucson. I had never driven on a highway and I didn’t understand the traffic rules or signs. It was very scary. It seems that it also took the whole day for me to get from Tucson to Phoenix, where I slept the second night.”
She huddled with her son in the back seat, soothing his fears and trying to ignore her own. Daylight allayed some, but not all, of those fears.
“The next morning we found a doughnut shop and ate doughnuts for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” she continued. “It took me another day to get near where Nevada, Arizona, California are all connected, and right before I arrived to my destination the Cadillac gave out.”
It was 5:30 a.m., and she was stranded in a vast desert on a lightly traveled back road. When the sun came up, the temperature began to soar. Finally, a pickup truck approached, and pulled up in front of her. Peering over her steering wheel, what she saw, and what she best remembers of what she saw, were the pointed-toed boots of a man with a big belly, walking her way.
There was no way she could know whether he intended help or harm, so it was fortunate in the extreme that the first American she encountered came to her in kindness. His name was John Nance, a roofing contractor who lived not far from where Guido’s car had broken down.
“He was a guardian angel,” she said, an angel who took her home to his wife, Nancy. Guido and her son were offered sanctuary and succor. They wound up staying with the Nance family for more than a year.
Tears came to her eyes when she recalled the decency of the Nance family, and of the desperation she knew in that desert.
Now, nearly 20 years later, with many more miles and many more troubles behind her, that once-frightened young woman is an American citizen, a self-assured and purposeful 44-year-old adult who thrives in her work as program assistant for English as a Second Language at Butte College, easing the adjustment of immigrants to this nation.
“ ‘Quit listening to Spanish radio,’ I tell them,” she said, “and when I say that, I don’t mean that they should forget their culture. Reaching across the cultures is hard, but we work to create this bridge, and it begins with learning English.”
As routinely happens when she talks about her work, her experience and the experience of her students become one, and she quickly begins to shift between plural and singular pronouns.
“When we come here,” she said, “we’re in survival mode. It’s not that we want to leave our country, or don’t like our country. It’s desperation. Our government doesn’t provide for the basic needs of our people. In times of economic upheaval, people try to do what’s best for their families.
“Everybody talks about the American Dream, but it’s not a dream, it’s a struggle, and that struggle is all the harder because we deal with the feeling we are not welcome.”
“Not welcome” may be something of an understatement. When Chris Simcox, co-founder of the Minutemen, came through Butte County last month in support of Dan Logue’s bid for state Assembly, his visit prompted a laudatory piece by a columnist for the Paradise Post. That column, in turn, prompted hundreds of responses on the Post Web site.
Eager to express their hatred, but equally eager to disguise their identities, they posted their opinions behind the cover of self-bestowed identities like “Patriot,” or “Fed Up,” or “Real American.” Thus hidden, this is how some local Web site scribes and citizens of Butte County feel about illegal immigrants from south of the border:
• “ROUND THE MEXISCUM UP, AND SHIP THEM ALL BACK TO THE TURDWORD.”
• “You think the public is fed up and wants the borders shut down now? I don’t think they are fed up enough. When ‘We the People’ get our guns and ammo and head for the borders, THEN you can say the public is fed up!”
• “wow since they send all the dollars back to mexico maybe they should hire us to do there work, im no bigot. the asians do just as much labor. the Indian or RagHeads bring the Money to buy out all the mini marts, they own every one here but Rays liquer and the store in magalia. so how am I racist?”
• “All we need to do is what most countries do and announce there will be no prosecution for crimes against illegals. They will then have no choice but to self-deport and it won’t cost a thing.”
When a Mexican-American reader responded by accusing some of those people of being racists, his comment drew the following reply: “You are a dirty fucking peasant and probably a gang banging child molestor. KNOW YOUR ROLE, peasant.”
If you think such venomous opinions might shock Rocio Guido, you’d be wrong.
“I’ve heard all of that and worse, spoken to my face,” she said. “Not too long ago, my daughter and I were on our way to Sacramento through Marysville and these two guys in their mid-20s pulled up alongside us. They were yelling something, and I rolled down my window, and they were shouting ‘Spic,’ and ‘go back to Mexico'—stuff like that.” She imitated the look on her daughter’s face, a mixture of astonishment, hurt, fear and confusion.
Guido draws a connection between that ugly experience on Highway 70 and much of what is seen on television.
“Fox News and Lou Dobbs are constantly linking criminals and immigrants,” she said. “It’s dangerous what they are doing, and it’s families that are impacted by the continuing attempt to paint all immigrants as criminals.
“This isn’t the first time minorities have been scapegoated. Back in the mid-1950s, long before the Minutemen and Lou Dobbs started on this issue, there was Operation Wetback. The media and the politicians seem all together in this, and they just fabricate things.”
Her passion rose as she spoke, but the tone of her voice remained steady.
“Corn is at the heart of Mexican culture,” she said. “But small farmers in Mexico trying to sustain themselves on six-acre plots can’t survive trying to compete against the corporate farms in the U.S., all of them heavily subsidized by the government. So what is that Mexican farmer supposed to do when he can’t feed his family?
“For something like NAFTA to work, it needs to be equal. The U.S. is in bed with the right-wing elements in Mexico, trying to privatize Mexican oil. All these policies are destroying the bottom economic rung of Mexican society.
“We need Americans to help us through good policy toward our country. Hating Mexicans isn’t going to solve anything, and some of these ignorant comments are so full of hatred. I feel sorry for them because they can’t see the connections between them and us. Every Mexican should have the right to not have to emigrate. It’s not like we’re all eager to come here to be hated and abused.”
Guido’s assimilation would seem complete: She is fluent in English, she has a good job, she has earned citizenship, and she pays taxes. But, as with most people who take up residence in a foreign land, her heart will always be divided between her adopted country and the place of her birth.
“There have always been good people around me in this country,” she said, “and I was lucky enough to achieve my goals for education, find security, and a home, and those other goals I have accomplished. It takes a lifetime: it’s not a thing that happens in one or two years. And even now, after all that has happened, I think every day about going home. It’s very hard to be quiet, to see the injustices happening in Mexico and not be able to do anything.”
Her social conscience extends to both sides of the border.
“I feel a responsibility to speak out as an immigrant,” she said, “one who came here and suffered, and was abused. I believe the American people have a good heart, but there’s a big problem with the greed and the campaign to demonize immigrants, especially Mexicans. When we look at history we see that immigrants have contributed greatly….
“There is always this argument that we’re draining the system. Undocumented workers really don’t get any benefits, and I don’t know where people get the idea that undocumented workers are draining all these government programs. It just doesn’t happen.”
On that subject, there is a serious difference of opinion. Logue, the aforementioned candidate for the 3rd District Assembly seat being vacated by Rick Keene, is basing his political ambitions on the issue of securing our borders. He has made that slogan the basis for his campaign.
“Thirteen percent of waivers for college tuition are going to illegal immigrants,” Logue said. “That adds up to about $300 million a year to taxpayers. We also have hospitals, especially in Southern California, going bankrupt because they cannot afford to pick up the tab for illegals.
“This issue is bubbling up from the people themselves, and I plan on being the voice of those people who share my concern about securing our borders. People ask me all the time why am I running for state legislature on an issue many people believe is a federal matter, but I’m doing this because the federal government has failed to act, costing Californians billions each year.”
When asked about the hate and bigotry that bob up in the wake of this issue, Logue responded: “Anyone who can write words like some of those on the Paradise Post Web site—it’s just unacceptable. But this issue isn’t about race or ethnicity; it’s about the law. All we’re asking is that people who come to our land come here legally. We’re asking that the federal government observe, respect and enforce the law of our land.
“It’s just not about race; not for me, anyway. This is an issue of public safety for the illegals coming across our border. An estimated 10,000 Mexican women were assaulted and abused coming across the border. Why don’t they try to come to America legally? No one assaults legal immigrants in the desert.”
And what about the economic problems that create the throngs of desperate people?
Logue’s answer: “I understand Mexico has some problems, y’know, but it’s up to the citizens of that country to change that government. Fixing problems at home is a better solution than becoming an illegal immigrant to America.
“I understand the plight of many of these illegals. And I know it’s hard for them and that poverty is rampant in Mexico, but tens of thousands of people are becoming victims because we have not enforced the law of the land. We can’t pick and choose which laws we want to enforce and which we don’t.”
Logue paused to let his words sink in, then continued.
“But this isn’t just about law, it’s about the security of our nation,” he said. “A Stinger missile only weighs 39 pounds and could easily be brought across that southern border. Six thousand illegals were caught at the border who were from terrorist countries, like Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Middle East.”
And then he added: “We can’t solve the problems of Mexico, anyway. We don’t have the water supply to handle the influx of population. Besides, I don’t think the taxpayers of California should have to bear this burden. We could use that money the illegals are costing us to improve our schools, and our infrastructure.”
He spoke without animus, and he seemed as sincere in his views as Rocio Guido is in hers.
“I believe in reinstituting the bracero program like the one we had in the ‘60s,” Logue said. “That program allowed workers to come here temporarily on a seasonal basis. But I would not support giving them benefits for education, or college tuition, or welfare benefits, or Social Security. None of those benefits would be allowed for temporary workers. They’d work, go home, and they’d be legal for the time they were here. End of story.”
To support his points, Logue offers a link to a YouTube clip featuring a south Florida hospital administrator testifying before a legislative panel in that state. The well-dressed woman shares a story about the extraordinary cost of maintaining one illegal immigrant from Guatemala in her hospital, costs that ran into the millions of dollars. The administrator also testifies to the difficulties her for-profit hospital had getting reimbursed for their expenses in caring for people like the comatose Guatemalan.
That particular YouTube clip has become something of a cause célèbre for people who share Logue’s sense of alarm about illegal immigration. It has been viewed well over half a million times, and it has drawn comments like these:
• “i have been an enlisted member of the U.S. armed forces for the last 13 1/2 years. I have been deployed to the ‘sandbox’ twice in three years. Why the fuck am I paying for these fucking leeches? How about if I put a frickin’ bullet in their skull & throw them out to let the sharks eat ’em? If you are not a citizen of MY country, get the fuck out, I do not want you in my country!”
• “It comes down to one simple rule: pull your own weight and be responsible for yourself and your actions. You want welfare? Fine! Right after you get yourself sterilized, you can have welfare. And it will be taxed as income so that it’s no more attractive than it has to be. Basically, our country is fuct up because the politicians kow-tow to the minority of any group while the majority are forced to support them. That’s the tail wagging the dog.”
• “If it were up to me I’d strap that waste of flesh to a burro, point it south and put a firecracker in it’s ass. Even that’s too good for the invader.”
• “If u know they r illegal dont give them medical attention. let em die on ur steps. fuck em. and if they wanna have there babies let em have em on the streets.”
• “next time kill the illegal and throw his body in the desert. im tired of you mexicans getting everything free and sticking me with the bill. Some day we will be able to hunt and kill you all”
In view of such vicious and ubiquitous comments, it is not surprising to learn that Mexicans specifically and Latinos in general now top the list of victims of hate crimes, according to statistics gathered by the FBI. Barack Obama called attention to those stats during the closing days of the Democratic primary campaign last month when he chose to speak out, pointedly, about the loose talk that promotes violence.
“There’s a reason why hate crimes against Hispanic people doubled last year,” Obama said. “If you have people like Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh ginning things up, it’s not surprising that would happen.”
Mickey Harrington, the Democratic candidate for the 3rd Assembly District seat, agrees with his party’s standard bearer, and he wonders why Logue, his Republican opponent in November’s general election, has made this issue so central to his campaign.
“We’re not having problems with illegals overrunning Butte County,” Harrington, of Magalia, said. “Dan Logue is running against his own party on this issue because the Republicans have shown no interest in going after employers who aren’t all that upset about foreign workers—legal or otherwise.”
Harrington has a background as a union organizer, and he sees the issue from that perspective.
“This problem would go away if they’d quit payin’ people,” he said. “Ten years ago we had a problem with Canadian linemen coming down here to take electrician jobs. But they had to get a Social Security card or a green card in order to work. No card, no work. They worked out of hiring halls through the union. If people didn’t have papers, employers couldn’t hire ’em. If they don’t get hired, they go home.
“We can’t police millions of people who come here for work, but we can police the employers—if we want to do that.”
As to the matter of racism and violence against Latinos, Harrington said: “All I know is that I consider the Minutemen to be vigilantes. They were originally out there on the border with guns, and the authorities made them give up hanging out on the border with guns.”
Guido echoed some of Harrington’s points. “We need to utilize common sense and decency,” she said. “Dan Logue knows what NAFTA does to people. He knows very damn well that the farmers here hire undocumented workers, and then exploit them. You remove this labor force [and] who’s going to take over that [labor]? Americans?
“It’s OK for Americans to go on welfare and for Mexicans to come and do the job those Americans won’t do.”
Frustration turned to exasperation as Guido continued: “What does Dan Logue mean when he says he wants to defend the law of the land? Just what law does he mean? He is supporting the Minutemen who don’t uphold the law; they are breaking the law. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who hangs out with the Minutemen—the neo-Nazis, the skinheads.”
She shook her head in disgust, then changed her tone and pushed the subject toward more positive thoughts.
“I’m helping immigrants to become stronger, and I’m helping people to become open to American culture. It benefits them to know the language, and be able to help their children with their homework.
“But I’ve heard so many stories about abuse from the students I work with. A lot of women who come here undocumented can be badly mistreated by men. If you don’t have papers, they know you’re not going to the police. You become a slave to someone, and you have no defense, so there are always predators who take what they want from you and hold INS over your head.”
When Guido speaks about such things, she can get overcome with emotion. But she is a strong woman, intent on advocating for people she sees as powerless.
“I wouldn’t wish what I went through on anyone,” she said, “but what I went through was mild compared to what many others go through. It’s sad because what we have to offer as immigrant women is our hands, our work. We don’t complain much, and our hands are fast, and we work very hard. But we’re in a very vulnerable position.”
She is not unmindful, however, of what is sometimes gained through such travail.
“This country has given me a way of knowing myself in ways I would never have had if I hadn’t come here,” she said. “I have been able to appreciate my own culture in ways I wouldn’t have known except for my experience here. I am very proud to be a Mexican, but even being proud of my roots, I am also very grateful for what the United States has given me.”
She summed up her thoughts on the issue with a call for dialogue. “If people understood where the problem is coming from,” she said, “we’d probably be on the same page. We could work on ways to keep Mexicans in Mexico. None of these things that Dan Logue is supporting are going to work.
“If you asked some of these ignorant people to explain NAFTA, they couldn’t do it. They prefer simply to fall back on hate. Today it’s directed at Mexicans, but it’s always going to be somebody who takes the fall for bad government policy.”