As I hold my baby daughter at four in the morning, feeling the softness of her cheek against my own…
In 2011, Aurora wanted to take her three daughters to meet their grandparents. She was living in Salt Lake City, Utah. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem, but her ageing parents, who she had not seen in eleven years, lived in Puebla, Mexico. As an undocumented person, she knew it would be risky. What she didn’t realise was how dramatically the US-Mexico border had changed in those eleven years. She didn’t realise how difficult it would be to return.
I am talking to Aurora outside a migrant centre run by the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Mexico on a dusty day in February 2015. We are 500 metres from a towering wall that separates the United States from Mexico. Only twenty years ago this division was a chain link fence in disrepair. According to geographer Joseph Nevins, the “hardened militarised borders” we are seeing not only in the US, but across the globe with greater frequency, are a recent development in human history.
As Aurora talks, her face has a troubled yet determined expression. It has been three years since she has seen her daughters, now thirteen, ten, and eight years old. Like thousands of other non-US citizens, she has just lost a year of her life incarcerated in a detention centre. The private prison company Corrections Corporation of America made more than $100 for each day that Aurora was imprisoned between December 2013 and December 2014.
“I didn’t do anything,” Aurora said with her voice breaking as trucks rumble by to the border, “to be put in prison. The crime that I committed was to cross into the United States without papers.”
Perhaps at one time Aurora’s story would have been considered exceptional, out of the ordinary. But now, on the fringes of the United States, her story of being forcibly separated from loved ones has become banal. Never before in US history have so many people been systematically rounded up, incarcerated, and expelled, often to places throughout the Mexican borderlands. In Nogales, it seems like almost everyone has the same story of yearning for loved ones on the other side of the most massive border enforcement apparatus the United States has ever constructed.
“In the time I’ve been here I’ve seen a lot of women who are in situations like me,” Aurora said, referring to her one month in Nogales, where so many people – uprooted and dispossessed – converge. “I want an opportunity like thousands of women who are crying for their children.”
From 2000-2011, the years that Aurora was helping raise her daughters and working as a fast food cook in a Salt Lake City Chipotle, the US Border Patrol more than doubled – going from about 10,000 agents to 21,000. During that time, budgets for border and immigration enforcement soared. In the early 1990s, the annual budget for immigration and border enforcement was about $1.5 billion. Now it is about $18 billion, more than all other US federal law enforcement agencies – including powerhouse agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Agency – combined. Customs and Border Protection, the official name of the agency that polices US international boundaries, has become the largest law enforcement agency in the US – and counterterrorism is its priority mission.
But Aurora was not aware of these dramatic changes when she went to Puebla to visit her ailing parents with her children. After the visit, her daughters were able to return to Utah, no problem.
But Aurora ended up on the other side of the 3,000 kilometre US-Mexico divide, a place saturated with Border Patrol agents driving green-striped vehicles and flying buzzing helicopters. Now it is a place where there are more than 1,000 kilometres of walls and barriers zig-zagging like a scar in a parched landscape. Some 12,000 implanted motion sensors beep in operational control rooms, and these are propagating throughout the US borderlands like mushrooms. There are ever more surveillance towers with sophisticated cameras and radar that can see night and day. Nowhere in the US is there a higher concentration of this Big Brother type technology.
As if in a de facto war zone, agents stare into video screens in control rooms, or look at the feeds from surveillance drones that have flown more than 10,000 border surveillance missions since early 2013. One of the Predator B drones is equipped with VADER technology, made by the company Northrop Grumman, a “man-hunting” radar system once used to find roadside bombers in Afghanistan. Now they search for border crossers that look much like Aurora – each year higher numbers of women cross into the US.
As one tech salesman put it to me at a border security trade show in 2012, the US is bringing the “battlefield to the border”.
Since the 1990s, the Border Patrol boundary-building strategy, using the US Pentagon’s low intensity war doctrine, has concentrated the walls, agents, and surveillance in urban areas like Nogales, El Paso, San Diego, and Brownsville. This “prevention by deterrence” strategy is ruled by the logic that if traditional crossing places are cut off, then isolated, desolate regions such as the oven-hot Arizona desert become a lethal deterrence.
It is important to note that this policy went into effect not in a post 9/11 scenario, but rather when the US, Canada, and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In 1993, forecasting the devastating effects of the trade agreement on Mexico, Doris Meissner – the US border czar at the time – said “responding to the likely short- to medium-term impacts of NAFTA will require strengthening our enforcement efforts along the border”. She was right. NAFTA unleashed unprecedented immigration from Mexico that ran right into this militarised border policy. Instead of a lethal deterrence, the Arizona borderlands became what journalist Margaret Regan calls “the killing fields”.
Thousands of people have entered the US through the Sonoran desert without papers, and without sufficient food and water. People walk for days through this dystopic surveilled desert in a scenario that Chelsea Halstead, of the Colibri Center for Human Rights, described as “post-apocalyptic, something that one might see in the movies”. And the people at the Colibri Center know this well. They have a missing persons project and are working with approximately 2,000 cases of families who are searching for disappeared loved ones in the US-Mexico borderlands.
In Colibri’s office, Halstead and director Robin Reineke tell me a heartwrenching story of a five-year-old boy, Saul, placing his small, red jacket on his mother’s dying body just south of where we were in Tucson. This was the third day of walking and they were rationing water as the sun blazed down. The whole group, according to Saul, tried to revive her, tried to save her. Like Aurora, Estela had been living in the United States. She was separated from her son, who was being raised by her parents in southern Mexico. Estela went to retrieve Saul and bring him back to the United States. Now it is her son’s red jacket that could be what identifies the remains of his mother, her bones among the thousands that have given this desert the name “living graveyard”.
As geographer Nevins writes, these hardened militarised borders are new, and thus it is new that so many people are being forcibly separated from their loved ones. This, according to Nevins, is “highly significant” and “speaks to the extraordinary power of these lines of division and control – and the agents and institutions behind them – in shaping the very ways in which we view the world and our fellow human beings”.
However, there is something about the five-year-old’s gesture of love to his mother that shows a deep, and perhaps powerful tenderness and solidarity that indicates a new way to treat our fellow human beings.
Perhaps I am wrong or naive, but I think I sensed something similar in Aurora’s eyes when we talked that sunny afternoon in Nogales. Although she said she would not try crossing again, I didn’t believe her. It seems like she will try and try again, until something finally gives.