Small Worlds

By Leif Johnson

I’ve been in Tucson, Arizona and various parts of Mexico for the past month as part of a border studies program, and after coming here, I haven’t felt like the true intensity of the issues surrounding immigration have been well understood at Macalester or in Minnesota despite the existence of programs on and around campus that discuss the issue. This may make sense given our physical distance from the U.S.-Mexico border, but in reality they can’t afford to be ignored. The stories I have been hearing daily are a testament to that. To that effect, this is one story that does a good job of bringing home the reality of events that are happening on a much larger scale in other parts of the nation. I met a man in Mexico who had nothing but a plastic bag labeled with the seal of the Department of Homeland Security and containing only a spare change of clothes. He was dumped off of a bus on the other side of the U.S. border in a town he had never even seen before. I met him in Nogales, Mexico in a shelter for deported migrants, although I could have met him walking down Grand Avenue. He introduced himself as Jorge Gonzales, and asked me if I had said I was from Minnesota. I said yes, and he said that he was too. As it turns out, he worked at Salút Bar Americain, which most of you will probably recognize as the upscale bar just up Grand. We laughed and joked that the cold weather was following us, but I can’t imagine him having much more to laugh about. He had lived in Saint Paul for sixteen years, and now he’s back here, rejected, dumped in a country he thought he left when I was only five years old.

We talked about his life. He didn’t go to Minneapolis much, he said, and Saint Paul is prettier anyway. He has a family in the Twin Cities: three kids, ages fifteen, fourteen, and four, and his wife. The kids still go to school in Saint Paul and are all US citizens. His wife and one of his kids are sick enough that coming to Mexico isn’t an option for them. Anyway, how easy do you think it would be to convince a 15 year old to move to Mexico at the drop of a hat? As we talk, our discussion is constantly framed by the circumstances – an overcrowded room, the absurd fact that we are having this conversation in the middle of a desert, rather than in the streets of Saint Paul, and the stark differences between the two of us. If Jorge attempts the trek back through the desert into the US and is caught by the border patrol, he faces two months in jail and a criminal record on top of needing to walk through the desert for three or four days. The journey in itself is enough to give one pause, as hundreds of people die yearly attempting to cross. Jorge tells me that he doesn’t have an option besides trying to get back, but that if he gets caught, he won’t go back a third time. What he’s facing is the total dissolution of his family. In a strange twist, the survival of his family rests as much on the failure of our border enforcement policies as it does on his courage and determination in choosing to make the four-day hike through the desert.

The US-Mexico border (in Ambos Nogales, Tucson, or Minnesota) destroys lives on levels that go beyond Jorge’s story. For every story of a deportee from Minnesota, there are many, many others – pregnant women deported into the streets of Nogales after midnight, police racially profiling, detaining, and eventually deporting parents who have just dropped their kids off at school, and countless deaths from dehydration and exhaustion in the desert. With this all taken into consideration, the border is an indicator for much deeper problems. Enforcement of border policy equates to enforcement of international economic inequality. The jobs prepared for the people who do come across are prime examples showing domestic racial and class structures. Real answers to these problems cannot be found in immigration reform – not in amnesty laws or guest worker programs, and definitely not in vain attempts to seal the border. To move beyond paying lip service, we need to do what quite a few Mac students have already done, and question the basic legitimacy of the systems that enforce borders, and look for ways to move beyond them entirely.

Leif Johnson can be reached at [email protected].