Diana Barnes has been a regular visitor to the US-Mexico border since the time she was a child, a half-century ago. She plans to return by month’s end, this time with her own daughter by her side.
“As a young child, I regularly crossed into Mexico at Tijuana,” says Barnes, who teaches US/Mexico border studies and Spanish language and Literature at Skidmore College and is a member of the Saratoga Immigration Coalition. Tijuana is the busiest land border in the Western hemisphere, if not the entire world. The purpose was to visit her grandfather a U.S. citizen who emigrated from England to Canada, then to the U.S., and then later in life, to Mexico.
“We would pack up our red VW bus and head south for an adventure in San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico. At the border, I loved the sounds, the lights, the colors, the smells, the bustle, and the important-looking uniformed men ushering the cars through to one side or the other,” Barnes recalls. “In the 1960s, crossing to visit my grandfather, or crossing to watch my father race his bicycle in a Mexican/American bike race, was a predictable process that I looked forward to.
“That Tijuana crossing is a busy, busy crossing. But I’ve been to many crossings, including the one in McAllen (Texas) into (the Mexican city of) Reynosa. They’re all really different,” she says. “You cannot go to the border and say, ‘I know the border,’ even if you spent as much as month in one place,” she notes of a borderland she says is complex as the millions of people who live on either side of the 2,000-mile line that stretches from Texas to California. “If you live on the US-Mexico border, you’re sort of part of this area that’s considered the borderland – not necessarily a US culture strictly, or a Mexico culture strictly, but really a borderland culture, where there is a sense of a hybrid society.”
Barnes remembers the crossing as being pretty fluid, absent of any sense sense of fear, or a feeling of being shut out. Today, there’s still the hustle and bustle but a lot has changed. “It’s sadder,” she says.
Big changes in September 1993, after a border security increase practice called Operation Blockade was instituted in the El Paso sector. Undocumented workers who had previously crossed the border for day work as nannies or busboys or in agriculture were no longer permitted to do so.
“The workforce in El Paso may have been largely undocumented and people would just come across for the day and then go home,” Barnes says. “It was fairly fluid. Well, Operation Blockade stopped all that, abruptly.” The method of enforced border security grew along the Texas, Chihuahua border, at the California, Sonora crossing and along the other main points of legal entry and served to funneled migrants into the deadliest parts of the desert, where some have been victimized by everyone from drug cartels to allegedly corrupt Border Patrol agents.
“Before the fortified fence was put up, it was very different. People would cross without documentation and go back. Border patrol would know who the kids were coming across, and they would wave and say: going to McDonald’s, and they’d go to McDonald’s and then go back,” Barnes says. “Now, you cannot just walk across the border. It’s very well protected. There are places in the desert that are not - but I would say the deterrents there are greater than any wall anybody could put up would be; not just the natural deterrents of the heat or the cold, but it’s also dangerous in the desert.”
In 2000, Barnes visited the McAllen/Reynosa border with her then-12-year-old son, Andrew, as chaperone for students from the Saratoga Central Catholic High School.
“It was a phenomenal experience,” she says. “Children don’t see borders. They don’t understand them. It’s an artificial construct. Their eyes are clear. They got to see a reality they did not know existed. They got to see people and children living in conditions that were hard for them to believe.” During the trip, there were visits to small, quiet border towns that were home to American-owned factories that produced tariff-free goods for the U.S. through the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“They were making $40 to $45 a week. They lived in shacks made of shipping crates, in really poor communities without paved roads, no potable water. The kids talked everyday about what was revealed to them,” she says. “The kids were told, ‘We don’t want a lot of money, we just want our children to go to school. We want a life with dignity, that’s all we ask.’ And they could not get it working in NAFTA factories. The kids were fabulous. And it had a wonderful on my relationship with my son, because we shared something that was so unique. And it really changed my trajectory and what I wanted to teach and focus on, personally.”
Since the trip in 2000, Barnes has regularly traveled to different places along the border line, sometimes multiple times a year. The border is a complex place, she explains, every stretch of it distinct, and no single border city like another border city.
“You will find people along the border with very contrary ideas about immigration. Yes, there are people on the border who feel very strongly they do not believe that anybody who wasn’t born in this country should come here, and that they should come the legal way,” Barnes says. “The problem is as soon as you mention ‘Legal,’ or ‘Illegal,’ people shut down. And that’s where the divisiveness comes in,” she says. “Illegality is an act. It’s not a human being. It’s so strong and it’s in our minds: you broke the law, there’s no going back, there’s no forgiveness.”
Currently, just over 6,000 people in a caravan of migrants from Honduras have made their way to the border town of Tijuana, Mexico where asylum officers are processing between 40 and 100 claims a day, according to multiple published reports. In 2016, the United States admitted 84,989 refugees, according to the U.S. Department of State (see attached box for more detail).
“We can and we do accommodate asylum seekers. And we always have,” Barnes says. “You have to go through a process of asylum. We have to find if there is criminality other than crossing the border. You have a credible fear and a (credible fear) interview.”
Since the start of the 21st century, on average, approximately 1,050,000 foreign nationals annually have been granted lawful permanent residence in the U.S. overall – that is, immigrants who have received a “green card,” have been admitted as temporary nonimmigrants, granted asylum or refugee status, or are naturalized, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Over that same period of time, on average, approximately 910,000 “alien apprehensions” have occurred annually, as described by the DHS. The largest number of apprehensions in the nation’s history occurred during the 1990s, when, on average, 1.4 million apprehensions occurred every year, according to the DHS. In recent years, the largest number of apprehensions by the Border Patrol occurred at Rio Grande Valley, Texas.
“The problem is that no one’s addressing the issue. The issue really shouldn’t be: look at all these people coming across,” says Barnes. “It is an absolutely polarizing issue and a contrived issue I believe to be polarizing. I think it is fed by racism, frankly. And it is poison,” says Barnes, who is headed back to the border this month, to visit El Paso for two weeks with her daughter, a college senior. “The issue should be: What is driving the push factor? Why are people coming in and how can that be resolved? We need a comprehensive immigration policy overhaul if we ever want to dispel the fear that has taken hold of our country right now.”