Mexico, the Wall, and AMLO

Turn on the news these days and you’ll probably hear something about Trump’s infamous wall. Since I just visited Mexico and passed the border where that wall might be, I thought I’d write a few notes on my experience there.

My qualifications to write about this subject include:

  • Waited five hours at the border to get into Mexico
  • Waited three hours at the border to get back into the United States
  • Became friends with hundreds of people who immigrated illegally while on an LDS mission in Washington state (2008–10)
  • Lived in Mexico for 3 months in 2012
  • Fluent speaker of Spanish
  • Like tacos

(This list clearly does not include being Mexican or Latino. I humbly welcome any correction which more-qualified friends offer.)

Anyway. The trip to Mexico. Soon after the Stone Age, my grandparents drove their family down to the beaches at San Blas, Mexico. It’s a lovely town on the Pacific Coast, just where the desert starts to turn into jungle, a sunny escape from the frigid winters of Utah. When my uncles had their own families, a few of them recreated the trip and finally made a tradition of driving there for Christmas every few years. We joined them this year, both to sit on the beach and to see beauties like this:

Each time the family goes, we have to pass the US-Mexico border in Nogales (AZ). What amazed me about the border was how boring it was — no fugitives, no gangs, no terrorists, no drugs, no kids separated from their parents. Just a bunch of people trying to get home to family, or deliver a truckload of goods, or go on vacation. We all suffered in lines together, Latinx and whites alike, complained about the immigration authorities in both countries, bought food from vendors — a sort of communal suffering that everyone accepted as the price to pay for crossing that infamous line in the sand.

For it is just a line in the sand, the result of centuries of war and diplomacy between Britain, France, Spain, the United States and Mexico. It could have been anywhere, I suppose, if history had turned out differently. But it didn’t, so there we were.

There were fences all over the place. I believe about 25% of the border has some kind of fence or wall already. People want more wall for various reasons — save the lives of kids and adults trying to cross the desert or the river, save government money by reducing the number of asylum seekers it must shelter, prevent those who come illegally from getting welfare benefits or causing harm to native-born citizens.

Though the fences might serve to prevent crossings either way, most people aren’t trying to get to Mexico illegally. Income per capita in the United States is at least six times that of Mexico, so the incentive to go north is enormous. But without a college education and some luck, getting legal permission to work in the United States is famously difficult. So people come, from Mexico or Guatemala or Honduras, any way they can — hidden in dark semi trailers, crossing the parched desert at night, swimming the unpredictable Rio Grande. If they can make it in, they must then survive. They generally work informally, for less than minimum wage, living in dingy apartment complexes or trailers with high rents because the landlords threaten to report them to immigration if they complain. For most of them, life is not better in the United States. But if they can just survive and get their children through school, the kids will have opportunities unavailable elsewhere. For the people who I met who immigrated illegally, that is the only possible American Dream. They trade their lives to give their children a chance.

Most of them miss life back home. Mexico is beautiful. Plazas with flags and soaring cathedrals. Vibrant markets with handmade goods from surrounding villages. Lazy evenings drinking Coke and watching the kids play soccer in a park across the street. Fiestas with the most wonderful cuisine, tamales and pozole and tacos and empanadas and chiles rellenos and a hundred other mouthwatering dishes. The hospitality. The warmth. How could you not miss such a place?

Especially now. This last July, Mexico elected a new president — Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO. He is leftist, “liberal,” like the “democratic socialists” in the United States. The wealthy and powerful in Mexico generally dislike him. But the common people generally love him. His approval ratings are high: 50, 60, 70% depending on the survey. In one town we visited, I asked a few men about him; unlike in 2012, when most rural dwellers I spoke with were dismissive of politicians, these men were cautiously optimistic: “We’ll see if he keeps his promises,” said they. His promises are not small — build 100 new universities, double monthly payments to the elderly, build a new oil refinery, fight corruption by selling the presidential jet and ending government luxury. But they are promises which have given hope to a country often disillusioned and frustrated by its leadership.

So perhaps things will get better in Mexico. I am hopeful. AMLO has faults, but he respects the common people in his country. That is a good quality in a leader. Perhaps, if we can get a lot more wise leadership both north and south of the border, in a long time, we won’t need a border anymore.

But meanwhile, we have to figure out what to do about that pesky border. Do we build more fences, more walls? I’ve been to the site of the old Berlin Wall; it broke my heart. I’ve been to Jerusalem and seen its formidable wall, the symbol of so much mistrust between Palestinians and Israelis. Yet patrolling the US-Mexico border is tough work. Illegal crossings are dangerous. And the immigrant population in the US is nearing its historic high, . I’d say it’s foolhardy to hope for open borders too soon.

I’ll refrain from proposing solutions here. I’d probably be wrong anyway. But I would guess that we’ll find the best solutions by talking to those people I saw in Nogales. The sturdy border guards. The vendors who walk the lines selling cotton candy or pottery. The residents who live in one country and commute every day to work in another. Peaceful citizens in Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora. They will know best.

“I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one.” — Marilynne Robinson, ‘Gilead’

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