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Slake: Los Angeles—In the Heart of the Homeland—A City And Its Stories

In the Heart of the Homeland

By Ben Ehrenreich

By Ben Ehrenreich

The copper mining town of Bisbee, Arizona, woke up early on July 12, 1917. Two thousand armed men, hastily deputized by the Cochise County sheriff, marched from house to house and shop to shop, banging on doors, rousting striking miners and those sympathetic to them from their beds, breakfast tables, and barber’s chairs. The miners, organized by the Industrial Workers of the World, had gone on strike two weeks earlier, demanding safer conditions, better wages, and an end to discrimination against foreign-born workers. The majority of the miners were immigrants, many of them Mexicans who had been lured north by recruiters. Most of the rest were Europeans—Irish, Serbs, Austrians, Finns—but the Mexicans, who were excluded from all but the worst and lowest-paying work, had the least to lose and the most to gain.

There was, however, a war on. The Great War, it was called. Increased munitions production required a steady flow of copper, and the mine’s owners—the Phelps Dodge Corporation—ably cast the strikers as a treasonous threat not only to Bisbee’s patriotic citizenry, but to the war effort and the nation itself.

That July day, the strikers’ demands were answered. The sheriff formed a posse of what he called “loyal Americans”—Phelps Dodge managers, shopkeepers, Anglo miners who had refused to heed the strike call, cowboys brought in from surrounding ranches—and herded 1,185 union men to the center of town. From there, in the rising heat of the morning sun, the miners were marched with rifles at their backs to the neighboring suburb of Warren and held behind the high wooden walls of the town ballpark until a train of empty cattle cars chugged to a halt nearby. With a machine gun mounted in the bleachers above him, the sheriff gave the strikers the choice of returning to work or climbing aboard. All chose the latter. The train rolled back into Bisbee four days later, empty. The miners had been dumped in the New Mexico desert without food, water, or shelter from the sun. They were rescued by the U.S. Army and shepherded to the town of Columbus, where they remained for several months under the army’s watchful care. The homeland, for the moment, was safe.

Even here, among Tucson’s strip malls, the desert makes a point of announcing itself. Earlier this afternoon it kicked up a sudden windstorm, whipping constellations of beer cans and plastic bags into mad eddies. A paperback book raced across the asphalt in front of my shaking rental car. Then it rained and the autumn sky went dark and the storm was just as suddenly gone. Now, the calm is jarring.  

It’s a Friday night in late autumn and I’m in a large Buick with Octavio Fuentes and Lynda Cruz. For the moment, we are Migra Patrol–CopWatch. Cruz is from Douglas, in the southeast corner of the state, about a half hour’s drive from Bisbee. Her grandparents came to Arizona from Sonora and Durango to work in the mines, but the mines have closed and most of her relatives are now in law enforcement. They work for ICE and Border Patrol or at the state prison up the road. Her younger siblings and cousins, she sighs, all hope to become Border Patrol agents. They’re the best jobs in town, and—except for the prison and the Walmart and the drug trade—pretty much the only jobs. Cruz tries to talk them out of it. She says she’s something of a black sheep. A police scanner is chirping in her lap and she’s trying to figure out how the new video camera works.

Cruz and Fuentes and a few others have been going out “on patrol,” as Cruz puts it, most Friday evenings for the past year. They tour the south side, looking out for Border Patrol agents (la migra) or Tucson police, hoping to prevent them from harassing immigrants or anyone whose skin color might make a cop suspect they’re immigrants. (Most residents of the south side fall into one of those two categories.) If they come across a raid or a bust or what looks like a racial-
ly motivated traffic stop, they document it with video and try to inform whoever is being detained of his or her legal rights. If they witness anything they consider abusive, they fill out special forms, which they then pass on to the ACLU. The forms, headed “Yo Soy Testigo” (I Am a Witness) have boxes for “Masked Agents,” “Dogs,” and “Assault Rifles.”

Fuentes is driving. He grew up in this neighborhood, but he hasn’t been around much for the past few years. In 2005, he took a job with KBR, the Halliburton logistics and engineering subsidiary, negotiating contracts with the military in Afghanistan and Iraq. During sporadic trips home, he would be surprised to see that Arizona was coming to resemble the war zones he thought he had left behind. There were checkpoints on lonely desert highways and bored young men in Humvees with assault rifles and Kevlar vests. They wore green Border Patrol uniforms instead of combat fatigues, but their equipment, tactics, and jargon were all otherwise the same. When he drove south toward the border to visit his mother’s relatives in Mexico, he would spot a white surveillance blimp hovering over the mountains, just like the ones he had grown used to seeing in the skies above Baghdad.

Fuentes quit in late 2009. When he gave notice, he says, KBR tried hard to keep him on, offering him an assignment closer to home. They wanted him to help negotiate contracts with the Department of Homeland Security for new “internment camps” (“That’s the word they used,” he says) for immigrants in the American Southwest. He turned them down. Since then, Fuentes has
been arrested twice, once for taking part in a sit-in at Sen. John McCain’s office in spring 2010, and then again on July 29, the day that Arizona’s Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act (SB 1070) took effect, requiring all law-enforcement officers in Arizona to ask everyone they suspect of being in the country illegally for proof of citizenship. Fuentes and ten other protesters were arrested for blocking an intersection in downtown Tucson. “No more dancing with the devil,” he says, smiling.

In the late summer, Tucson police began “swarming the south side,” Fuentes says. They opened a mobile command center in the neighborhood and appeared to focus their efforts on
stopping cars with Mexican plates. Migra Patrol–CopWatch had set up a twenty-four-hour hotline and a text alert system so that anyone who happened upon a bust in progress could phone in the location. Fuentes and Cruz stayed busy. But, Fuentes is quick to add, “Border Patrol–law enforcement cooperation isn’t something new.” SB 1070 merely lends formal political cover to practices that have been commonplace for years.

Earlier this afternoon, just after the windstorm abated, Pima County Public Defender Margo Cowan told me, “Every single day we see a traffic stop for a tail light that results in no traffic ticket but a call to ICE and a family member being deported.” Cowan characterized such
law-enforcement practices as “a low-level war against Mexicans” that’s been ongoing since the late 1990s.

Tonight, though, the streets are quiet. Fuentes drives up and down South Sixth Avenue. He talks about the redes de protección (“protection networks”) set up by grass-roots immigrant groups to
prepare for the worst, so that if community members are deported or detained a friend or neighbor will be there to call a lawyer, wire them money, look after their children and their homes.

We stop on South Twelfth for dinner and see a cop questioning someone in an Auto Zone parking lot. He lets the guy go and drives off. We do the same. “It’s good,” Cruz says. “Quiet is good.”

Strange Things Seen on the Highways of Southeast Arizona in the Course of a Single Day:

A few miles south of Benson, several cars have pulled off the road ahead of me. There is something in the road. It looks like a bag of clothing fallen from a truck. When I get close enough, I see that it is not a bag of anything. It has legs, jeans, a head of long, gray-and-black hair. It is what I was afraid it was. I can’t see the face or tell if it’s a woman or a man. A pair of eyeglasses sits on the asphalt a few feet away. Between the eyeglasses and the hair, a small puddle of blood. There is no damaged car in sight, no broken glass or sign of any accident. A white-haired man waves me on. A few others stand around beside him, their faces blank. None of them tends to the person in the road, from which I deduce that he or she is already dead.

A buzzard of extraordinary size, picking at the sun-dried remains of a skunk. It must be five feet from the tip of one black wing to the other. I stop the car to marvel at it. There are dragonflies everywhere, yellow wildflowers, grass hoppers as big as mice slowly crawling across the road. In the distance, a weird shadow stretches across the desert, like a line drawn with a dull pencil and a straightedge: the border wall.

Two men kneeling in the dark on the side of the highway, illuminated only by the bright halogen headlamps of a Border Patrol pickup. The men drink thirstily from gallon jugs of water. The Border Patrol agents stand outside the cone of light. I can’t see them, but I know they can’t be far. Why else would the men be on their knees?

Fourteen years ago, a scholar named Timothy J. Dunn published The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1978–1992. Dunn argued that U.S. border policy could be best understood as the domestic application of the low-intensity conflict strategies developed by the military in Central America and Vietnam. Low-intensity conflict—according to a 1986 Army document cited by Dunn—is “a limited politico-military struggle to achieve political, social, economic, or psychological objectives,” one in which the enemy cannot be easily distinguished from civilians, and military and police functions intermingle. The prescribed approach to such conflicts—which have since been renamed “counterinsurgencies”—generally relies less on overt violence than on methods of social control designed to separate possible insurgents from the civilian population: walls, checkpoints, sensors, prison camps, surveillance.

In 1992, the year Dunn’s survey ends, these developments were still relatively hard to detect in Arizona. Only a few miles of the border had been fenced. The main crossings at Douglas and
Nogales were marked by flimsy, rusted chain link. But the essential elements of the system—which has since grown exponentially—were in place. Two years later, Border Patrol turned to the Pentagon’s Center for Low-Intensity Conflict for help in drafting its national and regional strategies.

Disturbing as that may be, it isn’t surprising. Since its inception in 1924, the Border Patrol has always been a paramilitary organization. It was charged with a law-enforcement function but was organized—from its uniforms to its tactics to its lingo—along military lines. Which makes sense, given that much of contemporary counterinsurgency strategy can be traced directly to the imperial policing practices of European colonial powers.1

1 Per the legal scholar Nasser Hussein, who has written extensively on that genealogy: “Devising methods to … separate insurgents from neutrals would become the abiding preoccupation of imperial policing.”

Before the Mexican-American War, the region that would become the Arizona territory had only a tiny population of nonnatives. Most Mexicans who ended up here migrated from points south in search of work in Anglo-owned mines, ranches, fields, and later kitchens and construction sites. Local whites (late arrivals themselves) regarded Mexicans with archetypal colonialist anxiety: as a conveniently exploitable labor force whose political passivity must be carefully maintained.

Citizenship in the state has thus been implicitly tied to whiteness from the beginning. In 1909, three years before Arizona gained statehood, the territorial assembly required that all voters pass an English literacy test. That law stayed on the books for seven years after the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act in 1965. Well into the 1950s, Phoenix was as segregated as the Jim Crow South. Very little is new about the recent spate of anti-Mexican laws.2

2 To call them anti-immigrant would not be quite accurate: HB2281, which banned the teaching of ethnic studies in Arizona public schools, targeted Chicanos more than recent immigrants. State Senator Russell Pearce, who authored SB1070, is planning to introduce a bill that would deny citizenship to the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants. Cf. Thomas Hobbes: “Laws [are] the walls of government, and nations.”

In 1993 and 1994, Border Patrol began concentrating its resources in and around El Paso and San Diego. The resulting squeeze pushed migrants from traditional urban crossing sites into more isolated areas. At the same time, economic crisis in Mexico fueled by U.S.-imposed trade policies such as NAFTA sent millions of Mexicans north in search of work. Most were funneled through the Arizona desert, where summer temperatures commonly exceed 100 degrees. In 1995, not a single migrant was found dead in Arizona. Since then, the aid group No More Deaths has counted more than 5,000 that have died crossing the desert. Corpses don’t last long here: it’s likely many more have died without a trace.

In the same period, militarization accelerated at a blinding pace. Border Patrol, which until 1985 had a staff of less than 3,000, grew to 10,000 in 2005 and now has more than 20,000 employees.

One day, I amused myself counting Border Patrol trucks driving between Paul Spur Road and downtown Douglas —a ten-mile stretch. I got to eleven just as I turned onto Pan-American Avenue, not counting the hundreds parked behind razor wire at the Border Patrol station just south of the highway. Budgets have grown with the workforce, from $83 million in 1980 to more than $4 billion today. So has infrastructure. Thirty years ago, the immigration service operated four detention centers. Now they have eight, though most of the hundreds of thousands of people detained by ICE each year are held in privately operated jails or in state and local prisons.

In 1980, Border Patrol had two helicopters. It now has access to 290 aircraft. Spend time in southern Arizona and you’ll see them flying low, just like you’ll spot a weird white oval in the sky above Fort Huachuca: a tethered surveillance blimp. You’ll see the fence itself and the floodlights that line the fence. Six hundred fifty miles have been built since late 2006.3 You’ll see the communication towers that hold the cameras and the thermal-imaging equipment and the radar transmitters and the multiple antennae that beam all that data to faraway control rooms. You’ll surely see the checkpoints on all key north-south highways, which effectively extend the border thirty miles to the north. “All vehicles must stop,” say the orange traffic signs.

3 As I was checking out of the historic Hotel Gadsden in Douglas five years ago, the lobby filled with National Guardsmen brought in to build the wall. Timothy Dunn and another border scholar, Joseph Nevins, recently estimated that the complete cost of the border fence, including maintenance and repairs, may approach $70 million per mile.  

When you stop, you will be asked to state your citizenship, and, perhaps, if you look nervous or insufficiently citizenlike, you will be asked to provide documents. You may be required to open the trunk of your car. If the agents are suspicious of you for any reason, or simply bored, they may choose to search whatever parcels you may be carrying as well as the engine compartment of your vehicle, the spare tire, the door and floor panels, the gas tank and the muffler.

If this feels intrusive, be thankful you’re not in Iraq, where twitchy soldiers manning checkpoints have shown a tendency to open fire on approaching cars. The parallel is not gratuitous. In the 2006 Counterinsurgency Field Manual, under the section headed “Population Control Measures” you’ll find an account of the Army’s application of “Clear-Hold-Build” tactics in northern Iraq.

Soldiers constructed “an eight-foot-high berm”—a wall—around the city of Tal Afar “to deny the enemy freedom of movement” and then “forced all traffic to go through security checkpoints,” after which they conducted “house-to-house searches” for insurgents.

If that still sounds far away, think of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s “crime-suspension operations,” in which masked police officers with assault rifles and body armor sweep through the Latino neighborhoods of Phoenix, rounding up unlicensed drivers and dangerous abuelas whose paperwork bears the stamp of the wrong government.

But if this is a counterinsurgency, who are the insurgents? What war is this fight a part of? In the 1980s, when the Reagan administration was laying much of the groundwork for the current system, race-tinged Cold War paranoia framed an early stage of panic: Salvadoran and Nicaraguan communists were a hop away from organizing rebel cells in the back room of the corner pupusería. Islamophobia took over during the first Gulf War and again in the fall of 2001. But mainly the insurgents are who they always were: the same brown-eyed subversives who were rounded up in Bisbee in 1917 and again during the so-called Mexican Repatriation of the 1930s, when as many as 2 million people of Mexican descent (many were U.S. citizens) were deported or pressured into leaving the United States during the Great Depression, and again during Operation Wetback in 1954.4

4 During Operation Wetback, the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service was retired General Joseph Swing, who militarized the command structure of the Border Patrol and organized “Mobile Task Forces” and “mop-up operations” to round up Mexicans. The INS boasted that 1.3 million were forced to leave the country.

The entrenched racial anxieties of Arizona’s white population dovetail neatly with the demands of capital. For more than a century, the economy in the Southwest has relied on the availability of cheap, exploitable labor—on Mexicans. Should they become too demanding, lettuce would get expensive. Cotton would hardly be worth harvesting. It’s easy to forget that the subdivisions that sprawl outside of Phoenix were not conjured out of cheap credit alone. It took arms and hands and backs to build them, labor kept artificially inexpensive thanks to the vulnerabilities of workers who could always be deported and replaced—biceps, triceps, latissimus dorsi and all. So Mexicans remain the objects of sophisticated strategies of control.5

5 For instance, Araceli Torres Ruiz, a pretty young woman who had the misfortune to become one of the “Panda Express Eleven.” Torres Ruiz was seven when she was brought to Arizona from Oaxaca. Until 2007, she believed her papers were in order. Everyone else in her family had been granted legal residency, but applications filed on her behalf as a child fell between the bureaucratic cracks. She was twenty in March 2007, going to community college, raising her three-year-old daughter, and working at a Chinese fast-food outlet when, one morning, ICE and Tucson police officers surrounded the shop. She spent the next four and a half months detained in three different jails, unable to see her daughter. When I met her in her lawyer’s office, the Ninth Circuit had just refused to hear an appeal of her final deportation order.  

This is war, but it’s the quiet kind, the kind that disguises itself as law and order, as normalcy. The pundits on both sides of the issue who shout that U.S. border policy is not working miss the point. It is working perfectly. The wall, despite appearances, is not a wall at all. It—and the checkpoints and the cameras and the sweeps—function as a series of valves, a mechanism not of exclusion but of population management.

On another level, though, it hardly matters who the insurgents are because behind the discourse of security there lies an industry. Its main product is fear. The profits are enormous. And the same people who reap dividends from insecurity abroad are highly motivated to bring the wars home. Octavio Fuentes’s old employer KBR won a $385 million contract to build detention camps for immigrants in the United States. General Atomics, whose Predator drones have been raining missiles on Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, has found a new customer in the Department of Homeland Security, which purchased four Predator-2 UAVs at more than $10 million each to watch over the entire border. Boeing, among the world’s largest defense corporations, was the lead contractor for the multibillion-dollar “virtual fence”—the high-tech network of radar and cameras and seismic and thermal sensors meant to alert distant Border Patrol command centers whenever a thirsty campesino dares poke a toe across the line. Boeing subcontracted much of the work to Kollsman Inc., a U.S. subsidiary of the Israeli defense giant Elbit Systems, which engineered that other great contemporary monument of colonialist social control: Israel’s “separation wall.”6

6 In March 2010, Attorney General Janet Napolitano announced that work on the virtual fence—called SBInet in bureaucratese—would cease due to delays, wild cost overruns, and the comforting fact that much of the technology did not work.  

I spend an afternoon in Douglas visiting an old friend. The last time I was here, in 2005, Douglas already felt like an occupied city. It was hard to drive five blocks without passing a Border Patrol truck. That hasn’t changed. We drive out along International Street beside the border wall. It has doubled since my last visit. In 2005 there was one fence constructed of tall concrete-filled pipes spaced a few inches apart. Since then, they’ve built a second fence: two layers of thick, tightly woven steel mesh on top of six feet of concrete. The futility is apparent every few yards: weld scars mark the spots where the fence has been breached, then soldered and repaired.

A trench about ten yards wide runs between the two barriers. Beyond, you can see Mexico: cars idling in line at the Agua Prieta border crossing. The same bass-thumping banda tunes drift out of windows on both sides of the line. Ahead of us, a Border Patrol truck is parked in the dirt along the wall. Another drives up beside it. The sun goes down and the sky turns red. The floodlights along the wall blink on, stretching on in an unbroken chain for miles to the west and up into the hills to the east, evenly spaced and perfectly straight. They’re almost pretty, almost funny, like a pun told by the Earth to mock the stars. The federal courthouse in downtown Tucson is new and modern. The ceilings of the windowless Special Proceedings Room on the second floor are high and have been painted in muted Southwestern turquoise and lilac. The judge has not yet arrived. A handful of lawyers, Border Patrol agents, clerks, and interpreters are milling about the polished wooden tables. They shuffle through papers, getting the postlunch small talk out of the way, oblivious to the sixty-eight prisoners sitting quietly in the left half of the courtroom. A pump bottle of Purell sits on each table.

The prisoners fill the jury box, the defendants’ tables, and a third of the benches reserved for the audience. All of them are brown-skinned. Except for one elderly man, they all have black hair. All but a few are skinny, with farmers’ lanky limbs. Every one of them is in shackles. They wear leg irons and their hands are cuffed to chains around their waists. They don’t talk to one another, but stare at their knees or gaze confusedly around them, as if wondering at the mechanics of this strange space ship that has abducted them. Two young women, also brown-skinned, also shackled, sit alone in the center aisle. With the exception of one Latino Border Patrol agent and one Latino clerk, every dark-skinned person in the room is in chains.

Judge Jacqueline J. Marshall arrives and the prisoners stand. The jangling of their chains is almost musical. The judge begins to call the defendants’ names. They answer: “Presente.” It takes eight minutes to go through them all. The lawyer sitting beside me opens his laptop and passes the time updating his Netflix queue.

This is Operation Streamline, the latest trend in the warehousing of immigrants. Streamline made its debut in Del Rio, Texas, in 2005 and arrived in Tucson three years later. Until 2008, migrants picked up by the Border Patrol here (its Tucson Sector accounts for more than 40 percent of all apprehensions) were routinely processed and deported—detained for a few hours and dropped on the other side of the wall in Nogales. Now they are prosecuted as criminals prior to deportation.

Each of the seventy migrants faces the same two charges: illegal reentry, a felony that carries a sentence of two to twenty years in federal prison; and a misdemeanor illegal-entry count punishable with thirty to 180 days in jail.7 They are all offered the same deal: if they plead guilty to the misdemeanor, the felony will be dropped. They have the right to a trial by jury, of course, but trials take months, and they will have to spend those months locked up—and will risk another twenty years in stir. Everyone takes the plea. Until December 2009, migrants charged via Streamline were tried en masse, but the Ninth Circuit ruled that it was unseemly to make them all plead at once, so now they face the judge in groups of five and are required to confess their guilt individually.8

7 Cf. the Counterinsurgency Field Manual: “When insurgents are seen as criminals, they lose public support. Using a legal system established in line with local culture and practices to deal with such criminals enhances [host country] legitimacy.”
8 Jean and John L. Comaroff write of colonialist violence concealing itself through lawfare: “the resort to legal instruments, to the violence inherent in the law, to commit acts of political coercion, even erasure. … [Lawfare] always seeks to launder brute power in a wash of legitimacy, ethics, propriety.”  

Five at a time, the men shuffle to the front of the courtroom, chains clanking softly with each step. Their lawyers stand behind them.9 Judge Marshall asks each group of five the same ten questions. She starts by asking if they feel “threatened or forced to plead guilty.” They lie and say no. She ends by asking how they plead. Each answers in Spanish, “Culpable.” She reads their sentences—all between one and six months—and they shuffle off to make room for the next group. I time them. Each group of five averages about two and a half minutes before the judge, or thirty seconds of justice a head. The entire process takes an hour and a half. Every time he walks back to his seat after standing behind another pleading client, the Netflix lawyer takes a quick pump from one of the bottles of Purell. Then he sits, crosses his legs, rubs the germs from his hands, and opens his laptop again.

9 The court spends between $6,000 and $12,000 a day on the private attorneys appointed to represent migrants prosecuted through Operation Streamline. According to immigrant-rights activist and former federal public defender Isabel Garcia, the feds pay another $13 million each month to the Corrections Corporation of America to detain the migrants and transport them to and from the court. “Everybody’s making money—the judges, the clerks, the marshals, the interpreters, the Border Patrol—on the backs of these poor people coming in,” says Garcia.

The sun is not yet up, but Mike Wilson is already in his driveway, loading the bed of a battered, green pickup with gallon jugs of water. He is sixty-one and could pass for ten years younger. Wilson moves nimbly: adjusting bottles, checking their caps, dumping and replacing the ones that leak. He takes a seat behind the wheel and clasps a big silver-and-turquoise cross behind his neck.

We set out south and west from Wilson’s house in the outlying suburbs of Tucson toward the Tohono O’odham reservation, a 4,340-square-mile expanse of desert that shares a seventy-five-mileres a seventy-five-mile border with Mexico. Wilson, despite his anglicized name, is Tohono O’odham, though he grew up not on the reservation but on the south side of Tucson, where his parents moved after his father was laid off by the Phelps Dodge mine in Ajo.

Among the more painful paradoxes of the moment is that though migration has been falling since the economy collapsed in 2007, deaths in the desert have continued to climb. Last year, 253 migrants were found dead in southern Arizona, the most since 2005. For the past nine years, Wilson has been leaving caches of drinking water on the highly traveled migrant trails that cross the reservation. And though the vast majority of migrant deaths are now occurring on tribal land—forty-four of the fifty-nine migrants found dead last July turned up on the reservation—he is the only person who does so.

Several humanitarian aid groups—No More Deaths, Humane Borders, The Samaritans—have established water stations elsewhere in the desert and dispatch volunteers to walk the trails in search of migrants needing help.10 But people who aren’t tribal members are not allowed on the reservation without permission, and the tribal government has for years refused to allow aid groups in, Wilson explains, because the reservation’s economy is almost entirely dependent on federal subsidies: “They’re not going to bite the hand that feeds them.” Wilson has recently—and without success—been pushing aid groups to condemn the tribal government’s actions.

10 These groups have faced increasing pressure from the federal government. In July 2005, volunteers driving three severely dehydrated migrants to the hospital were stopped by Border Patrol and arrested on felony human-smuggling charges. In February 2008, federal park police ticketed Dan Millis on a misdemeanor littering charge for leaving water bottles along migrant trails in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. A federal appeals court later threw out the charge, but park police have issued seventeen other tickets to aid workers there.  

“In essence, the policy is that migrant deaths in the nation are not only tolerated, they’re accepted,” he says. “Why is there this deathly silence?”

Wilson’s commitment has cost him. In 2001, he was working as a lay pastor for the Presbyterian congregation in Sells, a dusty sprawl of trailers and squat concrete-block structures that serves as the Tohono O’odham tribal capital. His relief work was not popular among his parishioners. After his congregation’s governing council voted to prohibit him from putting out water, Wilson resigned and relocated to Tucson. Later, he says, he learned that the tribal government planned to pass legislation naming him a “terrorist” so that tribal police could keep him out. His allies were able to intervene. “I have a few friends left,” he says.

The shadows on the highway are still long when we pass the Border Patrol checkpoint just outside the reservation boundary. “I recently have begun to call them an occupying army,” Wilson says. Two years ago, there was no checkpoint here, but Border Patrol’s presence has grown, Wilson says, and their boldness has increased. Tribal members, who until 2008 were able to cross into Mexico without restrictions11—are subject to routine searches and interrogations. “They act like an imperial police force.”

11 The Tohono O’odham Nation was split in half by the Gadsden Purchase in 1852, but until the construction of the border fence, tribal members were able to travel freely between communities on the Arizona and Sonoran sides of the line.

When I tell him about Dunn’s counterinsurgency thesis, Wilson laughs. “You’re preaching to the choir master,” he says. “I was U.S. Special Forces. I was in El Salvador from 1988 to 1989. I also did counternarcotics work in Bolivia.” He was in Honduras, too, during the Contra war in Nicaragua. The checkpoints, Wilson says, are “a means of controlling terrain and controlling people, channeling your opposition into control points. If you can control those choke points, then you have a degree of operational control.”

We turn onto a rutted two-lane road. Tall saguaros stand guard on the hillsides. We pass a few skinny cows and skinnier dogs sleeping in the shade as Wilson sketches out his story. The sacrifices he has made are hard to understand except as a form of penance enacted—alone—for the role he played in other, less subtle counterinsurgencies. When he arrived in El Salvador, Wilson says, he was a career soldier and a committed cold warrior. “Probably about halfway through I began to realize that it wasn’t what we thought it was. It wasn’t black and white. I knew that the [Salvadoran] National Guard”—which he was training—“were the ones who were conducting these death squads.”12

12 In 1989, while Wilson was in El Salvador, military death squads killed six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter. Thousands more were tortured and executed by the death squads over the course of the country’s twelve-year civil war.

In 1992, after twenty-two years in the service, Wilson retired from the Army. He had been raised Catholic, but as an adult had never been particularly religious. When he left the military, though, he found himself looking for a church to join. He ended up at Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church. Wilson says it was nostalgia that brought him there—he had gone to Southside with his cousins as a teenager and had “fond memories” of the congregation. But it could not have been entirely coincidental that Southside was the birthplace of the sanctuary movement in the 1980s, in which churches offered shelter to Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees for whom deportation would likely mean death, and had been a center of resistance to U.S. policies in Central America. Wilson became a youth minister, enrolled in seminary, then dropped out and took a post on the reservation. Migrants were dying at an alarming rate. He began leaving water on the trails a few miles south of the point where most of the deaths were occurring.

Wilson slows and steers the truck onto a barely visible dirt track. He stops and turns off the engine. This is his first water station. It’s not much to look at: a small clearing of white sand among the mesquite scrub, here and there an ocotillo, a barrel cactus, a nopal. Wilson maintains three other caches spaced about a half mile apart, each named for one of the gospels. “This is Saint Matthew,” Wilson says, and arranges twelve jugs in the shape of a cross beneath a mesquite tree. The jugs Wilson left last week are gone. They always are, he says. “I don’t know if the Border Patrol is coming by and confiscating them or if it’s tribal police. All I can do is leave them here.”

We drive on to Saint Mark. Wilson pulls out twelve more bottles and arranges another cross beneath a paloverde. He points to a few broken concrete blocks beside it. He used to keep two fifty-five-gallon barrels at each station. He built wooden frames to support them and kept the frames off the ground on the blocks, but someone took the barrels and the wood and smashed the concrete. Wilson bends to pick up a green plastic bottle top and shows me the tiny teeth marks at its edge. Animals, he says, have figured out how to open the bottles. “Maybe javelina, maybe coyote, maybe badgers. If it’s not the Border Patrol or the tribal police, it’s the critters.”

Between Saint Luke and Saint John, we pass a metal pipe emerging from a cement platform. The pipe has been freshly painted in a glossy red that feels like a hallucination in this landscape of beige and dusty green. Its lid has been secured with a padlock and there’s barbed wire around its base. “It’s a well,” Wilson says and drives on to Saint John, where he makes one last cross of water jugs in the meager shade of another low mesquite. He stands for a moment beside the truck, his arms loose at his sides. The desert is silent. There’s no wind and the sky is overcast. “This is my ministry,” Wilson says, nodding toward the jugs. “This is my sermon.”

We get back in the truck and head south to the border line itself, which here on the reservation is marked not with lights and cameras and a wall but with five strands of barbed wire, a ridge of three-foot-high pipes filled with cement to keep cars from crossing, and a gate topped with a tiny, faded American flag. Wilson explains his intentions and leaves me here in the dust at the edge of the nation before driving across to check on the fifty-five-gallon tanks he’s left on the Mexican side—they, at least, have remained undisturbed. I chat with the Border Patrol agent, a young, white kid with bad teeth. He’s bored out of his skull but happy for the company, and he seems awed by the immense strangeness of his job, as if grateful to be taking part in something so grandly surreal.

“I don’t know what makes them cross,” he tells me, shaking his head in wonder, “but they keep crossing.” The kid laughs a funny, cracked little giggle and Wilson rolls through the gate and across the line to pick me up, his job done for the day. We drive north and east through the checkpoints, beneath the cameras, up the highway, and back into the heart of the homeland.

At just after 7 a.m., Lynda Cruz steps out of her bedroom, her hair crimped from sleep. She’s rubbing her eyes with one fist, clutching her BlackBerry in the other. A text just came in. “Fucking ICE raid at Broadway and Swan,” she says.

I have a plane to catch in Phoenix to get out of this state, so I follow Cruz and Will, another immigrant-rights activist who is passing through town. We park in a mini-mall in front of an “Armed Forces Career Center.” Two Tucson cops and two ICE agents are standing outside a custom rim shop called M&M Truck Boutique. They wear khaki cargo pants and T-shirts under black vests that say ICE in yellow letters on the front and “POLICE SPECIAL AGENT” on the back.13 Will trains a little handheld video camera in their direction. One of the ICE agents walks over. He’s a light-skinned Latino with a buzz cut and a nine-millimeter handgun. He asks if we’re with the media.

13 Except for the official lettering and the color of their vests, they are dressed the same as the Dyncorp and Blackwater mercenaries I’ve encountered in Afghanistan and post-Katrina New Orleans. Security has a style.

“We’re with Migra Patrol–CopWatch,” says Cruz.

The agent looks puzzled for a moment, but quickly recovers. He asks us not to take pictures of the other officers’ faces. “Just out of consideration,” he says.

“Consideration?” says Cruz. “You’re breaking up families.”

The agent doesn’t respond. He walks back over to his companions. One of them pulls a black balaclava over his face. Another puts on a pair of wraparound shades. More ICE agents spill out of an unmarked black SUV. A Tucson cop appears with a camera. He takes my picture. A locksmith drives up and opens the shop’s door for the agents. Four go in. Another cop shows up with a German shepherd. He too disappears inside. Behind us, cars push through the traffic. It’s rush hour and it’s starting to rain. One of the ICE agents pulls a camera from the back of his SUV. He trains it on us as we stand there on the sidewalk getting wet. Whatever is happening inside is happening invisibly. Cruz thumbs messages into her BlackBerry. She looks almost impossibly sad.

“This is Arizona,” she says. “This is what we’ve become.”

Photo by David McNew

This article was originally published in Slake No. 2 To read all of the stories from that issue, purchase or subscribe at

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