Desert Tracts: Statecraft in Remote Places

By Doty, Roxanne Lynn | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, October-December 2001 | Go to article overview

Desert Tracts: Statecraft in Remote Places

Doty, Roxanne Lynn, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Roxanne Lynn Doty (*)

I am sitting in front of a big picture window in the Grand Hotel in Bisbee, an old mining town about two hundred miles southeast of Phoenix, Arizona. Bisbee is now home to aging hippies, artists, and a variety of human beings who seek escape from the upscale corporate greed, auto exhaust, and soul-destroying suffocation that increasingly characterizes the metropolitan centers of the Southwest. It is also a popular travel route for those hopeful souls who illegally cross the border between Mexico and El Norte. About twenty-five miles south of Bisbee, the city of Douglas borders the Mexican town of Agua Prieta. Douglas has become a major crossing point into the United States for illegal immigrants, especially since 1994 when the U.S. Border Patrol enhanced enforcement in San Diego and El Paso. In fact, the Douglas area is now the nation's number one point of entry for illegal immigration into the United States.

The local police in Bisbee busted more than eight hundred vehicles in the past year. Border Patrol agents catch about a thousand or more illegal immigrants a day in Douglas. (1) The Border Patrol's Tucson sector, which includes Douglas, recorded the highest number of apprehensions of any of the sectors in 1998, 1999, and 2000. (2) Total apprehensions for fiscal year 2000 along the entire Southwest border were 1,643,679. (3) The statistics go on and on--alarming, dismaying-- multiplying across the pages of news stories, government reports, and academic analyses. They say so much and so little.

The quickest way to get from Phoenix to Bisbee is to take Interstate 10 to Tucson, then go another forty-five miles to exit 304, which puts you on state highway 80. At milepost 306 in Benson, you will encounter a bill-board proclaiming, "IT'S AN INVASION OF DRUGS & ILLEGALS--CALL YOUR CONGRESSMAN 202-224-3121": a few pounds of cocaine, some kilos of marijuana, human beings with beating hearts... not much difference to some, but all a threat to some vague but powerful idea of "our" way of life. This billboard is paid for by Robert Parker, an anti-immigrant activist who has put up a similar one in New Mexico. Funds from an $18,000 grant awarded to Parker from the Federation for American Immigration Reform based in Washington, D.C., were used for the billboard. When interviewed by the Arizona Republic, Parker said, "There's something about a billboard. It characterizes the power of presence. It's there day after day after day after day." (4)

Ten miles south of Benson and about five miles north of Tombstone, I passed a Border Patrol checkpoint. A group of about twenty-five illegal immigrants (men, women, and teenagers) sat on the shoulder of the highway, huddled together, surrounded by Border Patrol agents, five big Border Patrol vans, a scattering of the famous (or infamous, depending on one's point of view) white sports-utility vehicles with the U.S. Border Patrol logo on the side, and three big, citysize buses, whose stated destination on the front read "Border Patrol."

I pulled over to the side of the road to take some pictures. Four big Harley motorcycles pulled alongside of me. One guy got off his bike, long hair pulled back in a ponytail, scruffy beard, tattoos up and down his arms. He lit up a cigarette, and as it dangled from his mouth he nodded a hello and snapped a couple of pictures. Though I took pictures from the other side of the highway, there were a few things I noticed about the people who were the reason for this Kodak moment in the middle of the desert. The first thing has to do with skin color--dark brown, not Anglo white. Of course, I was hardly surprised by this fact. Race always lurks in the background, sometimes close to the surface of these things. The immigrants were dressed warmly in winter jackets, though it was late March and the temperature was about 80 degrees F. I was wearing shorts and a tank top. But then I didn't plan on marching across any major tracts of land in the middle of the night when temperatures drop to 50 degrees or less. …

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