In 1994, Lalo Alcaraz, an up-and-coming radical Chicano cartoonist, and his partner in cultural provocation, Esteban Zul, struck upon a brilliant bit of satire to mock California’s odious Proposition 187, which aimed to prohibit illegal immigrants from using state-run hospitals and schools. Launching a fake media campaign, the pair peddled the absurd idea of “self-deportation” through the invented persona of Dr. Daniel D. Portado (a.k.a. Alcaraz himself ). The ironic campaign, which was taken seriously by some mainstream media outlets, exposed the moral bankruptcy of a very real legislative effort: to make life so unpleasant for Mexican migrants that they would opt for voluntary repatriation—and in the best of cases cease entering the United States altogether.
The parody ended up as a case of politics imitating art imitating politics when in 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney actually chose to run on a platform of self-deportation, revealing just how outlandish resurgent nativism has become since "Crossing Over" was first published in 2001. In that time, Prop 187–inspired legislation was passed by dozens of municipalities and several state governments, most infamously in Arizona’s SB 1070, with its “show me your papers” clause, which essentially turns local law enforcement into immigration guards. The madness reached the federal level with the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which mandated 800 miles of new fencing along the border, and persisted into Barack Obama’s first term, when his administration oversaw record numbers of deportations and a wave of terrifying workplace raids.
The deadly border that I describe in the book has become all the darker. September 11 transformed the line from a relatively parochial political concern into a potent symbol of the global war on terror, the last line of defense against Al Qaeda. Still, millions of migrants continued to cross through the middle of the aughts, drawn by an economy booming to the beat of new home construction heavily subsidized by undocumented labor.
Then, of course, the crash came, and the global economic downturn dramatically slowed the migrant flow. But even during the bust, people made the journey (including significant numbers of refugees fleeing drug cartel–related violence), facing conditions even more lethal than those I saw back in the 1990s. Walls on the border have always meant death; migrants are ever more shunted into the remotest, most dangerous deserts. And the omnipresence of drug smuggling has now linked human trafficking to cartel business, leading to phantasmagorical scenes of massacres and migrants fed methamphetamine to drive them harder along the trail. The result of the grave risks involved in crossing the line means that the circular and peripatetic motion that I describe in the book—frequent trips back and forth between Mexican and American homes—has all but ended.
If the wave of migration that brought the Chávez brothers to their meeting with fate on a rural Southern California road is over, its demographic effects will be felt for years to come. Even as the nativist tide has surged over the last decade, the immigrants’ political voice has come into its own and begun to push back. In an unprecedented move out from the shadows, in 2006 millions of undocumented immigrants held work stoppages and marches nationwide, an act that would have been inconceivable during the years I was working on this book. In 2008 the Latino vote swung decisively for Barack Obama (in contrast to a strong showing for George W. Bush in 2004) and would swing all the more so in 2012, a direct and unequivocal response to the ludicrousness of Republican immigration politics that also pointed to deep bonds of solidarity between the immigrants and their enfranchised second- and third-generation counterparts.
For his part, President Obama had to work to regain the trust of Latino voters after a first term that saw a broken promise to achieve comprehensive immigration reform as well as the deportation of more than a million and a half immigrants. A few months before the election, Obama announced that the Department of Homeland Security would implement an order of “deferred action,” offering relief from deportation, under which some students who had illegally entered the country as young children could legally attend college—a modest version of the DREAM Act, stalled legislation that holds the promise of offering such students a path to citizenship.
All of this adds up to a watershed political moment—the culmination of nearly a century’s worth of organizing and migrant workers dreaming the border away. As of this writing, comprehensive immigration reform seems imminent. Through their newfound electoral clout, immigrants and their descendants appear to have at least begun to close the latest chapter of American nativism.
Change has come south of the border as well. The Purépecha village of Cherán, the Chávez brothers’ hometown, which I spent two years getting to know, is no longer a place defined by migration— instead it is fully immersed in Mexico’s new historical moment, the drug war. In 2011, locals barricaded Cherán against organized crime, which had begun to wantonly poach timber from the communal forest surrounding the village. Locals had tolerated drug smuggling and even a meth lab in the vicinity, but the poaching struck at the heart of a millenary Purépecha birthright. For its temerity at standing up to the cartels (whose tentacles reach far beyond drugs into all manner of economic interests), Cherán has paid a price in blood: several villagers have been murdered. But the barricades remain and have now become a national symbol of civil society’s resistance to organized crime—and to a government that either aids and abets the cartels or uses the drug war as a pretext to exert deadly political control over dissident communities.
As for the Chávez clan, the barriers to crossing the border have enforced greater permanence in their lives. Rosa Chávez still lives and works in St. Louis with her husband, Wense, and the couple’s daughters, Anayeli and Emily. Their first grandchild, Anayeli’s daughter, Yasmín, was born last year, an American citizen, as is Emily, who was also born in the United States. The rest of the family remains undocumented, although Anayeli recently applied for legal residency to attend college under the deferred action program Obama emitted in lieu of the DREAM Act. Wense still works at Thompson Farms (a name I invented to protect the family and their employer), the small family-owned enterprise where he began twenty years ago when he was still a teenager. Think of the longevity—if not intimacy—of that relationship, regardless of the power dynamics between employer and employee. That is another story worth telling one day.
Rosa works near their home at a clothing store whose clientele is mostly African-American. The couple is in the process of buying the house they live in, which belongs to one of the Anglo coworkers at the farm. Essentially a rent-to-own scheme, they will have paid some $50,000 in cash over six years and the home will become theirs outright. Their modest existence hardly changed during the boom years and became precarious during the bust. Still, they have hung on and, relative to the kind of life they’d have had in Cherán, even prospered.
Wense has not returned to Cherán since 2007, when he undertook, yet again, the harrowing journey across the Arizona desert to get back to St. Louis. Rosa has not visited her hometown in a dozen years. Her mother, María Elena, lived in St. Louis for a time but grew nostalgic for Cherán, where she is today. The Chávezes endure family separations typical of the undocumented not just in the United States, but also around the world—separations that become tragically poignant when there is a death in the family. It is one of the many prices exacted on the migrants for playing their assigned role in the web of globalization.
"Crossing Over" began and ended in the desert, a place of both death and renewal. So much of the immigration story is enacted on the iconic desert landscape. The U.S.-Mexico border is there, the tableau for the often deadly smuggling of human bodies and drugs. And it is there that the battle over immigration began—the one between nativists and Samaritans, between despising difference and embracing it.
During the years I was researching, it was my goal to accompany a crew of migrants in their journey across the border. I never did, but I wound up living in the desert for many years—drawn, perhaps, by the ghosts of the violence, but also by the sublimity of the place. Migrants have told me of how terrifying the tall columned arms of a saguaro cactus can look at night, how fearful the sound of desert silence can be. And I’ve heard them tell of a beautiful stillness, the purest air they ever breathed.
In the desert those migrants who still brave the border continue to die. Yet la vida mejor, the better life, continues to call to them. Their journey is their hope.
Excerpted from "Crossing Over" by Rubén Martínez. Afterword copyright © 2013 by Rubén Martínez. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher. Reprinted by arrangement with Picador.