“Illegal” in Arizona: a mother’s story

During the research for Walls: Travels Along the Barricades I had the opportunity to meet several migrants and would-be migrants along Arizona’s border with Mexico. One of the most affecting stories I heard came from a mother named Patricia who I met in Tucson. In advance of the Trump presidency, and all it may mean for families like Patricia’s, I feel compelled to include her story here:


Patricia would not tell me her last name because in 1997 she went under the Wall. She reached the United States through a drainage tunnel that passed beneath the border wall at Nogales. “The tunnel was really dark and the day was raining a lot, and the hole was very small,” she said. For forty-five minutes, Patricia crouch-walked her way under the border, her legs bent and her knees bobbing just below her chin. She was alone with her coyote and followed the splash of his footsteps through the stinking black. Seven other migrants were supposed to form a caravan through the tunnel that day; everyone but Patricia changed their mind. They were afraid of the rain and of drowning in the sewer. And they feared the bajadores, roving gangsters who prowl the tunnels and smuggler routes for migrants to rob, abduct, or assault. The bajadores are the pirates of the borderlands.

Somewhere above ground, Patricia’s three children crossed through the Nogales port of entry with her sister, an American citizen. The children had no papers, but Patricia gambled that border agents would not bother checking them if the children were travelling with a documented American. Patricia’s husband was already in Tucson. The entire family — Patricia, her husband, and the three children — had entered the United States on temporary visas two years earlier, but when Patricia brought her children to visit their grandmother in Mexico, the border officials took away her visa. Hence the underground duck-walk beneath la línea.

In the late 1990s, Patricia used to travel across the border often. Her family lived in Nogales, Sonora, just on the other side of the Wall. “I used to see my mother once every three months,” she told me. “We could go and come back again and again.” The new wall and the heightened security along the border ended these regular visits home. If she were to cross into Mexico now, she would be forced to return through the desert, and she was not willing to make that gamble. And if la migra caught her crossing over, she risked an Operation Streamline prison sentence in addition to deportation. So Patricia stayed in Tucson. She called America “the Golden Cage.”

The Wall is more successful at trapping undocumented migrants in America than it is in keeping them out. Before the hardening of the border, migration of Mexicans across the line used to be a seasonal phenomenon. The family breadwinner, often a farmer and almost always a man, would tend to his own crops in Mexico then leave his wife and family to travel north and work the American harvest. He would return to Mexico for the holidays. Most Mexicans are devout Catholics. Between Christmas and Tres Reyes, the January feast marking the Magi’s manger-side visit to the infant Christ, there were hardly any migrants north of the border. Some migrants used to come and go across the border every six to eight weeks. Their journeys resembled commutes more than migrations.

The Wall ended these fluid comings and goings. Now the crossings were dangerous and expensive. Northbound workers who used to sneak past the barbed wire on their own now had to hire coyotes to lead them along treacherous desert trails. Once in America, these men didn’t dare return to Mexico to visit their families, because they knew they might be caught, or killed, on their way back north. Instead, the entire family came up across the line. Women and children now crossed the border to be with their husbands and fathers. Once they made it in, they didn’t leave either. The Wall transformed the seasonal migration of individual males into permanent residencies of entire families. Patricia’s family was one of these.

Eight months before we met, when Patricia’s father was visiting from Nogales, he fell ill and died in Patricia’s home. Patricia brought her father’s body to the border, where customs officials shuttled the casket to her brother on the other side. Patricia did not attend the funeral. “I couldn’t go,” she said, “because if I went, I could not come back.” As she told the story, Patricia’s shoulders started to quake like the Streamline defendants I’d seen. She began to cry. “Now I worry because my mother is alone. And it is cold there and dangerous. I really worry about her because if something happens, I don’t know what I am going to do. We have to live with this every day.”

“Can your mother visit you here?” I asked.

“She is older. She doesn’t like to see the Border Patrol and their scary faces. And she doesn’t like the politics here. She says it is too sad to live in America because it is supposed to be the free country, but you are not free here.”

For undocumented migrants like Patricia and her family, the politics in Arizona continue to darken. In April 2010, less than a month after the Krentz murder, the Arizona state legislature passed the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, known better by its less Orwellian name SB1070. The bill compelled law enforcement officers to demand proof of citizenship from anyone they had reasonable suspicion of being an “illegal alien.” SB1070 stirred noisy protest throughout the United States and Mexico, and various businesses and city councils hollered for boycotts against Arizona. Patricia and her husband opted for a more sombre and dignified response to SB1070. They summoned their three children into the living room, sat them on the sofa, and talked about what they should do if police took their parents away.

If she is caught, Patricia would rather serve a prison sentence than sign a voluntary deportation order that would automatically eject her across the border. “I have to tell my children, ‘If something happens to me, don’t cry. Keep going to school. Keep doing good choices. I’m going to be in jail for three or four weeks. Maybe six weeks. I don’t know.” At her release, Patricia would plead her case to a judge, who in all likelihood would deport her anyway. I asked her what she would do then. “I would find another tunnel,” she replied.

Patricia began to cry again. “It is hard to tell them that you are going to jail and will be separated from the family. It is hard to talk about this.”

“Do your children understand?”

“Maybe my oldest son does, but my daughter tells me, ‘Don’t say that. What am I going to do without you for too many days?’ It is hard for her to hear what I was saying.” Patricia told me her daughter panicked one afternoon when she phoned home and her mother didn’t answer. “She called my husband, my friends, my neighbour, my other son. ‘Where is my mom? Why is she not answering the phone? What happened to her?’” Patricia shook her head, and allowed herself a brief smile. “We always say in the morning that you have to have a hug and a kiss for Mom and Dad because we don’t know what is going to happen today.”

Patricia’s children were now teenagers. Her fourteen-year-old daughter wanted to be an oncologist. Her middle child, a son, was fifteen and a fine basketball player. He wanted to study law. Patricia’s eldest son was seventeen and would soon graduate from high school. He planned to study civil engineering or pharmaceutical science. But these were all fantasies. Since none of Patricia’s children have American citizenship, they cannot attend college in the United States unless they pay expensive foreign student tuition, which the family could never afford. “My oldest boy is frustrated,” Patricia told me. “He says that if nothing better happens here, he is going to go back to Mexico and go to university there. He has really good grades, and he says, ‘Why do I have to study if I am not able to go to university here? They will always treat me as criminal. It wasn’t my fault to come here.’” Patricia sounded weary. “I am not sure if coming to America was the right decision. With everything happening here, maybe it would be better in Mexico.”

Patricia never intended to stay in America. Her family came for the sake of her children’s education and because her sister-in-law convinced her that jobs were plentiful. “She said, ‘Come. It is good. There is no cold. You can have a car. Furniture. There is lots of work and the kids can go to school.” In the 1990s, the federal government debated granting amnesty to undocumented migrants. Patricia’s family had reason to be optimistic, but not anymore.