Bonnie begins by introducing herself as a Customs officer and passing around blue backpacks as gifts. She is dressed in her customs officer uniform, complete with utility belt and gun holster. She is tall and somewhat imposing. The gifts were a somewhat strange offering, and it made me think that perhaps she was trying to ingratiate herself with us given that we were on a Borderlinks trip and might possibly be hostile toward her because of her job and her supposed position on immigration issues. Koji and I discussed the gifts later, and in that discussion we also talked about how, after the meeting with Bonnie, Lilli apologized for having orientation come after our first meeting and praised us for being respectful to Bonnie even though we may not agree with her positions. Everyone was framing our meeting with Bonnie through the assumption that we would not agree with her positions and would possibly be hostile toward her. (What does this say about the kind of information we may or may not have gotten from Bonnie?)

Bonnie starts her speech by talking to us about how Nogales is the biggest port of entry for immigration in Arizona and how it has been the last to experience the kind of extreme border violence we’ve been seeing in places like Juarez and Tijuana. She immediately invokes the idea of violence at the border. She tells us that after September 11 the USDA, Immigration, and Customs combined into the Department of Homeland Security, and she tells us that customs is in charge of manning ports of entry. She then goes back to the subject of border violence, telling us about El Diario de Senora, a newspaper that does a better job reporting on border violence than the newspapers in Tucson. After that she moves to the subject of drugs, giving us statistics about the pounds of heroine and marijuana that have come through Nogales in fiscal year 2009, which is only in its fourth month so far.

Bonnie tells us that the purpose of the fence is to stop drug cartels from coming through the desert undetected. She doesn’t mention “illegal immigrants”, stopping people from stealing our jobs, healthcare, etc. She is focused on the drug cartels and the violence, especially the gun violence. She tells us that “we are fighting against ourselves,” and goes on to explain that we have trained many of the soldiers who then go on to work for the drug cartels. (She calls them zetas? Wikipedia says: The Zetas were originally members of the Mexican Army’s elite Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE), trained in locating and apprehending drug cartel members. It is believed that they were originally trained at the military School of the Americas in the United States. And: In the late 1990s, the drug Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen, began to recruit GAFE members to provide protection and perform other vital functions.)

She tells us that the fence serves as a funnel to get drug runners to come to more populated ports of entry. By building fence where they typically run drugs – at the outskirts of major border towns – they will be forced to come through legal ports of entry. She tells us that this is necessary because at legal ports of entry many border patrol and customs agents are congregated and can deal with violence, whereas in the desert when officers come across drug runners, there may only be one or two present to take them down. It makes the officers vulnerable when they have to confront drug runners in the desert, so it is better that they get funneled back to legal ports of entry. She tells us gruesome details of border violence at this point – fighting in the plaza, decapitation, cauterizing your own hand after it gets cut off, etc. She then moves on to talking about drug statistics again, telling us that cocaine and heroine are up 45% this year. She links this to the fact that customs agents must process a vehicle or person every 45 seconds, making their jobs extremely difficult and overwhelming. (This did not seem to be our experience when we crossed the border from Mexico back into Arizona; they moved much slower than that.) She tells us that drug cartels are really good at hiding drugs and that now they are expanding to move people across the border in addition to drugs. She associates this with the violence perpetrated against immigrants trying to cross, saying that they are treated like nothing more than packages to be moved.

Bonnie then moves on to talking about (what I see her defining as) the main goals of customs officials in conjunction with the fence. She does not list these goals in order of importance but makes it clear which ones she believes to be the most important throughout her talk. First (and first in importance), she talks about the border fence being used to prevent another 9/11. She says that if we are not successful in this we will pay the price, and that we must move toward 100% processing. At this same level of importance she ranks the safety of border patrol agents. She talks in great length about this throughout her speech. She sees the wall as a lifesaving device for border patrol officers because it funnels drug runners to legal ports of entry where they can be properly detained.

After preventing 9/11 and officer deaths, she ranks children’s safety. I don’t have much in my field notes about this, other than she was talking about Polleros who will claim kids they are smuggling as their own by using their own children’s birth certificates in order to get them across. (In the middle of laying out the main goals of the wall for us, she goes into talking about how drug runners build ramps to drive over the wall, and how this is a safer alternative because it takes time and people are more easily caught than if there was no wall and border patrol had to engage in dangerous high speed chases. Again she is emphasizing the danger to border patrol officers when they meet drug runners in the middle of the desert.)

Ranking third in level of importance is that the wall allows customs agents to hurt people (drug runners, cartels, buyers) where it counts, the pocketbook, by confiscating drugs and money that would be spent on more drugs. This is really as far as she elaborates on this before ending her speech and opening up the floor to questions.

So, altogether Bonnie frames the wall as a means of punishing drug trafficking, as a lifesaving mechanism for border patrol agents, and as a means for preventing another 9/11. Though she mentions other aspects of the wall, like child safety, these are the three frames that she consistently emphasizes throughout.

During the question session I ask how she got into working for customs. She says that she wanted people to have more information about border issues and the difference between customs agents and border patrol agents. She says she got frustrated seeing immigrants get taken advantage of (convinced to smuggle drugs in exchange for passage). She says that she wants to see the immigration experience be fairer. She says she knows that most immigrants come to work, but that as customs agents they can’t know that for sure; therefore they must treat everyone the same way. What she implies here is that every time they see an immigrant they have to assume he is a drug smuggler. She also talks about how there are too many deaths, only this time (for the first time) she is talking about immigrant deaths, not border patrol deaths. She says that many of the immigrants go through the Indian reservation, which she says is called the triangle of death because it can get up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit on a summer day.

This is the first time she goes into, and as far as she goes into, the issue of immigrant deaths from the wall. She does not make the connection, however, between the wall funneling people out further and further into the desert (she believes it funnels people the other direction, into legal ports of entry) and immigrants dying. This deadly aspect of the wall was a topic of discussion in many of the presentations we saw, especially the presentations by the lawyers and the presentation by Kat from Derechos Humanos – they all saw the wall as causing immigrant deaths. Bonnie clearly sees the wall as preventing border patrol agent deaths. There is an us vs. them mentality present throughout Bonnie’s speech (Sally Smith vs. Grandma Felipe, treating everyone as a potential drug smuggler) and this is evident when she gives primacy to “our” deaths over theirs.

Bonnie sees the wall as a mechanism for social change – it will stop people from trying to cross, especially drug runners, and it will cut down on violence and on deaths. Almost everyone else we talked to saw the wall as a mechanism that causes deaths. If Bonnie sees the wall as a solution, she clearly sees Mexico as the problem. She lays the blame for high levels of immigration squarely on Mexico, saying that people will continue to cross and drug cartels will continue to be a problem until such a time as people want to stay in Mexico. In order for people to want to stay in Mexico, Mexico must fix its economy and take take responsibility for its citizens. I don’t have any mention of NAFTA in my notes from Bonnie’s speech, meaning that even if she mentioned it, she didn’t stress it as a force affecting immigration. Almost all of the other presentations we saw suggested that NAFTA is a major cause of Mexico’s poor economic state, and that since we (the U.S.) had a major hand in engineering NAFTA, we are at least partly responsible for Mexico’s struggling economy. Bonnie did not make that connection in her speech.

Borderlinks Blog!

April 5, 2009

Hi. My name is Noelle Francois – I’m a junior at the college double majoring in Sociology and Literary and Cultural Studies. This semester I’m in Professor Bickham-Mendez’s Sociology class “Latino/a Migration and Latino/a Studies,” studying the discourse surrounding issues of immigration and the border. As part of our class, as well as the sister class taught by Professor Tandeciarez in the Hispanic Studies department, eight students and two professors travelled to the Arizona/Mexico border over Spring Break to take part in a Borderlinks delegation.

Borderlinks is an educational organization based in Tucson, Arizona with an additional office in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. Borderlinks offers educational immersion trips focused on issues of immigration and the border. By immersion program I mean that delegations spend their entire day, every day, immersed in issues of immigration. Time is spent talking with US Customs agents, immigration lawyers, border artists, community activists, and migrants themselves, hiking desert trails and eating at migrant shelters, visiting a day laborer’s center and watching Operation Streamline. Cell phones are discouraged, as are computers and iPods. Free time is spent in reflection sessions and in our case, working in research groups. Borderlinks’ intention is to provide education for transformation and social change, and the organization sees immersion programs as the best way to achieve this goal. Their motto is “see, think, act” and the idea is that through seeing what life on the border is like and thinking on our own and in formal reflection sessions, we will feel compelled to act when we return home, getting involved with local immigration issues or simply educating friends and family on what we saw as a way of raising awareness.

So why did I go on this trip? What does immigration mean to me? In all honesty, in typical college student fashion, when Professor Bickham-Mendez first told me about the trip I thought it would be a great experience to add to my resume. Before going on our delegation, I didn’t really have an interest in border and immigration issues. We’d done readings in class that were interesting and somewhat surprising, but never did I feel really connected with or passionate about immigration issues.

Going on the trip really was transformative. Obviously it’s hard to explain – Borderlinks’ whole premise is that you have to go there and see it for yourself in order to understand. Trying to explain the trip to friends has been really difficult; all I can do is start rambling anecdotes and the personal stories of the people we met. I try to convey what a dire situation it is down there and the weight of all the human rights abuses, the humiliation, and the death, but I never feel like I’m doing them any justice. How do I share this experience in a meaningful way? What do I do with the information I received and the stories told to me? We all talked about this, but I feel a kind of responsibility to share the stories of the people I met, like I’ll be dishonoring the time they took out of their day to tell me and the (albeit tiny) relationship we built if I don’t. One woman was picked up while walking her daughter to school and deported two days later. Her children were left behind in the United States. Another man spent five years of his life in prison for re-entry, and upon his release was deported with no money to Nogales, where he knows no one. How can I just let this person’s story fall by the wayside?

On the last day of reflection we all said that one of our greatest fears was that we would come back to William and Mary and get so caught up in our own lives that we run out of time to do anything, to engage in the “act” part of our mission. How do I “rank” the activist organizations that are going to get the most amount of my time? Going back to class after returning from Spring Break was really difficult at first because I kind of felt like it was a waste of my time. People are dying! So a big question for me is: How do I reconcile scholarship with activism; how do I “act”? One way is just to tell and retell to anyone who will listen the stories I heard and the things I learned, in the hopes that it will influence them in some way so that the next time they hear about workplace raids or deaths in the desert they will stop and think about why people are coming here, why people are risking everything for a chance at a better life. I think one of Borderlinks’ goals is that over time they will be able to create a web of people all over the country who will branch out and tell people what they saw, and those people will tell more people, and maybe change some people’s minds. When we left they told us we were now a part of the Borderlinks family. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I feel like I’m giving a voice to migrants through my work, or sharing their stories by speaking for them. Rather, I think I’m helping to create a receptive and educated audience, one that won’t immidiately see these people as “other,” a “them” apart from us. One of Borderlinks’ greatest undertakings is that it strives to humanize “those people” by allowing us access to their stories. Maybe – for all those people out in blogerland – I can take part in that.