SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - Two Indians, a Palestinian and an Israeli meet in San Diego. Where else should they go, if not to the separation fence marking the U.S. border with Mexico? This is not one fence, but three (the third is a wall ), which run along 700 miles of the 2,000-mile border between the two countries.
To the west, right on the ocean, near the Mexican city of Tijuana, the two fences that stretch into the waves appear to be quite innocent - without any kind of barbed wire, without any lookout towers of the kind we are familiar with from the Qalandiyah separation wall, for example. The fence in the water looks almost overwhelmed - over time, the determined waves have uprooted some of its poles.
The ground in that area does not appear to be mutilated, wounded or scarred, as it does in Qalqilyah, 'Aboud, Jib and Abu Dis, to mention some of the areas which our own separation fence runs through. The border patrol officer who appeared in a white jeep, on his own, was also amazingly polite.
This is not always the case, said our tour guide Roberto. Sometimes the border policemen are more aggressive, he said, and claim it is forbidden to walk along the paths between the dunes, to the beach - a distance of some two kilometers.
Roberto, who is completing his doctorate in history, is an activist in the movement against the separation fence. Since 1994, when the United States, Mexico and Canada signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, the American authorities have stepped up their supervision of the border. Since 2000, they have added to the original 1994 barrier two more fences which are much more aggressive than the parts we saw. Over the past two years, the number of police raids on migrant workers has increased and the methods used to seek out the non-documented have become more stringent.
Every day, over 400 people without documents are expelled from the United States to Tijuana, according to Victor Clark Alfaro, director of the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana and a lecturer at San Diego State University, who spoke last week at the Binational Conference on Border Issues at San Diego City College.
Making corporations rich
Some 30 percent of the people deported have worked in the United States for many years, sometimes even decades, but were never naturalized; about one third are people who infiltrated into the United States a short time before; and the remainder are people who served prison terms in America and who constitute "a reserve pool of cheap labor for organized crime," as Alfaro put it.
About one quarter of those expelled are women. And an average of 20 children are deported every day, some accompanied by an adult and some alone.
One aspect that motivates the activists' position against the fence is their opposition to the NAFTA agreement which, they say, has proven what they had warned: it has made corporations from the three countries richer, has deprived the workers of the legal tools to demand decent wages, and has critically harmed the agricultural sector in Mexico.
Since 1994, the number of non-documented workers in the United States has grown. Today they number 12 million; most from Mexico, but from other countries as well.
"What is the largest Salvadorian state in the world? Los Angeles," said the writer and social activist David Bacon, who also spoke at the conference.
The low wages in their countries of origin, the rising costs of food and the damaged agricultural sector continue to push people to risk their lives and seek work in the United States.
"They do what every one of you would do, they look for a way to support their families," Bacon said, as images of police raids, demonstrations and strikes were projected in the background. "But in the United States, work has become a crime, and the worker has become a criminal who must be deported."
The Mexicans who work in the United States, with or without papers, provide their country with its second most important source of revenue. Official Mexican representatives define them as "heroes." But half of the deportees are even detained in Mexico, for a few hours or days, because they lack proper identification.
Where the Chicanos stand
There is yet another aspect to the opposition to the separation fence, Roberto explained. Roberto is a Chicano, which was the name Americans gave to those of Mexican descent living in the United States. Over time, and alongside the struggle for civil equality, the Chicanos began to expand and deepen the meaning of the term, adding a great deal of pride to it. Today it is used to describe the "first peoples" who lived in Mexico and south of it, long before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors and before the United States vanquished California from Mexico in 1847.
Some estimate that of all U.S. states, California has the largest population of indigenous people, including the Chicanos. Residents of the Native American reservations in southern California (who did not undergo a process of Hispanization, like the Chicanos ) also have family on the other side of the border. The aggressive separating border contradicts the way they and the Chicanos understand and live, the distance denies their familial and social ties and ignores their history in the western hemisphere.
At the conference, Bacon commended students in Texas now on a hunger strike, to draw support for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, which was first introduced in the Senate in 2001. The "DREAM Act" is aimed at naturalizing young people from Latin America, especially the children of workers who lack papers, and who have lived in the United States from a young age and studied there or are studying there now.
Many Republicans oppose the bill, as does the Fox network. The U.S. army, however, supports it. After all, America's Latino population provides a fertile source of volunteers who enlist in its ranks. Small wonder that activists who oppose America's wars, and support migration reforms, feel trapped.
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