When The Mexican Border Becomes More Than a Line

Monica Wilcox's picture

Photo from David Zeiger's film "Displaced in the New South"

While traveling through southern Arizona on Interstate 10 did not provide me an overheated mirage of a tropical spa, I did experience delusions of a 100 MPH speed limit. Why not, since there’s a sandbar every ten feet to slow my runaway minivan? Among the yucca plants and dust devils I noticed the regular presence of border patrol, even 200 miles from the Mexican border in a wide sand bowl where lizards fear to cross.

“Really?” I asked my Samsonite luggage stacked in the passenger seat. “Are illegal immigrants really sneaking into our country through this misery? Anyone who survives a trek like that is a soul we may want on American soil -- because that, my trusty traveling companion, is determination with a capital D.”

Drawing Lines

There’s no question Arizona has become overwhelmed by illegal immigrants desperate for a shot at the American dream: a decent living, a good education, medical care. These are the very systems that are being overrun. I understand that the demand made by those who are not contributing taxes is overwhelming those who do. It wasn’t surprising that the Arizona State Government felt the need to draw a line allowing local police, who have made a "lawful stop, detention or arrest" of an individual, to determine that person's immigration status if there is a "reasonable suspicion" that they may be an illegal alien.

Of course this law carries the taint of racial profiling, which has made it controversial with the rest of the country. My hometown of Austin, 800 miles to the east, responded by drawing a line of their own: they banned travel and all business ties with Arizona. All of this political maneuvering reminded me of Europe -- a place that has drawn more lines than a child’s Spirograph.

A History of Borders 

My husband and I were very fortunate to live in Germany for three years in the late 90’s. He was in the Air Force, working four days on - four days off, with an outstanding vacation package. We decided to spend as much time and money as two DINKs could traveling the continent. In the end we had visited 26 countries. We loved seeing the red barns in the Swedish country side, the gothic architecture in Prague, the history in Cairo... and then there was Italy. There is very little to dislike about Italy.

But no matter where we visited, from Israel to Ireland, Spain to Russia, the locals always had a negative opinion to share with us about one of their neighbors. Unfortunately, a good deal of it was still being directed toward Germany. WWII may have ended 65 years ago, but the emotional turmoil lingers still. “Oh how sorry we are for you to be in Germany,” said a young Russian man on the Moscow underground. “Germans? We hate the Germans!” shared a French couple in a Strasburg restaurant. “Germany! Why it is no wonder you have come to Brussels to escape,” boasted a Belgium waffle vender. It became depressing for us to listen to these harbored feelings.

If only I could say it were the remnants of the World Wars, but Europe’s history is long and pock-marked with conflict. A Turk bragged that if we were Greek, he would kill us on the spot -- while a Greek explained how they are striving to erase Turkey from the world map. The Poles want nothing to do with the Russians, do not insult an Englishman by referring to him as Welsh, and the Swiss -- well, how can you hold a grudge against the world’s banker?

The Gift of Living in an Intermeshed Culture

Whenever we ran into this cultural discrimination, we would try to explain how odd it was to grasp the depth of this discrimination as Americans. We are still dealing with race issues and the inequality of the sexes, but you never find hate on the other side of a geographical line in the United States. “I am from the State of Wyoming,” I would explain. “Wyominites do not hate New Yorkers, or Californians, or Vermonters.” We love to ski and camp in Canada and take spring breaks in Mexico. They would wave me away, shaking their head, “Bah! You Americans, your country is still a baby.”

The truth is that our short history has saved us from this cultural discrimination. Why the German/French border alone has been moved and fought over for centuries. If the Canadians were constantly invading Minnesota, do you think we’d be nearly as enthusiastic today about their crude oil, low-cost prescriptions and bacon? 

One of the greatest gifts we possess in this country is our lack of violent history with our neighbors. And our intermeshed cultural inheritance is a fantastic buffer to discriminate against any single group. Arizona checking the citizenship of its Hispanic population is like California checking the authenticity of its blondes. Look around… then tell me where they plan to begin? 

When our country has drawn cultural lines in the past (racial segregation, the Japanese Internment Camps) it has proven to be an embarrassing regret. How many lines marked by massive walls topped with razor wire will it take for humanity to realize these physical divisions only make it more difficult to listen and work out solutions with one another?

Exporting the Dream 

These are humans we are trying to keep on the other side of that line; people with the same dreams as our forefathers, people who hold a dream for their parents, spouses and children. They are not entitled to reap from our systems, but does that make it impossible for us to discover safer routes for them to access the human dream thriving in America? Do you think there may be a way to export The Dream across the border into their homeland? Can you envision a future Mexico that we would consider moving into?   

Feature photo credit: David McNew for the New York Post


Anonymous's picture


Americans are by definition immigrants, from every corner of the earth and every walk of life. If it weren't for immigration there would be no 'Americans'. When people ask me 'What are you?', I take pride in saying American. Straight and simple American, not half Irish, some German, some Swedish, some American Indian, some whatever else is mixed in. So I am American. I am also a believer in the American way. A democratic country based on the ideals of the constitution. It allows for immigration, in a legal and law abiding way. It also allows that if you dont like the current immigration policy, you can change it, legally. If you wanted completely open boarders where Canadians could come down for some sun and Mexicans could come up for some snow, it could be done, just convince the majority of Americans that this is the way it should be.

According to a CBS 57% of Americans agree with the law, only 23% disagreed. It isnt because 57% of Americans dont like Mexicans, hell 1 in 6 of us are Hispanic. It is because Americans believe in the American way and doing it the right way. The constitutional way. The Arizona law is not an ideal law by any stretch of the imagination. But it reminds me of a quote from Winston Churchill about Democracy, 'It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.'

Americans have to have immigration, it is what made us great, it is what will keep us great, it is what made me.

Just do it right.

Monica Wilcox's picture

What made me American

Who can argue with W. Churchill? The power of our country is in our ability to voice our opinion, as you did so well here. It's obvious you are proud of your country and heritage, as most of us are. Americans also have amazing ingenuity and creativity when we decide to put our minds and energy to an issue, which may be what the 23% are striving for.

Europe has taken steps, through the European Union, to open their boarders, share one currency and yet the "richer" countries are not being overran by the population of the "poorer". Instead they are working to strengthen one another...to make all of Europe one glorious place to live. Could our future hold the same type of arrangement; where all of North America (and maybe Central America)share open borders, maintain the same currency, strive to balance a certain economic level? Interesting idea.

The depth of your patriotism in our democratic process is what gives us confidence that the better choice will eventually win out. It's always refreshing to hear such pride from a fellow American and encourages my own pride to swell!!

Lauren Nagel's picture

I love this line --

"Arizona checking the citizenship of its Hispanic population is like California checking the authenticity of its blondes."

I really love this piece, Monica. You hit on so many points that I have been thinking and unable to articulate. I too lived abroad - in Italy actually, and had very similar experiences to what you described. I also lived there in the Dub-ya era (2004 to be exact) and experienced a whole lot of hater-tude towards America... which I couldn't really disagree with at the time...

I also think you pose really valuable questions - exporting The Dream indeed. I get that USA needs to keep its systems in tact and "protect" its citizens, but sometimes I feel like it missed that day in Kindergarten when we all learned how to SHARE.

Thanks so much for sharing!

Monica Wilcox's picture

Exporting The Dream

What a blessing to live in Italy, Lauren!!! Do you miss it? I've visited three times and can't wait to go back again. It really is my favorite country; outside of my own. :)

I'm not surprised to hear you also experienced hater-tude (love that word) while there, although we only experienced it a few times towards us as Americans in France (personally I think that's because the French and us are a great deal alike; like twin brothers trying to prove how different they are.) Living in Europe does give you an appreciation for the "United" in United States of America. I'm not sure we want to take a legislative road that would create decades of hard feelings between our neighbors and allies. Do we want our grandchildren dealing out hater-tude towards our Hispanic citizens? Do we want to fester another racial conflict in a country where our blood is so intermixed it is impossible to draw clear cultural lines?

This issue is not an easy one but maybe it would help our lawmakers if they took a European vacation, spent a few nights camping on both sides of the border and enrolled for a few weeks in Kindergarten before they address this problem again.

So glad to know you too have been tossing around the same questions and feelings.

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