IVP Batch 2005 at the Port of San Ysidro, San Diego, California. Each day at least 132,000 people and 50,000 vehicles (trucks, buses, cars, rail, private aircraft) cross the California-Mexico border through the Port of San Ysidro in San Diego.
A small poster saying “WELCOME TO PARADISE!” greeted us as we hurtle down the labyrinthine office of the US Customs and Border Protection (USCBP) at the Port of San Ysidro guarding the Tijuana-San Diego border. We were going towards where the intercepted contrabands (e.g. drugs) and illegal immigrants are brought prior to “processing” inside the building. That poster had a sense of irony because, as one border cop had been stressing, one of USCBP's businesses is about stopping people from illegally coming in.
Each year, there are about 92 million-person border crossings between the Mexico and California. Border crossing through conveyances like trucks, buses, cars, rail containers, trains, passenger vehicles, and private aircraft reach 36 million each year. These statistics reflect how the economy of the US and Mexico has become intertwined. Part of that economic tangle is the grim reality of trafficking of drugs and people. Each year almost 70,000 immigration violators are caught at the Southern California ports of entry. Hundreds died trying to enter the US through the Arizona desert.
My heart pounded hard after the border patrol cop accompanying us got a message that an attempt at illegal human smuggling has just been foiled. Mexicans, he said. The dogs caught them coming in hidden in a car’s trunk. It was stupid for them to do because even people coming in through the most clever means—like hiding a child in a truck’s gas tank—are easily detected.
“The child was unconscious; the smugglers may have drugged her so she can bear the heat, fumes, and—hopefully—survive the long, tortuous journey,” he said. “She was barely breathing when we found her. We have to tear the gasoline tank apart and rush her to the hospital to save her life.”
How many people could a car trunk contain? I imagined that my old Mazda’s trunk could hardly accommodate three persons. When the cops opened the trunk, I saw people piled on top of each other like sardines. They were startled to see American cops hovering over them. I started counting as they were herded out towards the holding area. One, two, three…. holy cow! There were seven of them--four males and three females. I reached for my camera but failed to take pictures. I was too shock to do anything.
The cops say those who have criminal records will be detained and charged in court. Those who don’t have any bad record will be deported after some paper works. “We are really after the smugglers, illegal syndicates, and not these people who are victims.”
“We are good at what we do,” the border cop boasted, stressing they have all sorts of training and technologies to deal with “the problem”: sniffing dogs, electronic sensors, software, profiling, and psychological techniques that easily yields offenders. “These people [smugglers] hate us very much. So when we see them being too friendly, like asking me how's my day, I know they are hiding something, maybe drugs—marijuana, cocaine, heroine, methamphetamines—or humans.”
Why do people keep on trying to enter the US illegally knowing that the risks of capture, embarrassment, detention, and legal problems are very high?
Economic factors easily come to mind. After all, cases of human smuggling—the cops say—usually rise following some natural disasters in Latin American countries. The theory of the “rational man” says that a person would do something if the rewards for such an effort are greater than the risks involved. That could only mean that a significant percentage of those people trying to cross illegally are able to get through and blend with the local population despite all the gadgets, the sniffing dogs, and other technologies.
I remember the story of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, that Mexican strongman who massacred the Gringo rebels at the Alamo, Texas about 170 years ago. Encouraged by his victory, Santa Anna went after the remaining part of the Texan troops led by Sam Houston who were giving the Mexicans guerilla warfare. Santa Anna had cornered Houston’s group in a maze of swamps along the San Jacinto River. Instead of going in for the kill, Santa Anna and his men took a nap, a siesta!
“Victory can wait, boys. Let’s have a little sleep first,” he must have told his men. It was a costly error. He woke up to the thundering sound of cannon fire from Houston’s group who were slaughtering his more numerous but sleep-dazed fighters. Santa Anna escaped to the forest but was captured two days later. Under duress, he signed away Texas’ independence. In the American-Mexican war that followed, Santa Anna had to part with California, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and other states as well, making the US among the biggest country in the world in terms of land mass. It’s a case of one stupid nap changing the course of history. Historians say it was the first step for America to become a world power.
Aren’t the Mexicans just recovering economically what they had lost militarily and politically many years ago?
Maybe. Maybe not. It’s probably just all about sharing in the “American dream.” Either way, the Mexicans are succeeding. Mexican or the Latino population in general is now among the biggest and most politically influential ethnic groups in California, Texas, and other parts of the US. It’s a reality that apparently benefits their host communities as well. Latinos provide cheap brawn for the California’s farms, shops, and factories.
“Sure, thanks!” Those seven Mexicans may have said as they passed through that small poster welcoming them to “paradise” on the way to detention. They will be sent back home after some questions, but they knew they could always try crossing the border again.