Posts Tagged ‘rio bravo’

From where I stand, I can see wall ending

January 12, 2009

Judy Ackerman and me at Rio Bosque

Judy Ackerman and me at Rio Bosque

This morning I was picked up in front of the Gardner Hotel in El Paso by the only person who has engaged in civil disobedience against the border wall. Texas, once a center of the Chicano movement, the site of the Alice student walkouts and state-wide protests against segregated schools, hasn’t seen such civil disobedience in a long time. For an issue as appalling to border residents as the Secure Fence Act of 2006, however, it’s been a long coming.

Judy Ackerman was fifteen minutes early, waiting for me on Franklin Avenue in an unassuming sedan. We talked the 15 minutes to the Rio Bosque Wildlife Refuge, but I can’t remember much of what was said. I do remember the way the border wall seemed to extend forever, farther still than the Rocky Mountains or the Sierra Madre, both of which end in this bi-national border community of almost 2 million. For years there has been a wire fence snaking along the Rio Grande, but lawmakers unfamiliar with the history of El Paso del Norte deemed it fit to separate Texas from the river and Mexico from its neighbor.

As we bounced and jounced toward Rio Bosque along the potholes containing some road, Judy seemed surprised that Diewitz workers were not already at work this Friday morning. Sadly, their work has progressed rapidly since Mrs. Ackerman first delayed the excavation on December 17. The wall now bounds most of the park, although many more miles are planned. In parts, it completely obscures the beautiful dun-brown mountains.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the enormity of the sadness that border fence evinces, Judy instead told me about an old cottonwood tree. “This border wall has really brought the community together. Take that old tree there,” she said, pointing proudly to a cottonwood with a perfect crown and brown leaves still holding onto its branches. “The Border Patrol came through and chopped down two others just like that, because they extend in part onto their service roads. John Souse stopped them just in time. He quickly mobilized the local activists, and pretty soon the media was calling the Border Patrol wanting to interview them about their part in the killing of the last great cottonwood. By that time, the Border Patrol changed their tune and denied ever having entertained such an idea.” Ah, behold the power of people.

Few other trees in this Rio Bosque wildlife refuge, or in the El Paso area in general, are native originals. About eleven years ago, Souse graded this land and rerouted the Rio Grande to recreate its once wild trajectory. It was this capriciousness which earned the river its Mexican name, “Rio Bravo.” Now, cottonwoods and the invasive salt cedar fill the refuge, providing ample habitat for a variety of animals and birds.

As John Souse drove Judy and I through the small refuge (the only of its kind for miles and miles), I was astounded at the number of hawks. Harrier hawks sat atop cottonwoods, flicking their striped tail and looking too heavy to balance on so tenuous a perch. Cooper’s hawks cut through the morning air, chasing each other in the joy of it all. Harris hawks and red-tailed hawks flew over the duck pond, artfully weaving and dipping like stunt pilots.

The duck ponds highlight one of the major problems posed by the border wall. With a border wall cutting the refuge off from the Rio Grande, the animals have no way to access the river. Ducks have been reported to fly into the mesh wiring of the fence as well. Additionally, with no access to the river, Rio Bosque has to fight for its water rights. Since it is not a “money-making” enterprise such as agriculture or industry, the refuge only receives water in the off-season – November through January. The new well which was installed to pump groundwater into the canal and pond just fell into the ground on account of the contractor’s poor craftsmanship. Without this water, particularly during the stifling dry months, Rio Bosque would dry up and leave this valley without a treasure trove of nature.

“When I was standing in front of the bulldozer, I kept remembering what the ACLU told me – ‘Don’t ask if you are arrested; ask if you are free to leave.’ So, as the Texas Rangers, local police, DHS agents, and county sheriffs bickered about whose jurisdiction my civil disobedience fell under, that was all I could think to say. ‘Am I free to leave?’” Judy laughed, “Their response was always, ‘Yes, please! We’ve been waiting all day.’”

Judy’s military training prepared her well for keeping cool in such a hot situation. She executed civil disobedience in near perfect fashion, contacting authorities before and remained calm, cool, and collected during the demonstration. Judy had been well advised of the consequences of her action, and show she exhibited no fear. More importantly, she showed no anger toward the individuals on site. “I wasn’t mad at them,” she reminded me more than once. “I was protesting the idea of this wall.”

While she remembers all the authorities being civil and respectfully during the civil disobedience, sadly some spectators across the canal yelled out taunts and jibes at the officials. Judy remembers the Texas Ranger getting particularly peeved at that. “She’s not risking anything, but she keeps yelling at us and trying to get you [Judy] into deeper trouble.” Thankfully, Judy and her composure ruled the day, and it was clear that this was about more than an “Us vs. Them” scenario.

I walked down to the river, marveling at its relative freedom. I have seen where this river empties into the Gulf, broad and flowing at Boca Chica. Here, a few good strokes would get me across to Ciudad Juarez. Upstream, it is dammed and controlled meticulously. Farms and industries sap its strength as well, using as much as 99% of its water before it reaches the Gulf of Mexico. Climbing back up the steep riverbank, the border wall comes into sharp focus again. Franklin Mountain barely shows its peak above the wall, and the free-roaming tumbleweed country of this old Wild West Town seems all but a memory in the shadow of these steel girders. Would John Dillinger know the Gardner Hotel and downtown El Paso today? Would Marilyn Monroe recognize the Kentucky Club in a Juarez robbed of most its customers? Will anyone remember the time before this wall?

Looking back east, I can make out where the wall ends. That sight still gives me hope. Perhaps we’ll see our folly before it’s too late and this history is already written. I thank God that the history written by man is never penned in permanent ink.

Border Wall on Rio Bosque

Border Wall on Rio Bosque

Leaving Borders

June 9, 2008

In Irun, the small town on the Spanish border with Spain, there has long been a border culture. During their revolutions and civil wars, residents of both countries traversed the imaginary line separating these two lands. A complex culture of smuggling developed, as in most border towns. People, goods, drugs- the rules of supply and demand are never bound by borders, however much governments might like to believe. While in Irun, I was told a story of a man who crossed and recrossed the border every day on his bicycle. The border patrol agents checked and rechecked this man, suspecting that he was transporting some contraband. Never once in the twenty years did they realize he was riding to France on an old bike and returning with a brand new model.

These sort of trickster stories, and the border culture they exhibit, have been made irrelevant by the erasure of borders in the European Union. America’s border with Mexico, though, must be creating hundreds of thousands of tricksters with the increasing militarization of la frontera and the constantly impending border wall now scheduled in Hidalgo County for July.

Driving out of the Rio Grande Valley on either 77 or 83, the only two evacuation routes, one encounters a military checkpoint complete with automatic weapons, drug-sniffing dogs, patrol cars, and heaps of bureaucracy. As I wait in line, my car packed to the hilt with all my earthly possessions, I contemplate that this is one of the many signs that the Rio Grande Valley is considered outside the mainlaind United States. Brownsville, the poorest city in the United States, is left below this second border in a no-man’s land, left to fend for itself. In fact, the talk of the town last week was that the United States Border Patrol was going to be checking the residency status of individuals during hurricane evacuations (Brownsville Herald) . That its citizenry must be questioned and searched before entering the rest of the continental U.S. is a stunning assumption of criminality. When it is my turn with the Border Patrol agents, I am waved along because of my white skin and American accent.

Tacitus once wrote in his Annals, “Once we suffered from our vices; today we suffer from our laws.” Indeed, unjust laws create criminals out of upstanding individuals, and in no area of legislation is this more true than immigration. Extralegal immigrants, many of whom came to the United States legally, are punished by our current law primarily for doing precisely the actions for which we praise our citizenry. The motivation of the majority of immigrants is religious freedom, economic opportunity, family safety, education, freedom of speech, liberty – how can an antiquated quota system cause some to be punished for acting on these principles and others to be praised?

As I drive north, farther and farther away from the Rio Grande Valley I’ve called home for the past two years, I pass the fertile hills of Kansas and the wide expanses of open grazing in Oklahoma and the lush fields of Iowa. I look at these natural wonders and think of how blessed I am to live in this land, and how attractive this must be to people receiving less than 8x the income we enjoy in our prosperous nation. I look at this massive farmland and know that extralegal immigrants know this land far better than I will ever understand; without them, many of these fields would lie fallow, so many of our meals would remain uncooked, so many houses would never be built, so many ideas never imparted, so many languages never added to the multiplicity of cultures here in the United States. Driving through the natural beauty along Highway 35, it is easy to see that natural law and constructed law clash when it comes to the issue of immigration in these United States. If we will only take a good look at our country and realize just how blessed we are, we would be more understanding of people desirous of migrating here. If we would only appreciate the perspectives and culture and language and talents that immigrants always bring, we would see extralegal and legal immigrants as the assets they are. If Spanish were not viewed as a language subservient to English, then perhaps we could learn from the Spanish immigration system as well as from Mexican and Latin-American immigrants themselves. As I leave the border region where the “rights” and “wrongs” of immigration laws are as muddy as the Rio Bravo and as I head north to study immigration law at the University of Minnesota this coming fall, I realize that I will never leave the border because the border is not a place on a map but a place in people’s hearts. In telling stories about the good people of la frontera and in studying the laws of immigration, I hope to turn the borders of American hearts into E.U. borders instead of the walled border in California and Arizona.

The History of the World in America

May 25, 2008

Traveling Europe, one is enmeshed in a profound history reminiscent of Tolkien´s Middle Earth.  The oaks of Gernika which give the Basques shade also survived both world wars and a bloody civil war as well.  The cathedrals like St. Maria´s in Vitoria or the Cathedral in Burgos have endured the changing of styles, religions, plagues, and multiple conquests, and are still being updated and remodeled today.  Murallas, or city walls, have lasted far beyond their initial purpose of staving of the Moors, or the Romans, or the Crusaders, or the Vikings.  Storefronts and house facades have seen a seemingly infinite cycle of businesses, hopes, and dreams flow through their doors.  Traditional music harks back centuries, foods to times immemorable.  One is overwhelmed with the constant reminders of mankind´s propensity for benificence, penchant for creativity, susceptibility to power´s corrupting influence, and ability to endure, endure, endure.

 America makes up for its lack of profound history with its wide open spaces, its distances which both offer hope and anonymity.  This fledgling country has struggled and largely succeeded in creating a rich history in a matter of centuries.  Being young, it still views itself outside of the history of the rest of the world.  Being new, the United States has been able to escape some of the deep-rooted tribal wars, linguistic and cultural disparities, and woeful dictatorships which have shaped so much of the rest of the world.  Being still green, the United States has been able to be progressive and forward thinking at a rate much faster than more established nations in the rest of the world. 

However, in the past few decades, America has seemingly tried to catch up with the rest of the world´s bloody history by becoming the aggressor and instigator in several violent conflicts which have destroyed nations and families while bolstering our military power in a time when nations should be disarming.  Caught up in a global power struggle for economic dominance, we have been unable to ensure all citizens are ensured basic medical care which is standard throughout the E.U. and our neighbor Canada.  The American motto seems to be that if businesses succeed, then people will also succeed.  In Europe, I have lived with the opposite, this philosophy that if people benefit then surely businesses will also prosper by proxy.  And now our xenophobic and nativist sentiments have become so loud that we are already constructing portions of a 700-mile border wall on our nation´s southern border. 

Traveling Europe, it is impossible to ignore how every decision is steeped in history and every choice has far-reaching repercussions.  Haphazard borders have plagued Europe every bit as much as Asia and Africa.  Rigid borders ignore real problems and so also avoid real solutions.  Rather than focusing on renewed diplomacy and meaningful compromise, borders insist that neighboring countries can continue existing despite a gross disparity of wealth, rights, and standard of living just across an imaginary line. 

The permeability of the E.U.’s open borders should be a model of the rest of the world. Though not perfected as yet, the idea of flexible borders legitimizes the basic human propensity and right to migrate.  It has occurred for thousands and thousands of years, from Phoenicians to the Gaels, from Vikings to African tribes, from the Moors to the Hebrews, from the Greeks to the Romans, from the Gauls and the Polynesians to the Huns and the Mongolians, from the Persians and Babylonians to the Egyptians and Europeans.  Humans migrate.  To deny this basic fact by erecting impassable borders or sinister Secure Fences is to design a system which, by definition, must fall because it is contrary to natural law. 

As a teacher, it pains me to think of the billions which have been spent and the billions proposed to be spent on the completion of a border wall touted as a stalling tactic for immigration.  Working with eager ESL students and their families desiring assimiliation, I weep to think of how much those billions of dollars could mean for their integration into modern American society.  For in the end, the history of the world teaches us that it is not conquest but community that matters, integration not destruction, assimilation not annihilation, love and not fear, nonviolence and not violence.  Dr. King warned us that, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”  I believe MLK would also have extended this apt warning to programs such as anti-immigration tactics like border walls.  Nations which spend more money on separation than integration are bound for disaster.  Countries which hold national security above international community are in a sad state indeed; as Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Anyone who trades liberty for security deserves neither liberty or security.” 

From the banks of the Rio Bravo in Texas to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in Spain, the whole world is hoping America will learn from history as it continues to write history in this 21st century.  Our legacy is yet unfinished; we still have time to stop such medieval gestures as a border wall and to regain our place as a progressive nation embracing the global community.   

A Jaguarundi Sighting…

March 30, 2008

Jaguarundi

    Running along Border Patrol trails in a wildlife refuge area near the Rio Grande, I came upon it. It was a blur at first, but as it scuffled through the cane and underbrush, I am sure of it. I saw the ever elusive jaguarundi.

    Elusive enough that researchers have no official estimate of their wild population in South Texas, these weasel-like cats once roamed the Sabal Palm jungle of the Rio Grande Valley. Now, however, the jaguarundi is fighting for its life. Along with the ocelot, of which there are only 100 left in the South Texas wild, the jaguarundi is one of the endangered animals which a border wall would irrevocably drive out of South Texas and into Mexico. The wall itself would cut off these cats of prey from their source of water and food, while the major disturbance and deforestation associated with a border wall would harm their fragile ecosystem. Animal rights groups, winter Texans, local residents, and Federal agencies have spent millions of dollars procuring wildlife refuge land near the river in hopes of saving numerous endangered species like the jaguarundi I saw darting away into the underbrush yesterday.

 

    The fate of the jaguarundi and other native flora and fauna has inspired many wildlife activist groups to oppose the Secure Fence Act of 2006. Recently, Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club published a public statement stating their opposition to the REAL ID Act which waives important environmental laws (like the 19 waived in the Arizona portion of the border wall). Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, petitioned the Supreme Court to hear their case.

By granting one government official the absolute power to pick and choose which laws apply to border wall construction, the REAL ID Act proves itself to be both inherently dangerous and profoundly un-American. The issue here is not security vs. wildlife, but whether wildlife, sensitive environmental values and communities along the border will be given fair consideration in the decisions the government makes…We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will take up this case in order to protect the fundamental separation of powers principles enshrined in the United States Constitution. (http://www.notexasborderwall.blogspot.com/)

Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope echoed the stance of Defenders of Wildlife, stating,

Laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act are part of America’s enduring legal framework, and no agency or public official should be allowed to ignore them…Our laws have provided Americans a voice in the decision-making process that affects their lives, their human rights and the protection of wildlife; our government must not exempt itself from obeying those laws. (http://www.notexasborderwall.blogspot.com/)

The Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife are just a couple of the many groups advocating for the fragile frontera region and campaigning against a border wall.

    It is vital that we oppose this wall on all levels – social, political, economic, financial, and environmental. The national outpouring of disbelief and justified indignation at an environmentally-destructive border wall must continue. I was incredibly fortunate to come across a jaguarundi on one of my many border runs, and I would like my children and my children’s children to be able to run these same gorgeous trails and see what I saw, a sleek jaguarundi scampering off through Sabal Palm trees and towards a beautiful Rio Bravo.


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