A Day on the Border - Crosses, Dreams, and Shades of Gray

A Day on the Border - Crosses, Dreams, and Shades of Gray

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Editor’s Note: As President Obama plans to visit the Texas-Mexico border Tuesday, Prensa Hispana reporter Maritza Lizeth Félix writes that not everything on the border is at it seems. Félix reports from the Arizona-Mexico border in the first of a two-part series.

When I reached the border, I expected to trudge through hundreds of pounds of garbage that I was told immigrants leave in their wake each year as they journey north through the desert. But that wasn’t the case. Plastic water bottles littered the road, it’s true, along with lost shoes and plastic bags, but the objects that left the greatest impression were the crosses, labeled with the names of immigrants who had died of thirst in the suffocating desert. Plastic flowers, placed on the makeshift memorials by anonymous hands, were melting under the heat of the sun, here in the middle of nowhere.

Only God knows if the people who these crosses honor were good or bad. Their stories will remain unknown, as will the names and faces of those who cried over their loss. They are only crosses now, stuck in the desert sand like saguaro cactus, like signposts for others coming up the same road, and a reminder for those who travel on.

I didn’t find bags of marijuana on the side of the road, or beheaded corpses. I didn’t see abandoned vehicles or bullet shells half-buried in the sand. Perhaps the border isn’t the land of good and evil that it’s been made out to be, after all. Rather, the border appears in shades of gray -- shifting from dark to light depending on the circumstance. On the day I accompanied the Border Patrol on their rounds, at least, the border was a place of nuance.

The planned route for the day included stops at the small border towns of Ajo and Sells, an officer outpost, and a large section that borders the city of Tucson – an area classified as dangerous due to the illegal trafficking of humans, drugs and weapons.

We swept through the desert from top to bottom, in the patrol car and on foot, all day and all night, at sundown and sunrise. The Border Patrol officers, in search of a thrill, set their radio frequencies in hopes of hearing something that would make the trip worthwhile, some shocking story that their journalist companion could take back home.

And shocking, it was.

I never found the bloodstained landscape that everyone talks about. I did see, however, the disappointed faces of five undocumented immigrants who were deceived by their “coyote,” or guide. And even though it was the coyote -- not the immigrants themselves -- who was guilty of acting immorally, it was the immigrants who took the fall.

But as the day unfolded, my story became more and more about what I did not find:

I didn’t find arrogant Border Patrol officers mocking immigrants.

I didn’t find vigilantes plotting strategies to “hunt down immigrants.”

I didn’t see malicious immigrants with drugs hidden in their backpacks.

I didn’t witness abuse -- and even saw some looks of relief on the faces of those rescued from the agonizing desert heat.

I didn’t see any of the famous “drug mules” – immigrants forced by gangs to transport drugs across the border.

I didn’t find any “coyotes” – and neither did the border agents. They slipped through the cracks.

Maybe it just wasn’t the right day or the right night. Maybe just this once, the “war zone” that is the U.S.-Mexico border failed to come to life.

What I did see on the border, however, was a cemetery of dreams: the dreams of undocumented immigrants who carried nothing more in their backpacks than the hope for a better life; the dreams of people who may have been good, or may have been bad; the dreams of those who could not find a legal way to avoid the suffering and fatigue of the long journey north, the dehydration that comes from the heat of the desert sun or the freezing cold of the desert night, in their quest to reach the “land of opportunity.”