Wednesday, January 25, 2006
It is midnight, moonless and surreal at the busiest border crossing in the world. Scarred hillsides and riverbanks are studded with Border Patrol sensors at watch over bandits and rapists who lurk in the dark.
Hundreds of hopeful immigrants huddle among clumps of chaparral, and prepare for the race of their lives, northward into San Diego. Their eyes glaze with fear and hope as they see the glimmering lights of our metropolis across that dreaded, magical border that they call, "La linea."
It is a thousand-mile-line etched by crumbling barriers and lives, by ironies of geography and history. Desperate millions come north from Mexico's interior, for the same reasons that ancestors of other Americans left Ireland or Norway or China. Their families are hungry and there are no jobs.
In blackness now beside the putrid Tijuana River, the migrants group along a mile of levee, watching three border patrolmen in steel-screened jeeps that agents call their, "War wagons."
For each lawman there are perhaps 100 Mexicans. Overhead, an agent shuttles in a helicopter, his searchlight cutting a white swath along the border. The migrants await a quieter moment to start their dash across field and freeway to the fabled land of El Norte, The North.
A Border Patrolman says, "when they run, we grab as many as we can. We take them back to the border, and they try again. Eventually, most of them get through. They can't get jobs without papers, but we can't expect employers to tell if work cards are counterfeits."
Alone, I scramble down the levee.
In the flicker of a dying campfire, three figures cling to one another. The small one has brown saucer eyes. His parents clutch plastic sacks, the only luggage of this migration.
I crouch near the child.
"Buenos Tardes," I say. Good evening. "Como se llama?" What is your name?
He looks up at his mother and whispers, "Carlitos."
I ask where he comes from.
"Michoachan," she prompts her son. It is more than 1,200 miles to the southeast.
"Vaya con dios, carlitos," I say. Go with God.
His parents wary eyes follow me as i rejoin the border patrol.
An hour later the levee erupts in a frenzy of movement. I watch from a helicopter as an agent directs others on the ground. Two migrants are vaulting freeway divider walls and fleeing through eight lanes of speeding traffic.
Much later, I walk through holding cells, among hundreds of Mexican men and women, looking for a child with brown saucer eyes.
Carlitos is not there. The agent at my side wonders why I am smiling.