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Border & Immigration

What's A Border?

What's A Border?
What's a border? We'll explore one of the least understood and most debated regions of the country - the border between the U.S. and Mexico - and how an artificial border impacts culture and politics.

Tyche Hendricks will speak about the border tonight at 6:30 pm at the Institute of the Americas on the campus of UCSD.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Illegal immigration has become a red hot topic again, fueled by Arizona's new law making undocumented status a state crime. In the national media, we're told that waves of migrants are taking jobs, using social services and that our porous border threatens national security. But, in the long stretch of borderland that connects the U.S. and Mexico—and that area includes San Diego—it's possible to learn some different lessons about the ties that bind our two nations. My guest, Tyche Hendricks, has spent several years exploring the U.S.-Mexico border. She is a project editor for The California Report, and author of the new book, "The Wind Doesn't Need a Passport: Stories from the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands." And, Tyche, welcome to These Days.

TYCHE HENRICKS (Project Editor, The California Report): I’m delighted to be here. Thanks.


CAVANAUGH: Now, you’ve reported on the border as a journalist. Why did you decide to write a book about the border region?

HENDRICKS: Well, I started reporting on the border as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and I was down looking at illegal immigration, I was looking at the sort of the nascent vigilante movement in Arizona before even the Minute Men came along, and these kinds of issues. And the border really looked like a dividing line and that’s the way we see it, I think, in a lot of our press coverage. But the more time I spent in different parts of the border, in South Texas and in Sonora and the boot heel of New Mexico and Baja, California, I started to get a feel for the way that the border is a region, not just a line, and that there are many people who have binational lives, who maybe work on one side and live on the other, have family across the border, go to school across the border, and that there are many, many ways that we’re linked at the border and including that we should breathe the same air and often drink the same water or rely on, you know, the Colorado River water, for example, that commerce really knits our two countries together at the border. And I started to feel that there was a part of the border story that wasn’t really being told.

CAVANAUGH: So the way we look at a border, let’s say, during the cold war in the Eastern Europe, you know, that dividing line that really separates one half of a country from another, is not – that’s the way some of America views the Mexico border. And what you’re saying is that it’s a lot more subtle and we’re not seeing it in a certain context, is that right?

HENDRICKS: I think that’s right. And if you’re talking about, you know, Eastern and Western Europe, I mean there was a cold war going on there. Mexico is our third largest trading partner. We’re her first largest trading partner. We have this shared history in the borderlands where most of the U.S. southwest was once a part of Mexico and we have a century of history of migration with Mexicans into the United States. So I think this approach to building walls and fences, it seems like the sort of the stop gap solution to problems that we don’t feel we have an answer to but my sense is that policing solutions are not really, you know, the long term approach for our relationship with this neighbor country.

CAVANAUGH: As a reporter along the U.S.-Mexico border sending back stories to the San Francisco Chronicle and to other outlets, I’m wondering what are the things that perhaps annoyed you when you read national stories about the U.S.-Mexico border? What were they missing?


HENDRICKS: Well, you know, it’s easy to focus on the border and I think that politicians across the political spectrum, it’s very easy to say, you know, we have to secure our border and we’ve actually had, I think, a fivefold increase in spending on border enforcement over the past dozen years so that we’re spending, what, eleven – upwards of $11 billion on border enforcement. In fact, it’s probably the downturn in our economy that has led to the biggest drop off in illegal immigration in the last few years. And I think, you know, there are – there’s a context like that that is often missed and because the border is a very physical place and you can see pictures of the fence and so forth, and certainly, you know, the increased enforcement, I think, in the San Diego area had a big effect on calming sort of the uncontrolled immigration that was happening here, you know, 10, 15 years ago. But it didn’t sort of solve the bigger problem. It moved the problem somewhere else and more people die in the deserts of Arizona and it’s sort of a displacement strategy, and I think that sort of looking at things like the economic picture and ways that we might help Mexico improve her economic picture are more lasting solutions.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Tyche Hendricks. She is the author of the new book, "The Wind Doesn't Need a Passport: Stories from the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands." Tell us some of the people – about some of the people you met in preparing for your book. What are their stories?

HENDRICKS: I found the most remarkable stories and that, to me, was what kept me going through several years of slogging, of producing my first book, really terrific tales. There was this ranching family in southern New Mexico that I spent some time with. Their ranch went right up to – I mean, their pasture fence was the border fence. And, you know, when cattle got loose and they were out on horseback with their Mexican neighbors, you know, rounding animals back up and so forth, they certainly felt the brunt and I think people who live in the borderlands feel the brunt of the troubles of the border. But they also had a very close relationship with Mexico and, in fact, one of the brothers in the family married a woman from Chihuahua and they actually got married right at the Antelope Wells Port of Entry. He was very concerned to follow immigration procedures to the letter and so they said their vows with her standing on the Mexican side and him on the U.S. side, and then they said ‘I do’ and she stepped across into the U.S. That was one wonderful story. There are, I found, environmentalists and scientists dealing with issues around the water in the Colorado River and the problems for endangered species and just the lack of water for nature, and these were Mexicans and Americans who really were saying, look, we have a shared problem here. This is a shared ecosystem and we need to roll up our sleeves and think outside the box and work up some creative ways to solve it, and really with a passion for, you know, the clapper rails hiding in the reeds and really wanting to sort of preserve this shared heritage of our environment.

CAVANAUGH: Tyche, you make a point of referring to this region as the borderland. What is – what’s so important about that word to you?

HENDRICKS: Well, I guess I use it in contrast to the idea of borderline. And as I said, it’s easy – and I think especially for people who live far from the border, and I’m up in northern California. Policymakers are in Washington, D.C. and Mexico City. They’re far, hundreds and thousands of miles from the border, and I think to call it a borderlands is to try to draw attention to the way that we’re linked at the border, the way that we have these connections across the border and that the border actually sort of stitches us together like a seam. So – And not to say that there aren’t frictions and that there aren’t issues there, but that the international boundary at the border in some way defines this region and it has a defining effect both on the Mexican side and the U.S. side.

CAVANAUGH: Were you surprised in any way about the Arizona immigration law? Either about the law itself or reaction to it?

HENDRICKS: No, I’ve covered immigration for so many years that I was not surprised by it. I think it’s really – it’s a manifestation of a number of things. One, certainly that there’s been talk for a number of years in Washington about a major overhaul of immigration reform. It keeps not happening and politicians keep being unwilling to kind of expend the political energy for that. And Arizona certainly had boom times and attracted a lot of both migrant workers into their economy and, you know, snowbirds and people from other parts of the U.S. who migrated down there. And I think that it’s led to a sort of a culture clash and people from other parts of the U.S. without an understanding of the borderness of Arizona and its relationship to Mexico and – and then the economy, you know, bottomed out and they’re suffering and historically in the United States when we’re in economic tough times, we point our fingers at immigrants. So it’s all of those factors coming into play that led to that Arizona law and it’s not surprising at all. But I think, again, the policing solution is a very narrow fraction. I mean, because our economies are so linked, there are ways that – and economics and sociologists have talked about the way that when goods and capital flow one way into one country, then immigrants are going to flow the other way. And that happens all over the world and that’s, you know, very much the case with our two economies here and with Mexico.

CAVANAUGH: So if, indeed, what we have is a shared culture and economic necessity and environmental necessity along the borderland, what kind of responsibility does Mexico have in becoming a partner with the United States in solving these – the problems that we do have with illegal immigration?

HENDRICKS: Well, I think it’s a very much of a responsibility. And I think for many years, Mexico, you know, outward migration was kind of a pressure release valve on an economy that wasn’t producing the jobs to support its people and I think the perspective on that is starting to change in Mexico but there are a lot of things that need to happen in building infrastructure, building a viable tax base to support public services and public investment into, for example, the education system, into, you know, transportation and communications infrastructure. A lot of work has to happen on reforming judicial systems and sort of the, you know, the sort of the institutions of civic culture. And some of those things are happening in fits and starts but there are ways, I think, that the U.S. can also support that and – and ways to think outside the box. And there are some smart people, you know, who are coming up with some ideas on this, and my hope is that President Calderon and President Obama will really take heed and recognize the Arizona law, the tremendous drug violence that’s terrorizing places like Juarez and border cities in Mexico, that we need more long term solutions, we need to think outside to box, and we need to work together because it’s only a joint solution.

CAVANAUGH: Considering how highly politicized, however, this issue has become about immigration, do you see much hope, as you say, for the politicians hundreds of miles away from the border to be making the right kinds of decisions that you think will actually address some of the issues that we have in our borderlands? What kind of hope do you have towards that?

HENDRICKS: Well, I guess I try to remain a hopeful person but not an unrealistic one. And I think part of the reason I wrote the book was to give voice to people who live in the borderlands who can speak to what the real problems and challenges are and who can, by their own example, show us how we can all roll up our sleeves and tackle these things. I met, for example, in the Ambos Nogales, in Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, hospitals and doctors who were finding ways to work together, and the Arizona hospitals were feeling a lot of economic pressure from taking care of – For example, when their premature babies were born in Sonora and they didn’t have the wherewithal to take care of them, they would come to U.S. hospitals. The U.S. hospitals realized if we help them outfit, you know, a neonatal ICU, they can take care of their own. Their doctors are well trained. And they did that. And they found some resources and they put them into, you know, some equipment and CAT scans and these kinds of things and helped the Mexican hospitals do a much better job of taking care of their own, and that’s what everybody wants. So those are the kinds of stories that are in the book that I think – You know, I would like our policymakers to be listening to those voices.

CAVANAUGH: In a way the borderlands are leading the way, as far as you’re concerned.

HENDRICKS: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for talking with us about your book.

HENDRICKS: It’s my pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: Tyche Hendricks has written a new book, "The Wind Doesn't Need a Passport: Stories from the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands." And she’ll be speaking tonight at 6:30 at the Institute of the Americas at UCSD. You can go to for more information. Coming up, a discussion on teens and depression, that’s next as These Days continues here on KPBS.