In San Antonio, I connect with the El Paso bus, sitting next to a grandmother who clutches a purse with both hands. She glances occasionally across the aisle at a restless young boy who sometimes stands upon his seat, sometimes lays his head on his mother's lap.
"La Quinta. Spanish for 'growth spurt'," says a smart little placard at a Kerrville, TX motel. Dots scatter across a map of the USA. Dots between Laredo and Chicago might as well mark the movement of la migra, Spanish for people seeking work.
There is so much human value on these buses. In terms of labor force alone: cement workers, roofers, landscapers, mechanics, cooks, janitors, clerks, musicians, and housekeepers. Foreign-born Hispanic men have a labor-force participation rate of 85 percent (says a 2002 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics) making them the most active subgroup of workers in the USA.
Clusters of travelers speak also of families flung apart, hearts stretched across America. Along the highways of the Texas vastlands, we gaze out windows and think through our lives.
But outside the bus, an hysterical politics is being watered and fed that would turn this landscape into a territorial imperative, culminating in the construction along the USA-Mexico border of something called an unclimbable wall. With my mind's eye on the placard map, I trace the crooked line that starts at the boot-tip of Texas and runs west-north-westward along the borderlands of New Mexico and Arizona up to the left hip of California at the Pacific Coast. An unclimbable wall to separate Latin Americans from El Norte.
In the President's radio address Saturday, the issue of immigration was framed in terms of homeland defense. "To defend this country, we have to enforce our borders," he said with a twist of grammar, as if a border is something inherently enforceable.
"When our borders are not secure, terrorists, drug dealers, and criminals find it easier to sneak into America," he warned, ignoring plain statistics that suggest the vast majority of immigrants come here to work and grow families. "My administration has a clear strategy for dealing with this problem: We want to stop people from crossing into America illegally, and to quickly return the illegal immigrants we catch back to their home countries."
Here the President's anti-terror logic gets applied to Latin America. Some people crossing the border might be terrorists; therefore, in order to solve "this problem" we must make war on all people "crossing into" America. And the phrase "crossing into" says a mighty lot about how the President's strategy draws us closer to an unclimbable wall. He didn't say "crossing over".
At the turn of the 20th Century, 85 percent of immigrants to the USA were "crossing over" from Europe, but today those numbers are reversed. In addition to the 15 percent who still come from Europe today, 25 percent cross the Pacific from Asia, and eight percent from places "other" than Europe, Asia, or Latin America.
But these days, Latin America provides fifty one percent of the foreign born residents in the USA, and about half of those Latin Americans are not from Mexico. Or to put it another way, for every Mexican migrant "crossing into" the USA from the South, there is nearly another Latin American who is not from Mexico.
"This will allow us to hold more non-Mexican illegal immigrants while we process them through a program we call 'expedited removal,'" explained the President. "This will make the process faster and more efficient. Putting more non-Mexican illegal immigrants through expedited removal is crucial to sending back people who have come here illegally. As Secretary Chertoff told the Senate this week, our goal is to return every single illegal entrant, with no exceptions. And this bill puts us on the path to do that."
In this part of the President's address, it is no longer a question of whether the border-crosser may be a terrorist, etc. One is simply an illegal non-Mexican who must be deported, each and every time. (Are there no prisons? asks Scrooge. But nowhere near enough for the non-Mexicans, sir, replies the First Gentleman.) And what about those who are Mexicans?