In the southern deserts the border is a fact of life. People are used to it. The Border Patrol's tell-tale white and green trucks become near omnipresent within fifty miles of the line, and waiting at the Patrol's interior checkpoints is as routine as stopping for metering lights before entering a rush-hour freeway. The Imperial Valley Press's website maintains a real-time "Border Wait Times" page, a local traffic report to let cross-border commuters know how long it'll take them to get to and from work.
It's not that there isn't the occasional bout of controversy over the border. Politicians in distant states sometimes try to use the border security issue to score political points, or to make inroads into environmental protection law, or to bolster their standing with the very conservative end of the electorate.
Sometimes, as with Janet Napolitano's announcement this week that the National Guard's 1,200 troops on boreder duty may have to leave the area due to budgetary constraints within the Department of Homeland Security, the border gets some publicity in order to grease the wheels of interagency cooperation. As Napolitano said to the Los Angeles Times,
"It comes down to whether [the Department of Defense] has the resources to maintain the Guard at the border. But we have enough to get us through the end of the fiscal year. We certainly will have very good conversations with [the] secretary of Defense about continuation."
Especially now that the ball's in his court.
Aside from the occasional flame-fanning by pols, though, and complaints from people who really don't like immigrants, illegal immigration's role as a hot-button issue seems to be dying down these days. Some of that is likely due to slackened rates of illegal border-crossing in the last three years or so. Since 2008's economic collapse and the concurrent rise in Border Patrol surveillance of la Linea, migration from Mexico into the United States has fallen off. Perhaps as a result, the number of people dying as they try to cross the border without papers has slackened as well. Outside California, the humanitarian group No More Deaths reports 142 known deaths of migrants in the Arizona desert from October 2010 through July. As horrendous as this death toll is, it's low compared to the last few years. If September isn't particularly deadly in the Arizona desert, 2011 will have seen fewer migrant deaths in the Arizona desert than in any year since at least 2003.
Whatever the cause of the lower number of migrant deaths, it's welcome news given last year's toll: last year, a coroner's office along the border in Arizona had to use a 50-foot refrigerated truck to hold all the bodies found in the desert. It's still dangerous to cross, whether you risk dying from lack of water or too much of it, but fewer people are doing so this year.
That's not to say all is peaceful and light along the border. The border security issue is about far more than migrants. Granted, a few of those attempting to cross the border illegally are unsavory characters, as witness the convicted sex offender arrested last week crossing the border near Jacumba. Border Patrol agents have been killed, and the Patrol has come under criticism for alleged abuse of police powers, especially for two highly publicized migrant deaths in 2010.
But the biggest source of violence on both sides of the border comes from the trade in illegal drugs to satisfy the ever-growing US demand. In 2005, in the wake of a drug smuggler's shooting of Park Ranger Kris Eggle in Organ Pipe National Monument, I went to the borderlands in Arizona to work on an investigative piece on the environmental effects of border crossing. Then, as now, the greatest impact came not from individual migrants, but from organized cartels of violent drug smugglers, who would steal Ford F-150s in Los Angeles and San Diego, take them into Sonora for loading, then run them across the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in hopes of making it to Interstate 8.
With ramped-up surveillance aboveground in recent months making it harder to get across the border with a ton of sinsemilla, smugglers are resorting to other means of getting across the border. In Arizona bordertowns, law enforcement agents have been finding one tunnel after another crossing the border, allowing smugglers to carry contraband into the US more or less undetected. The practice has surfaced, so to speak, in California's Imperial Valley as well. The obscene profits possible when you work to meet Norteamericanos' insatiable demand for drugs have financed an ongoing dirty war among rival narcotraficante gangs, sometimes inadvertently facilitated by US authorities. It may be that the legalization of marijuana, likely inevitable in the decades to come, will have immediate salutary effects on the border, its environment and its people.
Until then we can fortify the border, engage in high-tech surveillance and political theater, and the people who live along the border will go on about their business regardless. After all, the border is a line made by a long-dead mapmaker in a room far from the desert. It has no real existence outside of the imaginings of law and politics. If history has taught us anything it's that people move where they will. Undocumented immigrants make up nearly 13% of the population of Imperial County, with the Coachella Valley portions of Riverside County not far behind. Most undocumented immigrants in the desert work for a living; many have family members who are here legally. They are part of our community, and they will be long after the border is just a memory.