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I’ve covered immigration as a journalist for almost 20 years, documenting the lives of families in different corners of the Western Hemisphere as they make the difficult decision to move to the U.S. to seek a better life. In the process, I’ve tried to help readers understand immigration policy, even as I personally relate to the challenge of making a new home in America, of learning a new language and cultural norms, of missing friends and family.

Yet over just the past two years, I’ve watched America—which welcomed me almost three decades ago—methodically close its doors to people from other cultures while dangerously scapegoating both new and longtime immigrants.

I know I’m not alone when I say how helpless it makes me feel, following the back-to-back news stories about migrant caravans, family separations and the inhumane conditions at immigrant camps and detention facilities. I sometimes feel ashamed to enjoy the freedoms I do, knowing that my government is refusing those same rights to others.

Yet many of us do our best to suppress those feelings, averting our gaze from people held in confinement; we are afraid to think about how debilitating it must feel to be cut off from your family, in a foreign place, without the prospect of freedom or a regular, productive life. Being held in detention must be particularly unsettling for recent asylum-seekers or border-crossing migrants who came to this country seeking refuge and instead found themselves behind walls.

I’ve recently found one way to deal with my feelings of shame and helplessness—by exchanging letters with a man named Miguel. I found him through Detainee Allies, an organization started in June 2018 by a group of friends and neighbors from San Diego who were disturbed by the disastrous Trump administration “zero tolerance” family separation policy, which is still in existence today despite a court order halting it and the growing public outcry against reports of mistreatment inside detention facilities.

By getting hundreds of people around the world to write letters to immigrant detainees in the U.S., Detainee Allies hopes to create a lifeline for people inside the detention centers, as well as for those, like me, on the outside who feel like helpless witnesses to the White House’s inhumane actions.

Miguel is being held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego for at least a month, though he doesn’t know exactly how long it will be. So far, I’ve sent him two short letters and received one reply. I wrote to him because I feel so impotent and frustrated, and I know that someone like him must feel great despair and loneliness, too. I don’t know whether our correspondence can change anything, other than assuaging my feelings while giving me the chance to connect with a stranger who might need to hear a friendly voice.

Miguel has shared a few details about his life: He’s from Guatemala; his parents came to California to work when he was a baby and left him at home with an aunt. He finished technical school in Guatemala and wants to become an auto mechanic. But that’s not easy to do in his home country today. “I faced violence, extortions and death threats back in Guatemala,” he writes, and ultimately, “that is why I felt I had no option but to leave and ask the U.S. for protection.”

Needless to say, the quest for protection has landed more migrants than ever in detention—and worse. At least 24 migrants have died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody since President Donald Trump took office. Children and teenagers in detention facilities have made allegations of deliberate mistreatment, including sexual assault, by border enforcement officials, and many have been held for weeks and even months in crowded cells with no access to soap or showers, sleeping on concrete floors in unwashed clothing. A recent report by the Office of the Inspector General describes 155 immigrant detainees occupying a room that was meant for only 35. ICE’s detention population is at an all-time high, with 54,000 people held in detention on any single day—up from 2016 averages by more than 50 percent.

Miguel has not told me about conditions at the Otay Mesa Detention Center. But last December, other detainees writing to people on the outside described medical neglect, racism and discrimination. In at least one instance, a detainee was forced to work extra shifts at the facility for $1 a day.

Even if he’s not facing those problems at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, Miguel must know he’s now part of an ever-growing population of poor migrants from throughout the world who are now stuck inside this country’s immigration detention dragnet without access to due process.

I don’t know how old Miguel is, but the fact that he’s so eager to be reunited with his parents and start a career makes me think he’s in his early to mid-20s. His handwriting is filled with youthful, bubble-shaped letters. I hope we can meet in person someday. Even after he finally gets out, Detainee Allies told me, Miguel could still use my guidance or support.

“Thank you for understanding,” read his first short letter to me. “May God bless you.”

When I replied, I asked him how he was doing. I questioned him about what he hopes to do once he’s out of detention and able to look for his parents. My heart was full, and I struggled to find the right words. In the end, all I could say was: “I wish you good health and strength.”

This piece originally appeared in High Country News. HCN contributing editor Ruxandra Guidi writes from Los Angeles. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Community Voices

Last winter, at a talk in Aspen, Colorado, author Luis Alberto Urrea described his childhood in a rough San Diego neighborhood near the border, where his family moved from Tijuana during a tuberculosis outbreak.

Born to a Mexican father and an American mother, the blue-eyed, blond child spoke Spanish before he spoke English and spent his early years buffeted by the cultural tensions between his parents.

Urrea’s mother yearned for him to be “Louis Woodward,” the idealized offspring of her own East Coast origins. His father, who wanted his son to be more Mexican, affectionately called him cabrón (in English, “dude,” or a more friendly rendition of “dumbass”). “I was raised twice, and this was very hard, but I thank God for it,” Urrea said.

That complicated family dynamic is the inspiration for his latest novel, The House of Broken Angels, a multigenerational saga about a Mexican-American family, much like his own, in San Diego. It is also a border story, a genre for which he is well-known: Ever since the success of his 2004 nonfiction book, The Devil’s Highway, which recounted the struggle for survival among 26 men who crossed the border in 2001, Urrea has been called the “literary conscience of the border.”

But his latest book is less about the physical border than it is about the familial relationships that both challenge and transcend it—the small moments that, as one of his characters puts it, allow each of us to see our own human lives “reflected in the other.”

Drawing on the final days of Urrea’s older half-brother, Juan, who died in 2016, the narrative revolves around Big Angel, the patriarch of the sprawling De la Cruz clan, a raucous cast of characters who encapsulate a variety of American experiences—veterans, academics, undocumented immigrants, a singer in a black-metal band called Satanic Hispanic and a “non-cisgendered, non-heteronormative cultural liberation warrior.”

Sick with cancer, Big Angel decides to throw a final fiesta for his 71st birthday with all his friends and relatives—and not even his mother’s sudden death will stop him. The party is scheduled for the day after her funeral, and in the lead-up to it, we glimpse the melodrama of daily life amid vivid flashbacks of the past. Like the De la Cruz family, Urrea’s writing is exuberant, unruly and sometimes profane, filled with splashes of Spanglish and sensual imagery, from Big Angel’s San Diego bedroom to his memories of La Paz: “the creeping smell of the desert going wet.”

The writing is political, too, as the author describes the often-arbitrary cruelty of the border that has shaped the characters’ lives. Technically, Big Angel and his wife, Perla, are undocumented, having entered the U.S. as teenagers. Urrea, however, does not dwell on legal status, focusing instead on the ever-changing politics of America’s immigration laws, which have alternately embraced Mexicans for their labor and expelled them as soon as they were no longer needed.

In Big Angel, we see another side of the story, too: the tale of those immigrants who manage to ascend to the middle and working classes. After years of working multiple jobs, Big Angel is able to buy a home in San Diego. He finally lands a position running computers for a gas and electric company, even though he never liked computers. “A Mexican doing what these rich Americanos couldn’t do was the point.”

Other family members have not been so lucky. A stepson, Braulio, was killed in a gang shooting. Big Angel’s own son, Lalo, struggles with drug addiction and his undocumented status, which even his U.S. military service in Iraq cannot resolve.

In the De la Cruz family, these tragedies live next to the frequent bouts of absurdity that Urrea evokes—a reminder, he says, “that people are funny. Especially in dire circumstances.”

Recounting a memory from his own childhood, fictionalized in a chapter of the book, Urrea describes how his “gangster granny” almost became a border smuggler—of a green parrot. Had one bird not awoken from its tequila-induced slumber at the very moment that grandmother and grandsons were about to drive across the border, she might have succeeded. Instead, the parrot erupted from her dress in a burst of green feathers, while the elderly woman calmly rolled down her passenger window. At that moment, Urrea writes, “two Mexican boys, a Mexican grandma, and a U.S. federal agent watched as one as the bird entered the U.S. illegally.”

The author’s humor does not diminish the daily horrors on America’s border; it merely reveals the awfulness more clearly. In Aspen, Urrea explained his choice: “Laughter is the virus that infects humanity. And if we laugh together, how can we walk away and say that person is an animal?”

At a time when the language of borders is more chilling than ever before, with mass deportations and children kept in cages, Urrea hopes more of us will consider this question.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News. Sarah Tory writes from Carbondale, Colo.

The House of Broken Angels

By Luis Alberto Urrea

Little, Brown and Company

336 pages, $27

Published in Literature

The tacos dorados, Francisco Cantú tells me as we push through the turnstiles into Nogales, Mexico, are some of the best he’s ever had.

So we beeline through the bustling streets toward the small metal cart in search of the paper-wrapped stacks of crispy chicken tacos dripping spicy red salsa.

Cantú is the author of The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border, forthcoming this February from Riverhead Books. The book is a beautiful and brutal chronicle of the four years he spent working as a Border Patrol agent, and the years afterward, in which an immigrant friend, José, is deported to Mexico—and Cantú finds himself navigating border policy from the other end.

The book, his first, is already generating buzz; Cantú has received a Whiting Award in Nonfiction and a Pushcart Prize, and a section of the book recently aired on This American Life.

On this Monday, we’ve driven the 45 minutes from Tucson to Nogales, leaving my red pickup on the U.S. side, under the shadow of the 30-foot-tall wall that cuts through the city. We eat our tacos in a little city park. Cars stream around us, but the park itself is calm: Big cottonwoods with white-painted trunks arch over us. A few fallen leaves tick around us in the wind, as we talk about what a relief it is to slip into Mexico for the afternoon—feeling the slight shift in the rhythm of life, the tilt of our perspective.

Cantú wears yellow-rimmed glasses and has a sizeable mustache, his thick dark hair containing only a few strands of gray.

“When I first started coming to Nogales, I was in the MFA program and teaching a class to undergraduates,” he says. “I remember thinking how crazy it was that anything south of the border was not a part of their worldview.”

For Cantú, the border has always been a presence. Growing up in Prescott, Ariz., he was “close enough to it to have an understanding of it as a complicated place.” His own grandfather crossed as a child, just after the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution.

After high school, Cantú went off to American University in Washington, D.C., to major in international relations. He studied abroad in Guanajuato, Mexico, becoming fluent in Spanish. “There was always that tension between what I would read in books and what I would see when I went home or when I traveled to Mexico,” Cantú says. “My mind was always trying to connect what I studied with the contours of the place as I understood it.”

This tension eventually led him to join the Border Patrol.

“I wanted to bridge the gap between academic knowledge and real world, on-the-ground realities,” he says. But “the work ended up giving me a whole new set of questions, without really answering the ones I came in with.”

During his years in the Border Patrol, Cantú found himself increasingly haunted by the border’s violence—both of the drug cartels, and of the desert landscape itself. No matter the risks, the crossers kept coming. At night, he woke from vivid, terrifying dreams, grinding his teeth.

He was working on an intelligence field team out of El Paso when he learned that he’d received a Fulbright Fellowship. So he quit the Border Patrol and spent his fellowship year living in The Netherlands, studying rejected asylum-seekers who chose to live in the shadows after their visas were denied.

But it was his own country’s border that pulled at him. He came back to the desert. He applied to get his MFA in creative nonfiction writing in Tucson.

“I can’t tell you the gift I gave myself in choosing to be a writer and not a government employee or a lawyer or a policymaker,” he says. “I don’t have to rack my brain any longer for a solution. That’s not my job anymore.” Instead, he sees his job as deepening people’s understanding of the border.

“It’s always easier to pose the questions as black-and-white, to think about a person being someone who deserves entry into this country or not. But that doesn’t encompass the complexity of what goes on here,” Cantú says.

The conversation needs to start by acknowledging the aspects of our border policy that are causing humanitarian crisis, he says. According to the United Nations Migration Agency, border deaths jumped 17 percent between 2016 and 2017, despite fewer people attempting the journey. By early August, 96 bodies had been recovered in Pima County, Ariz.—where both Cantú and I live— alone.

“We need the courage to say, ‘That’s not acceptable,’ ” says Cantú. “We shouldn’t be weaponizing a vast, inhospitable landscape through our policy. Whether or not that’s intentional, it’s happening right now.

“It’s hard to really grasp the significance of somebody saying: ‘It doesn’t matter how hellacious this obstacle is, I will overcome it, for my family, for my work.’ No matter what version of hell you put at the border, people are going to go through it to the other side. That presents the question: Should we be then trying to make this more hellacious and more life-threatening?

“We could talk about this forever,” he says to me. “But should we get a beer?”

The bar he takes me to is called Kaos, a place he went once with a Mexican friend. Cantú never manned the Nogales border—in his work with the Border Patrol, he patrolled the remote desert west of here and worked out of intelligence centers in Tucson and El Paso—but to walk with Cantú in Nogales is to move with familiarity.

“If you want Bacanora,” he tells me, referring to a Sonoran mezcal, “I know a guy here who makes the best Bacanora. He’s in a shoe shop.”

Inside the darkness of Kaos, we pour a fat liter of cold Tecate into two plastic cups, while mariachis noodle on their guitars in the corner. As the man next to him shouts over the music, he apologetically translates for me from time to time—“His friends call him mofles! Like Muffler! I don’t know why”—and I watch his face, so open and kind, so appreciative of the place. I try to picture him as la migra, the border police.

“There are days when I feel I am becoming good at what I do. And then I wonder, what does it mean to be good at this?” writes Cantú in The Line Becomes a River. “Of course, what you do depends on … what kind of agent you are … but it’s true that we slash their bottles and drain their water into the dry earth, that we dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the border and set ablaze.”

I am not the first to wonder at the gap between what Cantú writes he has done, and his unyielding desire for a system that acknowledges the humanity of those who cross. He will later describe writing the book as a form of exorcism, an act that allowed him to atone, to make sense of his own involvement in what the border has become. It was an act that allowed him to see some of his experiences as complete, as over—even as he came to understand that, in other ways, some things are still ongoing, still a part of him.

Cantú twists back toward me. “Mofles says Tecate tastes better on this side!” he says over the music, with a wry smile. And I have to agree that it does.

On our way back to the United States, we still have room for tacos. We stop at a carne asada stand, where Cantú, laughing with the cocinero, gets the recipe. We eat as we walk, and at the last bend before the border, mopping taco juice from our fingers, we buy popsicles, paletas, for our wait in the border line: coconut for him, pistachio for me.

But the line is surprisingly empty, and we walk right through. We scan our passports; the Border Patrol agent takes a brief glance at them, and just like that, we cross the line into the United States—nonchalant, licking our popsicles, improbably powerful.

Headed north in late afternoon, I ask Cantú if driving through these green hills, across these big spaces, is different now that he’s patrolled them.

“It’s probably the landscape I know more intimately than any other,” he says. “I knew the name of every pass and peak out there, every mountain range and mile marker and wash.” He pauses. “But because of the work I did, it became impossible to drive through that landscape and think, ‘Oh, look how nice it is.’”

This land is not wild, he tells me, not in the way we like to think of it, with words like untouched and solace and peaceful. “All of a sudden, you have access to the knowledge that, 100 percent, there are groups of people right now that I cannot see walking across the same terrain that I’m looking across. There are scouts on a handful of these mountaintops that I’m looking at, that are watching everything, who are radioing people. There are human remains left undiscovered and unidentified.

“If you do this, you see the desert as teeming with this sort of human drama. And even if you go camping out there—you can totally still have the wilderness experience, can hike, and you will maybe never encounter anything other than sign of peoples’ passage. Because it’s so vast. But they’re out there.”

Katherine E. Standefer’s work appears in The Best American Essays 2016. She prefers cowboy boots. Follow @girlmakesfire. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Literature

Dear Mexican: I’m not a huge soccer fan, but I always get excited about the World Cup. In preparation for the event next year, I wanted your opinion on the team my wife and I should root for if the U.S. were to play Mexico.

I’m a fourth-generation Mexican American. Spanish was never spoken at home, but thanks to our amazing public school system, I rarely need a translator when I speak to Spanish-speaking parents. (I’m an administrator at an amazing public school.) My wife grew up speaking Spanish and was raised in a home that was culturally Mexican. We both feel comfortable participating in events that are very Mexican, and events that are very American. Last night, I asked my wife who she should root for if the U.S. played Mexico. She wasn’t sure. I told her I wasn’t sure, either, and that we should ask for your advice.

What do you think? Who should we root for? Who would you root for? Who do you think your grandkids will root for?

Sueño Humido del Hombre Hispánico-Americano

Dear Wet Dream of the Pocho Man: I always root for the United States when it plays in Mexico, and Mexico when it faces off against the U.S. in el Norte, but only because I want to see the home fans in agony, because I’m a cabrón like that.

You can root for either side, though, because they’re both going to flame out in the quarterfinals of el Mundial next year, anyway. About the only thing fans can look forward to on either side is seeing which player has enough huevos to kick Putin where Trump’s lips left a giant chupón.

Dear Mexican: I’m not searching for relationship advice, Mexican; I’m just wondering why there is no love between Honduras and Mexico.

La Gordita

Dear Chubby Catracha: Mexicans might despise Salvadorans and have no use for Guatemalans, but Hondurans? We play “Sopa de Caracol” at all our parties, don’t we?

Dear Mexican: My understanding, lo these many years, is that Mexicans cannot give up their Mexican citizenship. I understand that under Mexican law, a natural-born Mexican is never legally allowed to claim exclusive citizenship elsewhere, and that Mexico will not recognize U.S. embassy legal processes in Mexico on behalf of a Mexican naturalized as a U.S. citizen who is present in Mexico. Is that correct?

August in Austin

Dear Gabacho: You’re listening to too much Alex Jones. The Mexican Constitution says native-born Mexicans can never lose their nationality, which is just a fancy way for Mexico to claim more people subject to its authority—an important point we’ll use before the New World Order tribunal in a couple of years to re-establish Aztlán.

Dear Mexican: In 1990, some of my Mexican friends told me it cost $500 to come from Mexico with a coyote. Recently, a friend from Tamazunchale told me it now costs $2,500. How much of this money, paid to the coyotes, goes to Border Patrol employees?

El Pollo Loco

Dear Gabacho: It costs $2,500? Try $5,000 to start, all thanks to Trump’s immigration policies. And Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly had the gall to take credit for the jacked-up prices. That’s like a big-game hunter saying that the antelope over his fireplace worked extra-hard to get there.

SPECIAL THANKS TO

Maricela and Daniel, two helpful Mexicans at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Orange who helped this Mexican find another Mexican’s grave. May the Santo Niño de Atocha bless ustedes for your good work, and may you bury this Mexican with a bottle of mezcal when it’s time for me to go to the great DESMADRE in the sky …

Ask the Mexican at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; be his fan on Facebook; follow him on Twitter @gustavoarellano; or follow him on Instagram @gustavo_arellano!

Published in Ask a Mexican

Dear Mexican: I’ve read that 75 percent of Americans are against giving illegal immigrants citizenship. I’m for full amnesty and citizenship for the current 12 million that are here, but I have two absolute conditions.

First, the border is locked up by both the U.S. and Mexico, and illegal entries are reduced by 90 percent, even if that takes the military of both countries. Second, citizenship would require pledging allegiance to America and denouncing Mexican citizenship.

My question is: Do you think that the Mexican portion of the 12 million would agree to this? And do you think the Mexican government would agree to help close the border if full amnesty was given to those who are now here?

Wally Wall

Dear Gabacho: You heard about how Donald Trump wants to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and equip it with solar panels, right? Well, your idea is stupider.

Primeramente, locking up the border accomplishes nada. There are fewer Mexicans coming into los Estados Unidos right now, not because of Trump’s pendejadas, but because the United States is turning into Mexico—so why not just stay in Mexico? And putting both the American and Mexican military on la frontera is a waste of resources and firepower better used against the Saudis.

Segundamente, any Mexican who would become legal has to pledge allegiance to the U.S.—it’s call the “naturalization oath of allegiance,” pendejo. And who cares if they have dual citizenship? Mexicans only get that so they can own land down there instead of having to give it up to the government—unless you’d rather Mexicans give that up and bring up their 91-year-old Tía Goya to live in el Norte?

Gabachos like you need to get it into your mind that Mexicans (and other immigrants, for that matter) can simultaneously be American and have another country on their minds, and not be disloyal to the Stars and Stripes. Why do conservatives get all pissy about that, yet cheer on losers who still love the Confederacy? Oh, yeah—because gabacho.

Dear Mexican: My husband has a disability that nobody in his Mexican family accepts. (It’s a serious mental health disorder for which he receives government benefits, but they just tell him, “Be strong, primo,” and, “How did you fool the government into giving you crazy money?”) Nobody has ever helped us with things he can’t do, but they expect him to help his mom with every home repair, because she raised him by herself. She’s verbally abuse and says nasty things about both of us when she’s alone with him, but to my face, she acts like she wants us to be friends.

Do we keep putting on the big, happy ethnic family act and explain away their ignorance of psychology and abuse? I understand that a history of oppression and struggle breeds dysfunction, but where do we draw the line? And don’t Mexicans watch Oprah and Dr. Phil?

Una Frustrated Gabacha-in-Law

Dear Gabacha: Confronting mental health issues among Mexicans is a serious topic that too often gets dismissed due to machismo. Without knowing his exact condition, all I can counsel you to do is ask your marido how he feels, and act accordingly. He might hate the familial abuse, but is too afraid to say anything, and is waiting on you to say something. Or he might not feel abused at all.

If it’s the latter case, keep him away from the primos and mom with promises of sexytimes—works on a Mexican man anytime!

Ask the Mexican at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; be his fan on Facebook; follow him on Twitter @gustavoarellano; or follow him on Instagram @gustavo_arellano!

Published in Ask a Mexican

The president and his supporters say they want to solve illegal immigration by building an immense wall along our southern border, turning local police into immigration agents, and applying “severe vetting” to immigrants from certain countries—all of which are predominantly Muslim.

Opponents say these proposals suffer from over-simplification and racism. But there’s an even bigger problem: These “fixes” fail to understand that we can’t address immigration if we continue to deny the science of climate change, because increasingly, climate change is driving global human migration.

Let’s first acknowledge that our border with Mexico is a place of hardship, violence and injustice. Let’s also recognize the wrenching reality that many of those pressed against our border are children.

In fiscal year 2016, nearly 60,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended at our southern border. Even as the president and his supporters lump them together with “murderers and rapists,” the U.S. Border Patrol reports that they’re kids 17 and under, who, by a 4-to-1 margin, are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—not Mexico. Nearly 75,000 of the other people apprehended in 2016 were members of migrating families, mostly from the same three countries. Overall, Central Americans outnumbered Mexicans apprehended at the border in both 2014 and 2016. This reflects a trend showing fewer Mexicans and single adults illegally entering the Unaited States.

Migration from Central America is a reaction to pervasive violence and extreme poverty. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have some of the world’s highest murder rates, fueled by gangs and drug cartels. For children and families, conditions are terrifying. This drives desperate migration, both internally and externally to Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Mexico and the United States. It is a regional issue.

Increasingly, climate change worsens existing problems. The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters shows that, in the last four decades, Central America has experienced a tenfold increase in extreme heat, drought, forest fires, storms and floods. Among the most affected countries are Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where millions today lack reliable food due to drought-related crop failures. The resulting migration to urban areas stresses already over-burdened housing, education and other services. It worsens gang violence, drug trafficking and corruption, forcing people to flee.

The changing climate threatens yet more instability for Central America. The region’s volcanic soils are prone to massive landslides from increasing storms, and millions of people live beside rising seas. Often, local economies and infrastructure are ill-prepared for disaster.

Evidence also suggests that climate change helped ignite today’s war in Syria. Extreme drought beginning in 2006 withered crops and drove people to cities already swollen with Iraqi refugees and political discontent. The root causes of the war are complex, but we cannot ignore indications that climate played a role, thus contributing to the migration crisis now straining Europe.

For more than a decade, stretching back to the George W. Bush presidency, the U.S. military has warned that climate change will increasingly contribute to unrest and drive potentially massive human migrations that threaten our national security. Similar warnings have come from the International Organization for Migration, the World Bank, the Government Accountability Office (which reports to the U.S. Congress) and the Department of Homeland Security.

Their warnings, and the reality of a refugee crisis in both Syria and at our own southern border, underscore the value of the Paris climate agreement, which Republicans are presently working to undermine. Aside from its impact on reducing carbon emissions, it also provides for climate-change adaptation in Central America and other vulnerable regions. The agreement represents an investment in social stability that can help to relieve immigration.

The last Congress under President Obama saw the value in addressing the seed causes of migration, appropriating $750 million in 2016 for Central American support and aid. Such actions were part of a smart immigration strategy that also included modernizing border security technology, disrupting criminal smuggling outfits, and clear enforcement priorities that greatly increased deportation of convicted criminals.

In contrast, the Trump administration’s broad crackdown on illegal immigrants in this country reeks of xenophobia and prejudice. These emotional reflexes that fuel cries for border walls or bans on Muslim immigrants don’t reflect ethical or realistic thinking. Denial of climate science is a similarly emotional and unhinged response to a complex issue.

As climate and immigration change our physical and cultural landscapes in entwined ways, we must demand rational, science-based responses, not walls or other bad ideas driven by fear.

Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News, where this first appeared.

Published in Community Voices

This has been one of the most highly charged and controversial election years in recent memory.

However, all is calm in State Assembly District 56, which includes Imperial County and much of the Eastern Coachella Valley. That’s the realm of Democratic State Assembly member Eduardo Garcia, who is facing no formal opposition for a second two-year term.

In 2015, Garcia reportedly made history by becoming the most successful freshman California assemblymember ever: The Democrat authored or co-authored 14 bills and two resolutions that were signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The Independent recently chatted with Garcia about his first term, as well as his plans for his second.

What would you identify as the highlights of your legislative accomplishments to date?

There were a couple of different things. There were some environmental bills. Assembly Bill 1059 was introduced by our office, but it was an idea that came from a local organization. That’s an important bill for a place like Imperial County, which suffers from some of the highest asthma rates among children because of poor air quality. It became effective this year, and it is going to put air-monitoring systems along the California-Mexico border to begin quantifying and collecting the necessary data to make the case that there are emissions along the border that are in excess of safe levels. Because of border-crossing wait times due to a lack of infrastructure, those living in this region are subjected to this poor quality of air. Although this bill doesn’t address those problems directly, it positions this region to go after greenhouse-gas-reduction funds through the Air Resources Board of California.

In the East (Coachella) Valley, a bill that stands out to me is adopting the new regulations for the purpose of installing new water-filtration systems in the rural parts of the district that do not have centralized water and sewer infrastructure. These filtration systems protect people from consuming contaminated water. In this case, it’s water with high levels of arsenic.

Jumping back to Imperial County, we passed AB 1095, the Salton Sea projects. The bill required the Natural Resources Agency to report to the Legislature by March of this year a list of shovel-ready projects that are now going to be part of the execution of the $80.5 million in funds that we successfully included in this year’s state budget.

How do you feel about whether real tangible progress is being made to improve the fate of the Salton Sea, and remedy, or at least mitigate, the dangers its dissipation would pose?

I feel good, because through our legislation, we outlined what the shovel-ready projects are, and I feel good because now there’s some money available to be able to execute those projects. Also, I feel very optimistic about the state’s commitment moving forward, because $80.5 million has been allocated. But, look: For the first time, the state of California has committed a significant amount of money to a problem in our region, in this case the Salton Sea, so there’s a lot of optimism. But there’s still work to be done, and for some of us, it’s not happening fast enough. So now our message is beginning to change, from, “We don’t know what’s going to happen,” to, “Here’s what’s going to happen over the course of the next five to six years.”

What issues and challenges concern you the most during the remainder of this term, and looking ahead into your second term?

This year, we’ve got some tough bills that ask for money. I can tell you that our parks bond, asking for $3.2 billion, is probably going to be a heavy lift for the governor to sign. He’s not a big fan of going out and borrowing money, even if the return on the investment is good. But I’m confident that the bill will get through the legislative process.

For us in the 56th Assembly District, the bill has about $45 million that will go directly to programs, projects and services in our area. One example is that there is a direct allocation of an additional $25 million to the Salton Sea restoration efforts that would be very welcome. There’s another $5-$6 million that is going into the restoration of the New River. … That’s in the final stages of executing a strategic plan to develop the infrastructure to clean up the water and ultimately to develop a parkway in the city of Calexico, which would be beneficial to the entire Imperial County. Also, there’s $10 million for the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy to address their land acquisitions for the purpose of habitat conservation in the Coachella Valley. We’re going to keep our push going over the next couple of weeks as it makes its way through the Senate. It’s a two-thirds bill, and it required me to get a few votes from Republicans to get out of the Assembly and move to the Senate. We’ve got the backing of six Republican assembly members, which is unheard of. So we have a reputation in Sacramento thus far of collaboration and (taking) a bipartisan approach, and I think that, too, has helped us.”

What are your thoughts about the famous proposed Donald Trump wall between Mexico and the United States?

Mexico is a very important economic partner to the state of California and to our nation. Mexico is also an extremely important partner in the case of our national security. Our relationship with Mexico can determine the safety and well-being of this country. For those concerned with terrorists from other parts of the world entering the United States, I would think that our foreign policy with our neighbors to the south and our neighbors to the north would be one of cooperation, collaboration and good communication, to ensure that we all have each other’s backs. So I think it’s really ridiculous to try to continue the rhetoric of alienating our neighbors to the south. Our foreign policy needs to be a constructive and productive one with our neighbors to the south—and building a wall does not get us to that point.

Published in Politics

I’m a white, college-educated, liberal, Democrat, socialist U.S. citizen. I don’t have any problem with Mexicans coming here to get a good job. In fact, I don’t see the “problem.”

From your perspective, why are Republicans and redneck dickheads so into building that big fence on the border? What I mean is: If there are so many “illegal” Mexican immigrants in the U.S., what is stopping them from becoming “legal?” Is it really a question of attaining citizenship, or is it just plain ol’ ignorant racism?

Taco Lover in Houston

Dear Gabacho: Gracias for writing in, Bernie Sanders! Love ya, but I don’t think you stand a chance against that pendeja Hillary—but good for you for pushing her into Aztlanista territory.

As for the preguntas: Republican dickheads want to build a wall because it’s the simplest “solution” to the immigration “problem” and is symptomatic of how out of touch they are with America’s raza reality. They obviously don’t know that if we do build a 100-foot tall wall tomorrow on the U.S.-Mexico frontera, some chilango from Tepito will build a 101-foot ladder the following day—and the slide that goes with it—while a culichi will construct a tunnel underneath it that would rival the Lincoln Túnel. And it’s those same Republican cagaleches who are stopping undocumented folks from becoming legal by failing to work with Democrats on a good amnesty program.

Hey, I get it: The GOP knows that once we get the vote—and I know I said this last week, but it bears worth repeating—we’ll make them as irrelevant as the payphone.

Let me start out by saying that I’m a HUGE fan of your newspaper columns. I’m writing you because at a recent family dinner, one of my cousins was telling the family his opinion of the word “Mexican.” He proceeded to say that the word is racist and degrading, and everyone should refer to people from Mexico as “Cinnamon People” or “Cinnamons.” He said this because, in his opinion, most people from Mexico have a light tint or shade of red to their skin. So with this thought in mind, I asked my Mexican friends at school if “Mexican” is racist and degrading; all but two just laughed at me. A few people have agreed with my cousin but still: I’m very confused.

Is “Mexican” a racist word? I have seen countless people call someone a “Mexican” at school and get knocked out for it, yet I can refer to my Mexican friends as anything I want (partly because I’m half-black, and they can call me whatever they like). Can you help me understand? Should mainstream America start referring to the Mexican people as “Cinnamons”? Or is my cousin being ignorant/racist? Can you PLEASE help me understand this conundrum?

Eager in Elizabethtown

Dear Young Mujer: “Cinnamons?” At least your cousin didn’t suggest “wetbacks.”

He’s not racist—one of the most romantic songs in the Spanish language is the bolero standard “Piel Canela,” which translates as “Cinnamon Skin” and was immortalized by Eydie Gormé (yes, of lounge-lizards legend Steve and Eydie) with Trio Los Panchos. That said, calling someone a “Mexican” can be racist, mostly if the person being called that isn’t a Mexican, or if the person saying it pronounces it “Messkin” and has a deportation cannon next to them.

Ask the Mexican at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; be his fan on Facebook; follow him on Twitter @gustavoarellano; or follow him on Instagram @gustavo_arellano!

Published in Ask a Mexican

Dear Mexican: I’m tired of debating pasty white-breads that the Camino Real has had people going back and forth across the border for more than 500 years—and that a fence is redundant, because people will always be crossing our southern border. The white-breads insist that the wall can end this traffic; I don’t think so.

What is your thought on the history of the Camino Real?

Blanco Beaner

Dear Gabacho: Which Camino Real are we talking about? The one that connected California’s missions and was romanticized by gabachos? The one that connected Texas’ missions? El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, which went from Mexico City to Santa Fe? Or El Camino Real, the chingón Fullerton eatery that’s the favorite Mexican restaurant of Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant?

All of them reflect the same idea you allude to—that la frontera has had humans going back and forth for centuries, if not millennia, and that trying to seal off the border for good is as futile of an endeavor as getting Donald Trump’s mouth not to spew caca.

I was in San Diego recently renting a car when I mentioned I might be taking it down to Tijuana for the day. The nice man behind the counter asked me if I wanted to buy Mexican insurance. I thought that was a great idea.

Do you know if it’s available here in Denver? I’m sure I would feel a lot safer driving around the streets with that policy in my glove box!

Chubby Chubbys Chump

Dear Gabacho: You know, I was going to answer your question honestly—of course you can’t get Mexican insurance to cover you in the United States; it’s called Mexican insurance for a reason. And Mexican insurance really isn’t all that necessary in Mexico, if you have a $50 bill on you to pay off a cop—but now I’m thinking you’re just fucking with me.

May Peyton Manning choke again this season as punishment for your pendejadas.

I think, by law, all al pastor should be made traditionally—on a spit, topped with a fresh pineapple. Agreed?

Su Amigo, Otro Idiota con las Mejores Intenciones

Dear Friend, Another Idiot with the Best Intentions: Yes, and no. The Mexican personally thinks al pastor—the Mexican meat that involves packing together chunks of marinated pork on a spit, slowly roasting it for hours, and shaving off slices as needed—tastes best when topped with a pineapple, the better to have jugo de piña seep into the trompo. But be careful when you talk about traditions and Mexican foods.

As seemingly all hipsters found out this year after NPR and leeches—sorry, I meant millennial publications—did stories about al pastor’s origins, the tradition owes nothing to Mexico: It’s based on the shawarmas that Middle Eastern immigrants brought to central Mexico in the 1930s. All Mexicans did was substitute puerco for the original beef and lamb. And the original al pastor didn’t have pineapple—that’s a more recent addition dating back no more than 30 years, if that.

The only Mexican food law that should be enacted is a ban on anyone ever thinking again that celebrity chef Rick Bayless is an authority on anything other than his pocketbook.

Ask the Mexican at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; be his fan on Facebook; follow him on Twitter @gustavoarellano; or follow him on Instagram @gustavo_arellano!

Published in Ask a Mexican

When the Gang of Eight authoring the Senate immigration reform bill, which would be the first major overhaul since the 1980s, recently announced a new provision to create a “human wall” at the U.S.-Mexico border, tensions rose in D.C.

The move would double the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents and funnel more than $46 billion to border security in the Southwest. Since then, Arizona Sen. John McCain has said that the plans for a human wall might need to be tweaked, but an increase in border enforcement will continue to be central to the debate over this bill.

As deliberations continue, a new study for the American Sociological Review puts a new spin on the fundamental question of why there are so many (around 11 million) undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to begin with.

According to the new research, the danger of arrest and punishment at the border is not that big of a deterrent for many Mexicans considering whether to cross into the U.S. illegally. And as they weigh the decision, they have a lot more on their minds than just finding a better job. Many Americans assume that the decision to cross illegally is a purely economic one, since jobs in the U.S. often pay better. Yet values and social norms in the communities that Mexican immigrants come from may play a larger role in the decision to hop the border than previously realized. The study offers a gentle reminder—not to mention empirical evidence—that undocumented Mexican immigrants have the distinctly human trait of not being automatons.

“The view of would-be migrants as atomistic, utility-maximizing opportunists diverts our attention away from the complex and wide-ranging moral systems within which prospective migrants are embedded,” writes the study’s author, USC law professor and former Stanford research fellow, Emily Ryo.

Yet U.S. immigration policy in recent decades has been based largely on the premise that undocumented Mexican immigrants make decisions based solely on economics, Ryo says. Thus, the assumption has been that undocumented immigrants see any law as worth breaking—if it will help them earn a living. Yet a 2007 study shows that “incarceration rates for young men in the U.S. are the lowest for immigrants, especially for (first-generation) Mexicans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans—the groups that make up the bulk of the unauthorized population.” In other words, if these immigrants made decisions based solely on economics, they’d be breaking laws all over the place, even when they get to the U.S.—which they are not. Similarly, Ryo’s new work indicates that the premise that crossings are driven by purely economic factors just is not true.

Ryo found that in many communities across Michoacán, Morelos and Jalisco, when family or friends have attempted an illegal crossing before, subjects are three times more likely to attempt the journey themselves. An individual’s perception of the American justice system is also a big factor, though not in the way you might think: People who believe the system is unfair to darker-skinned immigrants are half as likely to have moral reservations about crossing illegally. Those who think the system is fair are 75 percent more likely to say they will not enter the U.S. illegally.

If Ryo’s research is accurate, U.S. policymakers could take a hint from it: Improving the reputation of our justice system could be one novel way to deter undocumented immigration. The more respect prospective immigrants have for the system, the less likely they are to try to break its rules.

The other suggestion that policymakers in Washington, D.C., might glean from Ryo’s work—and from what she says is a wider, growing body of research among academics—is that resources poured solely into apprehension at the border may not be the wisest allocation of tax dollars. (Last year, the U.S. government spent more on immigration enforcement than on all other main criminal federal law enforcement agencies combined.) U.S. investment in Mexican communities that aims to increase employment rates might be one way to deter the onslaught of attempted crossings—but not just because it may improve the economic situation in those areas. “It might make staying at home … a morally acceptable option for prospective migrants," because it could improve international perception of the legitimacy of U.S. laws, Ryo says.

Piecing together intriguing data like Ryo’s is one thing, but applying it to policy and making it politically palatable is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Tay Wiles is the online editor for High Country News, the site from which this was cross-posted. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Community Voices

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