Day laborers looking for work

The recent passage of a law in Arizona that gives police expanded power to ask people for documents proving their legal status is just the latest expression of frustration over immigration. It’s a question that no administration, Democrat or Republican, seems inclined to address.

Tyche Hendricks, who teaches international reporting at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, spent the last few years covering the borderlands straddling the US-Mexico border for the San Francisco Chronicle. She will be talking about immigration and her new book, The Wind Doesn’t Need a Passport: Stories From the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, tonight at 7 pm at Books Inc. on Fourth Street in Berkeley. Peter Schrag, the former editorial page editor for the Sacramento Bee, will also be at Books, Inc to talk about his book, Not Fit For Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America.

Tyche Hendricks

Berkeleyside asked Hendricks, now a special projects coordinator at KQED, some questions about her book.

In passing its new restrictive immigration bill, Arizona lawmakers described the border as an almost lawless region, where thieves, drug dealers and murderers have almost unfettered access to the U.S. They said the law was necessary because the federal government was not preventing people from coming in to the U.S. illegally. Is life in these border towns really so tense? Is there any common ground between people living on both sides of the border?

The Arizona law authorizing local police to serve as federal immigration agents comes during an economic recession (when immigrants historically have been targets of public frustration) and after years in which Congress has failed to act to overhaul immigration laws. Over the past decade or so, beefed up border enforcement in Texas and California funneled illegal border crossings and a share of drug smuggling across the Arizona desert, so Arizonans get a steady stream of news stories about border troubles.

People who live in the borderlands (in both the United States and Mexico) do bear the brunt of those problems – not only uncontrolled migration and drug trafficking but also pollution, too-rapid growth and strained healthcare resources. But I also found a remarkable spirit of neighborliness in twin border towns, a shared history and many, many families with cross-border ties. I was inspired by the way that doctors, ranchers, environmental scientists and businesspeople in both countries were rolling up their sleeves in a very pragmatic way and reaching across the border to tackle problems together.

What prompted you to write this book? How did you find your subjects?

The book began with a series I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle about the U.S.-Mexico border. In telling the stories of individual people and places and concerns along the length of the border, a larger story emerged. While the border from a distance appears to be a dividing line, I began to see that, up close, it’s actually a bi-national region, one that’s often misunderstood by those of us who live far away from it. It’s the place where our two countries are stitched together – fascinating, vibrant, fraught with serious challenges, but a place whose inhabitants might have something to teach the rest of us about how to get along and tackle our shared concerns.

I found the people and topics I wrote about in the book through classic shoe-leather reporting: talking to people who pointed me to other people. It took plenty of advance preparation and a certain amount of spontaneous serendipity.

California, Arizona and New Mexico were once part of Mexico. I would think that would give Americans a sense of connection with Mexicans. Instead this country seems to resent the country. Yet Mexicans do so much low paid work that Americans don’t seem to want to do.

Until the Mexican American War ended in 1848, California, Arizona and New Mexico were part of Mexico (Texas had seceded a decade earlier) and the awareness of that history is particularly keen in Mexico. At the end the war, tens of thousands of Mexicans became U.S. citizens with the stroke of a pen… Tejanos and Californios, whose roots go back to the days of Spanish colonization. And for more than a century, Mexicans have migrated to the United States for jobs – not only in the border states, but in the steel mills and stockyards of Chicago, the mines of Colorado and the orchards of Michigan. The connections forged over generations of migration have led to deep-rooted family ties between the United States and Mexico. Perhaps some of the resentment you describe comes from a lack of familiarity with that shared history.

Can a person live in Mexico and enter the US easily to go grocery shopping or something else? Or vice versa? In what ways do the two countries help one another?

Mexicans who live in the border region who can establish that they have sturdy ties to their communities – jobs and homes – can obtain a U.S. “border crossing card” or “laser visa,” which allows them to make short visits to the border region of the United States, for shopping, visiting, etc. Tens of thousands of Mexicans come into the United States this way every day and tens of thousands of U.S. citizens likewise visit Mexico daily.

The economic activity of those visits is an important contributor to the prosperity of U.S. border cities like San Diego and El Paso. Trade associations, non-profit networks and governments have built relationships across the border. Fire departments in border towns such as Calexico and Mexicali depend on each other for mutual assistance. Hospitals in the two Nogaleses share resources and expertise. Air quality managers meet regularly, as do chambers of commerce. These links are often hampered by long wait times at border ports of entry and the frictions caused by fence building, but local people continue working together just the same.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...