A Fence with No Name

U.S. Side 4

by Parrish W. Jones, Ph.D.
©2003 All rights reserved.

Boys looking across the border from Ciudad Juarez

This fence seems just to meander through the dessert except when it comes to town after town.Then it clearly is meant to divide. Its original shape until 1992 seemed innocuous enough—dilapidated chain link fence that looked more like a feeble attempt to protect backyards from the tramping feet of Mexican youth coming across to buy something at Radio Shack, Penney’s, Safeway, or hang out at the park with friends, cousins, aunts, uncles, or visit a grandparent. They almost always went home at the end of the day. But they were in Douglas, El Paso, San Diego, Loredo, or Brownsville without legal documents, so they had broken U.S. law, but in some cases were trying to keep divine law—they were honoring their elderly family members by visiting grandparents and aunts and uncles.

The innocuous chain link was not enough to stop the drugs or the flow of undocumented refugees from Central America, Vietnam, Cambodia, China, and Europe. Nor could it stem the flow of Mexican workers whose economic condition seemed to deteriorate as rapidly as the U.S. economy improved. 

In the old days (1970 and 80’s) legal crossings with documents were not easy. That process has not grown much different except in post 9-11 days it is a bit more discriminating. In those old days one could cross without documents with fair ease and return with equal ease. Border Patrol, the Migra, was stretched too far to watch the border constantly even in the towns. Boys gathered at holes in the fence, waited until the Migra disappeared, and snuck across. Most crossings were innocent and non-threatening. The Migra was a game. Even if caught, most were simply shuttled to the official entrance and sent home.

Border fence in 1992 at Douglas, AZ and Agua Prieta, Sonora, MX

All that has changed. To fight the “War on Drugs”, the “War on Terrorism” and to appear like something is being done about undocumented immigration the politicians have passed laws to increase the number of Border Patrol agents and to build bigger, stronger, longer fences. Now the chain link fence separating Douglas from Agua Prieta is an “ornamental” bar fence that is painted the color of dessert sand. It looked nice until it began to rust. It is 12 feet high and has foot long parts at the top that point, ironically, toward the U.S. to further deter attempts to climb over. Yet, The irony is that the angled tops point the way to affluence and hope, the way out of poverty in the minds of those who would cross. This fence is what it is because the people of Douglas refused to permit the use of Air Force tarmac in their backyards. The fence is constantly watched by remote cameras and is lighted at night with bright stadium lights much like prison fences are.

Prayer vigil at Border Fence in Auga Prieta 2010.

In Tijuana/San Diego, Nogales, Juarez/El Paso, Matamoris/Brownsville and so on, the fence is made of Air Force tarmac, a corrugated steel panel used to build temporary runways in wars. They are black and nearly impenetrable. They are welded together and placed along the border with no regard for appearance. Not only do they divide a culture from itself, it divides animals from their habitat and changes the habitat in the immediate vicinity. 

This fence has not made better neighbors. Instead, bitterness increases on both sides. Ranchers, who used to see few immigrants crossing their lands, using their water, breaking their fences, now see hordes of immigrants pushed into the desert by the growing fence and greater border vigilance by the Border Patrol. Some take up arms against the intruders. Others take up phones, pens and placards against the injustice of the border. People on both sides grow increasingly resentful of the U.S. policy as more and more persons, seeking what all our ancestors came here to seek, die in the desert from drowning, dehydration, starvation, and exposure (on average one per day). Few are aware of how dangerous the crossing is until after they start. Some know but think it is worth the chance.

It is odd that a fence of such prominence has no name. Its purpose is different from that of the Berlin Wall, which was not intended to keep people out but to keep people in. Few persons wished to go to East Berlin or East Germany except on business. This fence is intended to keep people out. U.S. citizens move freely in and out of Mexico. We rarely are asked to show I.D. much less Visas or Passports. In 12 years I was asked for the first time to show I.D. when entering the U.S. this year. The Customs Agent said I had won the lottery. The computer randomly selects persons to be scrutinized now even if the agents see no reason.

What makes this nameless fence like the Berlin Wall is the constant surveillance. Remote cameras, night vision goggles, weapons, high tech equipment that was once solely for the military, and danger are all a part of this fence as it was the Wall. Fortunately or not, this fence is limited by its capacity to wall off the whole border. There are great gaps in the fence in remote areas. However, there are plans and appropriated funds to change that.

The fence cannot be named “Border Fence”. That is too innocent. Perhaps, “Line in the Sand” would be good because it would indicate that we had drawn a line in the sand as a challenge. Those who dare may cross it, but don’t you dare. It seems to me that it should memorialize something. In that spirit, it could be called something sinister like the “Dessert Dead Memorial Fence”. 

U.S. Side 5

While the border has always been a contentious subject for the U.S. ever since the Gadsden Purchase that acquired the majority of the Southwest from Mexico, cross border movement was fairly easy until the late 80’s when the hardening began and fence building was planned and budgeted. So it may be appropriate to name the fence in honor of those who helped make this monster grow. 

Border at El Paso and Ciudad Juarez 2011.

But whose name? There are many presidents (Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton, and Bush 2) and governors, senators and representatives, who collaborated to pass legislation to put up a wall telling a whole nation that we are not extending hospitality to them despite what the Bible says. Call us Christian, if you will, but on this matter we just don’t care what the Bible says.

So that brings to mind an ironic name: “the Good Neighbor Fence”. Fences only create good neighbors when they have good purposes and do not distract. I put up fences to keep my dog out of the neighbor’s yard but tried to make the fence attractive. This ribbon that separates nations and cultures is anything but attractive.

Those of us who care do not want an ironic name because despite its capacity to give good-humored people on both sides a laugh, it is too sinister. It would be like sticking our finger in their eye. 

It could be called, “The Money Pit” except it isn’t a pit. The U.S. has spent billions of dollars building the fence and more billions patrolling the fence. Much more is to come. For what? Nothing! Reports are that more people enter each year despite the fence. Yet, the cost in human life and health is incredible. Many who die are children whose parents are already in the U.S. They cross to be reunited with their parents only to die in the desert or suffer hunger and dehydration so severe that they become chronically ill. Some of the children end up in virtual slavery in inner city factories just like older companions. Others happily find their parents. 

I think it better though that it remain a fence with no name. Just as the policy that places it there really has no name because it has too many names and personalities to which 9-11 added many more under the rubric of “Homeland Security”. But no name sort of memorializes the dozens if not hundreds of persons who have died and been buried in the desert without a name and many more who have been discovered but unidentified. The fact is that all those who cross remain nameless pilgrims in our minds. They build our office buildings and homes, roads and airports, schools and libraries, clean our homes and workplaces, gather our trash and wear our discards, care for our lawns and swimming pools, and get paid little while paying social security to false accounts from which they will receive nothing and taxes to states and a nation that say, “We do not want you” out of one side of their mouths and “We can’t do without you” out the other side.

So no name is perhaps the right name as the millions of persons who live and work among us without names or even faces for most of us. Why? Only because they hope to make a little more money than they can at home and send it home to their Mom’s and Dad’s to turn their shacks into livable homes or to wives and children so the children can have nutritious diets and medicine when they are sick. We act as if they have come to steal our lives, but they do not want our lives; they want their own life.

But my government wants their name. Every time they cross the border, the fence takes their name and much of their life. So perhaps the right thing to do is to write, graffiti style, on the fence the names of all those who have crossed. But that could only happen if people had the courage and the money to pay fines and go to jail, because this fence—this ugly and mean spirited fence—is government property and one would be defacing government property—a crime in the view of any nameless bureaucrat or politician.

So the fence will remain a fence with no name.

© Parrish Jones 2011          parrish@parrishjones.net