Go alone or with a partner, but go. Make friends along the way. Enjoy the people and the places for what they are, not what you want them to be. Travel outside your comfort zones and you will extend your spheres of influence. Become a part of the places you visit and you will always be there, even when you return home.

Like the elk at the Yellowstone National Park visitor's center, we can only visit, nibble, leave our mark, and move on.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Itinerant's Itinerary:  Grand Teton National Park,Wyoming

     It has been a few weeks since I finished my motorcycle ride along the borderlands of southern Arizona.  It was a unique, exhilarating experience, and I am grateful to the Ted Simon Foundation for the opportunity to complete the ride.  The trip ended with a visit to the Overland Expo in Flagstaff, where I gave a short lecture about my travels along the border. There was a good crowd for the talk and overall I think it was well received. 
     However, after the lecture I was approached by several people from the audience, each of whom derided me for my opinions about my experiences.  Among the comments that are publishable, I was called ignorant and a carpetbagger, and was told that I had no right to come to Arizona and make judgements about immigration.  I was told that I couldn't possibly understand the immigration issues without living near the Arizona border for the last decade. One man, who was also a heckler during the lecture, told me with a straight face, that the worst part of Mexican immigration was that immigrants assimilated into the community and became part of society. 
     These encounters left me stunned and disappointed.  I told my wife, who had experienced these discussions in Flagstaff with me, that I had no taste for writing again about immigration in a toxic environment.  As is often the case, she disagreed strongly with that idea.  She encouraged me to write about my last experience. 
     If you have been following the posts I wrote, you may remember that I had remarked that I was traveling as a citizen in my own country.  And yet in Flagstaff I was accused of being an outsider, somehow not qualified to comment on my experiences in Arizona.
     The accusation of being an outsider reminded me of the famous response by Dr. Martin Luther King to a similar charge, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  Dr. King was confined to the city jail in Birmingham, Alabama after being arrested for his part in non-violent protests against the racial segregation by Birmingham's city government and downtown retailers.   His letter was a response to a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen who argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts, not in the streets. They criticized Dr. King, calling him an “outsider” who caused trouble in the streets of Birmingham.  To this, Dr. King responded that all communities and states in the country were interrelated. He wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

     As I write these words I am visiting Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, fly fishing in the reflection of snow-capped mountains.  The temperatures in Wyoming, both literally and figuratively, are cooler than Arizona, perhaps allowing me the to reflect about my incident in Flagstaff.  "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."  I am a white man with an Anglo surname carrying a valid U.S. passport, yet I was subjected to an unlawful search and seizure of my property in San Luis, Arizona.  I can only imagine what someone with brown skin, a Mexican surname, and a work visa encounters daily along the border.  In my own country, traveling public highways fifty miles north of the border, I was stopped and questioned at checkpoints by armed law enforcement agents.  Moreover, immigration concerns have bred a kind of ugly xenophobia in Arizona that I only briefly encountered in Flagstaff, and has spilled over into other areas of public policy.  How else can you explain that in the public school system of Tucson, where the student body is 60% Mexican-American, the Mexican-American studies program was terminated and its books banned and removed from the school libraries?  How else can you explain a state law than bans teachers with heavy accents from teaching English, despite the state having spent the last decade recruiting teachers for whom English was a second language?  How else do you explain, despite the heavy existing militarization of the border and the fact that illegal immigration is now at it's lowest rate in four decades, a state law creating and funding an additional volunteer armed militia to patrol the border for undocumented immigrants?  The extensive border fences and the militarization of the border have been paid for with my taxes as well those of the residents of Arizona (immigrant workers also pay taxes, by the way).  We have all paid for the right to voice an opinion. 
     Some of the laws enacted in Arizona in the last few years are arguably unjust and at least one will be judged by the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Court will decide if the "show me your papers" law is constitutional, but it won't necessarily decide if it's just.   Dr. King defined it simply: "Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust... An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal."  Remember, in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities under the doctrine of "separate but equal", an unjust law deemed legal that was finally overturned fifty years later in Brown v. Board of Education.
     I certainly don't regret or retract the things I have written or said about immigration.  The trip has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my life and I wouldn't change a thing, including my encounter with critics in Flagstaff, however much I believe them to be mistaken.  In the end, demographics will prevail.  Minority babies outnumbered white newborns in 2011 for the first time in U.S. history, the latest milestone in a demographic shift that’s transforming the nation.  Mexicans are becoming U.S. citizens in record numbers.  Already four states in the U.S. - California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas - have majority-minority (?) populations.  Arizona and my own state of Florida will be transformed as well, demographically if not politically, and the transition of power may be difficult.  Along the way people of good will, regardless of whether they live in Arizona or Florida, or Wyoming, must continue the debate.  Don't take my word for it.  Go.  Go see for yourself.  Arizona needs tourists, since it has walled itself off, often frightening away visitors.    The border towns have suffered a significant loss in tourism revenue in the last 5 years.  Despite what the governor said, the Arizona desert is not littered with decapitated bodies.  Instead of going to Disney World, visit Nogales and walk across the border.  Visit the borderlands and see for yourself.  Make your own discovery ride.  We may end up disagreeing about immigration, but we both will have had a terrific time.
     In the meantime, back to the cool waters in Wyoming...

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Itinerant's Itinerary:  Riding the Fence Line in Sasabe, Arizona

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall.
     - from "Mending Walls", by Robert Frost

     I guess I should have expected the walls.  After all, I've been riding the fence line in Arizona  along the US-Mexico border, and the borders have walls.  But I wasn't prepared for the extent of the walls.  More precisely, while I was prepared for the height of the walls, I hadn't expected the depth of the wall mentality.  I am now haunted by walls.
     There are famous walls, like Hadrian's Wall in northern England or the Great Wall of China, that kept the enemies away, and there are infamous walls like the Berlin Wall or the Warsaw Ghetto wall built to keep people in.  Walling in or walling out as Robert Frost puts it.
Hadrian's Wall
Great Wall of China

U.S. Presidents Reagan and Clinton each condemned the Berlin wall at the Brandenburg Gate, Reagan imploring Mr. Gorbachev to "tear down this wall", and Clinton congratulating East Germans for completing the task.  Yet Presidents Bush and Obama have promoted building walls along the entire U.S. southwestern border from Texas to California.
     The U.S. border walls vary considerably.  Near Calexico on the California border the segments resemble woodworker sawhorses chained together as a barrier to vehicles, but posing little challenge to pedestrians.
Border wall near Calexico, California

San Luis, Arizona is extremely hemmed in, with the Mexican border walled to the west and south, and the restricted Barry Goldwater Air Force Range to the east.  The walls in San Luis range from wooden slatted structures to thirty foot high metal barricades.
Border wall in San Luis, Arizona

     In Nogales, Arizona the walls were metal but slotted rather than solid.  Previous solid walls had blocked natural water drainage patterns causing floods with millions of dollars of property damage and two drowning deaths, so they all had to be removed and replaced with walls allowing water flow.  The cost of replacing 2.8 miles of fence was $11.6 million.  One of the segments replaced was the "Friendship Wall", a mural on the south face of the original fence painted by residents from both sides of the border.  Fortunately, at the last hour the mural was saved from destruction and will be placed at a new location.
A train track in Nogales became a spur after the border wall was erected
Bank of America can't foreclose on the Mexican homes seen here across from Nogales
     The border walls are not only physical structures but also technological walls.  In 2006 President Bush initiated the Secure Borders Initiative network (SBInet), an integrated system of personnel, infrastructure, technology, and rapid response to secure the border and consolidate operational departments of border security.  SBInet was envisioned as a network of towers containing surveillance technology with overlapping sectors, and a central control and command center.  The project was plagued with delays, cost overruns, and technological failures, leading Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to cancel the program in 2010, after having spent over $1 billion with little to show for the expense.  Now a new surveillance plan in the works, called the "Alternative (Southwest) Border Technologies", that includes a mix of camera towers, truck-mounted mobile surveillance systems, night-vision goggles, ground sensors, handheld equipment for use by Border Patrol agents and towers similar to those put up in the SBInet virtual fence system. Planes, helicopters and unmanned aerial systems are also be incorporated.  The total cost of border security in the last decade from Texas to California is estimated to be over $90 billion.
     In  Sasabe, I stayed at the wonderful Rancho de la Osa, originally a Spanish land grant hacienda and a continuously operating ranch since 1812.  The ranch acreage abuts the Arizona-Mexico border east of the tiny Sasabe border crossing station.  Ranch wrangler Gary Brenwald took me on an early morning ride along the border fence line on horseback.
Wrangler Gary Brenwald and me along the Sasabe border fence
Riding the fence line
Mary and me along the fence line

We could see miles of 15-foot high slotted metal border fence, but the barrier ends abruptly at the boundary of the adjacent tribal property of the Tohono O'odham Nation, which disputes the authority of the U.S. government to place border fences on tribal lands.
The fence and the fence line road end at the Tohono O'odham Nation boundary
Mexico across the fence

The Tohono O’odham are the only Native American nation officially recognized as straddling the U.S.-Mexico border. In 1853, the Gadsen Purchase put the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico directly across the nation.  The terms of that purchase dictated that the U.S. was to recognize this people’s rights to travel their land.  Until the past decade, the Tohono O’odham traveled freely throughout their traditional lands on both sides of the border, sanctioned yet largely unnoticed by U.S. authorities.  However, this all changed when border patrol officials began patrolling this region.  Although the newer border fence ends at the tribal lands boundary, a barbed wire fence divides the Nation in half.  Today, the existence of the ever widening border security has made cross-border movement by the Tohono O’odham people largely impossible.
     Border walls aren't just physical or technological, they are also political.  Last fall, Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann signed a pledge to support the construction of a fence that would run the entire length of the United States-Mexico border.  Not to be outdone, candidate Herman Cain voiced his support for an electrified border fence, one juiced enough to be lethal: touch it and die.  Walls, then, are often built not for security, but for a sense of security.  The distinction is important. What a wall satisfies is not so much a physical need as a mental one.
     I was prepared for border walls but I wasn't prepared for the wall mentality, the xenophobia.  I use the term xenophobia, because it isn't necessarily racism or bigotry, but fear.  Fear of the unknown, fear of the different, fear of the other.  Unfortunately there are many, even those in authority, who choose to exploit our fears for personal gain or wealth.  Walls then are offered, not to protect people not from the barbarians at the gate, but from anxieties and fears, which can often be more terrible than the worst invaders.  Walls are built not for those who live outside them, threatening as they may be, but for those who live within.  What is built is not a just a physical wall, but a state of mind.
     Good fences make good neighbors?  Perhaps, but I think I agree with Robert Frost, "something there is that doesn't love a wall."

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Itinerant's itinerary:  Sasabe, Arizona

     Today I rode from Nogales to Sasabe, from one border town to another, through the desert heat.  Sasabe is a tiny town, with a little used border crossing, and it's hot.

     It's hot right now in Arizona.  The temperatures have been in the upper 90's for my entire Discovery Ride.  It's hot, but it's a dry heat.  Immigration is very hot in Arizona.  Amid all the heat of immigration in the last decade - the "show me your papers laws", the banning of books from a terminated Mexican-American studies program in Tucson, the militarization of the border, and the building of physical and electronic border fences - amid all that heat, we were long overdue for some dry facts.

     A recent Pew Hispanic Center report highlights significant changes in the last decade in the facts of immigration.  The numbers of Mexicans coming to the U.S. have declined, and the numbers leaving for Mexico have increased, so much so that the net migration from 2005 to 2010 reached zero.  This huge migratory shift is due to several factors: a weaker U.S. economy, a stronger Mexican economy, changing Mexican demographics, rising deportation, and enhanced border security.  Moreover, of the Mexicans that still come to the U.S., many more do so legally.  In 2001 less than 10% came with papers; a decade later it is over 50%.  The majority of these came on "family reunification visa", i.e., relatives of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.  Finally, in the last decade over 1 million Mexicans became U.S. citizens, more than any other nationality over the  same period.
This rise in legal migration may change the political debate, requiring less of a "law and order" response.  But rapidly changing demographics can still trigger xenophobia.  When political districts change from predominately Anglo to predominately Mexican-American, feathers will likely get ruffled.  Let's hope that that the political rhetoric and the temperatures cool off.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Itinerant's Itinerary:  Nogales, Arizona/Mexico

     Nogales is a busy crossing town, since I-19 brings commercial trucking and vehicles north and south across the Arizona-Mexico border.  But you can still walk across the border, so I joined hundreds of other pedestrians who crossed on foot.  On the Arizona side, the main street to the border is lined with shops selling cheap shoes, baby clothes, and costume jewelry.  
Street leading to Nogales border lined with shops
Nogales AZ border shop with inexpensive goods

     On the Mexican side, the street is lines with farmacias, pharmacies selling name brand drugs that would require a prescription a hundred yards away in Arizona.  
Farmacia Plaza lined on both sides with nothing but pharmacies
One of the pharmacies in Farmacia Plaza

     Thousands of U.S citizens cross the border each year to buy their prescription drugs in Mexico, since the costs can be significantly less.  I saw medicines for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, acid reflux, and impotence all on sale along the Farmacia Plaza, at prices less than half of what they go for in the U.S.  
Drugs to help your love life

     A decade ago, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration survey found that 46 percent of Americans returning with medication from Mexico were 51 years or older and that they most commonly bought antibiotics, as well as drugs for diabetes, estrogen replacement, arthritis, impotence and pain.  Americans with chronic ailments particularly have a hard time paying for their medicines.
     Anyone living in the U.S. knows that our health care costs are out of control and prescription drug costs are skyrocketing.  Medicare part D, the prescription drug benefit, gave some relief to seniors, but people under 65 still struggle to pay for medications, even if they have health insurance.
     Many Mexicans who cross into the U.S. look for cheap consumer goods, and opportunities for work.  Many U.S. citizens who cross into Mexico look for cheap prescription drugs.  These facts say much more about us in the U.S. than about our neighbors to the south.

Itinerant's Itinerary: Coronado National Memorial

     Francisco Vasquez Coronado traveled from Spain to Mexico in 1535 and was one of the first Europeans to visit the area that has become Arizona when his expedition in 1540 crossed the Huachuca Mountains south of what is now Sierra Vista, Arizona.  Fray Marcos de Niza in 1539 first explored the area north of Sonora, Mexico, then returned and claimed he had seen the Seven Cities of Cibola, a land of gold and silver.  His report led Coronado to make his famous expedition to the Zuni Pueblo the following year with de Niza as his guide.  The expedition failed to find gold and riches and de Niza returned to Mexico in shame.  Coronado went on to explore what is now the American southwest and achieve fame and wealth.
     I visited the Coronado National Memorial which honors the explorer.  It offers stunning views of the mountains and river valleys that Coronado crossed centuries ago, and which undocumented immigrants still cross today.

Map of Coronado National Memorial on the Arizona-Mexico border

     The ride from Sierra Vista to the park visitor's center is on paved roads, but the three mile climb to the top of Montezuma Pass is along an unpaved road that winds up a mountainside to the peak.  
On the road to Montezuma Pass

At the summit, I could see for miles north to Tombstone and south to Mexico.  
View towards the US, Sierra Vista, and the road up the mountain
View towards Mexico and the Huachuca Mountains

     At the peak a border patrol agent was parked in a truck-mounted camera tower equipped with infrared and radar technology.  This type of technology being implemented along the Arizona border to replace SBInet, the so-called "virtual border fence" project begun in 2005.  SBInet experienced severe delays and could never be fully implemented, despite costing over $1 billion through 2011, until the project was cancelled by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

     A new surveillance plan, called the "Alternative (Southwest) Border Technology", will include a mix of camera towers, truck-mounted mobile surveillance systems, night-vision goggles, ground sensors, handheld equipment for use by Border Patrol agents and towers similar to those put up in the SBInet virtual fence system. Planes, helicopters and unmanned aerial systems will also be incorporated.
     Francisco Coronado had to overcome the Huachuca Mountains to reach Arizona.  The barriers have grown since the sixteenth century.

Itinerant's Itinerary:  San Luis
     You think you had a bad day at work?  Imagine this scenario.  You live in San Luis, Rio Colorado, Mexico, across the border from San Luis, Arizona, which lies about 20 miles south of Yuma, and is bordered to the west and south by Mexico.  You awake at 3 am to start your commute because you have to cross at the border checkpoint that is usually backed up for a couple of hours, and you have to be at your work pickup site by 6 am.  From there you are taken an hour away to work in one of the produce fields that ring San Luis and Yuma.  At 5 pm you are taken back to your pick up site and you recross the border into Mexico, getting home after 7 pm.  And tomorrow you start it all over again.
     This is the typical workday for thousands of workers who live in San Luis, Mexico and cross the border legally each day to work in Arizona.  Over ten thousand Mexicans cross at San Luis each day to work or shop for the day along the Arizona border.  Dozens of small shops, diners, and food trucks line the main street at the border crossing in San Luis.
A limo service in San Luis

     I stopped at one cafe that had a sign in the window that said it was open 24 hours a day.  When I asked the cashier if it was busy enough to stay open all night, she said that 3 am to 7 am was their busiest time because of the workers crossing early in the morning.
     I took photographs of the cashier and the sign in the cafe window, but they no longer exist, because they were confiscated and deleted by border patrol agents.  I was photographing the colorful archway that crosses the border checkpoint displaying the flags of Mexico and the United States, when I was surrounded by six federal agents.  One, the leader, was in a black SWAT-type uniform, while three were Border Patrol agents and two were Immigration and Naturalization Service officers.  The lead agent asked who I was and what I was doing, so I explained my trip and it's purpose (which earned me a strange look), and why I was taking photographs.  He asked for my camera and began to scroll through the pictures.  He told me that the border crossing was federal property and I was under their jurisdiction.  I said I didn't think taking pictures was illegal, and he said it wasn't illegal, as he continued to scroll through the pictures.  Then he cited the authority of Homeland Security and his anti-terrorism assignment, and told me that for the safety of border personnel, he was going to delete all the photos that included border guards.
     None of the agents offered to show me any ID.  I guess their uniforms and their holstered sidearms were badges enough.  The agent proceeded to delete photos from my camera, including, I later realized, many that did not include border guards, such as the cafe window sign and the cashier.  He was very polite and after deleting my images he shook my hand and wished me a good trip.  I looked at the six agents still surrounding me and asked him if I could get a group photo as a souvenir.  He scowled and said that it wasn't funny, but a couple of the younger agents smiled anyway.  I was able to snap one photo of the border crossing from my bike on the way out of town.
Border crossing at San Luis

      That same day I had two more encounters with border agents.  While traveling from Yuma to Casa Grande, I was stopped, along with everyone else on I-10, at a border patrol checkpoint set up to search for vehicles carrying undocumented immigrants that have crossed the border on foot and been picked up in Arizona by an awaiting ride.  I was waved through quickly, since it was clear my bike's side cases held no passengers. 
Border patrol checkpoint on I-8

     Later I pulled off the road for a rest and water break at a desolate road that became unpaved a few hundred yards from the highway.  
Unpaved road into the desert west of Casa Grande

While I was standing next to my motorcycle drinking bottled water, a Pinal County Sheriff pulled up and asked what I was doing.  I told him and he said that I should be careful because I was stopping at a pickup spot for illegal immigrants.  He pointed out the discarded water bottles and cloth sacks that he said had been left by those who had crossed from Mexico on foot and been picked up by an awaiting vehicle where my bike was now parked.  With a friendly wave he then took off into the desert along the unpaved road.
Trash said to be left by immigrants crossing on foot

     Despite my three encounters with border law enforcement, compared to the workers that cross the border at San Luis each day, I had a very easy day.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Itinerant's Itinerary:  Imperial Valley

     I picked up my motorcycle from Jupiter's Motorcycles in Los Angeles, and took off for Yuma, Arizona, by way of Calexico on the California-Mexico border. 
Ismael brought me my BMW 1200 GS in Huntington Beach, California

The first leg of my journey took me through one of the most productive agricultural areas in the U.S., the Imperial Valley, sometimes called America's Winter Salad Bowl. If you've eaten a salad recently, it's likely the lettuce was picked here. The agriculture industry here produces a billion dollars of crops annually.
Lettuce field near El Centro, California

The winds in this area are strong and we saw plenty of wind turbines along the way.
Windmills west of Calexico
The entire area was originally desert, and it is still ringed by the Mojave Desert to the north, the Sonoran Desert to the south and the Algodones Dunes to the east. The Algodones Dunes are the largest mass of dunes in California, extending forty miles from north to south and over five miles in width.
Irrigation canal cuts through desert dunes
     A century ago engineers diverted water from the Colorado river to irrigation canals in the Imperial Valley, converting the arid desert into an Eden of fertile agricultural land, and inadvertently creating the Salton Sea, a large saline inland lake, to the north. Today the Salton Sea is fed by two small rivers, the New and the Alamo, that flow north around Calexico from Mexico, and by agricultural irrigation runoff from nearly a half million acres of farms in the area. The rivers are polluted with chemical and human waste, and the agricultural runoff rife with chemical fertilizers. The New River contains a mix of about 100 biological contaminants, volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, and pesticides including selenium, uranium, arsenic and mercury. The river also holds the biological sources that cause tuberculosis, encephalitis, polio, cholera, hepatitis and typhoid, all flowing untreated through Calexico.
     The New River has been named North America's most polluted river, so it's no surprise that the Salton Sea is similarly toxic. The Salton Sea is becoming more polluted yearly, as the desert heat, with temperatures routinely over 100 degrees F in summer, evaporates water from the lake, leaving more concentrated toxins behind. Moreover, since 2003, a water deal began transferring Colorado River water from the farms of the Imperial Valley to San Diego, 85 miles away. This will reduce water inflow to the Salton Sea about twenty percent, increasing the lake's toxins, and hastening the dying process. It's likely that the Salton Sea will disappear or become reduced to a puddle of pollutants within a generation.
     Water of course is a precious and lucrative commodity, especially in an arid region with growing demand. California water deals have been going on for over a century (consider the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, or the movie Chinatown). It has been cynically said that in California, water always flows uphill towards money. The Imperial Irrigation District expects to eventually pocket 50 million dollars a year for selling its water to San Diego.  

Irrigation canal near Brawley, California

     That's good for valley farmers since the money will go to projects like canal lining and pump-back systems that will make farms more water efficient. But the deal is not so good for area farm workers, many of whom are first or second generation immigrants. Towns like Brawley or El Centro are populated by migrant agricultural workers. Remember, this region is the center of the United Farm Workers union, once led by Cesar Chavez, the labor leader and civil rights activist. Imperial County's population now is almost three-quarters Hispanic and already has the highest unemployment rate and lowest per capita income in the state.

Workers planting a field near El Centro, California

      Agriculture provides about half of the jobs in the Imperial Valley. The water transfer could cost thousands of farm jobs, if cropland is laid fallow to send water to San Diego, making the already hard life of the migrant farm worker even more difficult.