The North Bank of the Big River

The Immigrants will keep coming. The only thing separating their misery from bright possibility is a river, a desert, and laws they don’t understand. They take their chances and trek northward. Our need for their labor is insatiable. Their dreams will not be thwarted.

The North Bank of the Big River
Downtown El Paso

"No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark." - Warsan Shire, Somali-British Poet

The world was different to us back then because we were young and there was much we did not understand. We were far away from everyone and everything we knew and lived in a trailer on a ranch and the Rio Grande was less than a mile distant across the old Mines Road in Laredo. The river was so close that immigrants were often still wet when they came by our door on the way to the railroad tracks that they followed north during the night to reach San Antonio. They never asked anyone on the ranch for more than water and did not want to linger because they knew the Border Patrol was vigilant and was always moving through the brush and cacti. Sometimes, though, during the night, a few of them might gently toss pebbles against our window to ask for water and it scared my young bride while I was away at work.

In those days, there was nothing we knew to be afraid of and we went to Mexico every weekend and ate and shopped and walked the streets in Nuevo Laredo and drove up to the mountains and the little towns like Bustamente. We had cold beer and pickled eggs and listened to the music in the plazas and there was almost always the smell of carne asada in the air. Our car was often left on the U.S. side of the border, too, and we walked across the bridge to start our night at the Cadillac Bar with a rum punch and mariachi music. In the mornings, after a rare rainfall, the air was crystalline and you could see the mountains across the desert. We sat the wooden steps at the back of our rented single-wide and looked at the dark outline of the distant peaks and we talked and dreamed about our lives and travel.

The border is not much like that today and I no longer go down into Mexico. Every day we hear of new horrors about immigration and drug cartels but I try to remember the kind and gentle souls I have met south of the border and their struggles to make a humble living on an epic landscape. The U.S. government says the immigrant surge at the border is so great because it includes tens of thousands coming from the Northern Triangle countries of Central America. Mexicans are still crossing to America, though, and we continue to buy the narcotic products that are fueling their economic decline and creating social collapse.

You cannot know their pain and desperation until you have seen it and heard them cry. I have listened to their pleadings more times than I can remember but I have never forgotten the tears on their faces. I know that what they are doing is against the law but I also know that if I were living their lives of desperation and fear that there is no river that could keep me from trying to help my family. When we decided to make our country a “shining city on a hill,” why did we think the needy of the world would not be drawn to the light?

There is one immigrant I will never be able to forget. I was down on the Rio Grande where the river makes a slow bend south of Del Rio, and was accompanying a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officer as he worked alone on a night shift, trying to make a small impact on the immigration problem. He was preparing to deal with river crossers before they got loose into Texas and encountered an endless horizon of mesquite, prickly ocotillo and cholla, rattlesnakes, and a ceaseless heat that felt as though it were left over from the earth’s beginnings. There was also fast water moving in the channel and at this location it was deep and dangerous.

Our camera crew was moving slowly into the canebrakes that stood tall in the flood plain and obscured the landscape from anyone looking to the north bank of the river. The sky was rolling up darkness from the east and the light quickly diminished as the agent led us into the tunnels and pathways that the immigrants had made through the giant stands of stalks. Presently, he showed us where the constant flow of travelers through the cane had made little spaces to hide off of the trail. These were littered with abandoned clothes and other meager possessions that might have not served them on the long walk across the deadly open summer spaces of Texas. I thought the spot where we settled to wait for them looked like a camp or a fort fashioned by adventurous boys.

The cane rattled and made a haunting sound as the wind came up but it offered protection from a sky that they would come to know as an enemy in the next days. Chances were good a few would die of thirst or exposure. The lucky ones might be able to jump a freight train, but first they had to succeed at sneaking into town and avoiding security at the rail yards. There is always a game of statistics in violating any law.

“We can’t catch them all,” the CBP officer said into our TV camera. “Or even a meaningful percentage, I think. We only get a tiny percent. And you feel bad about it when you do. But it’s the law and it’s my job. Here, let me show you this.”

The pathway opened up to a muddy embankment that angled sharply to the water. The Rio Grande was moving swiftly and was darkly colored from the soil it carried from the great basins of farmland along the Rio Conchos in north-central Mexico and the remote canyon lands of Big Bend National Park. Not just strength, but mighty courage would be required to swim across to America.

“They’re gathering over there right now.” The agent pointed upstream a few hundred yards and slight motion was visible in the undergrowth on the Mexican side. “I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be crossing that river tonight. Let’s just pull back and wait.”

We followed the little beam of his pocket flashlight and were eventually positioned at a location up the trail near the hollowed-out rest spot. We squatted in the darkness for almost an hour until we heard them slipping as they clambered up the muddy embankment. The officer stood.

“They’ll be here in a few minutes.” His voice was dispassionate and clinical. After riding around with him that day on his patrols we learned quickly of his moral conflict. He was the son of immigrants from Mexico. “We all came here from somewhere,” he had told us during the taping of an interview. “I’m just not sure how or what we do about this. I don’t even know if there is a political solution, or any humanitarian way to deal with this, but I doubt it will ever stop.”

Eleven people approached and the agent turned on his larger flashlight with the bright beam as he heard them rustling through the cane and he focused it on their faces.

“Alto. Espere aqui,” he ordered.

His voice was not authoritative, but they obeyed and stopped. As he walked, he tapped on their shoulders and ordered them to sit. This was a measure of security he took because budget cuts at that time had put him in the position of working alone in the dark and handling people who might be filled with angry desperation, or maybe even armed. These nine men and two women were no different than those he encountered almost every night of his job. They were tired and sad and wet and all they wanted was a job and money to send home to care for their families.

“Can you please just let me go?” One of the men asked in halting English. “I just can’t go back. Please, sir. I am beg to you.”

He gave his name as Riojas. As we waited for the vans to arrive after the agent radioed for assistance, we talked to Riojas and asked him about what had led him to the river. He was the only one willing to speak but their stories all had the same texture of struggle and hurt with minor variations in fact.

“I cannot go home,” he sobbed. The bright camera light turned his tears into shining rivulets. “No work there. My children hungry. My wife sick. I have to come America.”

“Where do you come from?” I asked.

“My home, you know is Guatemala? Little place town back there. I walk here. Many hundreds miles.”

The agent paced in front of the assembled group and remained wary that someone might bolt into the brush.

“You let me go, sir? Please. What it matter? No one knows. What it matter to you? Nothing? But it big important to me. Please. My children.”

I turned to see if there was a reaction on the CBP officer’s face behind the flashlight’s glow. He betrayed nothing and swung the beam of his light toward Riojas and saw his bare feet, sweat pants, and torn tee shirt, and his dripping, stringy hair.

“I can’t,” the agent said in Spanish. “You know that.”

The vans rolled up and the immigrants boarded and were gone within minutes. After being processed through a detention center, they were returned to the international bridge and sent back south. But they were not likely to give up.

“I’m sure I’ll see that Riojas fella again,” the officer said. “Or one of our other agents will. And probably the rest of them, too. Look, like I said, I don’t blame them. I’d take whatever risks are necessary to feed my kids. I guess we’re all just doing what we have to do. I don’t know anything, but I do know what is my job. I can tell you when I go home and try to sleep, I see the dirty faces of children I’ve had to send back and wonder what will become of them.”

The current surge of migrants at the U.S. border is about more than economic frailties in Mexico. Uncountable numbers of transients have come north from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Although America has been involved in the Northern Triangle region since the beginning of the previous century, our politics and business practices in the 1980s are considered to have led to the present destabilization and flourishing of crime; especially the drug trade. Our support of right-wing governments in the region, providing military and economic aid to counter left-wing movements, led to civil wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, and the U.S. was accused of human rights abuses while supporting authoritarian regimes.

The current instability in the region, which is complicating the border crisis in Texas, is readily traceable to the behavior of American fruit companies Dole and Chiquita Brands International. They effectively turned much of the region into giant plantations, paying almost slave wages and exercising economic power with politicians backed by the U.S. government. The United Fruit Company was especially close to the U.S. government, which supported the company’s operations throughout Central America. Politicians in Washington executed policies that viewed the activities of Dole and Chiquita as a means of promoting economic development and political growth in the region. The Dole company's influence, in particular, also contributed to political instability and corruption in some countries, leading to anti-American sentiment and protests.

The environmental degradation, social, and economic inequality over the decades were central causes to almost endless political conflict. Eventually, leftist movements arose, and the conservative government of Ronald Reagan got involved, even though Congress made it illegal to contribute to the Contras, a rebel force trying to defeat the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua. Reagan, and his vice president, George H.W. Bush, authorized illegal arms sales to Iran, despite an embargo, and used the proceeds to fund the Contras. They turned out to be little more than low-grade motorcycle thugs who were more interested in U.S. largesse than fighting and dying for the freedom of Nicaraguans. Ultimately, Reagan’s clandestine approach backfired and pushed the region further to the left, and Daniel Ortega, a Marxist-Leninist, who did not begin to embrace socialist and democratic reforms until about twenty years ago, became the president of Nicaragua. His current government has tended more toward authoritarian.

What might have unfolded, economically and politically in Central America, without meddlesome U.S. exploitation, will never be known. Facts presently before us are that the region is deeply troubled with drugs and poverty. Narco trafficking thrives because there is little other valuable work to sustain families. Honduras has become the second poorest nation in the hemisphere behind Haiti. Guatemala, meanwhile, has long been plagued by corruption, violence, and political instability, which have contributed to a lack of investor confidence and hindered economic growth. El Salvador suffers from “maras,” gangs that roam the streets and contribute to one of the highest homicide rates in the world. A new president, who promised economic and political reforms, has clashed with the legislature and the judiciary and has been accused of undermining democratic institutions, concentrating power in the presidency, and ignoring human rights. Almost one-quarter of Salvador’s economy comes from remittances sent home by citizens living abroad.

These are, of course, sovereign nations, and responsible for their own futures, but much of their trouble can be laid at the doorstep of the United States. Our historic economic exploitation and political manipulation have caused social breakdowns that are no longer simple to resolve, and people cannot wait, so they leave, and make their way to the Mexican and American frontier. Their numbers amassing at our border are a kind of karmic outcome for our past political choices, and most Americans are oblivious to their country’s behavior in Central America. Our nation continues with its reactive, instead of proactive, politics, and we remain suffering from an inability to develop an immigration policy.

They will keep coming, these immigrants, and the only thing separating their misery from bright possibility is a river and a desert, and laws they don’t understand. So they take their chances and trek northward, hoping for jobs to swing hammers and build houses and work the farms and the restaurants and clean homes and hotels and care for our children. They have the same dreams of health and prosperity as Americans. The profit of vast industries is already carried on their low-income backs in the states and is marked in their calloused hands and defined by the ache of their muscles. Our economy and our country might not function as well without their labor and there are no laws Washington can pass that will free us from our mutual dependence, even though we refuse to contemplate our own responsibilities and guilt for their plight.

I still go back to the border with great enthusiasm because I love the coming together of cultures and the authentic feel of living on the frontier. I no longer, however, experience the excitement of crossing the river and going south, anticipating food and adventure and listening to music with new friends. I sometimes ride my motorcycle up to the edge of the North Bank, though, to look across the water into the desert distance, and dream of possibilities.

James Moore is a New York Times bestselling author, political analyst, and business communications consultant who has been writing and reporting on Texas politics since 1975. He writes frequently for CNN and other national media outlets and can be reached a