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A Word about Arizona

May 16, 2010

We spent quite a bit of time in rural Arizona this year, and found camping opportunities greatly skimmed down since the last time I traveled through there in my late twenties. Not only have many of their state parks closed due to budget cuts, but more importantly entire swaths of public lands, beautiful country, are closed off or highly discouraged for travel due to border drug traffic. Organ Pipes National Monument is a stark and isolated stretch of massive multi-pronged cactii along the border southwest of Phoenix.  This year many of the park’s roads are off limits except one heavily patrolled area. The dispersed, remote camping I experienced years ago is no longer considered safe.

I tend toward a philosophy that our outer experience usually reflects our inner housekeeping, and so don’t often exhibit a whole lot of caution or restraint or even much discretion in going where we want to go. We expect to meet good people and circumstances, and we almost always do. Even so, the mess that has come from our country’s schizophrenic border policies is big enough that even we had to pay attention.

Southwest of Phoenix, we camped for a couple of days in the Sonoran National Monument along a road that felt… used and ragged, but acceptable for a day or two of rest traveling through. On a run through the wash and rugged roads past our camp, I felt disturbed but again, not actively alarmed. The first evening we found near our camp a stash left under a mesquite tree: gallon glass jar, empty backpack, foot powder, anti-fungal powder. I imagined some exhausted immigrant catching a ride with a relative here on this back-country road, and with the kids tried to figure out why he would shed his backpack and what the glass jar was for. A drive-by from the county sheriff later the second afternoon painted a different picture – one that filled out the sketchy feeling in the area. The major drug drop-off point in the area was a quarter mile from our camp, and the officers discouraged anything but day use in the area. After a bit of laconic debate among ourselves, we packed up camp and slept somewhere else that night. We also wondered if the patrol ever caught anyone in the act of actually transferring drugs, driving through as they were, on a slow road, visible for miles.

My point here is that based on the loss of their public lands alone, and the extensive intrusion of border patrol stops all across the southern part of the state, I can understand why Arizonans are fed up. Added to this pressure is the drug-targeted murder of a rancher in the southeastern part of the state, and the alarming, growing incidence of theft and gun-toting along the corridors near the border.

But the danger here is from drug traffic. It is rarely, as I understand it, from human beings crossing an artificially-imposed border to find a livelihood. Mexico’s bloody cartel border war is spilling onto our soil. Our failed War on Drugs has had immeasurable costs to our own communities and to our neighbors. The most direct way to atrophy the problem is by legalizing marijuana and enacting policies that encourage local, non-corporate, quality growth instead of imported blood weed. Others have convincingly documented the overpowering statistics and benefits to our society of legalization, and equally persuasive is a global look at cultural experiences with prohibition/legalization. This removes the main fuse from the violence along the border.

If we’re serious about ending illegal immigration — which I’m not sure we really are, since we hired Mexican laborers to help build the Great Fence — then it’s time to heavily penalize all corporations that use illegal labor. We saw enough officially trucked-in day labor in Yuma growing the cauliflower and salad greens for major brands sold in grocery stores all over: people whose hands never stop moving, whose backs never stop stooping. Our country is winking at the corporations who hire illegally, creating a culture of downward spiraling competition, and drowning the individuals who get swept into it. To penalize individuals while overlooking the system that feeds the problem is tragically backward.

Unacknowledged and fed by ordinary Americans who are buying cheaper produce and products made possible by this very system, a hiring situation that begins underground offers a fair bet that the wages, rights, and labor environment will take advantage of the dark and the workers and their families.

If we as a nation are unwilling to focus business-plan-reevaluating penalties on those who hire illegally, on those who profit most, then we must accept that the economic system we have chosen involves lots of immigrant labor, and make it work for everyone involved. Bring the fact in out of the dark.

This new immigration law, along with being of doubtful constitutionality, strikes me as something that could strongly amplify the inherent tension officers experience every time they pull over a group of people. This law has upped the ante, and raised the risks of routine traffic stops, given that people in desperate circumstances do desperate things.  It puts police in an awful position.

This year I spoke to good people in Arizona and Texas who were bitter about the border restrictions imposed after 9/11, suddenly cut off from their natural neighbors over an imaginary line. As everyone in my home state of Montana knows, people who live in remote areas depend on each other. We depend on our neighbors for food security, physical assistance, and social fabric. Remote desert communities were torn apart when the border was more firmly closed to restricted stations in 2002, and people have understandably still not accepted this intrusive division of their lives, relationships and local commerce.

The invasive extent of this immigration bill was spurred primarily by a small group of angry people who see the world changing around them and imagine their jobs are being taken. (Their jobs?! I’d be astonished to see them bent over in the fields working that fast.) These are people who are living in fear, and fear’s day is ending. There are other dynamics at play here, and fear will ultimately lose, although not without a good fight.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Pete Woodhead permalink
    June 3, 2010 3:46 pm

    Hear hear, Cami. Well said.

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