American Culture

At the border, an arbitrary fate

Desert grasslands reveal a more nuanced view of illegal immigration

by Bruce Lindwall

A journal entry from a February day during an Expedition Education Institute semester in the Desert Southwest

I went out this morning and found some pictures down in the wash. This is how it happened and why it was so very important.

We were five altogether. Bill is the director of the grasslands research center here in southern Arizona; it’s his job to look after all 8,000 of the acres in his care. Four of us who had come to study up a bit on the ecology of desert grasslands: Thomas from my home state of New Hampshire, Antony from Montreal, and Khiet who was born in Vietnam but grew up in Pennsylvania. This morning we were all headed off a couple miles from the headquarters to pick up trash that falls by the wayside as immigrants slip across the border covered by darkness and becomes hidden in the folds and creases of the borderlands.

Bouncing along the dirt road we asked Bill about grassland ecology, successional stages, and alien species, thinking that we were pursuing the most important learning of the day. Little did we know how close that was to the truth. It was a short ride that ended at a seemingly random spot at the edge of the road. Our little crew outfitted itself with gloves, trash bags, and bottles of water.

It felt liberating to walk freely through the grassland. We had been limited to the roads these last few days for fear of trampling the many experiments laid out amongst the tawny brown stalks of sacaton and lovegrass. But now we were free to wander, and wander we did. Held together at first by habit and conversation, we gradually spread out to explore the small washes and gullies that so thoroughly wrinkle this land. Slowly our bags began to fill with the odd bits jettisoned by those who had come this way. There were empty food tins, torn trash bags, endless water jugs and lots of toilet paper, both used and unused.

All that made sense, but there was a lot more that didn’t. We found shirts, pants, underwear, belts, a rather nice jacket, and even some shoes. Who had abandoned their shoes? How can you survive the desert without shoes? They wouldn’t have brought extra shoes, would they? And what about all the cheap, tattered backpacks we kept adding to our pile? How had they become empty of purpose for the shadowy pilgrims heading north? It just didn’t make any sense. We had expected a dump; what we found looked more like a shipwreck.

I was still struggling to understand when we found the pictures down in the wash. There were several of them, none in good shape, but the images were still clear enough. One was of two boys standing in front of a living room fireplace holding wrapped packages. Was it Christmas, a birthday, perhaps some celebration my culture does not observe? The two boys were nicely dressed, the packages beautifully wrapped. How could that be?

I thought that all the immigrants passing under the fence and through the desert were fleeing a life of grinding poverty. The photo in my hand told a different tale. Another photo showed a young girl standing in a plaza grinning at the camera. Who carried her picture this far only to drop it here in this wash? Was it her father, her brother, her mother? Was that young girl the reason that somebody would risk so much to make the trek north? Did they make it? Were they even now sending money back to Mexico to make that young girl’s life better than it had been before? The curled photos sat in my hand, their colors faded, their corners torn. I wondered if the dreams they represented were still intact.

A call from one of the others brought me back to the moment. He was shouting something about going back to the headquarters for some food. What? That didn’t make any sense, we had only been here for half an hour, why would we take a break so soon? I stood for a moment trying to understand what this sudden snack break was all about when one of the others reached me and said in that sort of tone that leaves no room for discussion: “Listen, we have to leave right now.”

Obedient to the tone more than the message, we all made haste to the road and waiting vehicle where we learned the full story. Two of our five had wandered over a swale and into the next wash. With eyes on the ground looking for trash they had nearly stepped on several people huddled beneath the bank. Here they were, three of the immigrants whose story I had been attempting to read in the odd bits they had left behind.

Shocked and uncertain they sought out Bill, and told him what they had seen. That’s when Bill sent out the phony call for a food break that brought us all back to the truck. Now we piled in so that he could return to ranch headquarters and call the Border Patrol. As we rode back in the truck I knew there were mixed emotions about calling the Border Patrol. But the research ranch was Bill’s turf; it was his decision to make. Besides it had all happened so fast, who had time to think? Again the ride was short, Bill parked the truck, and we all milled around in the parking lot while he went to the office phone to make the call.

I don’t know why I wandered into the garage, but as I stood there trying to sort out my thoughts I glanced down to see a sprayer loaded with herbicide sitting on the floor. I remembered my questions to Bill earlier in the morning about controlling aliens. I had been asking about non-native grasses. I had no idea that the question would expand to include members of my own species. Even the name of the chemical seemed to fit; the sprayer was labeled “Roundup.” As I stood waiting in the garage, I knew that was exactly what Bill was arranging on the phone with the Border Patrol — a roundup. But this roundup was not for a few acres of grass that didn’t belong here; it was for people who were struggling to belong somewhere. It was for people who just might be carrying their own pictures like the ones I found in the wash today. What was in their pictures? Did they have a pocketful of dreams tucked away in their shirts, in their packs?

A few minutes later Bill returned. Once again we made the short drive to the trash-strewn gullies. A single Border Patrol vehicle arrived just as we did. Now we were six as we walked through the grass, our earlier excitement replaced by an almost electric nervous tension. What would happen? Would there be trouble? Should we even be here at all?

Bill and the Border Patrol agent both strolled around as if they hadn’t a care in the world. Was this sort of thing really that routine? Gradually we went back to filling bags with trash. Preoccupied with the plight of the immigrants and what might occur, we wandered little. I went through the motions of gathering tuna cans and water jugs, but my mind filled with thoughts of how arbitrary it all seemed. Here I was, the grandson of immigrants working alongside a man born in Vietnam, now a citizen of the United States, and another man born in Canada and still a citizen of that country. We were all welcome here, free to chat with the Border Patrol agent and go back to picking up trash. I knew that the three immigrants huddled in the gully would have a very different conversation with the agent when and if they met.

Somebody called my name, pointed to the high ground near the road. Four people were walking towards the Border Patrol vehicle. One of them was the agent, but from a distance it was impossible to know which one. They walked casually, without drama. I could see no heavy-handed cop, no surly captives, no tension boiling beneath the surface, about to explode. Was it really that simple? Did the agent just walk up to them and say, “Okay, game’s over, time to go home,” like a bunch of kids playing tag? Were they so cold and wet from last night’s storm that they were almost relieved at being caught? Had they done all this before? What had they left behind in the wash — cans, water jugs, clothing, photos, hopes, dreams? I could only guess.

I set out today to pick up trash and learn about grasslands. Instead I was forced to confront the enormous privilege that I carry as easily as the passport riding in my shirt pocket. That privilege can never be the same to me now. Because you see, I went out this morning and I found some pictures down in the wash.

Bruce Lindwall, who holds a doctorate in plant biology, is a faculty member with the Expedition Education Institute. His work with EEI has taken him to environmental justice communities across the United States. He has extensive wilderness experience throughout North America from Arctic Canada to the Desert Southwest.