If We Make Waves, We'll Be Jailed

September 25, 2007

"DON'T USE MY NAME," SAYS A WOMAN whom I'll call Perla. "I already have enough prob- term." A 16-year-old mothei of six. Perla lives in a squatters' settlement in c'iudadiudrez. the Mexican city just south of El Paso, Texas. The international border there the Rio Grande River is often little more than a trickle, and Perla crosses almost daily to sell fruit and candy door-to door in El Paso. She's not the only commuter. For years. legions of undocumented Mexicanshave waded iheriver, darted across busy Interstate 10. scuttledthrough drainageculverts. and, if lucky. finally made it to work asEl Paso's domestic sen ants, gardeners, construction workers, dishwashers and vendors. Federal lav, particularly the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, prohibits virtually all this activity. But the law doesn't stop people like Perla. "It just makes things harder," she says. Her day hegin.s in the family's one-room shack. It has a dirt floor and no running water; nevertheless, Perla and her husband feel they're doing better now than five years ago. when they still lived in their nati; e ejid.o some S miles south. "All my life I helped in the fields and picked coCoa," she remembers. Over the past several years. the Mexican government has depressed agricultural commodities prices while simultaneously withdrawing loan assistance to small farmers. "You can't survive in the countryside anymore," Perla says. "Towards the end we were hunting prairie dogs for food. We were the last of my family to leave." El Paso-based writer Debbie Nathan i.c active in the Border Rig/its Coalition qf El Paso and Oudad Juarez. In Juarez, Perla found that women working in the maqwladora assembly plants make about $8 a day. On a good day in El Paso she makes at least twice that. But not all days are good, mainly because of run-ins with abusive immigration officers. Once two Border Patrol agents caught me and my [nine- year-old] daughter Lily at the river," she recalls. "A young guy on the Mexico side was cursing at them, so they tooL out machine guns and fired at him for five minutes. Lily was hysterical: she thought we'd all be killed. The agents were laughing. Another time they grabbed a young man who sells fruit. tome on. where's the dope'?' they kept saying, and they poked him in the ribs with their guns." Perla and other workers also have problems with the El Paso police. They are not supposed to stop people to check immigration status, but "a policeman picked me up once. He made me give him all my money.'4 she says. Her niece, also fruit vcndor.oncecalledpoliceto report shehad heeu robbed at knife point and threatened with rape. When the responding officer learned she was undocumented, he refused to make a report arid instead turned her over to the Bonier Patrol. "Border Patrol agents have locked me and my kids up for seven hours without food or water," Perla says. Even so, her children haven't fared as badly as one boy she saw detained earlier this year "The agents told him to take off his under- wear. Then they poked him in his buttocks csith ballpoint pens. 'Perla says. indignant, she swore out an affidavit at the local Mexican -on&tlate, But Perla and others were afraid to talk with Justice Department investigators, who later dis- missed the complaint as unfounded. The child neer came forward either. "We're afntid if we make waves, we'll be jailed," Perla says. "We have to make a living in El Paso. We have no choice,"

Tags: US immigration, Border Patrol, US-Mexico Border, commuter migrants

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