I have lived in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands for the better part of the last 10 years and have crossed the international boundary hundreds of occasions during that time. I’ve witnessed many of the big and subtle shifts in immigration policy, and watched the ways they affect my neighbors and friends throughout the borderlands.
As I write this, my current home, Tucson, is embroiled in protests against Operation Streamline, the federally funded program of rapid mass deportations that take place daily in cities across the border. Tucson has also recently witnessed courageous acts of resistance and protest against the frequent practice of family separation resulting from police and Homeland Security collaboration.
To spend time in the Big Bend region of southwest Texas—which, broadly speaking, encompasses over one million acres of land in the Big Bend National Park, an adjacent state park, privately owned ranchlands, and a handful of quirky small towns that surround the park’s boundaries—is to experience the borderlands in an entirely different way. The Big Bend region is located in the heart of the Chihuahuan desert containing two distinct mountain ranges (the Davis and the Chisos), and it is home to several of the most sparsely populated counties in the United States.
Its southern boundary is the Rio Grande River, beyond which are the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila. The nearest major city is El Paso, a five-hour drive northwest of the park; Austin is another seven hours northeast. The landscape south of the river is equally desolate and even more sparsely populated; the nearest town with electricity and a grocery store is over 100 miles from the few scattered Mexican border villages. In short, the Big Bend is a harsh, vast, and lonely place.
In large part a result of its isolation and immense physical size, there is far less evidence of border security and militarization in the Big Bend than there is anywhere else on the U.S.-Mexico border. In the entire 801,163 acre national park, for instance, there are only four Border Patrol employees. The river acts as the only boundary in the park, and although signs abound warning about penalties to be incurred for swimming too far in the river (“WARNING: Up to $5000 Fine For Crossing The Border Other Than At a Port of Entry”), it is highly unlikely that law enforcement would ever note such a violation.
Why, then, are more immigrants not attempting to cross in this region of the borderlands? In the absence of fences, surveillance, and a relatively tiny staff of immigration enforcement officers, this would suggest a higher-than-average likelihood of crossing without apprehension. While this may indeed be true, the geographic realities—of isolation, impossibly harsh desert terrain, and dramatic mountain ranges—make the likelihood of death or serious injury or disappearance alarmingly high. (As a friend of mine said, the towering walls of the canyons that mark the parts of the southern border in Big Bend are millions of years in the making, not millions of dollars.)
Though fences, surveillance, enforcement personnel, and unauthorized crossing are less observable throughout much of the Big Bend than in other parts of the border region, the dynamics that both bind and separate the United States and Mexico are notable and distinct. In Boquillas Canyon, which takes hikers on the U.S. side on a short path along the Rio Grande and leads to a spectacular canyon a stone’s throw from the small Mexican town of Boquillas (population 120), for example, beaded copper handicrafts and walking sticks are for sale next to used coffee cans with paper scraps listing suggested donations. And although federal park signs prohibiting informal purchases between Boquillas residents and park visitors are prominent, transactions do regularly occur and park rangers, for the most part, choose to turn a blind eye.
I bought a copper ocotillo cactus and roadrunner one afternoon in Boquillas Canyon several months ago, and before long, three men on horseback rode over and greeted me. They’d crossed—informally, over 100 miles east of the nearest official port of entry in Presidio—from their homes in Boquillas del Carmen. When I asked what the money from the sales of the crafts goes towards, they replied that it helps to fund supplies for the local school, health clinic, and community center in Boquillas.
In spite of the ease of their crossing and our exchange, Boquillas has not been immune from post-9/11 changes in border policy. Prior to 2001, many Big Bend park visitors included a trip to the village and local cantina as part of their travel itinerary, paid guides for a horseback tour or an afternoon in the caves, and ate a meal at the local restaurant. Likewise, families from Boquillas would often cross by foot or horseback in to the national park to pick up refrigerated and frozen goods at the camp store for their dinners.
In the wake of September 11, however, U.S. authorities declared the informal crossing a threat to national security and abruptly closed it. As a result, the community saw its population drop by two-thirds, and over 70 families have left throughout the last decade, mostly to communities farther south in Mexico. Those who remain in Boquillas rely mainly on income from the crafts sold to park visitors for their economic survival.
A recent turn of events may change things for the town of Boquillas, though, and carry certain symbolic implications for the region and beyond. The border’s first unstaffed port of entry opened on January 28 of this year, once again making it legally possible for Big Bend park visitors to spend an afternoon in Boquillas and bring tourist dollars back to the community. Upon their return to the United States, they must phone an immigration officer in a station over 100 miles away to show their documents via video camera.
This turn of events was approved at least in part because the Big Bend region is so remote and incidences of unauthorized, long-term crossings are relatively infrequent. And this will surely provide some economic benefit to the residents of Boquillas, but few if any of them will be legally authorized to cross into the United States, interact with people north of the river, or return to the park store for groceries as they did 12 years ago.
Like so many Mexicans in rural communities, it is very nearly impossible to obtain a visa to enter the United States, even when histories, livelihoods, and geographies are so intertwined. The new official port of entry, then, is a gesture with potentially significant implications for people and communities on both sides of the border at the same time that it reinforces, officially and legally, deeply rooted inequalities.
Upon my return home to Tucson from Big Bend, I saw the Border Patrol vehicles and the constant reminders of militarization, deportation, and detention with new eyes. Though it exists within the same geopolitical region as my own troubled home, the Big Bend at once defies the notion that border policing is an enduring part of this landscape at the same time that it upholds the same fundamental inequalities that emerge as a result of national border and immigration policy.
Katie Sharar lives in Tucson and work with the Earlham College Border Studies Program.