Adventures in Government - The Borderlands
May 3, 2017
After the "Immigration Crisis in Southern Arizona" forum, I was invited to go on a bus tour of the borderlands to see what life is like there. The tour focused on the Nogales area, which isn't in my district, but is likely similar to the borderlands of District 2 in many ways.
The trip involved three primary stops: a Humane Borders tank in the middle of the desert, the Fresh Produce Association, and the port of entry in Nogales.
I suffer from motion sickness. It's pretty severe. I knew this was a problem when I signed up for this event, and I thought I had prepared myself adequately.
I did not.
Despite a heavy dosage of Dramamine, the bus ride to the Humane Borders water tank was miserable. As the large bus went up, down, and around hills and bends in the winding, rural road toward Arivaca, I tried to keep my breakfast in my stomach. I wasn't entirely confident I would succeed, and there were some pretty close calls, but I managed to not embarrass myself. My relief was palpable when the bus turned down an unmarked dirt road deep in the middle of nowhere.
A short drive off of the highway, under a tall pole displaying a blue flag, was a fairly large blue tank under a tree. The tour group exited the bus, and I listened to our tour guide explain the situation as I waited for my nausea to subside.
Our guide was Bob Feinman, a retired radio host who now worked with Humane Borders. Their goal is simple: put water tanks out in the desert so that border-crossers don't die as often. Regardless of your political stance regarding people crossing the border, Humane Borders maintains that doing so should not be punishable by death.
Humane Borders claims to be apolitical, which I don't think is quite true. Some people absolutely reject the idea of being in any way humane to those who cross the border. They believe that if the crossing is more deadly fewer people would attempt the journey. The evidence suggests otherwise, but nevertheless it is a political issue. That said, so far Humane Borders' claim of being apolitical has helped them to stay under the radar, and hopefully that will continue to be the case.
As it is, crossing the border is already deadly. Humane Borders works with Border Patrol to mitigate the dangers as much as they can, but according to Bob, smugglers simply don't tell their charges how dangerous the journey is. The smugglers' primary concern is getting the crossers to pay their fees, and when they have their money it doesn't really matter if the crossers survive the trip or not.
That's the fundamental difference between most smugglers and most law enforcement: the smugglers don't value human life, but law enforcers do. So, yes, when Border Patrol finds people crossing the border they return them to Mexico, but at least they're guaranteed to return alive.
The locations of Humane Borders' water tanks are determined by maps that show where the most people are dying, as well as where Humane Borders can get permission to place a tank. (The tanks are on private property, so they need permission from the owners to place tanks there.
As Bob spoke about smugglers and drug runners, he examined the tank. As it turns out, the tank had likely been vandalized; it was empty.
Like I said, being humane to border crossers is indeed a political issue. The tanks need to be locked to prevent people from poisoning them. Sometimes the tanks get damaged or emptied. And sometimes people steal the flags that mark their location, drive a mile or so away, and plant the flag again far away from the tank in order to mislead people.
In short, some people are cruel.
Eventually, after exploring the area and looking for signs of life, we got back on the bus, and I tried to keep myself together on the long, winding trip back to the highway.
International Trade and Border Patrol
I was expecting the Fresh Produce Association to be a sort of farmer's market or something, but it turned out to be a regular office building. There, in a large conference room, a couple of people spoke to us about life along the border.
First, a man (whose name I unfortunately missed) spoke to us about how important Arizona's relationship with Mexico is to our economy. He asserted, basically, that without trade to and from Mexico, Arizona would not be viable as a state.
As someone representing an organization whose entire purpose is to facilitate trade with Mexico, he may have been a bit biased. However, I think he's largely correct: trade with Mexico is a massive source of jobs in Arizona, and without it Arizona would be crippled.
We also had an extended conversation with two Border Patrol agents, who spoke about the work they do along the border and how they accomplish their goals.
In short, as noted before, crossing the border is not safe. Half of their job is just saving people from the desert and finding people reported lost.
They also catch a lot of drugs crossing the border--usually marijuana. Most other drugs (meth, cocaine, etc) are too volatile to take across the border in a backpack, so those are mostly caught by customs agents at the ports of entry, where people try to smuggle them in via truck.
One person from our group suggested that perhaps this marijuana problem would be solved if it was legalized. Naturally, the agent could not comment on that, except to say that it's their job to enforce the law as it is. Regardless, it's their duty to arrest smugglers of any kind, especially since the profits of that trade tends to go directly to criminal organizations.
Currently, Border Patrol is understaffed. Not due to budget problems (they are actually fairly well-funded), but because it's difficult to get and keep staff. The starting salary is pretty good ($40k with high school diploma, $55k with college degree), but the vetting process is long and arduous, taking possibly 6 months to 2 years to complete. Which makes sense, since you want to make sure you have quality people representing our nation along the border.
The other problem is that, once people are in the federal system, it's easy to transfer to other departments after a few years. So, many people start with Border Patrol and then transfer to more desirable positions later.
All in all, I left the meeting with a greater appreciation for the work Border Patrol does. I mean, sure, they weren't likely to show anything to cast doubt on the virtue of their cause, but I genuinely believe that Border Patrol agents do important work, and that they do it as humanely as possible.
And hey, by the way, if you've got a clean record and are looking for a well-paying job with lots of potential for upward mobility, they're always hiring.
Our last stop on the trip took us to the actual border between the United States and Mexico, which runs right through the city of Nogales. In the middle of the city, surrounded by businesses and homes, is the Nogales Port of Entry.
The Port of Entry is a joint venture by U.S. and Mexican authorities, which keeps contraband from flowing into each country. In particular, they try to keep drugs from flowing into the United States, and they try to keep guns from flowing into Mexico.
There's a distinctive wall running along the border through the town: it's tall and strong, and it's designed so that you can see through to the other side. The wall also runs deep underground to prevent tunnelers. This wall is necessary in a city setting, but impractical outside of cities due to the cost and the environmental impact.
Downtown Nogales used to be a thriving commercial center, as people would pop over from Mexico to buy clothes, jewelry, and other goods that are cheaper here than in Mexico, similar to how Americans can pop over to Mexico for cheaper prescription drugs.
Unfortunately, the rules have changed. Now, if a Mexican citizen wants to cross the border in Nogales, they have to provide proof that they have strong ties to their home country--proof that they won't simply cross and run. This makes crossing the border much more difficult and time-consuming, so fewer people cross now than they used to. As a result, the businesses in downtown Nogales are fading away, lacking the steady stream of tourists they relied on to stay in business.
In the end, these restrictions end up hurting American businesses more than Mexican businesses, by the way. American citizens can still pretty quickly cross the border in either direction without much trouble. So, more Americans are crossing into Mexico to buy things than Mexicans are crossing into America.
Tales from the Borderlands
While in Nogales, our tour guide told us a couple of stories of the owner of the local McDonald's, Mr. José Canchola:
First, according to Bob, Mr. Canchola was the first latino to own a McDonalds franchise. He built his McDonalds right there in Nogales, within sight of the border to Mexico.
In case you're not familiar, here's how franchises work: a central company owns all of the branding, supply chains, recipes, etc, and they license these things out to businesses for a price. So long as the franchisee pays their dues and follows the rules laid forth in the contract, they have access to the McDonalds name and food. So, while McDonalds restaurants are all basically the same wherever you go, the McDonalds restaurant closest to you is probably owned by a local business owner--not the McDonalds corporation in Chicago.
That said, franchisees still report a lot of information to the central McDonalds corporation as part of their contract. And the reports coming from the Nogales location were incredible: The Nogales McDonalds was selling more hamburgers than any other McDonalds location. It was even out-performing the restaurants in major cities like New York and Chicago.
Naturally, the McDonalds corporation grew suspicious. So, they sent some agents there to investigate.
When they arrived, they immediately noticed that the menu was displayed in both English and Spanish; something no other McDonalds location offered. They also noticed that, for a small charge, you could order a small cup of jalapeños with your burger, which is not something usually offered on the McDonalds menu.
The agents spoke with the employees and asked about how they spread the word of this McDonalds location. Generally, all McDonalds advertising is handled by the central McDonalds corporation; it's part of the benefits when you're a McDonalds franchisee. However, Mr. Canchola also paid for some of his own advertising out of his own pocket: advertising specifically targeted at the Spanish-speaking population.
Given all of that, it turned out that Mr. Canchola had broken several rules:
- Editing the menu to display a different language.
- Offering food items not provided by the McDonalds corporation
- Unauthorized advertising using the McDonalds name.
McDonalds sent Mr. Canchola a cease and desist, and Mr. Canchola fought back. He, a small business owner, went to court against this corporate behemoth.
And he won.
As a result of the court ruling, now McDonalds franchisees can display menus in whatever language they like, they can offer non-standard menu items, and they can pay for their own advertising.
Given how well all of this worked, it's kinda weird that McDonalds fought back in the first place...
The second story Bob told us about José Canchola says a lot about why so many people mourned when he died of cancer in 2007:
Every Christmas, Mr. Canchola would close his McDonalds location to the public. Instead, he would ask around and find out who the poorest and neediest kids in the area were. These kids would be invited to his McDonald's for Christmas.
Many of these kids were located south of the border. So, Mr. Canchola would work with the U.S. government to secure special 1-day passes to allow these children to come into America. He'd send a bus down into Mexico to pick up the kids. The parents would come, handing their children over with tears in their eyes, watching their kids enter a bus and drive back across the border.
When the children arrived, they would get to meet Santa, who gave each of the kids a toy. The kids would also each get a free hamburger, an order of fries, and a milkshake. For some kids, this would be the best meal they'd have all year. And when the kids returned, their parents would start to cry all over again, seeing their kids happy and still eating their fries or drinking their shakes.
Truly, Mr. José Canchola was a rare sort of person. He was a man who made his own Christmas miracles.
And, with that heartwarming story out of the way, I think I've written enough. Suffice to say, it was a great trip, despite my motion sickness.