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Week of 8.15.08

Reporter's Notebook: On the Border
By Maria Hinojosa

Maria with an American border patrol agent on the Texas-Mexico border.
Maria with an American border patrol agent on the Texas-Mexico border.
In May of 2001, I went down to the Arizona-Mexico border as a CNN correspondent to do a story about undocumented migrants dying of thirst in the desert as they attempted to cross into the United States. One man we interviewed was about to faint from dehydration. It has been so hellish for him in the desert that he turned south and made his way back to Mexico. It was his only choice to survive.

I saw morgue photographs of the people who died a horrible death in the sun. They say that dying of dehydration is one of the most horrible deaths because it takes so long and because the heat makes you hallucinate wildly before you finally pass out. In those nameless faces I saw people who looked like they could have been my own family.

That night, we went out with the border patrol agents as they rounded up a group of migrants. In the pitch black moonless desert night I ran after the border patrol and ended up kneeling and breathless in front of a man who had just been caught. He looked scared and worried. And yet, this man, this Mexican migrant who Lou Dobbs says we all must fear, this humble man who had just been detained by an intimidating American border patrol official with a big gun, turned to me. Seeing I was out of breath, he held up his gallon of water and said, "Quiere mi agua, Senorita?" He was offering his water to me, a total American stranger.

How could it be that two modern countries were allowing human beings to die of thirst ten minutes away from a 7-Eleven?

On my most recent trip to the border for NOW, I didn't meet any migrants dying of thirst. Instead I met American landowners, fuming with anger about the wall that will be built on their property. They want to stop migrants coming through their land more than any of us. They see it and feel the problem every single day.

But they are sure the fence, these scattered sections of fence, won't work to solve the problem. The wall that is currently under construction is actually just sections of fence...scattered here and there. Won't migrants who really need to get here just go around the fence until they find an opening?

Maria talks to Mr. Leonard Loop at the family farm in Brownsville, Texas.
Maria talks to Mr. Leonard Loop at the family farm in Brownsville, Texas.
The people I met on this trip are salt of the earth Texans. One such landowner, Mr. Leonard Loop of Brownsville, Texas, told me that he believes Washington has been irresponsible for years about this border and now they want to rush to finish the fence before the Bush administration leaves office. He says this wall will separate him from his land and from his family who will now be on the Mexican side of the fence. He says Americans will literally be locked out of their own country.

I didn't return from this trip in a state of shock like I had before. Instead, I came back angry that American citizens have trouble getting answers from a government that says it is working in their best interest. At the "public meetings" before the wall was built, no one from the public was even allowed to ask a question about the border fence to a representative of the government in person.

The fence is being worked on every day now, thanks in large part to regulations and laws waived by DHS head Michael Chertoff to get the job done. Both Barack Obama and John McCain voted for it. We have no idea how this will play out after the election, but the candidates have serious questions to answer about how this fence will solve our immigration problems.

Even after Boeing collects its billions, the Loop family won't be able to access their own farmland, and undocumented immigrants will still risk their lives on a dangerous trek across a brutally unforgiving border.

Are we fencing ourselves off from our own humanity?