Bienvenidos a los Estados Unidos — Welcome to the United States. I can’t recall if such a highway sign exists on the U.S.-Mexico border at Laredo, Texas, but it may as well.
It is Sunday, Jan. 6 at dusk, and I am sitting near the Lincoln-Juarez International Bridge on a Greyhound bus, on my way back from Mexico. I arrived in Nuevo Laredo (Nuevo Laredo is on the Mexican side: the border splits the city in two) that afternoon from Monterrey, a drive that descends from the Sierra Madre into rapturous desert, the Tamaulipan thornscrub. Now, I’ve made it to what in Mexico is called the Rio Bravo del Norte, the fabled Rio Grande.
You can talk about borders, and you can study them and their demographics in the classroom, but it’s quite another thing to see them. Everywhere there are Mexican-Americans in shiny new trucks with Texas license plates: the Fords and Chevrolets symbolize North American opportunity. We are surrounded by a mass of humanity, the poor of Nuevo Laredo who sell candy, crucifixes and religious prints to the drivers lined up on the highway along the river. Children in rags wander through slow traffic begging for small change from the thousands waiting to enter “el norte,” paradise in the collective Mexican imagination.
I have always been drawn to Mexico. It is a matter of the heart.
So in Monterrey, I walked into a mountainside colonia to talk to the real people. They have running water but no trash service; instead, they burn their refuse at the top of the hill. At least, a friend tells me, they have it better than the rural poor, those who farm arid land and are lucky if it rains at all.
Such shared hardships explain the indelible sense of solidarity on my bus. The campesino sitting next to me had returned to his native land for a short respite. Now, we are both going to Houston. Still waiting near the bridge, he and I talk about how things are in Mexico, the corruption, the endemic misrule, but also the warmth of the people and the beauty of the land. Accompanied by his cousins, my friend and his family want nothing more than a decent life, a life with dignity and education for the children.
Others are making the journey to be with family that have settled somewhere across the Rio Grande. An old man with Parkinson’s Disease– we called him “el viejito” — is heading to east Texas, and we are all doing what we can to help him.
Earlier, at the bus depot in Nuevo Laredo, el viejito could not communicate clearly with the men behind the counter. Finally when we realized he wanted to buy a ticket to Beaumont, an enormous smile crossed his face, a smile as large as all of Mexico and as generous as the entire Mexican people, and with his trembling wrist he shook the hands of the Greyhound attendants.
And I thought, how beautiful Mexico is, how beautiful the people are! And how sad it is that so many of our brothers there live in abject poverty, experiencing endless hardships.
Finally, our bus makes it into Laredo, where we disembark for inspection by the Border Patrol. The process lasts about 10 minutes as our bags and papers are subjected to routine checks.
But back on board, el viejito is not with us. He is being deported. Sent back to Nuevo Laredo.
He had no documents.
How is he? I still wonder. What is he thinking as you read this? Will he try to make it across the border this morning? Will he be in Beaumont tomorrow morning?
Fifteen minutes later on the highway to San Antonio, the second checkpoint. There is a problem with my friend’s visa; he must take a taxi back to the border. Things happen quickly.
“They don’t like us Mexicans here,” my friend whispers before he gets up to exit.
His cousin leaves with him, while the children and their mother remain. We drive on.
Why I am I writing this? Because I feel very strongly the plight of my friends. I agree that immigration cannot be completely unrestricted, but the fact is that it is still very difficult for the vast majority to enter this country. America may no longer be a closed society, but many still look on our borders with great longing in their eyes, with yearning.
Why must we turn back the sick, the honest, the hardworking? I ask the future leaders of this country for more dignity for these valiant men.
Matthew Nickson is a junior in Berkeley College. He is an editorials editor of the Yale Daily News.