When I was a kid in Mercedes, Texas, my brother and I would pick cotton in the fields surrounding the town. For us it was a summertime job, a chance to fill that long tow sack that you dragged behind you like an engorged snake. You toiled to make a few bucks, to fill the sack with the cotton bolls that weighed so little that you had to work very hard to fill it in the cauldron of heat that is summer in south Texas. How endlessly long those rows of cotton were. I remember that they paid $10 for every hundred pounds, or maybe it wasn’t even that much, but some of our co-workers depended on those miserable wages just to survive. We didn’t consider this exploitation or injustice, but of course it was. We just accepted it as a normal thing, like most poor people do.
In the 1960s, things were peaceful along the river. On one side was the town of Mercedes. On the other was the Big River, el Rio Grande. Or el rio bravo del norte, as the Spanish Mexicans called it, the fierce river of the North. Back in the 1740s, the river had not been damned so it flowed much stronger when the band of pioneers recruited from central Mexico first saw it. Indians lived there. Los Comecrudos, the Raw Meat Eaters, and los Carrizozos, the Cane Break Dwellers, and my ancestors, los Campacuas, the Tattooed People, lived on the banks of the river.
Then my Spanish ancestors came and settled the land grants on what is now the U.S. side, las tierras de las mercedes, given by the Spanish viceroys in Mexico City to don Jose de Escandón and don Blas Maria Falcon, the leaders who led the people to the remote wilderness they called Nuevo Santander, after don Jose’s homeland in Spain.
In the ‘60s you could walk across the river. My brother, who liked to take risks, one day talked me into wading across el rio to the Mexican side, to Tamaulipas, the northern Mexican state.
No Border Patrol in those days. No immigrants, no drug runners. At least we didn’t see any. But not today.
Today I saw a photo in the newspaper. I saw an atrocity. I saw the face down floating bodies of a young father and his little daughter, drowned trying to swim across the rain-swollen river to the land of the free and the home of the brave. Millions of fortunate Americans have seen it. If your heart does not break at this pitiful sight, then you don’t have one.
My emotions were raw when I saw this picture. But I am not in favor of open borders or illegal immigration. I am not in favor of permanent resettlement in the U.S. for asylum seekers, except for family reunification. But the influx will not end with border enforcement.
We need to address the roots of the problem. What I favor is a viable, fair, efficient and intelligent guestworker program. We need the unskilled labor for many jobs that Americans will not do — l ike picking cotton and other crops, working in slaughter houses, in home remodeling, in dry wall, in landscaping, cement-laying, janitorial work, ski resort hotel maids, etc.
Read the newspapers. You will see laments from employers who cannot find enough U.S. workers to do these jobs. The solution is for workers to come and work, but then they go home.
But first we need to clean up their home countries.
We should send our soldiers and Marines to eliminate the criminal gangs terrorizing Central America. Then families won’t flee to us for protection.
Don’t blame the people. If you were in their shoes you would run, too.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.