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— Adela Navarro Bello wants to know what the Americans' problem is with her people. "What gives? Are they afraid of us? Do they fear that, little by little, we Mexicans are going to take back our old territory? Do they consider us a threat? [So they get] '150,000 illegal Mexicans a year' and similar numbers of legal migrants. What harm can we do?"

The opinion piece is titled "They Can't Handle It," and the dateline is Washington, D.C. Navarro, 31, a rising star with Tijuana's political weekly Zeta, wrote this in the middle of a recent trip around America to look at migration issues, sponsored by the United States Information Agency (USIA), a 46-year-old federal body set up to "explain and support American foreign policy," due to be integrated into the State Department October 1.

The journey gave her pause for thought -- about migration, the U.S., and her own country.

The column poured out of her after she met with immigration officials at INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) headquarters and for the first time appreciated the size of the machine targeted against would-be migrants.

"Some Border Patrol officers were present at the meeting," Navarro says this morning, back in Tijuana. "They gave us an overview on how the Border Patrol works and how the U.S. guards its borders. I got the feeling they wanted to totally shut down the border between Tijuana and San Diego. [I was told that] of the 8000 officers working for the Border Patrol, 3500 are in San Diego. San Diego is a punto rojo -- a hot ticket -- regarding the issue of people who cross over to the U.S. looking for work. I pointed out that because of Operation Gatekeeper, 418 people have died in the mountains. I asked them, 'Is that a risk you took into consideration?' "

Nobody, she says, would answer her question.

"The message they were giving me was 'Beware. We have all this at our disposal to stop you guys from getting over.' Very presumptuous. 'We have all these resources. We're going to stop you.' And after going to all those meetings and getting overviews of everything in Washington, I concluded that Operation Gatekeeper is nothing compared to what their [future] plans are for guarding the border."

Navarro and I are sitting in a room behind the reception desk in Zeta's offices, not far from the Agua Caliente racetrack. Outside, guards lounge around the parked cars. Ever since codirector J. Jesús Blancornelas was shot and wounded in 1997, the city has provided such protection.

Navarro says her column was typical, her "usual opinionated self"; she doesn't fault the USIA for a tour that gave her access to groups opposed to government immigration policies. But as a Mexican learning how America defends its borders from her people -- from Washington to Atlanta to Miami to Savannah to Denver -- she fought personal feelings while observing everything from Border Patrol training to active immigration courts. "I tried not to let my heart get involved. Not to be passionate about the issue. I tried to stay objective. I decided I should listen to what every side had to say and then reach a conclusion as coolly as possible."

Washington, D.C., set the tone. "It is a very beautiful, conservative, clean, modest capital," she wrote, "but at the same time, arrogant and overbearing. Right [here] in the heart of the United States, they don't know what to do with Mexicans.... It is the Mexicans that worry them most."

Yet Navarro couldn't help but be impressed by Border Patrol training. Outside Savannah, Georgia, she visited the Treasury Department's training center, where agents of the INS and the Border Patrol have their academies.

"They teach them human rights, Spanish, and they tell them how to treat Mexicans well. The training that the officials are given in this academy is the best they can give them. They have the best intellectual tools, best physical tools to develop them. They teach them all types of strategies. How to handle weapons, what to do in crisis situations, everything to build the ideal immigration officer." She laughs. "So I don't know what happens when they reach the border. I told the director of the academy that when I cross the border with a passport and the migration officer speaks to me in English, I reply in Spanish. [On many occasions] he says, 'I don't speak Spanish.' The director told me, 'That's not right. They have to speak Spanish. They have no right to speak to you in English.' "

In other words, theory and practice vary greatly, Navarro believes. "When they graduate and get to the border, it's like two separate worlds."

Navarro, married to a journalist with the new Tijuana daily Frontera and mother to a 14-month-old daughter, has resisted smoking for an hour. Now she lights up a cigarette, careful to blow the smoke behind her. I ask her if she still believes the U.S. government unfairly targets Mexican immigrants. She inhales again and holds her cigarette while she thinks.

"Compare us with illegal Cuban immigrants. The situation for them is peculiar because once a Cuban steps on sand, they obtain rights. They're called 'dry feet.' Immediately they're taken to a center, and they remain there for 24 hours. After that they're free. They have a parole situation for one year. During that year they have to obtain a credit card, a job, a house. After that year they present all the proof that they're doing this, then they obtain legal residence.

"An organization I visited in Miami told me that when Clinton was seeking reelection, a group of Cubans in Miami organized themselves and invited him to a meeting. At this meeting they gave him $170,000 for his campaign. Clinton was very surprised by this. So he returned to Washington, he got reelected, and then he created this law particularly for Cubans, because he realized that they are an economic force. And that they also coincide with the U.S. position -- they hate Fidel.

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