'Let's see some papers': in El Paso, looking Latin is a crime.
At least that's what it was like when I was growing up in El Paso in the 1970s and early 1980s. For Mexican-Americans, such harassment was a way of life, part of the price we were expected to pay for living in the United States.
I never really thought about the massive five-mile fence that stretched behind downtown El Paso; it was just part of the landscape. I don't recall being shocked by seeing men, women, and children--a look of desperation in their eyes--sliding down a concrete embankment on the Mexican side and resurfacing on our side, then squeezing through holes in that fence. And I don't remember questioning the presence of the men in the green Suburbans, or their right to detain my family members, their right to interrogate and intimidate people I had known all my life.
Coming home to El Paso last December for the longest visit in ten years, I felt at first that nothing had changed. The men in green suits still stop and grill Mexican-American citizens and legal residents. Some of them still physically abuse the Latinos they detain; a few months ago, the local newspaper reported that several El Paso apartment dwellers witnessed a Border Patrol agent verbally abusing and battering two Mexican women--one of them clutching her grandson--who had crossed the border illegally.
But my reaction is different nowadays, and so is that of many others in El Paso. After years of being humiliated by the Border Patrol, by "cavity searches," threats, and beatings, some Mexican-Americans are rewriting the history of this town.
It's ten days before Christmas in El Paso, and the weather is biting cold, colder than I remember. Inside an auditorium at Bowie High School, though, there's a feeling of warmth. While a mariachi band belts out the old familiar rancheras to an appreciative audience, about thirty students and faculty members are celebrating their long-fought victory over an agency that has touched all of their lives, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Two months ago, seven Mexican-Americans--including students, recent graduates, and faculty members--from Bowie High School united to sue the Border Patrol, charging that agents had stopped and harassed them. They ended up telling their stories to Federal District Judge Lucius Bunton, and he believed them. Simply because the plaintiffs were Hispanic, he wrote in his December decision, they had been "repeatedly stopped, frisked, searched, questioned, detained, and arrested without legal cause," as well as subjected to degrading verbal and physical abuse. Bunton issued a stern injunction warning the Border Patrol to stop detaining people just because they looked Hispanic; he also cleared the way for a class-action suit against the agency. This ruling, known as Murillo v. Musegades, INS, was a decisive victory for Mexican-Americans in border towns and cities across the United States.
Among those celebrating tonight is high-school coach Ben Murillo, who in November 1991 suddenly found himself looking down the barrel of a Border Patrol agent's revolver while driving two of his football players to a game at rival Jefferson High School--my old school, in fact. A jovial man with a stocky build, Murillo is wearing a Bowie High baseball cap and school sweatshirt, much like what he was wearing the day he was stopped.
"I pulled into a Dairy Queen parking lot, thinking that maybe I had a taillight out," says Murillo. "But one of my students said, |Coach, they think you're a wetback.' Then I turned around and saw the muzzle of the officer's revolver pointed at my face."
Murillo was extremely frightened, but told the officers that he was a varsity football coach at Bowie High School. "|I have two varsity players with me, and I'd appreciate it if you'd shoulder your gun,' I told the officer. And he said, |I'd appreciate it if you'd shut up.'" The officer, Murillo says, was holding the gun in two hands, with his arms fully extended, an account confirmed by several witnesses.
After questioning the coach and his players for several minutes, the Border Patrol agent told them they were pulled over because spotters on a nearby bridge had seen an "illegal alien" picked up in a car similar to Murillo's. The agents then quickly left. But the ugly experience would haunt the coach. And the more people he talked to, he says, the more surreal life began to seem in El Paso, Texas, U.S.A.
In "El Chuco"--Chicano slang for El Paso--almost everyone has a tale about the Border Patrol. So do several human-rights groups. In the past five years, Border Patrol agents in my hometown have shot eight people, killing five of them, according to newspaper accounts. In that same period, agents in El Paso have been sued for a range of abuses, including the shooting of a Mexican teenager and the alleged beating and deportation of a Latino high-school student (a legal resident of El Paso) whose "crime" was failing to carry ID. Agents were also sued recently over the death of a Mexican border crosser who drowned when Border Patrol agents helped overturn his raft, despite his pleas that he couldn't swim--an action that resulted in a $210,000 Federal court judgment against the U.S. Government.
In El Paso and other places, in fact, reports of Border Patrol abuses are so widespread that a recent Americas Watch study compared human-rights violations on the U.S.-Mexico border to those seen in the most repressive foreign countries. Racial taunts and beatings of undocumented migrants are routine. Less common but still reported are accounts of torture, sexual abuse, and unjustified shootings. A recent two-year study by the American Friends Service Committee reported similar findings, noting that people of Mexican descent are victims of Border Patrol abuse more often than any other group. And brutality against undocumented Mexicans apparently translates into abuse at home: The AFSC report notes that fully half of the nearly 400 victims of abuse were U.S. citizens or had the legal right to live in the United States.
All the Bowie High plaintiffs, in fact, are American citizens or legal residents. They look like people I've grown up with: dark hair and eyes, smoky brown skin, the latest in jeans and running shoes. They also hail from the school that was my high school's biggest rival. Back then, their stories would have seemed all too familiar, nothing to write home about. Now, ten years later, the stories are shocking, sometimes unbelievable to me. Maybe it's because I've been away from El Paso for so long.
With mariachi music in the background, sixteen-year-old Suzie Diaz tells me about her encounter with the Border Patrol two years ago. She was walking home from track practice, she says, when a Border Patrol agent in a van stopped and asked for her identification. The teenager told the officer she was an American citizen, but recalls that he kept staring behind her, not paying attention. "In my head I was thinking, What happened? What am I doing wrong?' [The officer] shoved me, pushed me, and I fell to the ground. He put his foot on my chest and started kicking me."
Diaz is small, with doe eyes and a delicate build; hers is not the kind of body that looks as if it could withstand fifteen swift kicks from heavy boots. She said that the beating lasted about thirty seconds. Afterwards, she went home bruised, both physically and emotionally.
"As I was trying to pick myself up," Diaz remembers, "the other agent yelled, |Let's go!' and they just took off. I'm still scared, because they'll keep on doing it. Is it because of my skin color, the way I talk? Is it because I'm Hispanic?"
Ashamed and confused, Diaz told no one about her experience with the Border Patrol for more than two years.
Mario Tapia, a small-framed, mischievous-looking seventeen-year-old who has been hovering in the background, is anxious to tell his story. Tapia recalls the time he and a friend saw an El Paso Border Patrol agent approach a Mexican "illegal" selling roses and begin clubbing him "without asking him anything." Tapia continues, "My friend said, |Just pick him up, don't beat him up!' and the officer hit him with the billy club, without even asking him anything. I ran to see if he was all right, and then another agent hit me with the club--once on the face, again on the head, and two good hits in the stomach. I was surprised at how they were supposed to be helping us, and they were doing this. ... I'd been stopped before and would always tell them I'd sue, and they'd always laugh and yell back, |Good luck: You'll need a lot of money'"
That was two-and-a-half years ago. In the meantime, students say, Border Patrol agents maintained a steady presence at Bowie High, parking their pale green Suburbans in the parking lot, speeding along service roads, jumping the curbs, driving across concrete sidewalks and the football field, and spying on female students with binoculars. As Judge Bunton would later note, agents had illegally stopped more than twenty Latino students and faculty at Bowie to demand proof of citizenship, often verbally abusing them as well. They frisked students in the parking lot, stopped members of the cross-country team during practice, and leapt onto a handball court to seize players by the arm. One student roughed up by an agent later saw the man drive past his house, laughing and making obscene gestures.
Agents regularly detained Latino students in the neighborhood to grill them about their immigration status: Hector Ortiz "was embarrassed big time," he recalls, by being ordered into a Border Patrol van in front of his friends and hauled down to headquarters for questioning. Albert Vasquez was stopped by Border Patrol officers "about once a week" on the corner by his house, according to court records. Bowie High alumnus David Renteria was also stopped by agents dozens of times, usually while walking home carrying books and backpack. Even on Sundays on his way to church.
But the most humiliating encounter, Renteria remembers, was in June of 1992, while walking home from his school graduation rehearsal. A Border Patrol car pulled up beside him and his friend, he says, and an officer asked three times what their citizenship was. Each time, the youths replied that they were U.S. citizens. Then, Renteria recalls, "I turned around and left, and [the agent] said, |Hey, you better stop before I beat you up so bad you're not going to be able to move.'"
The teenager cited his rights, and the agent angrily asked the youth whether he was a lawyer. Then, Renteria says, "he started pushing me from the chest and demanding an ID, he kept on asking questions and slammed me up against a fence, smacking me several times to search me." The agent found nothing except a graduation certificate and a seating plan for the graduation ceremony.
Coach Murillo didn't know about the experiences of Diaz or the other students. Still, despite an aversion to publicity, he was finding it tough to keep silent about his own encounter with the Border Patrol.
"I was so angry and humiliated after it happened," Murillo tells me, "but I didn't think there would be much support for me if I came forward. And also, my religious beliefs told me that I needed to forgive that [agent]."
Some months after the incident, however, an attorney told him that many other Mexican-Americans in El Paso, especially students, had been threatened and roughed up by the Border Patrol. Murillo felt something inside snap: ya basta. He filed suit against the INS, a suit that would later include Renteria and other students and faculty and culminate in the ruling Bowie High is celebrating tonight.
"The kids in Bowie have been harassed and treated like second-class citizens for so long, and I just wanted it to stop," Murillo says. "I mean, I've had people tell me this was going on when they were in school back in 1964. And we're U.S. citizens. Just because our skin is darker than someone else's doesn't mean we don't have the same rights."
Albert Amendariz, the plaintiffs' attorney, says that as many as 2,000 people may join the class-action suit, and the mood is one of vindication. The festivities are dampened however, by talk of a case that many compare to the beating of Rodney King. It involves the fatal shooting of a Mexican worker by a Border Patrol agent in Arizona, who, another agent charged, had shot the man in the back and left him to die. It's the first time a Border Patrol agent has been tried for the murder of a civilian while on duty, and people here are hoping desperately for a conviction. The next day, however, the jury will find the agent "not guilty," a verdict that will shock and anger those celebrating here tonight. (See "A Death on the Border," by Debbie Nathan, March issue.)
"This is our Simi Valley," an El Paso attorney tells me later. "We were so elated about our victory, and now this. It's back to reality."
And reality, in El Paso, means Border Patrol officers who call the widespread reports of INS abuses "unfounded." Doug Mosier, public-relations spokesman for the Patrol in El Paso, says that most of the allegations "come from a handful of special-interest groups ... with an agenda." Border Patrol Chief Dale Musegades, for his part, testified he is not responsible for Border Patrol abuses unless they are properly reported. But Judge Bunton in his December opinion noted that Musegades "has done nothing to remedy the Fourth Amendment violations reported to him."
As Bunton pointed out, many victims either fear retaliation by the INS or are discouraged from filing by the agency's ineffective complaint procedure. Indeed, a recent investigation by the El Paso Times reveals that the agency escapes scrutiny in El Paso through a maze of secrecy rules, deflects citizen complaints, and rarely reveals whether it disciplines agents accused of brutality.
The INS has no written complaint forms such as those used by police, and when the Times secretly taped twelve conversations with officials at Federal agencies accused of abuse, most failed to take down a proper complaint, and many stonewalled, bullied, or tried to "intimidate [the caller] with ridicule."
Moreover, human-rights activists say Mexican-American citizens and legal residents of Mexican descent have had to endure INS abuses for so long that they just haven't known their rights. As the AFSC report on INS and Border Patrol abuses notes soberly, "There is a great danger that violations of people's integrity and dignity [come] to be seen as normal, both to perpetrators and to victims."
"Things are changing now," says El Paso immigration lawyer Carlos Spector Calderon, "but for years, Mexican-Americans have reasoned that getting beat up is a part of life, a reality you have to face--|y que [so what]?'"
To understand this way of thinking, one must understand the makeup of El Paso. The city is headquarters for at least 1,300 uniformed Federal officers. About 250 are Border Patrol agents patrolling in or near the city, which is a favorite entry point for undocumented workers and, more recently, for drug smugglers--although INS national spokesman Duke Austin says El Paso "is not a big drug corridor." It's where day laborers crossing the low river from the other side try to avoid the scrutiny of the men in green vans and blend in with the people downtown. Border Patrol spokesman Mosier estimates 400 to 600 people cross and hundreds are apprehended on any given day.
Being a blend of cultures, El Paso is a haven for the undocumented worker: In this atmosphere, with Korean-owned stores advertising clothing for $5.99 a pound, Mexican music blaring from the stores, and the hustle and bustle of shoppers, the undocumented worker is virtually indistinguishable from Mexican-American citizens and legal residents, according to Border Patrol agents I interviewed.
"Sometimes we do make mistakes," says a twelve-year veteran we'll call "Bob," a soft-spoken, thirtysomething man. "There are a few bad apples among the agents, but most of us are trying to do a good job. It's tough out there, man."
The authors of the AFSC report on border abuses would likely agree. They have testified about "the need to free immigration officials from a |mission impossi-ble'"--that of stopping illicit drug traffic and a massive human exodus from Central and Latin America as a result of wars, unemployment, and spiraling debt. Forcing the INS to shoulder responsibility for such massive social and political problems, the report warns, "is a recipe for disaster and grossly unfair to immigration officials, particularly Border Patrol agents."
The climate on the border is definitely more tense and dangerous as a result of the drug trade, according to Bob, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity. Still, like other agents I interviewed, he is skeptical about claims of widespread abuses in El Paso, especially in the Bowie case. "I think some of the testimony is hard to believe," he says as we cruise the downtown area in a borrowed car. "A fourteen-year-old girl being kicked twelve to fifteen times, that's unbelievable. Some agents out there do get overzealous, but I don't know anyone who would do that."
Although the Border Patrol's Mosier says he doesn't hear racist epithets like "wetback" in the field in El Paso, and INS standards forbid insulting or sarcastic language, Bob has a different story. "In the 1980s," he says, "you'd hear agents calling people |wetback' or |tonk.'" (According to a Border Patrol agent's testimony in a 1987 court case, "tonk"--a demeaning term for undocumented workers--"is the sound of a flashlight hitting someone's head: tonk.")
And Bob's account suggests that in El Paso, racial slurs are still commonplace in the Border Patrol: Most agents no longer say "tonk," he says, "but |wets' is not at all uncommon. It's like a nickname. |How many wets did you catch today?'--you hear that a lot."
Bob is troubled by the allegations of brutality. The INS's increasing role in drug interdiction "means you run into some pretty scary people out there," he says, but adds that almost all the Mexican nationals he arrests "are basically decent people who come across for work and a better way of life."
We drive around for a few hours, with Bob pointing out how difficult it is to do his job. I watch as several Latinos cross the river from Mexico and lose themselves in a crowd. The method of patrolling the downtown area, he says, is called "shotgunning." Even if agents haven't observed someone entering the country, "by law all we need is a little bit of reasonable suspicion. We pull up behind somebody and they look up and they look away, and that's enough to say, |Hi, I'm a U.S. Border Patrol agent.'" Clothing may also wave a red flag: "It may be how they're dressed," he says. "Is there mud on their shoes, are they disordered, are they nervous, does their clothing look like they've been sleeping on grass? Are they walking fast, heading north, looking suspicious?"
Looking suspicious. According to local human-rights activists, that phrase describes a large percentage of the residents of El Paso, which is nearly 70 per cent Latino and one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the country. Agents arrest those who are poor. If you're well-dressed, you generally don't arouse suspicion, so you're not stopped. On the other hand, one El Paso attorney noted that agents "also pick up people with the nicely-dressed-Mexican look." The common denominator, it seems, is being Latino.
One reason Border Patrol agents repeatedly stop and question Latino citizens is the agency's "quota system," according to attorneys and INS insiders. The quota, in this case, is the number of undocumented workers an agent captures.
Mention the word "quota" to Border Patrol public-affairs officer Mosier in El Paso, and he acts as if it's a foreign word he does not understand. "I am not aware of any quota system," he says. But mention the word to two undercover Border Patrol agents I talked with at El Paso International Airport and they smile knowingly.
"There's no quotas, but there is," says one, a Latino. Both explain that their superiors judge them by how many people they apprehend. "It's the good-ol'-boy system," explains the other agent, an Anglo. "The favorites are given the shifts when most aliens come in, so they detain more people, it looks better on their record, and they get promoted faster," he says with a trace of bitterness.
Steve Franz, a former Border Patrol agent now working for the Texas Education Agency, confirms that there has long been a quota system within the agency. "If you're riding with a partner," he says, "you were both supposed to put down the numbers of people you apprehended, to inflate the log-sheets." One time, he recalls, "We all took turns parking in high profile down on the river, and apprehensions dropped from 600 to 800 a day to thirty to sixty. We just kept them out. After three or four days of that, management got back to us and said, |Hey, the rotation system is off.'"
In other words, there's far more pressure on Border Patrol agents to let undocumented workers into the United States and then hunt them down and arrest them than there is simply to keep them out.
This can be seen at Bowie High School, which sits within waving distance of Mexico. More than 800 students and employees of Bowie High have signed a petition asking the El Paso Border Patrol to repair gaping holes in the fence behind the campus that separates the two countries. The petition, recently sent to U.S. Representative Ron Coleman, also asks that the repaired fence be maintained and implores the Border Patrol to stop using the Bowie campus to entrap people entering the United States from Mexico.
The holes in the border fence, according to Judge Bunton's ruling, have existed for at least fifteen to sixteen years.
When I visited Bowie High in December, the man-sized holes were still there. In my first fifteen minutes there, looking south from the campus, I spotted a group of people from the other side--two men, one holding hands with a girl of about ten, and two women with younger children--pushing through holes in the fence and running onto the high-school campus. There they disappeared behind the stadium, with its big sign reading, This Is BEAR COUNTRY. They, like hundreds of others, blended in easily with students in a school that is close to 100 per cent Latino.
Local civil-rights advocates are convinced that the school would not be an entry point if the Border Patrol would repair the fence, something the Border Patrol is not inclined to do. "Every time you make repairs to the fences, they cut new holes," says Mosier of the Border Patrol. "It's not practical to post agents at any given site. Our agents would be spread too thin."
"That's a ridiculous statement," says Texas Rural Legal Aid lawyer Mark Schneider. "With our technology we can put men on the moon to play golf. We have the technology, but as everybody knows, it is not to their benefit to keep people out, because they have a quota system. And the other reason is that the El Paso economy runs on undocumented workers."
An El Paso attorney who has won several cases against the INS, Schneider is a New York transplant who has made immigration abuse his cause. Not your typical three-piece-suit lawyer, he shares a modest office and wears his long dark hair tied back in a pony tail. He explains that Border Patrol agents patrol the Bowie area on the north side of campus--not the south--so that those trying to cross can't see them.
"The great majority of the people they arrest are given a voluntary departure, and the agent has an arrest, and it looks good on his record. Arrests are how you measure success, and internal promotions, and the quarterly report to Washington."
And arrest quotas lead to blanket stops and harassment of legal residents. "We're like a police state here," says Schneider, "where you're guilty until proven innocent."
Several days later, at the El Paso International Airport, I feel myself being followed. A friend observing from a distance watches as two undercover Border Patrol agents trail me up an escalator, through a metal detector and a long hallway, and finally to a gate. One pats his pocket at one point, she says, as if reaching for ID.
Perhaps it's my clothes: Trying to see whether I'll become another arrest statistic, I dressed that day as a low-income Mexican woman looking for work, holding a market bag, and wearing plastic sandals, a cheap hair ribbon, and a brown polyester skirt. At the gate, however, both agents turn and drift off.
I had spotted the two agents earlier; although not in uniform, they looked out of place, with their body-building physiques and studied casualness, a cross between cowboys and undercover detectives. After making a few more tours of the airport, I see them standing at the Visitors and Convention Bureau. Walking over there, I ask the man behind the desk where I can find some Border Patrol agent& He half-smiles and says, "They're right in front of you." What follows is a surprisingly frank conversation.
Asked whether he had considered stopping me, the Latino agent explains that he had, but that I did not "look nervous enough." The younger Anglo agent goes a step further, explaining how they spot an "illegal."
"Usually," he says, "they stop at one of those [airport] paintings and look around suspiciously, or they don't know how to use the escalator because they've never been to an airport."
As we talk about the quota system, one of the agents disappears. Later, my friend says the agent followed and stopped two young Latino men for questioning, although they had been going up the escalator in a hurry, she says, and had not appeared at all nervous. It turned out they were both legal U.S. residents, rushing because they feared missing their flight.
When I ask my friend if there was any notable difference between me and the young men, she smiles and says, "Yeah, they had darker skin."
That incident and others led me to think that even after the Murillo case, being Latino may still sometimes be a liability around the El Paso Border Patrol.
"I think one thing for sure will change," says Murillo, "and that's that the kids of El Paso will no longer tolerate this." He adds that most agents are "basically decent people," and says he looks forward to "a time for healing. As long as the Border Patrol agents understand the law, we can move on."
One result of the controversy is a civilian review board, which will examine complaints of Border Patrol abuses. The Patrol has also come under strong scrutiny by the El Paso Times, which recently characterized it as "highly secretive" and accountable to no one. But despite criticisms from the press and some Mexican-Americans, the Border Patrol still enjoys fairly widespread community support, even among Latinos.
As one of my own relatives tells me, during a heated argument, "You don't know what it's like to live here: They come and steal; we're all afraid of opening our doors to strangers. I don't mind carrying my ID, if the agents are going to protect us."
And the response of a Mexican-American man wearing a sombrero downtown is typical: "A mi no me molestan, si no me molestan [As long as they don't bother me, they don't bother me]."
I, for one, am baffled by this complacency. The green vans make me nervous now. Walking around downtown, watching brown-skinned people milling around the Greyhound bus station, I think back to a trip with my grandmother years ago. I was about five years old, traveling by train, and I remember how I would cry when my grandmother would leave us to hide from La Migra, crouching in the train's bathroom in her long cotton dress. Although she was a legal resident, she was terribly afraid of the Border Patrol. My older sister would pinch me and tell me not to make any noise, or my grandmother would be taken away. A few minutes later, after the men in green suits had marched through, my grandmother would return.
In the years since, my grandmother, like many other people, has lost her fear of the men in green suits. No, El Paso is definitely not the same.