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May 24th, 2010
10:00 AM ET

Anna Deavere Smith: One Border, Many Sides

Editor's note: Anna Deavere Smith is an actress and playwright who is a professor at New York University. This article was originally published on the New York Times.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anna Deavere Smith.

Anna Deavere Smith
New York Times Op-Ed

President Obama, appearing on Wednesday with Felipe Calderón, the president of Mexico, denounced Arizona’s new law on illegal immigration as “a misdirected expression of frustration over our broken immigration system.” Though the law is new, the frustration is most certainly not. Two years ago, before the last presidential election, I interviewed people living and working in Phoenix and at the Arizona-Mexico border, and much of what I heard then echoes strongly in the debate over the Arizona law. Even then, as I sat at office desks, or in living rooms, or outside at picnic tables, the words were dramatic. The impassioned, rhythmic cadences suggested a social movement. I suspect the speakers were rehearsing the language that we are now hearing nationally.

Here are excerpts from those conversations:

Patricia Vroom, chief counsel for the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in Arizona

Arizona doesn’t hate brown people. I think really what you’re talking about is more of a tension of “Well, wait a second here, I thought I knew that this was my land, what are you doing coming on my property and presuming to take it over?”

There’s literally thousands and thousands of people — I mean, at one point, the Border Patrol, the Tucson section, would arrest 20,000 people a week. I’ve flown over the border quite a few times in helicopters and the trash that is left by people who are coming in illegally, you could not believe it. In a wash, an area where people might have spent the night, they’ll leave plastic bags, they’ll leave backpacks, they’ll leave shoes and they’ve left their water bottles — because they typically will carry these gallon jugs of water with them. There will be plastic bags, there will be diapers.

There’s a lot of cattle that roam freely in a lot of these areas, and these animals will often be found who have died with huge distress because they will have swallowed one of these plastic bags and then it gets caught in their digestive tract and they die an agonizing death.

I mean, you’re up in a helicopter and you just see swarms of people sometimes — 150 in one place, and then you’ll see another group of 15 or 16 and then you’ll go a little bit longer and you’ll see the Border Patrol rounding up another five or six.

The drug cartels are also very much involved in human smuggling. It’s just terrible, terrible victimization of people who are being — who have allowed themselves to be smuggled because they don’t know what they’re buying into.

Miguel Calvillo, border crosser

My father had been living here since 1985. And one day he told us that he would like us to come over so we could be all together.

Back in 1990 it was pretty easy to cross the border. We crossed right next to where the immigration officer was checking passports. Right next to it was like a big hole in the fence. It was so funny because he just stared at the side and said, “No, no, no, go back.” And then people just waited until he would get distracted so they could cross. But we were stopped within like 10 minutes. So we had to go back home, and I was excited because I really didn’t want to come, because I had a girlfriend. And then two weeks later we tried again and we made it that time.

The second time we didn’t cross through the hole; we had to jump over the fence.

And then when we got into the city, I was like, “Oh, my God.” I was in the United States, you know, looking at all the buildings and everything. And then we got into the apartment. I was expecting a big house with nice furniture, but it was totally different. It was my dad, my mom, my older brother, a family friend, my other older brother, myself and my little sister living in this studio. Because when I was a little kid and I used to read the letters my dad used to send to my mom, I mean you dream and imagine things. I imagined like they were living in this big house. We were little kids and we were dreaming about having the family all together finally.

In fact, my dad abandoned us for another woman months after he brought us here. Even though he left, he continued helping us with our documents. He submitted the applications for legal status and when he married that other woman that sped up the process because she is a U.S. citizen.

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Filed under: 360° Radar • Immigration
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