Demythologizing Mexican Immigration

Clandestine Crossings: Migrants and Coyotes on the Texas-Mexico Border

By David Spener
Cornell University Press, 2009

Reviewed by Mary Romero

As violence among drug cartels in Mexico is sensationalized in the U.S. media, those who enforce immigration law use both the War on Drugs and the War on Terror to justify expanding budgets and the use of excessive force and surveillance of Latino immigrants. Scapegoating Mexicans as the source of high unemployment rates and the loss of federal and state benefits available to citizens divides workers across borders—which is a crucial tool for generating support for legislation that benefits capitalists and places U.S. and Mexican jobs in jeopardy.

U.S. immigration policy, law enforcement practices, and sensationalized media coverage have successfully blurred the distinction between immigrants, terrorists, and criminals, erasing the true story of Mexican immigrants seeking employment for family survival. In Clandestine Crossings, David Spener cuts through anti-immigration claims that those crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are armed criminals engaged in drug smuggling, human smuggling, and human trafficking (particularly sex trafficking). He places the largest contemporary migration between any two countries in the world in a historical, economic, and cultural context. His analysis unravels the myths and propaganda used by nativist and anti-immigration activists to fuel the militarization of the border and exacerbate the human suffering that comes with crossing the border to work.

The journey to el norte is a centuryold story, as Spener explains, which has been passed down through several generations and is embedded in border folklore. Making little distinction between citizens and immigrants, the Texas Rangers were notorious for their violent enforcement of the law, which always favored whites. Blocked from equal access to the law and to economic resources, Mexican bandits and raiders became folk heroes. Relegated to second-class citizenship in the U.S., Mexican-Americans residing in the border areas conducted their lives on both sides, visiting family and transporting food, textiles, and other goods from Texas to Mexico.

U.S. employers have regularly recruited Mexican immigrant laborers to work in the fields, mines, canneries, and railroads. At the same time, immigration policy and law enforcement have long been used to regulate labor and meet the needs of U.S. employers. For example, during the Great Depression, deportations—referred to as “repatriation” by the U.S. government— were aimed to reduce the labor force. Less than a decade later, in response to agricultural labor shortages during World War II, the U.S. signed the Bracero Program agreement with Mexico. While the war ended a few years later, the program continued for twenty-three years. As several generations of families crossed the border to work and mail money back home, the journey to work in the U.S. became an adult rite of passage in many states of Mexico. Over the last three decades, this practice—rooted in a U.S. strategy to provide employers with inexpensive labor—has been characterized by U.S. law enforcement as “smuggling” and “illegal immigration.” As NAFTA created more demand for workers in the U.S., migration became common in new areas of Mexico.

Clandestine border crossing in Texas involves financing one’s trip to the border, determining a place to cross the river to avoid detection, hiking through the brush around immigration checkpoints and away from the border region, and then hitching a ride to one’s destination. Frequently, immigrants travel in small groups, which include first-time and experienced migrants. Taking a bus to the border is not without its hazards. Mexican immigration officials sometimes extort money. At the border, migrants must avoid gangs of robbers as they purchase food and water for their trek through South Texas.

The river must be carefully surveyed for shallow areas, and crossing might involve inner tubes. Drowning is always a real danger. To avoid motion sensors, migrants need to move away from the bank as soon as they cross and begin the trek through dense brush, where they are exposed to extreme heat and cold. With no surface water, migrants drink from cattle troughs. Arrangements are made to have drivers pick migrants up, but the drivers risk being charged with “harboring and transporting illegal aliens,” so they may be cautious and abandon the plan if the migrants do not arrive on time. If the group becomes disoriented and unable to locate its pick-up site—or too exhausted, hungry, or sick—it may seek out Border Patrol detection and agree to be “voluntarily returned” to avoid possible death in the brush.

Given the dangers of migration, Spener’s discussion of the role of coyotes—the term used to refer to a person hired to arrange the border crossing—is especially significant. The use of coyotes reflects the changing states of immigration policy and law enforcement in the U.S. Prior to Operation Blockade in 1993—later changed to Operation Hold the Line—and Operation Rio Grande in 1997, migrants often crossed without hiring coyotes. As the border patrol increased, areas where migrants had long relied upon relatives and friends saw an increase in the use of coyotes. As NAFTA created more demand for workers in the U.S., migration became common in new areas of Mexico.

Coyotes use three strategies in the southern Texas migration process: bureaucratic evasion, labor brokerage, and clandestine crossings. As Spener explains, hiring someone to deal with bureaucracies to avoid delays is common throughout Latin America. Consequently, migrants do not think of hiring a coyote as criminal activity but, at the same time, are cautious that they might be taken advantage of. As labor brokers or middlemen for U.S. agricultural businesses that need workers, coyotes are no different from labor recruiters who helped provide turn-of-thecentury coal mines with Italian, Welsh, and other European laborers. Serving as migration guides and facilitators in clandestine crossings, coyotes play an important role in the labor brokerage service. Their expertise helps migrants find the safest places to cross the border, avoid legal ports of entry, and get to their final destination.

Those who seek support for more draconian immigration laws and increased enforcement rely upon headlines and images that echo Homeland Security rhetoric: “ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] Busts Massive Human Smuggling Ring That Stretches Length of U.S.” Instead of defining immigrants as fellow workers striving to earn a living and support their families, such headlines construct them as criminals and terrorists who pose a threat to U.S. citizens’ safety and economic livelihood. Breaking through the heavy fog of criminalization presented by public officials, anti-immigrant groups, and the media, Spener uncovers coyotes as individuals who provide specialized services to assist relatives and neighbors to cross the river, to reach roads and trails on the Texas side, or to arrange for a driver to pick up migrants. For a small fee, MexicanAmericans residing near the border may act as coyotes by assisting migrants who knock on their door for water and food, or by providing rides to nearby cities. A few coyotes sell counterfeit documents or have contacts within the U.S. consulate and immigration bureaucracy, which are used for obtaining visas to cross the border at checkpoints and other means of border-crossing transportation, eliminating the need to walk long distances.

Law enforcement tends to characterize each segment of the journey with another coyote as evidence of “human trafficking.” Coyotes are sensationalized in the media when migrants are found hidden in the cargo compartment of a car or in a large commercial vehicle on the way to a safe house in the U.S. However, as Spener shows, the elaborate organized-crime operation suggested by terms like “smuggling ring” does not fit the arrangements described by migrants, coyotes, and most law enforcement agents. A group of individuals may work together at various points, each receiving a certain amount of money, as the migrant is transported. Spener argues that coyotes engaged in drug and sex trafficking have no relationship to coyotes assisting migrants who want to work in the U.S. Rather, relying on family and friends on both sides of the border for assistance is an important safety component.

Just as in the U.S. working poor’s underground economy—i.e., fixing cars, selling food, and housecleaning—migrants rely upon trust, reciprocity, collective knowledge accumulated over decades of crossing, and solidarity. As in any business, coyotes depend on their reputation to succeed. Migrants rely on information from family and friends to decide which coyotes are safe. An aunt, uncle, cousin, or family friend may have helped a migrant contact and negotiate with a coyote. If a coyote engages in theft, rape, or abandonment, he won’t be hired and will make less money. Coyotes involved in “human trafficking” rarely, if ever, travel with a weapon. Coyotes who do not fulfill their informal contracts, or engage in violence, lose the trust of the community and are ostracized. Maintaining a reputation of fairness and competency is crucial in getting referrals, and coyotes are unlikely to be identified to authorities if their customers are satisfied. As coyotes provide a service that migrants seek, they rely on a bond of solidarity to avoid capture or prosecution. U.S. law enforcement attributes migrants’ unwillingness to identify coyotes as a consequence of fear, but Spener shows that migrants have a vested interest in maintaining their networks in order to cross again.

Through interviews with migrants in the U.S., Mexicans who have returned to Mexico, and law enforcement officers on both sides of the border, Spener draws a picture of clandestine crossings that is drastically different from the sensationalized images of violence used in the media and by politicians. Instead, we come to understand migrants and coyotes as workers seeking employment. Both migrants and coyotes are earning money to care for their families in Mexico. As border crossings become more dangerous, fewer migrants will risk returning to Mexico. The option to make enough money to build a house or start a business in Mexico is being destroyed by militarizing the border and increasing the risks in crossing the border. At the same time, corporations easily cross borders and have no allegiance to any workers.

Spener has conducted an important study that does not support the need for tax dollars being used to expand ICE’s budget or to increase human suffering. Instead, “protecting our borders” actually assures capitalists the flow of cheap and vulnerable labor.