RefugeesAfter dark. Saguaro and organ pipe cactus are silhouetted in the moonlight. Three patches of light shimmer in the distance like necklaces laid on black velvet. The closest is Lukeville on the U.S. side. One is a few miles further, Sonoita, and another 20 miles or so into Mexico is Quitovac.

During the day, cars whiz by on US 85, heading south, heading north. During the night, foot travelers head north only - in the washes and on trails, or by car on unofficial roads. We're told they're not criminals, merely desperate people, but the border attracts criminal activity too - drug smuggling, people smuggling - sometimes with lethal results.

According to the official literature from Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument where we're staying, an estimated 200,000 illegal immigrants, politely termed "undocumented aliens," crossed the 30 miles of U.S.-Mexico border within the Monument during 2001. We're told we might see evidence of their passing out on the hiking trails - abandoned water jugs, clothing, and food wrappers with Mexican labels. Straying up a wash for some bird watching, then angling back to the official campground to visitor center trail, we saw a bit of each. I imagined what I'd see, what I'd feel, if on a morning walk I encountered one of these exhausted, miserable people, perhaps asking for help. The brochure says "Use good judgement in providing water. Do not provide anything else."

What do we offer, here in the States? Low wages (by our standards), no benefits, no access to legal protection if a victim of crime or exploitation, but still the chance to send money home, money saved by living in often substandard housing with other similarly distressed souls.

What do we, citizens of the U.S., get in return? An unending supply of cheap labor that helps keep wages down for the entire U.S. labor force. A group of laborers who are terrified of being found out and therefore will not complain about unsafe working conditions. In other words, employers who don't want to pay minimum wage, whether for house cleaning, construction, or agricultural work, profit from illegal immigrants. Of course, if we'd all "just say no" to hiring undocumented aliens, there wouldn't be a "border problem."

Illegal immigration also provides an excuse for an additional paramilitary force. If you come from Mexico, you must pass through customs, then 30 miles further north, you're stopped again at another checkpoint, this one operated by the olive-green-clothed Border Patrol. Ironically, the Border Patrol became more visible during the "war on drugs" by the Reagan administration, the same administration that at the very least tolerated by ignorance drug deals that financed right-wing paramilitary adventures in Central America.

My cynicism about this situation is bolstered by my husband's comment, "We can invade and occupy Iraq, but we can't secure our border with Mexico." Then he wryly adds, "We don't see a flood of Canadians trying to sneak into the U.S. to live." Of course, we all know that the standard of living in Canada is comparable to that of the U.S. and in some instances is better, in particular when it comes to affordable medications and health care ... which only points to the real problem: Centuries of colonial and oligarchic rule in Mexico has resulted in a small middle class, hordes of impoverished people, and a small percent of the population controlling 90 percent of the wealth. Instead of public investment in sewage treatment infrastructure and clean water supplies, for example, you're expected to buy bottled water - a form of "privatization" which took hold in Mexico long before privatization of basic services became a topic for policy discussion in the U.S.

As long as Mexico continues to have such a low standard of living for most of its people, we'll have a "border problem." As long as politicians on both sides of the Rio Grande continue to make policies favoring elites, both hidden and open, Mexico will continue to have a low standard of living. As with so many problems now, scrape away the detritus of the details, and underneath you find greed.

The desert is particularly beautiful at night. The dry air produces cloudless evenings and plummeting nighttime temperatures. A winter 74-degree day is followed by a 37-degree night. As I fold myself into a warm bed, I think about the people crossing the desert out there, as the temperature drops. Whether winter's cold nights or summer's mid-day heat spiraling above a hundred degrees, the people who walk these forbidden paths must indeed be desperate.

Victoria Stoppiello is a free-lance writer from Ilwaco where she appreciates the hard work and family values brought to the community by Mexican people.

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