The US border with Mexico is nearly 2,000 miles long, but in the 90s the historic border crossings in California and Texas were shut down with fences and guards. Only in Arizona was the door unlocked, the poor south and rich north separated in Arizona by a simple barbed-wire fence.
It was reckoned that nobody would be desperate enough to find a way into the US through the 7,000 ft high mountains and the 50 miles of untracked waterless desert. Now hundreds of thousands risk it - Mexicans and job seekers from all over Latin America.
There is no romance in it for them. Hundreds have been dying every year in the last decade, according to - among others - the reputable American Friends Service Committee. "Now we have a death a day," I was told.
Just last month 77 men ran out of water after struggling for five days. Lost and desperate, they overpowered the man they had paid to find a way - the so-called coyote or migrant smuggler - seized his cell phone to dial 911 and wrote "help" in big letters in the sand.
The US Border Patrol rescued them. It's an indication of the scale of things that nearly half a million "illegals" were apprehended in the Tucson sector in 2004 and everyone agrees that tens of thousands get through.
Where do they go? Affluent Californians are not eager to talk about the legal status of the staff who water their lawns the colour of dollar bills, paint their houses and nanny their kids for tiny amounts of money. For its part the Mexican Government isn't interested in keeping its people in Mexico as "illegals" send millions of dollars back home.
Various studies all suggest there are something like 11 million "illegals" in the shadow world outside the rule of law. The new American dilemma is what to do about them and the thousands more evading border patrols. How to reconcile conflicting American traditions and interests?
Should they be tolerated as willing hands who sustain American prosperity as generations of resented European immigrants did? That's what the Wall Street Journal, business leaders and the Hispanic lobbies say.
Minutemen patrol the border
Or do they represent a new hydra-menace? A menace in under cutting the American working man and draining welfare budgets. A menace to law and order. And a menace, some fear, to the national identity of America as an Anglo-Protestant English speaking society since 13% of the population is now Hispanic.
It's hardly surprising there's a deep ambivalence about immigration and it is epitomised by two responses to the deaths in the desert. You will have heard a lot about the rigid Christian right swinging the presidency to George Bush, but there is much more than that to religion in America.
Presbyterians and Catholics, Jews and Muslims, Quakers and Episcopalians, are all joined as Samaritans in a campaign they call No More Deaths. They are not just sermonising. They camp in the desert. They go out and give water and medicines to migrants on their last legs.
This is philanthropy with risk. Two of these Samaritans were arrested just recently for giving a ride to migrants who needed medical help.
One of the campaigners, the Reverend Stuart Taylor, co-pastor of Tuscon's Presbyterian church argues: "It is the law of God for people of faith to love and welcome the stranger."
To which another group with very different ideas says: "Yeah! And what about the law of the US of A?"
They are armed vigilantes who have started patrolling the broken borders in four states, inspired by a catalyst called Chris Simcox. He too camped in the desert reaching very different conclusions from the Samaritans when in a mid-life crisis he quit his job as a teacher in Los Angeles.
After three months camping out he tumbled into Arizona's crumbling historic frontier town of Tombstone, bought its newspaper and published a clarion call for volunteers to guard the border. Hundreds responded. They call themselves Patriot-Minutemen, taking the name of the colonial subjects who opened the American revolution with shots at King George's redcoats at Lexington.
Liberals and Hispanic open-border enthusiasts denounce the Minutemen as bigots. Some may be but Simcox insists the vigilantes take a pledge of tolerance. San Diego columnist Gordon Dillow, who went on patrol with Minutemen, says: "They didn't seem like nuts to me...retirees or former military men or simply working people."
Anti-immigration activists make their views known
Who's right? I think they both are. The Samaritans are good people trying to save lives. The Minutemen men are good people trying to give voice to the disgust of millions of Americans at how porous their borders are. It doesn't make sense nearly four years after 9/11 to make grandmothers take off their shoes at airports when terrorist infiltrators at the broken borders could wreak havoc.
There's a cartoon in the New Yorker that sums up where we are. Two Indians peer through the grass as the Mayflower comes into Plymouth Rock in 1620 loaded with pilgrims, with one saying to another: "Looks like we're going to need an immigration policy." And how!
But there's a great deal of dithering. President Bush, mindful of the Hispanic vote, promised a guest worker program and hasn't delivered. It's been left to an odd couple to make the running - Arizona's Republican Senator John McCain and the Democrat from Massachusetts, Edward Kennedy.
They've written a bill to legalise immigrants over a six-year probation and tighten security. But at the last minute the White House backed out of a Senate hearing on their proposals and now everyone in Congress has gone home for the summer.
Maybe they'll all have time to reflect how very hot it is this summer in the Arizona desert.
Excellent piece. I worked as an immigration lawyer in the US for many years, and found the US ambivalence towards immigrants very disturbing. The net value to the American economy is enhanced by what immigrants (legal or illegal) contribute, and no Americans would be willing to work for ANY money picking the fruit and vegetables that are sold in the stores. It was the same for the Chinese in the 19th century - let them in to build the railways, but don't give them any status, and send them home if they can't find a Caucasian to vouch for them.
Mexicans sacrifice living with their families because they believe in supporting their families, and they are only following a tradition of migration throughout the world since the beginning of time. Any of us would do the same in the same circumstances.
Ann Carr, Madiran, France
An excellent article about a horrible problem in my backyard. The only workable cures would be to permit the honest workers to enter legally or to make the penalties for hiring Illegals so high that no one would.
The next time you are in the neighbourhood, come riding with us.
Fred Nagel, Amado, Arizona
We as Americans too easily forget that we are a nation of immigrants, there are very few who can claim 100% Native American heritage. Yes, we need to secure our borders against those who wish to do us harm, but we need to make it easier for those who only wish to join and contribute to our society to legally emigrate to America. Though most of Bush's policies make me want to cringe, this guest worker program sounds promising...
Vicki Kelsey, Chandler, Arizona USA
One of the things that has made western nations prosperous has been the rule of law, but it only works if laws are fair and respected. After the humanitarian crisis, the worse thing about the immigration dilemma is the erosion of the rule of law. If America, or any western nation, needs vast numbers of immigrants to support its economy, then legal ways to do so must be found or we risk losing respect for the law and the prosperity it engenders.
Ted Bogart, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA
While I don't have any thing against illegal immigrants as individuals, I do think it is our right and our duty to stop illegal immigration. I have gone through the legal immigration process and I think the illegals should get in the back of this line, not circumvent the law. Two other reasons I think the USA should stop illegal immigration are 1 The ability of terrorists to pass through our porous boarders and 2 The fact that it costs legal America citizens our hard earned dollars to pay for the costs these people impose when they use our schools and hospitals. We cannot to let unlimited numbers of Latin Americans in and support them all when we have our own poor to feed and educate.
Carrie Schneider, Seattle USA
You captured our situation. I believe we should seal the border and go after the employers of illegal immigrants. Yet, I tutor a Hispanic who wants to learn English. Is he legal? I don't ask and he doesn't tell.
Bob Chicken, Walla Walla, WA USA
The worldwide problem is poverty, only by fixing this we can solve the problem, and this is not an easy task
Enrique Rivas , Baja California Tijuana Mexico
The illegals know the risk that they take when they attempt to enter the country in this manner. I have no pity for them. I am one of the millions disgusted by how porous our borders are, and would see every one of them deported.
Joseph, NY, USA
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