By Nidson Augustin, Haiti
On February 9-15, 2016, thirteen Humphrey Fellows from the University of Minnesota traveled to Arizona to study immigration with Humphrey Fellows in journalism at Arizona State University. Fellows learned hands-on through site visits and meetings with leaders and academics dealing with issues on the border. This year for the first time, Fellows crossed the border into Nogales, Sonora, Mexico to examine border issues from the Mexican side. The following is one of a series of reflections by Fellows who attended this cross-campus collaboration, generously funded by the U.S. State Department and administered by the Institute of International Education.
On Friday, February 12, 2016, the Humphrey Fellows from Arizona State University and the University of Minnesota woke up early in the morning in anticipation of a long day in Mexico with a packed agenda. When we crossed the border, some of us were preparing our travel documents for identification by the immigration agents on the Mexican side of the border, but we experienced a very smooth entry into Mexico. None of us were even questioned by Mexican authorities regarding the purpose of our visit, the duration of our stay, and other relevant information about where we planned to stay. As an immigration officer, I was shocked by the naïveté of a state that leaves its border uncontrolled, assuming that no threat will come from the other side.
The first article of the Chicago Convention states that “every state is sovereign,” which means that every state has the right but also the responsibility to protect its national boundaries from any kind of threat that could put in danger its national security. In Nogales, we saw a discriminatory border; one state puts forth drastic measures to protect its homeland by checking the identity of every single passenger and processing it into its high-profiling database, and another state that is careless about checking people crossing the border.
Some people understand wrongly that the job of immigration consists only of checking the authenticity of travelers’ passports. The immigration control post at a border checkpoint aims not only at preventing unwanted people from entering but also at preventing unauthorized merchandise from entering. Immigration agents are the guardians of US borders and protect the US against terrorists and instruments of terror. They steadfastly enforce the laws of the US while fostering lawful international trade at their borders. Let’s look at the other side: to what extend do the Mexican authorities protect the Mexican market from potential US competitors that could probably illegally bring goods or merchandise to Mexico? There may be some unilateral agreement between the two states that lets US citizens cross the border into Mexico without control. But what about us, foreigners that crossed the border on February 12, 2016 and entered Mexico unnoticed? No Mexican authorities ever knew about the presence of more than twenty foreigners from around the globe. That is a risk from a homeland security point of view.
Let us continue our journey: we spent some time in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico and even had a luncheon at the US Consulate there. But what if, while returning back to the US border, we had had an accident and there was a dead person among us? What would be the legal procedure then? Would our US insurance provider agree to cover a client who had an accident outside of the US? If one of the members of the cohort had lost their passport in Mexico, how would he or she have reentered the US? Fortunately, none of this happened.
On our way back to the US side of the border, the US Customs agents were ready to do their job and did it without sentiment. The entire cohort was sent to secondary inspection, and were complaining that they were being racially profiled, which was not the case at all. A Customs officer is like any law enforcement officer. He or she obeys orders and has been trained to work according to a set of procedures. One of them consists of checking the database system to see if the passenger is cleared with regards to immigration law.
One question I had was: Why is there no connection or communication between the immigration officers and the Border Patrol agents? Three agents from US Border Patrol had welcomed us on the US side of the border the previous day. Why didn’t they pass our names and information about our visit to their counterparts at the check point? I also noticed that almost 90% of the US Border Patrol agents are from Mexico, or at least most of them have Mexican descent. How could former Mexicans be trained to enforce laws against present-day Mexicans?
Fortunately, we came back without major incident from our US-Mexico adventure. But we still do not have evidence that we were in Mexico: no stamp on our passport of Mexican entry and exit, or even reentry into the US. We have only the souvenir of our photo in a local newspaper.