USIA sponsors Zeta writer who attacks INS

"They don't know what to do with Mexicans"

— Adela Navarro Bello wants to know what the Americans' problem is with her people. "What gives? Are they afraid of us? Do they fear that, little by little, we Mexicans are going to take back our old territory? Do they consider us a threat? [So they get] '150,000 illegal Mexicans a year' and similar numbers of legal migrants. What harm can we do?"

The opinion piece is titled "They Can't Handle It," and the dateline is Washington, D.C. Navarro, 31, a rising star with Tijuana's political weekly Zeta, wrote this in the middle of a recent trip around America to look at migration issues, sponsored by the United States Information Agency (USIA), a 46-year-old federal body set up to "explain and support American foreign policy," due to be integrated into the State Department October 1.

The journey gave her pause for thought -- about migration, the U.S., and her own country.

The column poured out of her after she met with immigration officials at INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) headquarters and for the first time appreciated the size of the machine targeted against would-be migrants.

"Some Border Patrol officers were present at the meeting," Navarro says this morning, back in Tijuana. "They gave us an overview on how the Border Patrol works and how the U.S. guards its borders. I got the feeling they wanted to totally shut down the border between Tijuana and San Diego. [I was told that] of the 8000 officers working for the Border Patrol, 3500 are in San Diego. San Diego is a punto rojo -- a hot ticket -- regarding the issue of people who cross over to the U.S. looking for work. I pointed out that because of Operation Gatekeeper, 418 people have died in the mountains. I asked them, 'Is that a risk you took into consideration?' "

Nobody, she says, would answer her question.

"The message they were giving me was 'Beware. We have all this at our disposal to stop you guys from getting over.' Very presumptuous. 'We have all these resources. We're going to stop you.' And after going to all those meetings and getting overviews of everything in Washington, I concluded that Operation Gatekeeper is nothing compared to what their [future] plans are for guarding the border."

Navarro and I are sitting in a room behind the reception desk in Zeta's offices, not far from the Agua Caliente racetrack. Outside, guards lounge around the parked cars. Ever since codirector J. Jesús Blancornelas was shot and wounded in 1997, the city has provided such protection.

Navarro says her column was typical, her "usual opinionated self"; she doesn't fault the USIA for a tour that gave her access to groups opposed to government immigration policies. But as a Mexican learning how America defends its borders from her people -- from Washington to Atlanta to Miami to Savannah to Denver -- she fought personal feelings while observing everything from Border Patrol training to active immigration courts. "I tried not to let my heart get involved. Not to be passionate about the issue. I tried to stay objective. I decided I should listen to what every side had to say and then reach a conclusion as coolly as possible."

Washington, D.C., set the tone. "It is a very beautiful, conservative, clean, modest capital," she wrote, "but at the same time, arrogant and overbearing. Right [here] in the heart of the United States, they don't know what to do with Mexicans.... It is the Mexicans that worry them most."

Yet Navarro couldn't help but be impressed by Border Patrol training. Outside Savannah, Georgia, she visited the Treasury Department's training center, where agents of the INS and the Border Patrol have their academies.

"They teach them human rights, Spanish, and they tell them how to treat Mexicans well. The training that the officials are given in this academy is the best they can give them. They have the best intellectual tools, best physical tools to develop them. They teach them all types of strategies. How to handle weapons, what to do in crisis situations, everything to build the ideal immigration officer." She laughs. "So I don't know what happens when they reach the border. I told the director of the academy that when I cross the border with a passport and the migration officer speaks to me in English, I reply in Spanish. [On many occasions] he says, 'I don't speak Spanish.' The director told me, 'That's not right. They have to speak Spanish. They have no right to speak to you in English.' "

In other words, theory and practice vary greatly, Navarro believes. "When they graduate and get to the border, it's like two separate worlds."

Navarro, married to a journalist with the new Tijuana daily Frontera and mother to a 14-month-old daughter, has resisted smoking for an hour. Now she lights up a cigarette, careful to blow the smoke behind her. I ask her if she still believes the U.S. government unfairly targets Mexican immigrants. She inhales again and holds her cigarette while she thinks.

"Compare us with illegal Cuban immigrants. The situation for them is peculiar because once a Cuban steps on sand, they obtain rights. They're called 'dry feet.' Immediately they're taken to a center, and they remain there for 24 hours. After that they're free. They have a parole situation for one year. During that year they have to obtain a credit card, a job, a house. After that year they present all the proof that they're doing this, then they obtain legal residence.

"An organization I visited in Miami told me that when Clinton was seeking reelection, a group of Cubans in Miami organized themselves and invited him to a meeting. At this meeting they gave him $170,000 for his campaign. Clinton was very surprised by this. So he returned to Washington, he got reelected, and then he created this law particularly for Cubans, because he realized that they are an economic force. And that they also coincide with the U.S. position -- they hate Fidel.

"Our situation is very different. It has to do with representation in Congress. Because that's what everything depends on. Cabildeo. Lobbying. In the United States, lobbying is everything. Cubans have been able to organize themselves, put all their money together, have representation. Mexicans don't have that representation. There are a lot more Mexicans than Cubans in the U.S., but they are all over the place, and they haven't gotten together, put their money together, organized themselves to be able to [make]their case.

"One reason for this difference is the way they are treated. Cubans are supported by the U.S. government. Mexicans are persecuted. When a Mexican, after so many hardships, manages to get legal residence in the U.S., he grabs his papers, and when another Mexican says to him, 'We have to speak out and demonstrate for our rights,' he says, 'No. I have my papers. I made it. Don't get me into trouble now.'

"Yet Mexicans who live in the U.S. legally send back $5 billion to their families in Mexico each year. This means that they're a powerful economic force in U.S. society. But there's no unity whatsoever. If these Mexican-Americans united, maybe they would be able to influence their representatives in Congress so that the migration politics would change. But it's going to be very difficult. For a start, the home country, Mexico, is not communist!"

Navarro believes it also has to do with the way Mexicans are. "We're not organized at all. By nature everybody flies in a different direction. We're not an organized society."

Navarro credits the United States Information Agency, which selected her for the trip through the U.S. consulate in Tijuana, for letting her draw her own conclusions. "It's not like I've been brainwashed. What I accomplished was to understand the political apparatus regarding migration. I was also able to visit nongovernmental organizations, and the perspective in these places was completely different from official Washington's. They criticized each other; they criticized the government, and the government criticized them."

Zeta readers have followed Navarro's U.S. exploits through her last-page columns, "Sortilegioz" -- "Charms." (The final "z" is a Zeta gimmick.) Since joining the paper in 1990, she has moved through its ranks. In 1993 she was made a member of the paper's editorial staff and started the column in 1994. She helped keep the paper going in 1997, when Blancornelas was shot, and despite her parents' worries, she continues to accept the risks of writing about such subjects as drug-trafficking.

"I regret that journalists have to work this way in this country, but I'm in love with journalism," she says. "Even with all the risks involved. Unfortunately I live in Tijuana. Maybe if we were in a different place -- for example, the United States -- we would be writing about Lewinsky or Clinton. But that's not the issue here. The issue here is drug-trafficking, and we have to deal with it, because it's damaging our society." (She wanted to study narco-trafficking on her USIA tour, but they turned her down.)

Still, Navarro's optimistic, especially about Mexican politics. With the presidential election year coming up, she says the game for journalists is now wide open. "A whole different way of making politics has begun in Mexico," she says. "People are now more critical. Before, there were three basic rules for journalists: you couldn't touch the armed forces, you couldn't touch the president, and you couldn't touch the Virgin of Guadalupe. Now, the only one you can't touch is the Virgin of Guadalupe."

And she has never shrunk from aiming zings at her neighbors across the border. "After a visit to the INS," she writes at the end of her Washington column, "they give you a Border Patrol patch. I don't want to seem ungrateful or not recognize a kind gesture or the sincere intentions of the nice officials, but -- anybody want this thing?"

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