Azam Ahmed, the New York Times bureau chief for Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, was in town recently, after traveling the entire US-Mexico border, from Brownsville/Matamoros to San Diego/Tijuana. He talked about how it turns out people who actually live along the border share a border culture, speak a border lingo, and have a less alarmist, more resilient view of life on the line than people living far from the borderlands.
After his talk at the Central Library, a group of people clustered around him: teachers, academics, aid workers, eager to talk.
“I have worked in the immigration courts for 20 years,” court interpreter Daniel Lemesoff tells him,“so I see how the people are escorted from the border to our court. And most of them won’t get asylum, because poverty or fear of crime is not one of the five grounds [to qualify for asylum]. And yet they continue to come. My question is, why do they continue coming? Is it a desperation? Is it a magical idea?”
“Well, yes. It is like magical thinking,” the gentle-voiced Ahmed says. “It’s ‘I don’t care what, I know it’s going to work out for me.’ It’s faith. It’s an article of faith.”
“Every day, I see 80 people coming to court, with children, desperate people,” says the interpreter, “like my grandparents probably were, when they were immigrants coming here trying to escape poverty.”
What has struck Ahmed especially is the women. “There’s a tremendous strength in those women along the border,” he says. “The women who have made that trek, and brought their children, especially if they have done it on their own. It’s a strength I don’t know if I have.”
So how does San Diego measure up against other border towns he traveled to?
“Juarez is big, but San Diego, because of the caravans in particular, became this amazing focal point. People come to Tijuana because it’s easier, it’s safer. So you get lots of people showing up, lots of people being made to wait, the frustrations that that ultimately engenders, with people then trying to cross illegally, and the theatrics of the border. In some way there is a theatrical component. All the cameras are there, all the migrants are there, all the police are there, all the NGOs and all the aid workers are there. There’s a ritualistic component. Whereas something like that would never happen in Reynosa [near Matamoros] because Reynosa is so much more dangerous, so much scarier. And also a lot of that route is filled with smuggling. It’s a different dynamic.”
So, with a name like Azam Ahmed, how did he fare, traveling the volatile borderlands? “With my name, and the fact I am Muslim, you can imagine, I was questioned,” he says. “A lot.”
And yet he says it’s hard not to love the border. “It’s a unique world. It’s a mix of two countries that I really care a lot about. Mexico and the United States. What’s not to love?”