JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — When I went to college we rarely discussed immigration.
Border politics didn’t enter my thoughts as I headed to Big Bend National Park on a student-run rafting trip, a last escape before graduation from Texas A&M in 1978.
As we crawled into sleeping bags on the Texas side of the Rio Grande, I thought the water looked low for rafting.
Later that night, Spanish voices broke the silence. I looked up to see a couple of men on horseback. They spoke softly as they surveyed the two-dozen students asleep under the stars.
I noticed a pickup truck idling on the road behind us. Then, two more men crossed the stream on the backs of burros. They dismounted near the truck. The burros made their way back to Mexico, and the pickup kept its lights off as it traveled into the night.
We had little reason to fear either the men or the border. People sneaking across the river had long been a fact of life in our state, not the national issue it is today. I wrote a travel article for our student paper, The Battalion. The men on horseback appeared in paragraph nine.
Thirty-one years later I told my journalism students this story. They knew right away: The horsemen were so-called “coyotes” who arranged for the burros and the truck.
Once I was someone who shrugged off a border crossing as a random sighting. Now I am a teacher who guides students to write about immigration at a time when illegal crossings are considered routine. We’re in an unlikely place here in Johnson City, more than 1,300 miles from the border. Yet the story is in our backyard, too. As a pastor once told the Johnson City Press, more than 10,000 Hispanic immigrants live in or near the urban area we call the Tri-Cities.
At East Tennessee State University, the region’s largest school, we have produced a mini-newspaper in English and Spanish for 10 years. We name it after whichever local paper volunteers to print and distribute it, so the 2010 edition will be El Nuevo Bristol Herald-Courier. As the Hispanic community grows across the South, we believe someone should write about that.
Pro-immigration feelings are rare in Northeast Tennessee. Communities here once depended on factory jobs. More and more we watch those jobs move across the border, even as undocumented immigrants take factory work here.
One such Mexican immigrant agreed to talk to us. He said he worked as a journalist for a couple of years in the early ’90s. In the U.S. he was a factory worker, now a ranch hand. After the interview students wrote stories.
What they found interesting: Freedom of the press isn’t the same across the border. A Mexican reporter who makes a government official look bad might have cocaine “discovered” in his car, and be jailed for it. A writer who covers local government might be bribed to make his sources look good. A journalist who exposes corruption must write under an assumed name.
The man said he enjoyed reporting, but doesn’t miss the danger. He dreams of having a radio show.
My students talked long-distance with an agent from the Border Patrol, who told stories of border crossings. He saw people crossing with babies, a family that brought its elderly grandmother. He once found a person hidden in the headliner of a handicapped passenger van.
In Big Bend in 1978, coyotes came on horseback. Today, the agent said, they might hire teenage boys with no criminal record to take people across. In some places coyotes lead immigrants 30 miles on foot through scrub brush and desert. A coyote could earn $2,000 by helping someone make the crossing, but $5,000 to bring someone all the way to San Antonio, he said.
When we talk to people for a story, we seldom learn how they got here unless it is the point of the story. During our interview no one asked our Mexican source about his path to America, whether he entered legally or not. Sometime later, I found out.
He crossed the first time in 2000 and returned after four years to visit his parents. After the events of 9/11, security tightened. The Border Patrol caught him three times as he walked through Arizona. It took him a month, but on the fourth try he made it.
As the U.S. government spends millions on border security, the ranch hand waits for the laws that will wipe away the stigma of that trip. For him, immigration reform is the final border. He counts on President Barack Obama’s reforms to change his status, so he can move on with his life.