The New New Colossus: Preface to Maurice Sherif’s ‘The American Wall’

The New New Colossus. Photo: Maurice SherifAbout a year ago, I was three or four hundred yards from the wall in a National Forest when a military drone lazed by a few hundred feet above the ground. The aircraft was almost silent and directed by men sitting in a control room many miles away in Fort Huachuca, the U.S. Army intelligence center. They were hunting poor people — men, women, and children. The summer day felt fresh because of recent rain, the hills glowed with green, and a small canyon with water tumbling across its rock bottom sliced south to Mexico. I was standing on American ground and staring into the face of American dread.

The wall is a political stunt whose time has come. In some places, the wall looks ugly, in other places it seems innocent. Sometimes, when it snakes across valleys and deserts and mountains, the wall looks like a work of art. But it never looks like it will do the job of keeping people out of the U.S. and it never does that job. It cuts communities off from each other, illegally takes land here and there for its footprint, and severs connections in biological communities. But mainly the wall billboards American fears and murders American ideals.

Most U.S. citizens support walling off Mexico and most U.S. citizens will never even glimpse this wall. But they will believe that it is essential and no fact is likely to upend their belief.

For the people coming north, the wall is simply one more obstacle in a lifetime of obstacles.

The body was found three and a half miles south of the Duquesne Road at 7:39 a.m. July 18th. Ramon Alejandro Mendoza-Alcaraz was from Magdalena, Sonora, a town noted for agriculture, drug smuggling, and an annual fiesta for San Francisco that has been celebrated for centuries and draws people from both sides of the border. Those who have made vows walk from fifty to a hundred miles to be present at the celebration. Ramon lived twenty-seven years. The other body was found July 25th. Jose Francisco Lira-Cendo lasted twenty-eight years and came from Caborca, Sonora, a town noted for agriculture and drug smuggling. So far thirteen bodies have been found in the county this year. They were all in the U.S. illegally. They had crossed fences, car barriers and, in most cases, the wall.

I stay calm by ignoring what is in front of my face. The dead men were within ten or fifteen miles of my house. I know the towns they came from, and I know what it feels like to enter the U.S. illegally since I have done it many times. Almost thirty years ago, I crossed the line in western Sonora on June 21st and walked forty-five miles across a burning desert in one night. I was in pretty good shape then but this walk almost finished me off. The Mexicans moving around me that night had an added pressure: they were hunted by agents of the U.S. government and would be thrown back into Mexico if they were caught. I was simply trying to dramatize for a daily newspaper the fact that the Mexican border had become a killing field as men and women and children trekked across the hardest ground in hopes of finding a living in these United States. There was no wall then and there were not twenty thousand agents on the line trying to catch Mexicans. But there was desperation and death, and this misery has been a constant over the years.

I feed birds here. I raise flowers. And I try to forget all the dead. And I almost always fail. I have spent my life on the line and nothing about the migration of the Mexican people from death toward life is ever far from my mind and heart. The wall is merely the most recent denial of what is happening and why it is happening. The wall divides human communities, the wall illegally seizes ground, the wall costs billions, and the wall stops no one. In the Altar Valley, a spot I have loved since childhood, the wall was hardly up a week before gates were cut through it. The Mexicans thoughtfully put the hinges on their side of the barrier.

The U.S. border with Mexico has never been secure and never will be secure. It is too vast to police and the U.S. economy is too rapacious to endure a sealed border. The only way to stop illegal immigration is to create a country so repellent that no one will try to sneak into it. The former Soviet Union comes to mind as a possible model, or perhaps modern-day Somalia.

Many Americans like to boast that their ancestors entered the U.S. legally. They forget that it was almost impossible to be rejected. One third of the current population is descended from people who came through a single place in New York Harbor, Ellis Island. They had to answer twenty-nine questions, not be dangerously ill, insane, or known criminals. Only two percent were ever rejected by the U.S. Of course, almost all of them had been rejected by the nations of their birth. That is why they arrived at Ellis Island. They were human garbage cast off by their native lands. I am descended from such people.

The Mexicans coming north are very similar. Badly educated, poor and unwanted by Mexico. And capable of creating a new life in a new language in a new place. They are exactly the kind of people Mexico needs if it is to prosper and they are exactly the kind of people Mexico rejects because it is a corrupt plutocracy that functions by terrorizing and crushing its own citizens.

There are many forces driving the migration north — a free trade agreement that destroyed peasant agriculture and wiped out small industries, a growing violence fed by the U.S. prohibition against certain drugs and by the deliberate policy of the Mexican government, a growing population on a sacked land base — and scholars will be picking over these facts for generations seeking causes. It hardly matters now, the movement has begun and for people to stay in Mexico means doom for them and the explosion of the state, just as there are many forces feeding the backlash against the migration in the U.S. These matters too will be parsed by scholars over time. But like the migration itself, the rise of anti-immigrant feeling in the U.S. now has a life of its own and fits a pattern of American nativism whenever new arrivals suddenly change the faces in towns and cities.

But what will prove more damaging than migrants or drugs is the sudden fear in the American people that makes them build a giant wall. At most, the illegal numbers in the U.S. comprise four percent of the population, but somehow this sliver of flesh terrorizes the remaining ninety-six percent and has created a new iron curtain walling off the brown nation to the south.

I am living through an ugly time and this new age of walls and fear is alien to my nature.

So I watch birds by a creek near the line while the Border Patrol sweeps past my door and the wall slowly strangles the pathways of life on my ground.

That is why this book matters. The wall now being built on the southern border of the U.S. is a statement about the shuttering of American society. It is not a tactic to control immigration since no one in government seriously thinks it will do that. It is an almost two thousand mile-long monument to the American fear of others. The country that located the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor right by Ellis Island has vanished. The new America needs a wall to sleep at night.

Emma Lazarus’ poem sits inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. It reads:

The New Colossus

By Emma Lazarus, 1883

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

No one has written any poems celebrating the wall.

Maybe it is time to take good look at it.

California Imperial Desert. Photo: Maurice SherifBlack-headed grosbeaks returned as the summer rains arrived here on the border. I try to think of them and not of the dead men to my south. Three separate groups of illegal migrants have told the federal agents of passing a line of about nine men wearing backpacks just this side of the border. They had all been cut down by automatic rifle fire about a month ago. They were smuggling marijuana into the U.S. and were killed by competitors.

Of course, maybe this never happened, maybe the dead are not dead. Just as no one thinks that all those who die trying to cross are found.

This shooting was a month ago. So far, no federal agents have looked into these reports because they don’t matter in this new America. In this new America, there is an insatiable appetite for drugs and contempt for the people who supply them. In this new America, there is an insatiable appetite for cheap labor and contempt for the people who take such jobs.

In this new America, there is a wall almost two thousand miles long and a growing desire to hunt down illegal Mexicans and ship them home. In this new America, migrants are seen as a threat to national security and national security is never defined. Or questioned.

In this new America, the biggest drug is legal and handed out freely by politicians. This drug is fear, and the American people have become addicted to it.

That is why the wall exists and that is why this book exists. The wall exists in our mind as a solution and exists on the ground as a gesture. The forces it tries to contain — drugs, poor people — cannot be answered by a wall or stopped by a wall or defined by a wall. But the wall speaks for a new America as it mutilates the cherished ideas of an earlier America.

That is why the Statue of Liberty must now be retired, and perhaps banished from public view before it confuses children.

The lamp by the golden door is now a battery of lights blazing against the long wall in the hours of darkness lest the tired and the poor sneak in here to fulfill their dreams.

The American Wall“The American Wall: From the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico” (University of Texas Press, two slip-case-packaged hard covers, 224-plus-160 pages, 100 quadratone photos: $150 — $100.50 if ordered directly from the Univ. of Texas website ISBN: 978-0-292-72697-0.)

Regular MG contributor Charles Bowden is the author of many books, including, most recently, “El Sicario: The Autobiography of A Mexican Assassin” and “Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.” He lives in Las Cruces, NM.

Maurice Sherif studied communication art at the University of San Francisco in California. His first book, “Lumière Métallique,” was published in 2003. Sherif now divides his time between his native Paris and Albuquerque .