Peter Laufer


On his book Calexico: True Lives of the Borderlands

Cover Interview of October 12, 2011

The wide angle

After September 11, 2001, Washington decided that one of the answers to threats of terrorism was to detain travelers driving north at the Mexican border and relentlessly question them.

What the lawmakers and bureaucrats back east did not take into account was that extended communities straddle the border at places like the twin cities of Calexico and Mexicali.

The new rules slowed traffic, increased smog, burned up expensive gasoline and—according to Calexicans like Chamber of Commerce president Earl Roberts—created the absurd scenario of border guards who know travelers intimately and have known them all their lives asking questions such as “What’s you name?” and “Where do you live?”

Earl Roberts and the Chamber responded with their “Efficiency is Security” campaign. They’re trying to teach Washington that citizens who live in the borderlands know best how to manage traffic from Mexico and should be consulted before policies are changed, especially policies that can adversely affect the borderlands.

The longer waits at the border dissuade Mexican shoppers from traveling north, a disaster for Calexico retailers who rely on consumers from south of the border. And there is little evidence that the detailed questioning results in protecting the homeland from terrorist attacks.

Especially in this post-September-11 environment, fear overtakes reality. But even before the attacks of ten years ago, the tendency of too many Americans was to succumb to xenophobia and try to pull up the drawbridge.

We’ve always suffered from an immigration hierarchy in this country.  My father came here from Europe during the Great Migration era when the Hungarians were the Mexicans of the times. His sister married a man from Shanghai. In the 1950s, when their son, my cousin, was growing up, teasing him was easy: if his classmates weren’t calling him a Hunky they were calling him a Chink.

The prejudice against Mexicans is exacerbated by geography. The border between Mexico and the States is the only place on the globe where the First World and Third World meet. Americans can look south—can easily travel south—see the economic disparities and say to themselves, “I don’t want my backyard to look like that.”

But I think the sad major reason why there is no serious policy consideration to open the border to Mexicans is because of the jingoistic fear-mongers, well personified by Lou Dobbs, who successfully, and for their self-aggrandizement, generate and perpetuate a climate of anxiety, paranoia, and panic regarding migration from Mexico.