People often ask me how I came to be so passionate about immigration, and what brought me to produce Border Songs. I usually tell the short version of the story. In 2010, I began taking students on field trips to the Arizona/Mexico border. Looking into the eyes of deported people and listening to their stories made a huge impact on me. I, alongside my students, felt shell-shocked after encountering raw human suffering at its most basic level. The people we met—poor people seeking work, food and a better life—did nothing to deserve such suffering.
At an aid station in Nogales, Sonora (Mexico), we met Ruth, a woman from Oaxaca who had left her 5 children with a neighbor and left to cross the border. Instead of finding work, she was detained and locked up in a Border Patrol holding cell. I interpreted Ruth’s story while my students listened. She said that there was a sign in the cell: “If you need food, water or medical care, tell an agent and you will be provided for.” She said it wasn’t true. After four terrifying days running through the desert she was given only two packages of crackers and a cup a juice. She could barely walk, yet they told her that she could wait and get medical assistance in Mexico after being deported. When we met her, she didn’t have any money, or any idea how she could get back to her children. She said that she would probably attempt to cross again, to find work cutting lettuce in California, because she didn’t know what else to do. I looked up while interpreting—every one of my students had tears streaming down their faces. In some ways, Border Songs was born when I first looked into Ruth’s eyes. She found her way into a song I wrote, “Voluntary Return.” I played that song for my friend Chuck Cheesman, and he suggested we make an album.
This is how the album came about, but there were other eyes, many years before, that also contributed to make me the person that I am. When I graduated from college one of my housemates told me that her boyfriend worked for the US Department of Immigration Review and that there was a job opening for a Spanish-speaking court interpreter. I was excited by the possibility of a job for which I would use my Spanish. What a great way to begin my post-college life!
The application process involved several months of paperwork and they finally invited me to an interview. I cut my hair. I put on a sports jacket. I went to the interview in downtown Chicago, excited to prove my worth as a Spanish speaker.
Shortly after I arrived my interviewer explained the process: “We’re fortunate,” he said, “we have apprehended an illegal alien so today we’ll have you interpret the interrogation as part of your interview.” In hindsight, my innocence amazes me. Until that moment I had never really thought about what the job I was applying for would entail. I thought it would be fun to be paid to speak Spanish. My heart sank to my stomach as I looked at a very sad, slightly pudgy, Mexican man. I looked into his eyes and wanted to tell him that I was not with “them,” these people who were detaining him. I resisted this urge, I was being observed. I held my tongue and interpreted the interrogation to the best of my abilities. My memory of the interview haunts me to this day.
Interviewer: Where did you cross the border?
Detainee: Por el agua. (Through the water).
Interviewer: Did you purchase a ticket on a commercial maritime vessel?
Detainee: Long pause, blank look, then he answered, No.
Interviewer: Then how did you come?
Detainee: Through the water.
Interviewer: What do you mean, “through the water”?
Detainee: I crossed through the water, like everyone. [I assume he crossed the Rio Grande river into Texas].
Interviewer: Where are you from?
Detainee: Soy de un lugar que se llama, “Salsipuedes” (I’m from a place called Salsipuedes).
I wondered to myself, is this a trap? Salsipuedes means “Leave if you can.” There are towns called Salsipuedes in Mexico. Still I wondered, were they testing my Spanish? I translated, and mentioned as an aside that the name of his town translates to “Leave if you can.” Was this coincidental irony? I remember thinking to myself that I wanted to leave.
As the interrogation proceded the man started to give less and less information in his answers. “No me acuerdo” (I don’t remember), he repeated over and over, “No me acuerdo.” The interviewer became annoyed and at one point barked, “You seem to have memory problems. Have you ever been treated for memory loss by a licensed medical professional?” I couldn’t believe I had to translate such nonsense. My interviewer, the detainee’s interrogator, was a jackass. I hated the interrogation and by extension my interview. Everything in me wanted to leave. I felt dirty, as if I’d been sullied by the experience of participating in that interrogation. I dug deep and completed my interview.
A week later he called to tell me that I had done an excellent job. They would be offering me the job, he assured me, I only needed to submit a list of my friends and family, so that they could complete an FBI background check and the job would be mine. I thanked him, and said that I no longer wanted to be considered for the job. “Why?” he asked, expressing surprise in his tone. I understood his confusion, we had been corresponding for months and each step along the way we were always pointing towards the moment when I would be offered the position.
“The objectives of the US Department of Immigration Review and my personal job objectives are not compatible,” I responded.
“Any elaboration on that?” he asked.
“I think what you guys do is immoral,” I replied. Click. I didn’t look back. Not for a long time. Not for 26 years.
What is interesting to me now, as I recall this episode, is that I turned my back on the experience and did my best to forget it. I did not become a court interpreter for the Department of Immigration Review. Nor did I become an immigration activist. At the time, I don’t think I knew much about what was occurring with regard to undocumented immigration (and conditions were certainly not nearly so dire as they are today). I sided, intuitively, with poor migrants who were and are manipulated by the system but the extent of my knowledge was limited. And it stayed relatively limited. Although I wrote a chapter of my dissertation on a performance artist working on the border, I really didn’t understand the human dimension of the crisis until I took that first trip with my students in 2010. In the meantime, the situation had become much, much worse—to the point that our immigration policies have created a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe. Now we funnel people through the Sonoran desert and remote areas of Texas. Thousands have died. Those who survive the journey work like slaves. If they get detained we funnel them through for-profit prisons prior to deportation.
Each day on the field trip further shattered my soul. The trip culminated in the Tucson Federal Courthouse where we observed an Operation Streamline hearing. 70 detained migrants, in handcuffs, ankle shackles and chains, were given a group hearing. Most of the detainees were shuffled in and out without saying more than a few yes’s, no’s and pleading culpable (guilty). One case was explained, however, and it seared my soul. A detainee’s wife had recently lost a baby. She had become pregnant again, and called him at work to tell him that she was bleeding. “He panicked,” his lawyer explained, “he knows he shouldn’t have driven, but he drove his wife to the hospital.” I listened in disbelief while a court interpreter repeated these words back to the detainee. Culpable. He was sent to (a for-profit) prison for 90 days of incarceration, before deportation, for driving his bleeding wife to the hospital. As he shuffled out of the courtroom, on his way to prison, he walked right in front of us. I tried to look him, and all of the prisoners, in the eyes. I said nothing—one is not allowed to speak to the prisoners. Like that time in Chicago I tried silently to communicate my solidarity. This man too, found his way into my song.
I guess I ended up an interpreter after all. From these stories and experiences came my song, “Voluntary Return,” and from that song, and Chuck Cheesman’s vision, and the efforts of a slew of musicians, writers, artists, photographers, designers and volunteers, came Border Songs. That’s the long version.
We made 5,000 albums and have given all of the money to No More Deaths / No más muertes. Each sale = $20 for No More Deaths, that’s enough money to put 29 gallons of water in the desert. Or the equivalent in food, blankets or medical supplies.
We’re down to the last few cases. Get it while you can and thanks for your support.
Humanitarian aid is never a crime!
Pancho: Pancho lived for nine of his years
Turning the gears of Las Vegas
Casinos, . . . He worked construction He met himself a woman and moved right in They had a daughter, a family in, Las Vegas
It was the American Dream Till he was driving to work and a bag flew out
The police pulled him over and they through him out of the country
He got deported.
They called it “Voluntary Return.”
Now he’s stuck in Nogales without a dime Convicted says the Migra of a heinous crime “Illegal Entry”
and even worse, “Working,” not a good thing to do.
Ángel: Ángel too he committed a crime
He drove his bleeding wife to the hospital alive, Without a license. Not a good thing to do.
He stood before the judge, his hands shackled to his feet She asked for his plea in a streamline beat
He said, “culpable” She gave him 90 days. 90 days in a for-profit jail, then he’ll go out to a land of no opportunity He’ll get deported. They’ll call it “Voluntary Return”
Ruth: They dumped her in Nogales, a woman named Ruth Five kids in Oaxaca, barely a roof
They’re with a neighbor.
They miss their mom.
Four days in the desert, she walked and she ran
Till her feet were so blistered, black and tan
She couldn’t walk more.
And she didn’t feel like talking. They threw her in a cell, they locked her up tight
They gave her some crackers and juice at night
At three in the morning, pushed her over the line. They called it, “Voluntary Return.”
And our boys in a green they “go out to play” Chasing the dark folks out of the state There’s dope they say. Dopes on the border, our Border Patrol
What can we do about homeland security? What can we do about national security? What can we do about border security? What can we do?
How ‘bout “Voluntary Return”?
©℗ Robert Neustadt