I stood on the bridge; I stood right there on the bridge looking down at the Rio Grande River, and what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a Mexican gentleman who had started himself a ferryboat service.
Now you must bear in mind that the Rio Grande is not very "grande" at all in most seasons, and that's why you can wade across it (The Mexicans actually call it the "Rio Bravo", the 'boastful' river, because it is only very large during its periodic and dangerous floods). This enterprising fellow had an inflatable boat, and he was walking it across the river, sometimes up to his chest, with passengers who wanted to go to El Paso for whatever reason.
His customer, as I watched, was a rather elegantly dressed Mexican lady, probably on a shopping expedition, who didn't want to get wet, but who also didn't want to go through the routine of being checked at the border either.
Now, being checked at the border is what she would have had to go through if she had been up on the bridge with me, because the Border Patrol station was probably no more than 100 feet from where I stood.
And it was no big deal in those pre-9/11 days. You just had to show some ID and convince the American officers that you were just crossing from Juarez to El Paso on temporary business and would return. And if you looked American enough, as I did, they would just wave you through. But that was evidently too much for the senora, and so she took the ferry instead of the bridge.
And she wasn't alone. I looked a little further upstream, oh, maybe 500 feet, and saw a small group of Mexican men standing by the water's edge, already on the American side. As I watched, a pea-green Chevy Suburban - the Border Patrol at work - slowly drove up the access road on the river's edge towards them. "Ah! I'll see a bust!" I thought.
No. What happened was this: The pea-green Suburban slowed down, the men by the side of the river turned towards it casually-they didn't even put our their cigarettes-and a face peered out of the truck at them, engaged them in conversation for a short time-and drove on. No arrests, no panic, no fleeing back into the river, nothing happened at all. I couldn't believe it. I just couldn't believe it.
I spoke to a Border Patrol officer at the bridge inspection station about what I had just seen, and he just shook his head sadly. It wasn't that they didn't care, it was just that they were overwhelmed. He told me that at night, they watched the border with electronic detection equipment, and what they saw were waves, waves, of illegal immigrants coming across the border.
He said that the best they could do was to try to minimize the drug smuggling. Controlling the immigration was simply beyond their resources.
These things took place about ten years ago, but I remember them well, because it was then that I actually realized that our border was completely out of control. I was managing a contract in El Paso at the time, so business took me there with some regularity. In those days, I saw sights with my own eyes, and heard of others from people I trusted, that simply beggared the imagination.
The Soviet Union had already fallen, but the United States, the world's only superpower, and the most powerful nation since Rome of the Caesars, had completely lost control over its own border.
Time has passed, events which I do not need to rehearse have occurred, and what had me horrified then has finally become an issue that the country is talking about. The fact that the nation has roused itself to confront the illegal immigration phenomenon as an important issue is crucially important.
Unfortunately, that is the only real progress so far: we woke up to it. But I guess that after being comatose so long, achieving a waking state on the issue has to be considered progress. To quote a saying from the '60s, "Been down so long, it looks like "up" to me".