Published by THE NEW YORK TIMES
Di Laila Lalami
The Border Patrol agent watched our Prius approach, then signaled for us to stop. Behind him stood several others in green uniforms, hands resting on holsters, eyes hidden behind sunglasses. German shepherds panted in the heat. “Are you all U.S. citizens?” the agent asked, leaning against the driver’s-side window and glancing around our car. “Yes,” said one of my companions, an artist from Iowa. “Yes,” echoed the other, a poet from Connecticut. Then it was my turn. “Yes,” I said. The agent’s gaze lingered on me for a moment. Then he stood up and waved us through the border.
Except this was not a border: This was the middle of Interstate 10 between El Paso and Marfa, Tex. No matter. At the Sierra Blanca checkpoint, agents can make arrests for drugs or weapons, share information with federal agencies and turn undocumented immigrants over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. There are many such checkpoints scattered throughout the continental United States — borders within borders.
Borders mark the contours of nations, states, even cities, defining them by separating them from all others. A border can be natural — an ocean, a river, a chain of mountains — or it can be artificial, splitting a homogeneous landscape into two. Often it is highly literal, announcing itself in the shape of a concrete wall, a sand berm, a tall fence topped with barbed wire. But whatever form it takes, a border always conveys meaning. Hours before my encounter with the Border Patrol, as the airplane I was on began its descent, I saw from my window seat the wall that separates El Paso from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. On one side were gleaming towers, giant freeways and sprawling parks; on the other, homes huddling together in the afternoon light, winding streets and patches of dry grass. Here you will find safety and prosperity, the wall seemed to say, but over there lie danger and poverty. It’s a message that ignores the cities’ joint history, language and cultures. But it is simple — one might say simplistic — and that is what gives it power.