Rogelio Cuvas is just the kind of migrant that the state of Arizona would like to keep out. A 39-year-old shop worker, he was deported from the US last week after spending 10 years in Los Angeles. Now he finds himself in the ramshackle Mexican border town of Nogales, just over 1,000 miles south of Phoenix, where lawmakers have passed draconian anti-immigrant legislation.
Yesterday tens of thousands of Hispanics marched through American cities in protest at the new laws, which instruct the state police to demand the papers of anyone they suspect might be illegal. A nationwide campaign is under way to boycott the Grand Canyon State. Pop stars such as Shakira and Gloria Estefan have publicly condemned the new laws that have appalled liberal America.
Cuvas is unworried. In LA the manager of the shop where he worked reported him as an illegal and he was promptly swept up and dumped back over the border. But he has no intention of going back to his home province of Jalisco on Mexico’s Pacific coast. Nor is he planning to stay in Nogales for long, where there is little work and no prospects. “I’ll stay here for a month or two. Then I’ll go back to the US. There is nothing for me here,” he said.
In Nogales, there is fierce anger at a measure that many see as naked racism. But there is also a stoic realisation that the law will not change the situation. It might make life more difficult for legal and illegal immigrants in America, it might humiliate and stoke fear, but it will do little to stop the flood of immigrants to the north where the lure of jobs and an escape from poverty are more powerful than the threat of discrimination.
“It is not a good law. People can pick me up because they just see me in the street,” said Cuvas. But would it stop him making a bid to return? “No, of course not,” he said, as if the question was absurd.
Nogales, a city of 160,000, looks like a typical border outpost. Its heart lies just across the fortified fence marking the frontier. It is a grid of streets packed with businesses reliant on cross-frontier trade, some dubious but legal. There are streets full of nightclubs with names such as Lust or massage parlours like the Eros Spa. Strip clubs, cheap dosshouses and seedy-looking bars dot the downtown area, and above it houses climb the rolling hills, sprawling haphazardly until they fade into the desert.
Other businesses are more straightforward, but reveal the distinctly unequal power relationship that Mexico has with its powerful northern neighbour. In among the bars and brothels are dozens of shops selling cheap prescription drugs to a North American clientele whose medical bills are vastly inflated due to their private healthcare regime. Painkillers, heart drugs and Viagra are all on sale. The same factor has produced a huge dental industry in Nogales, where many clinics offer an equal standard of service for a fraction of the cost of their American rivals. Yet trade goes both ways, showing the symbiotic nature of the border, despite a fence bristling with cameras and patrolled by armed border guards.
On the American side of the barrier, fleets of buses wait for Mexicans coming through customs. On their front they advertise their destinations. But they are not other cities in America. They are chain stores such as Walmart and JCPenney. Thousands of Nogales residents cross the border each day and board the buses to do their shopping in America and then come back to Mexico.
That trade is threatened now. Civic and business leaders in Nogales are discussing a boycott of businesses on the American side to protest at Arizona’s new law. Many Mexican citizens are refusing to go over. Lydia Medina, who works in one of the drug shops, said she does not cross any more. “Nobody I know is going over there,” she said. When asked for her reaction to the law, she threw up her hands and shouted one word: “Racist!”
Fears of immigrant-fuelled crime lie at the heart of the reasoning behind the new law. Though Nogales feels safe enough during the day, it lies in an area that is at the heart of narco-trafficking across the border. The violent fighting between Mexican drugs gangs – and people-smugglers – has seen Nogales’s murder rate spiral; in January alone 43 people were killed. That violence has spilled into Arizona, which has seen Phoenix become the kidnap capital of America, with more than one abduction every 35 hours. The murder of an Arizona border rancher, Robert Krentz, last month was one of the main spurs behind the new law.
Fernando González was just 19 when he crossed into America. Now, after years in Albany, Oregon, he is a 39-year-old father of five. All his children are American citizens because they were born in the US. But that did not sway the American authorities who deported him to Nogales last week. He has not even considered the idea that he might stay in the city. “There are no jobs here in Nogales. There is nothing here for me,” he said. The last time he slipped over the border he spent six days in the desert and almost died. For González, Arizona’s new law is an irrelevance. “I am not afraid,” he said “I’ll give it another try. I want to be with my children.”
He will risk his life when he makes his move – at the hands of vicious people-smugglers known as coyotes, or drug gangs or, most dangerous of all, the killer climate of the Sonora desert. The risks are illustrated best along the border fence that cuts through Nogales’s downtown, scything the city off from its smaller American twin city on the other side. On the Mexican side, scores of simple white crosses have been nailed up. Each one bears testament to some poor soul who died in the attempt to get across. Some have names, such as “Jose Martinez”, but others simply have the word Desconocido – unknown.