Borders and Bridges

Peter Laufer makes the case that the border wall is too much like the Berlin Wall

Journalist Peter Laufer spent the late 1980s watching the Berlin Wall come down. Now, more than 20 years later, he is fond of comparing that most famous of Cold War borders to the barriers—including an actual wall—that have risen along the U.S.-Mexico border since 2001.

A few years ago, Laufer spent a week in California's Imperial Valley looking for evidence to back up his rather radical position. The resulting book, named for the sleepy border town across from Mexicali, is a unique collection of diverse voices and opinions on familiar, and seemingly entrenched, borderland polemics.

One of Laufer's models is Studs Terkel, known for his interviews with so-called regular folks. Laufer talks to everybody, and he admits that he doesn't always tell them that he's a journalist. He even talks to John Convertino, of the Tucson band Calexico. Laufer discovered the band Calexico while doing a Google search on the town Calexico. The band comes up first, as it should.

It turns out that Convertino is one of the few people who Laufer could get to agree with him about the border fence being a new Berlin Wall. Perhaps tellingly, the only other interviewee in agreement is Earl Roberts, of Calexico's Chamber of Commerce. He tells Laufer that the increase in the time it takes to cross to the border at Calexico—which he says has gone from an average of a few minutes to a few hours since 2001—is destroying Calexico's once-vibrant business sector.

"I mean, Mexico's not our enemy. Mexico's our friend," Roberts tells Laufer. "Sometimes we treat them as though they're our enemy. You know how many billions we are wasting on setting up a Berlin Wall with Mexico? For what purpose?"

Laufer trusts his instincts and listens carefully to even the most off-hand surface noise. In an Imperial Valley taqueria, an enticing photograph draws him to a beer advertisement targeting borderland Latinos, and he ends up having a fascinating conversation with Anheuser-Busch's director of Latino marketing. From him, Laufer finds out a few things everybody who lives in this part of the world already knows—like, for instance, that the borderlands have a unique culture, born from eons of incessant blending. And that the "Hispanic consumer is a loyal consumer of the Bud Light brand."

Laufer is thorough, sometimes to a fault. He even interviews the California highway-department artist who designed the now-iconic image of a running migrant family that is stamped on warning signs south of San Diego. The encounter leads to some revelations—as do many of his interviews with business leaders, professors and waitresses.

Laufer also interviews the leading voices of neo-nativism, who have, for better or worse, controlled the immigration debate in recent years by appealing to base instincts and shouting louder than everybody else. It's not particularly surprising that Pat Buchanan has little use for "abstractions" like democracy, and that Tom Tancredo deliberately stakes out untenable positions to drive the middle to the right. It's just nice to read it in print.

"I believe that the country is united far more by culture and patriotism than by any abstract ideas," Buchanan tells Laufer. "And abstract ideas like democracy don't mean, excuse me, a whole hell of a lot to me."

Tancredo, a former Congressman from Colorado and a nativist demagogue if there ever was one, tells Laufer that he "will set the goalposts as far as I can down the field, because then I will have a better chance of getting at least the game played on my side."

Laufer gets similar radicalism and anti-immigrant grandstanding from the likes of Lou Dobbs and Bill O'Reilly. It all seems hopelessly out of touch with reality when set against Laufer's interviews with Imperial Valley residents.

These are people who are busy living their lives in a harsh and tenuous place—a place that they all seem to love nonetheless. San Diego's just two hours a way, and yet longtime valley residents are always returning home to the desert and farmlands to stay. Why do they do it? The simple answer, at least in this excellent book, seems to be family and familiarity.

Set against abstractions like "security," a goal more elusive even than democracy, such "true lives of the borderlands" are easy to overlook. Thanks to Laufer, his impeccable standards and his sharp eye for the story beneath the story, they need not be overlooked anymore.

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