September 14, 2008
COLUMBUS, N.M. - On a bumpy dirt road along the US-Mexico border, the mayor of this tiny town pulled his truck tight beside the government's multimillion-dollar new fence. He wanted a closer look, but someone else was watching, too.
A sport utility vehicle was on him in minutes, lights blazing.
"The Border Patrol is right in back of us now," Mayor Eddie Espinoza said with a sigh, pulling over for what has become a routine stop, even for him. "Most of the guys, they're not local. . . . It used to upset me quite a bit. Now it's part of the situation that you've got to deal with."
The federal government has poured millions of dollars into barricading the border here, erecting a 15-foot-tall steel fence and bringing in hundreds of new agents to patrol it. But in the village beside the fence, resentment simmers. Residents say they feel neglected by politicians whose focus is on a line in the sand 3 miles to the south, and not on the worsening hardships of the Americans living within sight of it.
With New Mexico a swing state in the coming presidential election - and even more influential as the state with the nation's highest proportion of Latinos - villagers hope their votes will matter.
"What is the point of putting everything on the border, and nothing here?" said Arnoldo Rubio, a town councilor. "Why don't they come here and pay attention to the town?"
Columbus, population 1,765, is a farming town along Highway 9, a two-lane ribbon of road flanked by endless scrub-covered desert, with a ragged mountain range on the horizon. Though it is New Mexico's only 24-hour border crossing, the town is eerily quiet, a spare grid of gravelly streets and weedy lots, with a post office, one bank and no stoplights.
It is hard to imagine now, but Columbus was fleetingly famous in 1916, when Pancho Villa's revolutionary army raided it from Mexico. For a time Columbus was the state's biggest city, but it dwindled, and the last train stopped in 1961. An immigration amnesty in 1986 helped revive the town: From 1990 to 2000, the population nearly tripled. The vast majority are Latino.
Barely half of the town's adults are citizens and eligible to vote. The rest are a mix of noncitizen legal residents, and some illegal immigrants. Of the 680 registered voters, about half are Democrats, and the rest are Republicans or independents. Turnout ranges from more than 60 percent for a local election to a few dozen voters in this year's presidential primaries.
The village is not lacking for issues. Half the townspeople live in trailers, some without phones or electricity. More than a third of the families earned less than $10,000 a year, according to the 2000 census. Residents went without clean running water until last spring - and then the water bills nearly doubled.
The shortage of decent jobs is Columbus's biggest problem, according to the mayor as well as the gray-haired farmhands and the school principal. Most of the town depends on the onion, chile, and cotton fields - but the jobs are grueling and unstable. For about six months a year, farm workers labor in the dirt under the searing sun, with an eye out for scorpions and rattlesnakes. They can earn roughly $15 an hour, if they work fast.
But the rest of the year, there is nothing. Workers move away or collect unemployment. About half of the adults here have less than a ninth grade education and aren't fluent in English. Up to 14 percent of the town is unemployed, triple the state's rate.
Teenagers see little future here. In the onion fields, the biggest employer in town, more than 90 percent of the pickers are aged 50 and older. María and Simón Medina, knelt side by side one recent morning, clipping fat onions and dumping them in a bucket. A son was away at college.
"We don't have young people here anymore," said María Medina, 57, eyes squinting under a straw hat.
At 4 a.m. the same field is full, half-lit by giant klieg lights and miners' bulbs strapped to workers' foreheads. The owners, the Johnson family, let them work at night to avoid the sun.
But Juan López, was uneasy. A snake bit a worker two weeks earlier, and the nearest hospital is 30 miles away.
"After 50 years this town doesn't grow," said López, 63, clippers in hand. "There are so many things missing."
Espinoza said he is trying to improve things. But to attract employers, he needs better roads and utilities and more educated workers.
He is building the first new school in 50 years, working with the government to expand the border crossing to attract more business, and shutting off water service to delinquent residents to force them to pay their bills. Next he plans to tackle the town's falling-down trailers.
"Right now if we [were] to go and inspect houses most of them would be condemned," Espinoza said.
On Missouri Street, Jesús Miramontes, 72, lives in a rickety trailer without heat or electricity. To survive, he keeps pigs and chickens for his wife and two grandchildren, who live with him.
Miramontes was a life-long farmhand who now lives on a cramped lot, with a vast field behind it. He keeps talking about adding electricity, but never does it.
"Everything's so expensive," said Miramontes.
He is a legal resident, and would like to vote in the elections. But he cannot afford the $675 fee to apply for US citizenship. It is a tenth of what he earned last year.
Francisca and José Morales expected more from America when they moved here from Mexico more than a decade ago. José and a daughter, María, became US citizens, and she has earned her GED. But now the family lives 12 to a trailer on Iowa Street, on a dirt yard filled with chickens and strewn with children's Matchbox cars.
José, María, and another daughter, Hilda, all head to the chile fields at dawn, anxious to save money for the hard months when the work runs out. Lately, they have noticed that the owner is buying giant tractor-like machines to replace them.
"We need a factory," said Francisca Morales, swatting away flies in her kitchen, where she sorted and soaked dry beans for dinner.
"I have two girls who should be working in other things and not in the fields."
As gas, food, and water prices soared this summer, the family hunkered down in the 90-degree heat. They turned off the air-conditioning, drained the wading pool, and stopped watering the plants. Morales, who works at home caring for eight children, started showering every three days.
Many of the issues in the presidential election are crammed under their roof: lack of health insurance, little education, unstable jobs, and desperation for change. The two adults who can vote, José and María, say they are backing Barack Obama.
"He's promising to help the people," said José.
María had dreamed of becoming a nursing assistant when she came here at age 15 from Mexico. Now 27, she comes home caked in dirt from pulling chiles from branches all day.
"If this town would progress, I would stay," María Morales said in Spanish.
"The truth is I want to go to Colorado. There's more work. Here, you have to fight for everything. Here it doesn't matter if you're a US citizen. The opportunities are the same."
. . .
In Columbus people like to say they don't even notice the border. They straddle two cultures, languages and towns.
James Johnson, the boss of the onion field, speaks Spanish with a Mexican lilt, and Rubio, the town councilor, is a US citizen who has never learned to speak English. Columbus residents regularly flow across the border to the bigger city of Palomas for cheaper eyeglasses, prescription drugs, and Mexico's government-subsidized gas (almost $2 cheaper a gallon).
But in the eight years of the Bush administration, the border has become much more visible to everyone. For one thing, there is the fence. To boost national security after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and curb illegal immigration, the US government last year built a fence of concrete-filled steel poles that runs 6 miles east to west and 5 feet underground.
Along with the fence, the federal government deployed hundreds of agents to patrol it.
Seemingly overnight, the area's border patrol rose to roughly 400 people from only 80 six years ago - and from only two guys who lived in town when Espinoza was a kid in the 1960s.
Now agents are all over town - perched on lookout towers, riding all-terrain vehicles in the dead of night, in helicopters, and on horseback. The Border Patrol says the number of illegal immigrants tromping through fields and backyards has plunged from about 300 a day two years ago to almost none. They also credit the build-up of agents with keeping the bloody drug war and other crime in Mexico from spilling onto US soil.
"For the last year it's been nothing but 'Thank you, thank you, thank you,' " said James G. Acosta, a supervisory border patrol agent for the Border Patrol. Espinoza has been trying to get the border agents - who can earn upward of $70,000 a year - to move to Columbus and create a middle class. The average Columbus resident earned $6,700 a year, according to the 2000 census.
But Columbus has no shopping mall and no movie theater. Kids hang out in parks or make music CDs at the library. For adults, the town has three restaurants and one bar, the Pancho Villa Salon, which attracted four women one recent Friday for "Ladies Night."
Acosta winced at the thought of moving here.
"What do you have for a family from New York or Michigan to ask them to move to this little town?" said Acosta, who lives almost two hours to the north in Las Cruces.
"How the hell do you keep busy?"