Pain Song Along the US – Mexico Border: the forced “yes” of Migration

Sergio and I were sitting in torn-out bus seats under a hot January sky in Nogales, Sonora, talking about crawling through thorn bushes. About thirty other recently deported men and women were sprawled on the concrete, or slouching in other deconstructed pairs of once colorfully-patterned bus seats. Most carried plastic Homeland Security bags. Inside the bags were their effects, their pertenencias, which they had with them when they were arrested on one or the other side of the border.


Photographs by Vida James

Sergio and I were sitting in torn-out bus seats under a hot January sky in Nogales, Sonora, talking about crawling through thorn bushes. We were in an outdoor bus station with a shade-screen ceiling. About thirty other recently deported men and women were sprawled on the concrete, hunched in the gravel, or slouching in other deconstructed pairs of faded but once colorfully-patterned bus seats. Most of them were carrying heavy duty plastic Homeland Security bags. Inside the bags were their effects, their pertenencias, that they had either crossed the border with or were carrying or wearing when they were arrested stateside.

I was interviewing Sergio (names are changed for privacy) about his two recent deportations. The organization I work with, No More Deaths (a migrant aid org), had reclaimed and returned Sergio’s pertenencias to him. After some struggle and lots of “lost” wallets and stacks of cash, we’ve set up a system with Immigration and Customs Enforcement so that we can retrieve apprehended migrants’ pertenencias. It works occasionally. Before Sergio and I started talking, I watched him change out of the soiled shirt he had been wearing for days and into a pink, tight polo shirt. The buckle of the belt he looped around his waist was a skull with red eyes. Sergio was young and chubby, but with strong looking hands and dark deep-set eyes. When he started telling me his story, his ordeal of the last two months, he spoke confidently and rapidly, describing the desert crossing and his time in prison and his wife back in New York in swift, hard details, without hesitation. But then, something came into his voice. It was when he was talking about his time in court. It was a voice I recognize. It was, I don’t know what to call it, a wetness that came to his voice. Not to his eyes, though it came there next. But first to his voice. A swelling or an opening. A hollowing of his voice.

The vowels started to Oh, to lengthen, to Ay, longing in the throat.

It was a sadness I could hear, his voice was cusping.

Then the wet came to his eyes.

No More Deaths had Sergio’s pertenencias because after his 30-day stint in Florence they didn’t give his clothes back. That was part of what I was doing there in the bus station, handing over confiscated clothes. Among his clothes was his jacket. In his jacket was his passport and wallet and credit cards and identification and a list of phone numbers and 221 pesos and two cell phones. Pretty much everything he needed.

In Mexico, along the border, it’s dangerous to be on the street without identification. It’s not illegal, but it almost is. Just like in the US, if you’re close to the border and you’re poor, or if you look poor or aimless or anxious and you see a cop and you don’t have identification, you better be careful. The cops might think you’re from Guatemala or Honduras. Then they might throw you in the tank, maybe they’ll take your money. Maybe they’ll forget about you for a couple weeks, then ship you south. I’ve heard the stories. I lost contact once, with a friend from Honduras. And then, after a month, he called and said, Fuck man, I got locked up. He was in Mexico then. Still no ID, still nothing he could have done about it. Then he jumped the border north and got caught by la migra, the Border Patrol, locked up in the states, then deported again. Now he’s sleeping in a cold garage in Mexicali, ducking cops, looking for work, looking to get back to his kids in Oklahoma, looking for anything he can find. He said to me, the last time I talked to him, “That’s my Mecca.” He was referring to Oklahoma.

Sometimes even if you have ID and you see a cop or a soldier your heart hits, because you’re scared.

And what does that do to the voice?

It wets it.

Sergio and his family went to New York City, from Puebla, when he was 12. He went to school in New York. Then he found work there. He married young there and had two children there and his family, and job, and friends, and work, and apartment are all there. His life is there.

Last November Sergio’s mother died. She was back in Puebla. He went for her funeral, he never meant to stay. His whole life was in New York. His wife was there. His two children. You get it. The story gets bad from here.

Sergio paid $2,500 dollars to a coyote last December and jumped the borderwall in Agua Prieta. He and his group were caught almost immediately by la migra (the coyote slinked safely back south, over the fence). They treated him okay at first, “sin problema,” he said, but within four days he was transferred from a detention center in Douglas to a detention center in Nogales, then from Nogales to Tucson, then from Tucson to Otero County, New Mexico, then he was deported from Otero County to Ciudad Acuña, across the river from Del Rio, Texas, over a thousand miles from where he had crossed.

This is an example of lateral deportation. It is part of Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) task of “attrition through enforcement,” making it too difficult or too expensive for the migrants to recross. The tactic was designed to curb deaths in the desert, but it doesn’t work. The reality is that it exhausts people, physically, financially, spiritually. It does not break their will to see their families or to live a decent life. And so they cross again, but the next time often in more remote or more inhospitable tracts of desert, sometimes without a guide.

Arizona’s infamous Senate Bill 1070 was also designed for attrition through enforcement, making living in Arizona for a person without documents bad enough to leave. Even before the law took effect and despite the fact that key parts of the law have been temporarily enjoined, la ley Arizona sent thousands (some reports claim as many as 100,000) scuttling out of state or out of country.

That’s attrition. Making life bad. Bad enough that you want to change it.

Attrition through enforcement is one of many, as they are called, “diversionary tactics” used by not only DHS but also Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Border Patrol and the Arizona State Legislature. Other diversionary tactics include feeding migrants in detention centers nothing but kid-sized juice boxes and packages of cookies, Border Patrol agents barking obscenities at detainees, over-tightening flexi-cuffs or leaving them on for days, separating spouses from each other, ignoring health complaints, confiscating prescription meds, dressing detained men in pink underwear, calling men and women and children aliens, hunting them in the desert, deporting single women into dangerous cities in the middle of the night or inflating hateful rhetoric to such a degree that people are scared to open bank accounts, take their kids to school or call the police to report crimes. There are others. Not all diversionary tactics are de jure. All of them are de facto, and all of them work, to a degree. They make it hurt worse than it did. And that’s deemed success. People get scared, and people get abused, and people die. If that is not part of the plan, it is the reality that the plan affects.

Another example of a diversionary tactic is the bolstering of borderwalls in high-traffic areas of the desert borderlands. A retired reporter, who wanted to remain anonymous, conspiratorially showed me a 1994 Border Patrol document entitled Border Patrol Strategic Plan, 1994 and Beyond: National Strategy, and written at the start of Operation Gatekeeper. The document, now easily available online, highlights that the effort to push border-crossers into the more dangerous and more desolate desert was both intentional and expected to be “effective.” Of course, even if this report were at some time secret (and, to give the benefit of the doubt to the retired reporter, it’s barbarous enough that it seems like it should be) legislators in Arizona and other states are now openly battling against migrants.

For example, in 2008, in Postville, Iowa, a town with a population of about 2,000, hundreds of ICE and DHS special agents, equipped with automatic weapons and body-armor, hanging from helicopters and steering in fleets of deportation busses, raided a meatpacking plant in bright daylight and arrested close to 400 people. The population of the town dropped by a fifth in less than an hour. But the men and women (and, yes, children) who worked at the plant weren’t just ripped from their jobs and homes and families, they were shackled first, housed overnight at the National Cattle Congress in an Iowa fairground, forced en masse in front of a judge in the retro “Electric Park Ballroom” where a makeshift federal court had been set up, and then were coerced to plead guilty. By ‘coerced’ I mean that (besides the shock and humiliation they were subjected to) they were being tried in a federal court, where the 6th Amendment right to a speedy trial is loosely defined and the defendants, many of whom were supporting families in Iowa and their home countries, were warned that their trial could last longer than their expected sentence, which for many of them was two years. So they could sing their guilty pleas or they could wait, in prison, knowing their families and children would be hungry, maybe even starving.

Caymad Freixas, a federal interpreter who worked the case in Iowa, explained the grandstanding of excess force: “The problem is that disasters, criminality, and terrorism do not provide enough daily business to maintain the readiness and muscle tone of this [ICE’s] expensive force… ICE is under enormous pressure to turn out statistical figures that might justify a fair utilization of its capabilities, resources, and ballooning budget.”             That budget, in 2010, was $5.7 billion. But the ICE raid in Iowa was a training exercise more than anything, because even $5.7 billion isn’t going to round up the 12 plus million people in the country without papers. So ICE picked an easy target: black-ops against school moms.

The fight against migrants and those from Central America and Mexico without papers is not a secret. It is fought viciously and openly. It is fought with little visible dissent and with substantial federal funding and overwhelming approbation.

Last year the Obama administration deported 392,862 persons. Only a few times in history has any nation deported so many people in a single year. Stalin and Goebbels top the list. The last time it happened in the US was in 1954 during Operation Wetback (the official name of the bill pushed by Eisenhower and passed by Congress which resulted in round-ups of Mexicans (or look-like Mexicans) or even Mexican-American citizens in cities across the US). Some estimate that with Operation Wetback over a million people were forced to migrate or were forcibly deported.

When building new borderwalls, or when deploying National Guard in border cities, or when writing policies and laws for lateral deportation and mass-sentencing which ousts people south though in all likelihood they will cross again, if by “effective” the Border Patrol meant that four thousand bodies would be found (among the many unfound) in the desert since 1994, and that there would be millions of displaced persons, and hundreds of thousands of broken families, then, very simply, the strategy has been effective.

And the bodies keep piling. In the desert. In the streets of Mexico. And not just dead bodies, but scared and living bodies. Bodies in corporate detention centers. Exiled to our produce fields. Hiding in the shadows of our cities.

Lateral deportation, that diversionary gambit, is targeted at poor migrants, those who can’t pay to return to their previous points of crossing, those who spent their or their families’ life savings to cross in the first place. Sergio, though, had money. Not much, but enough. He bought a bus ticket in Ciudad Acuña the same day he was deported, December 19th, rode back to Agua Prieta. And there he crossed again. And there, again, he was apprehended. But this time instead of the whirlwind of renditions, he met the violence immediately.

Don’t move motherfucker.

Probably this is not an effective way to get a group of frightened border crossers to still. Probably it sends them running up into the hills, or ducking behind bushes. But, according to Sergio, this is what the agent yelled at him. And Sergio did still. Almost. He stopped running and then he turned. Just to look. He turned to face the man who had screamed at him, who had called him a motherfucker. And then the man kicked him, or, as Sergio euphemistically put it, “pushed him with his foot” to the ground. And then the agent stepped on his back.

Sergio was back in custody, back drinking juiceboxes and eating days-old fast-food hamburgers. And he faced then, in court, not only illegal entry but illegal reentry. His kids, they were still in New York. His wife was in New York. His life was in New York. And he was sentenced to six months in prison. Plea bargaining dropped the sentence to thirty days. He was put in chains and herded through court in under an hour with seventy other Mexicans, he pled guilty, and then he spent thirty days in Florence, Arizona in a prison owned by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

CCA is the largest prison company in America, also the country’s first for-profit prison. On their website the company is proud of this fact. Capitalistic detention, it is called. And on the home screen there’s a stock index ticker to boot, usually in the green, on the up. CCA charges ICE sometimes up to 200 dollars per bed per day. Last year, recall, 392,862 persons were detained by ICE or Border Patrol or policemen charged with enforcing immigration violations. Not all of hem went to a CCA prison, but a lot of them did. According to Detention Watch Network, the average length of detention was over 33 days. When you do the math, it adds up. Into the billions.

It has worked deep into our thinking that the nature of a business is to do better business, to do more business. You tally the numbers. You count your capital. You note services rendered and check customers paying and balance your books. All for profit. For all the profit you can. But in this case, the case of for profit prisons, the raw material, the crude oil or unprocessed iron ore, is the human body. To strive for profit translates, in the case of CCA, on the criminalization of enough bodies to surge profits. Profit depends on the necessary criminalization of people like Sergio. Future profit depends on laws like Arizona’s SB 1070, a law that CCA goaded legislators to write and sponsor, a law which is currently being copycatted by 14 other states.

And it was when he was talking about his sentencing that I heard the wet in his voice. He was in court in Tucson, he told me, in his felon-orange suit and body-chains. The judge asked him if he was in agreement, de acuerdo, with thirty days in the tank.

Claro que no estoy de acuerdo, “Clearly I don’t agree,” he said to me, his voice quickening.

But to the judge he said “yes.” He said, “guilty,” cupable.

And CCA had another body to process.

It was not only pain that I heard in Sergio’s voice, that brought the wetness, that longed his vowels, it was pain of the admission. Migrants and persons without documents are not only victims of a cruel game (the draw of jobs, the fear of deportation, the base exploitation) but they are forced to play the game. Sergio was forced to say, “Yes, I play.” If he didn’t say yes, if he didn’t want to play, if he fought the charges, he would have served years, served years waiting and fighting and refusing and all the while, as he knew, he would be continuing to play, and all the while he would not be with his family. And in the end, fined and chastised and ridiculed and hungry, he’d be back on the other side of the fence again, ready to jump into the other side, the otro lado, to get back to his wife and kids. And if he did make it over the borderwall without getting nabbed and kicked, he would be back playing the game again, always looking to dodge Border Patrol or ICE or the cops or anybody that feels like calling the hotline, 1-800-BE-ALERT.

That was what I heard in his voice. Not just the pain of thirty days, but the whole game he was forced to play. The yes that was forced down his throat.

When we said adios to each other we were still in the bus station.

His plan, he told me, was to get some money, jump back across. His plan was to get back in the game.

That’s what I heard in his voice. The inevitability. His life was on the other side. His family was there. It wasn’t even a decision he had to make. He was going to play.


And it was the same sound I heard in Ignacio’s voice.

I met Ignacio last December. He didn’t come to me. I singled him out when he was eating in a migrant soup kitchen. He was in bad shape, I could tell. He was wearing a back brace that looked like he was packaged to be shipped somewhere. It was a huge, full-torso hard plastic thing with a flared, triceratops-like cuff extending up to his chin to support his neck.

Ignacio was 54. He had lived 35 years in LA. He had five children and a wife in LA. Last October he went south to Sinaloa, to see his mother, who was sick.

On his way back to LA, after jumping the fence, after being apprehended, his back was broken (though his spinal cord was uninjured) when the Border Patrol truck he was riding in flipped. By riding in I mean he was stuffed into the barred trunk without a seatbelt. The driver was driving too fast, bajaing too hard in the backcountry, the truck went into a ditch and flipped. There were two women riding in the back with Ignacio. One of them, he saw her before passing out from his own wounds, was bleeding heavily from the head. He didn’t know what happened to her, but maybe he already knew, in some way, what would become of him. Ignacio spent two days in the hospital in Douglas before they tried to deport him.

Immigration officials, so they don’t have to process a detainee in court, sometimes push detainees to sign voluntary departure papers. It saves time. They get a signature, and then turn them over to the outsourced bussing/security company, G4S. G4S is another for-profit security company, with a stock-ticker in green and the motto “Securing Your World” blazoned on their website home page. The company was once ominously named Wackenhut, but after a major merger in 2004, when the company became the largest “security services provider” in the world (and actually, according to their website, the second largest private employer in the world), the name was changed to the more austere (but rather obscure) G4S Secure Solutions.

But Ignacio didn’t get to ride with Wackenhut. He refused to sign the papers, and then they put him in solitary confinement for 24 hours. No food, no water, no meds.

It was 2010. It was the Age of Transparency. Obama, in not too distant memory, had promised the age of accountability, had promised no more sweetheart deals for companies like Halliburton. We seemed to have blossomed out of the dark ages of extraordinary renditions to dark apartments in Cairo. America would once again, some said, shine as the nonpareil of justice, and habeas corpus, and humanitarianism. It was 2010. And it was prison camp conditions for a long-time Dodger fan in Douglas, Arizona.

When Ignacio came out of the silence of solitary, he signed the papers.

When I saw him, two days later, he could barely walk. When telling me that he’d run out of his pills (because he kept swallowing them), he held up the oxycodone bottle and shook it like an empty maraca. His voice, already, was almost breaking. Maybe it was the physical pain I could hear. Maybe it was his youngest daughter back home, or his 35 years working in the swapmeet in LA. Maybe it was the solitary confinement that I could hear, swelling his voice, hurting it, wetting it.

Ignacio and I talked for awhile that day, mostly because it took him so long to walk—stopping to lean, sit, sweat, breathe, resting his back—to where we could convince somebody to give him a ride to the hospital. And his voice, I could hear it, it kept thickening. He was smiling at me, even laughing, but I could hear something else, the wet coming up from his throat.

Pain Singing South

It’s the same voice I hear when my grandparents talk about Romania. When my grandfather talks about his little brother, who suffered twelve years in a Russian prison camp. Or when he tells me about being forced into a labor army two days after he married my grandmother. It is a voice that sticks with you, that you remember. A voice that has suffered. That has suffered not only an instance of violence, but that has suffered a system. A voice that has been forced to say yes, yes I’m going to take what you’re going to give me even though I know it’s going to be bad. A voice that knows that even if it says no what it really means is yes. Yes, I’m gonna play your game. It’s a voice that doesn’t know how to accuse or who to accuse or if it should accuse or if it even matters if it makes an accusation. Because you hardly hear a voice left, because it’s been hollowed by the constant yes of the game.

That’s what I hear. The body spilling into the voice, bleeding into it, drowning it. Not to kill it, but to silence it, to silence it from saying what can almost not be said. What nobody wants to say: yes.

There is a difference, though, between the pain that racks and wets my grandparents’ voices and the pain that longs and hollows Ignacio’s and Sergio’s voices. In the first instance, that of my grandparents’ and the many others who suffered under the despots and villains of the 20th century, the pain is recognized. Recognized and validated. We can point to those who inflicted their pain and we will not be pointing at ourselves. It doesn’t cost us anything, in this case, to point a condemning finger into the past. What would it cost us, though, to point to ourselves, right now? What would it cost to recognize the suffering in Sergio’s voice? Or in Ignacio’s voice?

Ignacio made it to the hospital that day. They gave him more pain pills, filled his empty maraca.

And when I got back stateside I talked with his daughter, Vera, in LA. I told her that her father was fine. I told her that he was in pain. I told her, because he told me to, that he was going to be okay. I told her, because, despite the voice, I could tell, his spirit wasn’t broken.

But two days later Ignacio was kidnapped. It’s not uncommon. Plenty of migrants, or those who look like a migrants, are kidnapped in Mexico.

The cartel tried to extort money from his family. Maybe they succeeded. I don’t know exactly what happened. All I know is that he was released. I know that Ignacio paid ten pesos (less than a dollar) for a mattress at a local clapboard shelter. A place where migrants and homeless are given coffee and thin soup from an old woman. All I know is that sometime that night Ignacio died.

And his voice, now. I know it. I can hear it swelling. That wetness, his voice drowning into his body.

Maybe it was his heart. Maybe his liver. Maybe he overmedicated himself. Maybe it was the kidnapping, the solitary, the broken back. I don’t know. Maybe it was all of it.

I’m not pointing fingers here, though I want to. I do want to point fingers, but I can’t. I can’t because I’d be pointing in every direction and that’s not pointing anymore. Because it’s not just the Border Patrol. I’m not saying that the United States government is guilty of torture or terror. Or that the Mexican government is guilty of torture or terror. I’m not blaming ICE. I’m not pointing to those shake-your-head hateful arguments posited by Arizona legislators. Or pointing at Mexican soldiers abusing their powers. Or at America’s voracious conquest of almost half of Mexican land in 1848. Or at the trade agreements that continue to lay waste to countries. Or at the School of Americas that trained El Salvadoran soldiers to massacre campesinos. Or at the CIA coup and aerial bombings which overthrew the democratically elected Arbenz in ‘54. Or at the other US funded banana republics, or at the Contra wars. I’m not pointing at my own wanting a banana in the morning, or at grocery store aisles full of cheap coffee, or at college kids hankering for decent weed, or at the US addiction to meth and heroin and flat-screen TVs and tomatoes in January and neatly-trimmed grass yards in LA and green golf courses in Phoenix. I’m not even pointing at the cartels. Or at the migrants who get sucked into the drug trade. Or at the idealization of the otro lado or at almost every American politician I’ve ever heard that ignores the root causes of migration and points to the people who suffer those causes. Or at the Mexican PRI’s 70 years of collusion with bootleggers and then opium runners and then coke-slingers. Or at Calderón and the current ruling party trying to fight a social problem with automatic weapons. Or at transnational agro-companies getting better subsidies on corn than local Mexican farmers. Or at the 87% of the 16 billion dollar US budget for the drug war thrown at violent interdiction rather than treatment or education. Or at the man who last Spring stuffed 219 migrants into the back of a truck in Chiapas. Or at the man who last year stuffed 94 migrants into the back of a refrigerated truck in Nogales. Or at the man who left the bag of tongues outside an elementary school in Tijuana. Or at the men who spike the cemetery fence posts with decapitated heads. Or at the men who threw the grenades into the crowds in Michoacan or set the Casino/Bingo hall on fire in Monterrey. Or at the 40-plus thousand dead in four years in Mexico. Or at for-profit American prisons who treat policy-makers to vacations. I’m not blaming the way we live or the way we want to live. I’m not blaming white people in America who are scared of becoming a minority. Or those who cringe when they hear Spanish at the hardware store. Or the gun laws or the border fences or the hurricanes or the floods or at our history or at what we want for our future. I’m not pointing because I don’t know how to point, or I don’t know what good pointing is going to do. I’m just saying this, now, that you can hear pain singing south of here, along the border.

You can here it singing even from right here. You can hear the wet and the pain. You can hear singing, that painful, that hollow yes.


You can read more about No More Deaths, including their new report documenting Border Patrol abuses, Culture of Cruelty (to be released September 21) at

John Washington is currently a Fulbright Fellow in Mexico City, working on a novel about migration. More of his writing can be found on,, and