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The Rock and the Hard Place

by Judith Adler Hellman

Pub Date: May 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-56584-838-2
Publisher: New Press

A sympathetic, wide-ranging portrait of the lives of Mexicans on both sides of the border.

Go to the Mexican consulate in Tucson, Ariz., and you’ll be among the few waiting for services; go to the same consulate in New York City, and you’ll join a line a block long. That may seem odd, but to Hellman (Political Science/York Univ.; Mexican Lives, 1994, etc.) it speaks volumes about how central New York has become to border-crossers: “Mexicans—depending on whether we count both documented and undocumented people—have one of the highest, if not the highest, birthrates of any national group in the city.” But why travel so far from the border? For one thing, there are jobs available, even if too many of them require workers to swallow their pride, since protesting unfair conditions can lead to deportation. Yet there are other considerations, Hellman observes. It’s possible to get around by public transportation, which removes the need for private transportation and thus registrations, licenses and other things that require identification. Thus Staten Island and Long Island are full of esquineros, the men who wait on the corner for odd jobs and daily construction work. Meanwhile, down at the border, the Border Patrol is concerned not just with stemming the tide, but with triage. Says one top officer, “economic migrants are just the clutter that we need to brush away so we can get at the really bad guys…meaning the dope smugglers and the people smugglers.” The presence of so many Mexicans may make some Anglos nervous, but their self-appointed guardians in the so-called Minutemen aren’t much help; as critics note, they make big noise but mostly sit in lawn chairs and drink beer while the alambristas hop the fence to become esquineros and do the jobs no one else wants.

Humane and helpful, Hellman removes the shrillness from the border debate to show what the crossers do and why they do it—and why most Americans don’t object to their presence.