- John Carlos Freyinvestigative reporter and PBS NewsHour special correspondent, author of Sand and Blood: America’s Stealth War on the Mexico Border.
John Carlos Frey’s new book, “Sand and Blood: America’s Stealth War on the Mexico Border,” chronicles how the U.S.-Mexico border became a war zone through decades of deadly bipartisan immigration policy. But it also examines the border through the personal history of his family. Born in Tijuana, Mexico, Frey moved to the U.S. with his family when he was a toddler in 1965. He grew up in southern San Diego, California, where he witnessed the effects of American immigration policy on the borderlands every day. His father was an American citizen. His mother was a Mexican immigrant. Frey’s book is dedicated “To my mother, an immigrant from Mexico who came to America to provide a better life for me and my siblings, and to all the mothers and fathers who had the same intention and lost their lives in the attempt.” We speak with John Carlos Frey in our New York studio.
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AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue our discussion with John Carlos Frey, author of Sand and Blood: America’s Stealth War on the Mexico Border.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the new book chronicles how the U.S.-Mexico border became a war zone through decades of deadly bipartisan immigration policy, but it also examines the border through the personal history of John Carlos Frey’s family. Now, John, you were born in Tijuana, but you lived virtually all of your life in the United States on the San Diego side of the border and right—you were within eyesight of the border. And you talk in your book, a very moving story, about what happened to your mother, who was a permanent resident, was a green card holder in those days, that had an enormous impression on your view of the immigration problem.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Right. I watched my mother be deported before my eyes, even though she had legal residency in the United States.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you read that section from your—
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Sure, absolutely. There’s a story about it in the book.
“My mother was a Mexican woman with dark features and dark skin. She spoke English with a thick Mexican accent. That day, as she walked seemingly alone along the road near the US-Mexico border, moving toward where I was, she caught the attention of a Border Patrol agent who was looking for migrants. Agents would drive up and down our neighborhood streets regularly, always on the lookout for brown faces. This one stopped to question my mother about her immigration status, asking for identification. She told him she lived just up the road and could get her ID from home. The agent didn’t believe her. She told him that her husband was in the house and that he could stop by and ask him. He still did not believe her. She told him that she had lived in the United States for twenty years and that I, her son, was playing nearby. Instead of listening to my mother’s pleas, the agent put her in handcuffs and then in the back of his patrol car.”
She was deported—obviously not legally deported, but she was sent to a holding facility in Tijuana. And my father, the next day, when we found out where she was, had to go with her papers to get her back across. She never left the house again without her papers. She had a stack of papers proving her legal residency. She put them in her car, and she would always keep them in her purse. She never knew when she was going to be stopped again.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you mention that this whole demonization of Mexican migration, in your book, dates back really to the early 20th century. And I was especially struck by the story you told of Carmelita Torres—
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Yes.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —in 1917, who some historians have compared to the Mexican Rosa Parks for her protest.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about her story, 17-year-old girl, and what happened?
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Carmelita Torres was a resident of Juárez, Mexico, and was a housekeeper in El Paso. Every day, she would cross the border and work at a wealthy family’s home. This was a very common occurrence. You didn’t need anything to get across the border from Juárez at the time to work in the United States. Labor was going back and forth all the time.
And then there was a typhus scare. Typhus is spread by lice and fleas. And it was believed that Mexicans coming across the border to work were spreading this disease, so they started a typhus delousing station at the U.S.-Mexico border. Migrants who were coming across to work had to strip naked. They had to be deloused. They had to dip their entire body in a kerosene bath, and their clothes had to be steamed every single day. Their heads were checked for lice. If they found lice on their bodies, on their heads, their hair was shaved off. And then they could go to work. This was an everyday inspection process. Every day.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, if you were living in Mexico but working in the U.S., every single day you would have to, in essence, be deloused at the border when you were going to work.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Correct, as if we were getting on a plane and going through TSA. This whole process of being inspected was by stripping naked and having your clothes cleaned and your body checked and dipped into this kerosene bath. And you couldn’t get into the United States unless you went through that process on a regular basis.
She got sick of it. Carmelita Torres got sick of it and said, “From one day to the next, I’m not going to do this anymore.” She had heard that some of the agents were taking photographs and posting them in a local bar, of the nude women’s bodies. So she said, “I’m not going to do this.” She rallied with a couple of other individuals in line waiting to be deloused, and there was a major protest that ensued. They actually had to shut down the port of entry that day. And she became a champion for those rights of immigrants being dehumanized in that process.
AMY GOODMAN: You dedicate your book “To my mother, an immigrant from Mexico who came to America to provide a better life for me and my siblings, and to all the mothers and fathers who had the same intention and lost their lives in the attempt.” How does what happened to you as a child, seeing your mother handcuffed and sent across the border—illegally—back to Mexico, inform what you do? And talk about your most recent work. We have interviewed you a number of times. One of those times was border agents killing a migrant along the border.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: I think that my own personal history is why I do this. It’s probably not the only reason. I am a journalist. I’m interested in places that are in conflict and are going through a period of injustice, like we’re seeing here. But I’m a bilingual, binational, born-in-Tijuana, growing-up-in-the-United-States individual. So, this is my beat. The U.S.-Mexico border is my beat.
And seeing how my mother was treated, I don’t—I don’t see too many outlets, with the exception of yours, reporting on the injustices of border security. We think that “migrant is bad, and U.S. is good, so let’s build a wall. Let’s increase the Border Patrol. Let’s make sure that they don’t come here.” We don’t really talk about what happens down at the border.
With respect to Border Patrol brutality and the way that they treat migrants, this is a story that has formed my career. I mean, this is why I come and I speak with all of you, is because of the way the U.S. treats migrants, for the most part.
You’re talking about a case where an unarmed 15-year-old boy was shot 10 times in the back, standing in Mexico, while a U.S. agent standing in the United States opened fire and killed him. That Border Patrol agent was indicted, and there was a trial, and he was found not guilty. The boy never raised a weapon.
AMY GOODMAN: Cruz Velazquez.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Yes, in Nogales, Mexico. He never raised a weapon. He was unarmed. The only thing that was in his pocket was a cellphone. He’s dead. Mexican nationals can’t sue the United States, either, for wrongful death. So, this family is without their kid and no legal recourse. This is U.S. policy.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you also talk about—that for many, many years, first, certainly, throughout most of the early 20th century, there was a fairly fluid situation at the border, people coming back and forth, with not a whole lot—there was a Border Patrol established in 1924, but there wasn’t really the kind of constant surveillance or seizing of people and sending them back. Can you talk about the development of the border wall mentality in more recent decades?
JOHN CARLOS FREY: When I was a kid, there was no fence. Migrants would come across the border—yes, illegally, without papers.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And we’re talking now in the ’60s and early ’70s.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Five years ago, when I was a kid, right. Thirty, 40 years ago, there was no border fence. There were fewer border guards. People would come. They would migrate. They would work in the fields; they’d go back home. And this was understood and known. Even though that people were entering without inspection, without papers, people looked the other way, for the most part.
I’m not quite sure what happened, what the flashpoint was, that we started to militarize the U.S.-Mexico border, but all of a sudden immigrants became criminal, and we wanted to wall ourselves off from them. We have more undocumented immigrants in the United States than we’ve ever had, because it’s hard to get in. Now that people—when they finally do get in, they stay. And they not only stay, they bring their families in at a later time, when they can. So, we have this swelling effect because of the way that we manage our borders.
I don’t know that we’ve had a terrorist that’s come up from Mexico. We haven’t had some sort of an attack from Mexicans in the United States. And all of a sudden we have this sort of militarized infrastructure. It’s somewhat of a mystery to me. I watched all of this happen, bit by bit. I actually think it’s a political construct. If I’m a politician and I want to run on keeping you safe from these immigrants, I could look like a knight in shining armor. And I think that that’s what Trump and presidents before him have done.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you make the point that during the Clinton administration there was a real emphasis on beginning to not only militarize the border, but to go after undocumented immigrants. Now, interestingly, I remember that Bill Clinton, when he was governor of Arkansas, actually lost an election because he welcomed immigrants, in Fort Chaffee, Cuban Marielitos who were basically housed in one of the facilities. And as a result of him welcoming them, he lost the governor’s re-election race. And I think that’s why, when he finally became president, he reached the conclusion that anti-immigration posture was a better one for a politician in the United States than one of welcoming immigrants.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: There’s a portion of Clinton’s State of the Union speech, his second one, his second year in office, that reads like Trump wrote it. “We’re going to go after illegal aliens. We’re going to go after the criminals coming across the border. We’re going to fortify the border. We’re going to build border walls. We’re going to hire more border guards. We’re going to keep you safe.” I’m actually paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of his speech. That sounds like a Trump speech to me. Bill Clinton was the author, or at least his administration was the author, of the border walls and the way that we manage the border today. The laws that were set in place then are the laws that Donald Trump is standing on today, and allowing him to do what he does.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain the progression of those laws.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Sure. In 1994, we had a policy that was enacted called the Border Patrol strategy of 1994: prevention through deterrence. “Let’s build border walls in front of San Diego, in front of El Paso and a couple of other major cities along the border, and let’s purposely force migration through the deserts and through the mountains.” That’s on purpose, because we’re going to let the terrain take care of them. The Border Patrol knew that people were going to get sick, they were going to be dehydrated—this is all in the document—and that they may die. That is the policy that we have in place, as well as the detention facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border. Everything was geared to the fact that we were going to shake people up. They knew very well that they weren’t going to keep people from coming, but if they did come, they were going to know that we meant business, and they were going to take that message of deterrence back home. We can fast-forward 20 years-plus today and see that it hasn’t worked.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, that led to the tragedy that still doesn’t get sufficient coverage, which is all the migrant deaths. And you uncovered a story in—what was it? Brooks County, Texas.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In Falfurrias, where a Baylor University professor began unearthing hundreds of skeletons of dead migrants just in this one county. Could you talk about that?
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Sure. It’s a story we covered extensively here, a cemetery, a county cemetery, where migrants were gathered from coroners who had found bodies in and around the area. If a migrant dies, what do you do with the body? In this particular case, they were placed in a county cemetery as unidentified individuals. The graves were unmarked. There were no DNA samples taken for identification. In some cases, we found individuals—seven buried to a gravesite. Dig a hole, put a migrant in the ground. Some people were buried four inches below ground. People were placed in plastic trash bags. It was a mass of humanity buried in a way which was inhumane. The anthropologist who was exhuming the bodies called it a mass grave.
AMY GOODMAN: You told the moving story of Mike Wilson, a Tohono O’odham tribal member. Tell us his story, the story of one group of Native Americans responding to migrants.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Mike Wilson is a tribal member from the Tohono O’odham Nation, which is an Indian tribe, a Native American tribe, on the U.S.-Mexico border. It is a smuggling corridor. Migrants come across the border on a regular basis, and they die in concentration. It is the deadliest region in the American Southwest for migrants to cross. It’s hot desert. And he, a Presbyterian priest at the time, thought his religion and his religious duties called him to action. He started putting water out for migrants in the desert. And his own constituents, his own congregants, told him that if he put water out, that he was going to be attracting migrants into the desert. They fired him, and they kicked him off the reservation. This is a man who was trying to save lives, and, as a result, lost—I don’t know what you call it—lost his vestments. He was defrocked as a result of trying to save lives.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You also write in your book about John Hunter, the brother of the—
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —conservative Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Duncan Hunter, a U.S. congressman from the San Diego region in California, was probably the strongest proponent of building walls. His brother, John Hunter, was his campaign manager and raised money for his campaigns as congressman. Congressman Duncan Hunter, I would say, was probably responsible for the first border walls that we got. He was really furious about making sure that we walled ourselves off from Mexico.
When those walls went in place in San Diego, it forced migration into the desert east of the city, and migrants started to die for the very first time. We saw, maybe, in the years prior, one or two migrant bodies were found. Right after that, we were finding 50, 60, up to 100 migrant bodies. John Hunter, his brother, felt responsible. He started to put water out for them, and, to this day, maintains a humanitarian group who continues to put water out in the desert.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of humanitarian groups, you went to a No More Deaths camp.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ve been covering the story of Scott Warren. A jury did not find him guilty, but it was 8 to 4 for his innocence. And the Trump administration, at the same time, when the uproar was happening around the Clint child jail, announces they’re going to reprosecute Scott—
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —who is a geographer, a professor, an activist, who’s been dedicated, with so many other activists, to putting out water in the Sonoran Desert, with Ajo Samaritans, as well as No More Deaths, finding bones and bodies of immigrants as he goes. He’s the one who is being retried. Talk about your experience with these camps.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: I don’t know that it would—it wouldn’t affect people any differently than it has me, but I’ve seen the bodies. I have walked up to a dehydrated, dead individual in the desert. I’ve seen women, young children. And I’ve talked to the survivors. I’ve gone on the journey myself. I know how difficult it is. I’ve traveled with a migrant group. The idea that a humanitarian providing water and sustenance for someone on that journey—it’s not necessarily to allow them to get into the country illegally; it’s to save their life. There’s a serious problem in our government if you’re going to prosecute the individual who’s trying to save someone’s life.
I hate to say it—it sounds so hyperbolic to say it—but the more that I’m looking at this lately, we’re on the step-by-step approach to genocide here. We are in the process of dehumanizing people to such a degree that it is OK for them to die, even to the point where the government is saying, “Let them die. Let’s prosecute the humanitarian who’s trying to save their life. Let’s put him in jail so he can’t save their lives.” We are allowing people to die, children in custody, people crossing the border. You know, I’m passionate about it, of course, but I’m also standing on very solid ground here. If we take a look at any history where this kind of a movement has happened, the government has turned its back. Where are the people screaming that this guy is saving lives, as opposed to trying to put him in jail for putting water out? That, to me, is a shock.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you, as someone who’s grown up in the border, in the border areas—the Southwest has been the basis of the biggest growth for American population in the last maybe 50, 60 years. Six of the 10 largest cities in America are in the Sun Belt: San Diego, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio. Where would the Southwest be without Mexican labor, whether it’s domestic Mexican labor or immigrant Mexican labor?
JOHN CARLOS FREY: It certainly wouldn’t be where it is. And we actually imported that labor, to begin with. I mean, we had the bracero program, where we invited almost 5 million Mexican farmworkers to come and harvest our crops, while our men were off to war in World War II. So, many of those Mexican-American neighborhoods were started back in that time. Many of our roots from that culture there in the American Southwest come from that labor pool that we had at that time.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to our discussion. We’re spending the hour with John Carlos Frey, five-time Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter, PBS NewsHour special correspondent, who reports extensively on immigration and on migrant deaths. He has a new book out. It’s called Sand and Blood: America’s Stealth War on the Mexico Border. When we come back, we’ll look at the connection between climate change and migration. Stay with us.