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Cat-and-Mouse with La Migra

A Dark Ride on the Border

by ANDREA PEACOCK

The sirens woke me up. The dogs broke into a howl, abruptly as though it woke them as well. Gee, that sounded close, I thought. Then the howls turned into barks, and Donna was outside calling them in.

A few moments later, shouts. Doug was out of bed, struggling with the inside-out sleeves of his robe, and I followed, tossing on a t-shirt and pair of shorts. We joined Donna on the back patio, where I peered around the corner of her orchid room and caught sight of a uniformed man standing on alert, next to a gray pickup truck.

"He’s trying to keep them all corralled," she said. "I’m just hoping the carport is still there."

I went back inside to make coffee, then started out the front door for the paper. That’s when the Border Patrol van pulled up, and I noticed the cruiser sitting in our driveway. "I thought that sounded close," I said to no one in particular.

As we watched, the agent from the backyard marched four short, stocky men wearing layers of dark green and brown clothing, each with their hands on the shoulder of the man in front of him, into the van. Another agent appeared from around the garage, and escorted four more out of the back of the cruiser. Four, Donna said, had gotten away. I saw our neighbors across the street watching from their windows as well.

The second agent, tall and blond, walked over to us and told Donna to call the Border Patrol office if she noticed any damage. He was sorry about all the fuss, he said. It was the second time in as many weeks a truckload of illegal immigrants, chased by BP agents, had turned off into these neighborhood streets, cutting through yards in hopes of reaching the dry Santa Cruz riverbed.

"No problem," she said. "Is my carport still standing?"

Doug and I took our coffee and headed back to bed, luxuriating in a few moments in which we had no other tasks. We had a good half-hour before Donna knocked: "How’s your Spanish?" she asked.

I threw a bathrobe on and followed her out the front door. Standing at the side of the house were two girls, dressed in the same bulky camouflaged layers as the men we had seen marched away. Donna handed one a phone. I asked in my pig Spanish: ¿Necessita ayuda? One of the women gestured at the phone. I pointed to the nearly empty water bottle held by the second. ¿Agua? They passed me their bottles, and I took them inside, filled them, grabbed a grocery sack and tossed some bananas and brownies in it. Back outside, the phone was not working. I handed over the food, and Donna coaxed the girls in.

They had a phone number for somewhere in Mexico, but we couldn’t seem to get a call through. Our neighbors across the street were outside, talking loudly. "They were just here!" I heard the woman call, a shrill note of excitement to her voice. I expected they would call the Border Patrol, the cute blonde would be back.

But the minutes ticked away, and no one pulled up. The girls gradually began to relax, removing their hoods, then their jackets. They were a little older than I thought-not teenagers. ¿Habla Español? the more assertive one asked me. Poquito, I replied. Very damn little-my restaurant Spanish was not going to be much help.

Donna called a friend of hers, a woman here legally but not a citizen. This put her in an awkward, vulnerable position, but she agreed to speak to our guests. When Donna got back on the phone, Carmen told her she would try calling the phone numbers the young women gave her, in the hope of finding someone who could give us a hint of our next move.

Donna urged them to sit at the dining room table. One was a little older than the other, and seemed to understand a few words of English. They’d been walking (she motioned with her fingers) en el desierto para cinco días, she told me. Sin comida, sin agua.

Let me make you a little comida, I replied.

We’d just had a big birthday party for Doug and the fridge was full of leftovers. I got some eggs, cheese and onions cooking.

Where did you cross? I asked. Misunderstanding, she told me she was from Michoican, Acapulco. Her friend from Guerrero. Pero, from donde did they walk? Cabeza Prieta? No, she said, understanding now. Sasabe. ¿Donde es aqui?

After they finished eating, I pulled out a map. I pointed out Sasabe down on the border, Tucson, and just to the south, the mission at San Xavier. "La Misión," I told her. "Aqui." They were on their way to Phoenix when La Migra caught them, she said. From there, she was to join her husband in Atlanta. Her friend was destined for Chicago.

More calls followed to Carmen. Doug left a message for a friend with some experience in these matters, choosing his words carefully. We waited. It was Donna’s house, and ultimately her choice. "I guess you have to have the courage of your convictions," she said, then suggested showers, the washing machine and fresh clothes. Using mostly nouns and gestures, I got the idea across, dug out a couple pairs of jeans, t-shirts, sweaters and socks and handed the pile over. Fortunately, they seemed to be my size-in fact, the jeans might well fit them better. While they bathed, we considered our options.

We could put them on a shuttle to Phoenix, I suggested. But they don’t know where in Phoenix they are going, Donna replied. In the back of our minds, though, we all knew they couldn’t stay long. The Border Patrol, the neighbors, all knew they’d been here. One neighbor’s children worked for the BP: chances were good someone would call.

The younger woman finished showering first, and we spoke while her friend took a turn in the bathroom. She knew no English at all. ¿Tienes familia en Chicago, o amigos? I couldn’t figure out whether to use the familiar or formal tense, and kept switching back and forth between the two. She didn’t seem offended; I figured it didn’t matter.

Sí, una hermana.

¿Como se llama? I asked.

Anna.

Andrea, I replied, then pointed and said, Donna.

Did I have any brothers or sisters?

Sí, one of each.

And Donna?

A brother, y nada mas familia. Solo hermano.

Then the dogs: ¿perro o perra?

Perro, I said pointing to Kendall, then to Zelda: y perra. I laughed to myself: it was the one word that always gave me trouble in high school Spanish class. I never got the hang of rolling my r’s with any ease.

Another hour passed with our guests sneaking brownies to the dogs, who now adored them. Another call from Carmen yielded a phone number: the older woman, (whose name we learned was something unpronounceable, but we could call her Jessie) had an aunt in Los Angeles. She called, but got no answer. Her tia, she said, was working. She wouldn’t be home til after six.

It was the start of an option. Maybe we could put them on a Greyhound and deliver them directly into Auntie’s care.

Donna had just been told by a neighbor (the one with the BP children) that a person could lose his or her car for transporting illegal immigrants. It’s not like she had one to spare. Maybe we could give them a map, let them hitch.

The early hours of the afternoon rolled by, the possibilities a sequence of waves we rode. Calling la migra, I reasoned to myself, was an option that would serve only our convenience. I could imagine parts of their journey: probably a long bus ride all the way from southern Mexico, then the hot desert walk. They’d had to use tweezers to get the cactus spines out of their hands. I had hiked that desert-prepared with a full pack, on cooler days. You couldn’t help but brush up against cholla, and gopher burrows turn the ground into a maze of instability. You break through the crust constantly. What a monumental waste of energy to end up back where they had started.

If nothing else panned out, we could give them a good map, bag of food and turn them out at dusk. But I’d heard too many horror stories of those who take advantage of women immigrants. This was no good choice.

I called Greyhound. Yes, there was a bus to Los Angeles tonight. No, my friends would not need to show ID. It would arrive in LA at 8:45 the next morning. I passed this all along to Donna. Should I tell them? I asked her. Sure, she said.

They were sitting in the dining room, looking at the maps spread all over the table. They had no idea of US geography: where they were, how far it was to LA, Atlanta, South Dakota, San Antonio. These all were far, we told them. LA the closest.

I presented my idea: Greyhound, Tia, what did they think?

Jessie was guardedly excited, explaining my plan to her friend. Pero, she said, they only had Mexican money. We would buy the tickets, I replied, waving off her protests. I had no otro ideas-this was the mas facile way. Okay, she relented. But they must get a hold of her aunt and let Tia know they were coming. That gave us all afternoon to kill. Take a siesta, I suggested. Make yourself at home. Blank looks. Si necessita agua, I pointed to the sink, agua. Comida, I pointed to the fridge, comida. Bano, bano. Todo. This time they understood. With gracias and de nada, I retreated to the patio with a book.

An hour later, when I walked into the kitchen to get some water, Jessie said something to me. I caught some conjugation of comer. Sure, sí. ¿Menudo? I asked. Pizza? It did not matter, so I heated up both, and they ate it all. We talked more: was Donna my sister?

No, ella es mi amiga. Vivo en Montana. We were just here visiting.

¿Vacaciones? Jessie asked.

Sí. It seemed the easiest explanation.

Jessie explained that she planned to spend the summer in South Dakota. Doing what, I could not figure out. I told her la paisaje, la tierra es muy bonita, and resisted the urge to suggest she drop by if in the neighborhood.

More hours passed and they slept, curled together on the couch. Come evening, Doug took the car on several test runs, certain that the BP could be lurking in the neighborhood still. If they wanted us, I told him, they’d knock at the door and tell us so. But it made him feel better about The Plan. At 6:30, Tia was home. First Jessie spoke to her, then handed the phone to me. The woman, Beatrice, thanked me profusely, said her daughter was sick and her husband not home. Could we wait til he returned at nine so she could talk to him about it?

I explained nine would be too late; that we had no other options. Could we please put her niece on a bus bound for LA? With more thanks, she offered to wire money, but we refused. They can do someone else a good turn, I said, feeling and sounding trite. Will they be stopped on the way? Will there be checkpoints? I thought not and told her so, but that was just going to be out of our control.

The 30-minute drive to Tucson felt unreal, like a dream or a movie. The whole day has passed this way, as though the hours were lifted out of ordinary time. Immigrants walk through the Santa Cruz every night: we see their tracks in the pecan groves, find their belongings discarded (backpacks, children’s shoes) and reason that they must have had to run; we avoid dense brush while walking the dogs, preferring not to disturb anyone hiding out the daylight hours. But other than these signs, their lives never cross with ours. The entire day, I realize, has been a gift.

It was a dark ride, and the city lights seemed to be floating, moving. Donna at first drove like normal, then checked her speed. We did not need to get pulled over tonight. At the bus station, I went in first and bought the tickets. The agent wanted names: I was too tired to think on my feet and gave her my own, Donna’s too. I scanned the waiting room: no police, no border patrol. It was, oddly enough, clean and comfortable. We could all wait in here.

Back out in the parking lot we gathered their gear. Wearing my clothes, Donna’s makeup and carrying some old travel bags and purses we pressed upon them, they looked like Americanas.

I gave Jessie last minute instructions: I had gotten them on an earlier bus-they would arrive sooner than we planned. The bus would make some stops, altos, para mas gente, mas personas. They should stay on. I had to look up this last word: quedarse. She understood. Donna bought a bunch of candy and stuffed it-along with a change purse full of cash-in their bags. We hugged, and Jessie held me in a long, strong grip. Their bus was called; they headed for the door: puerto tres. We stood back, held our breaths as they passed the ticket taker, then waved one last time as they passed the window on their way to board.

Note: Some of the names and places have been changed in this piece.

ANDREA PEACOCK is the author of Libby, Montana: Asbestos and the Deadly Silence of an American Corporation and co-author, with Doug Peacock, of The Essential Grizzly. She lives in Montana. She can be reached at: apeacock@wispwest.net