I highly recommend that you read a fantastic article by journalist and CA alumnus Eli Saslow ’00 that tells the story of an 80-year-old rancher who lives along the Mexican border in southern Arizona. The piece captures the humanitarian and legal crises that our nation is confronting. Please understand, I don’t intend to make a statement about how politicians should solve what truly is a crisis at the border. Rather, I want to draw attention to the brilliance of Saslow’s writing and how he tells a very human story while avoiding political grandstanding.

Jim and Sue Chilton are long-time ranchers, but now face thousands of migrants, from all over the world, coming onto their land. They also confront cartels who smuggle drugs and people onto their land and are a violent threat. At the same time, they are assessing their humanitarian responsibility and dealing with the economic hardships of traditional ranching. 

The article reminds me of many childhood experiences I had along the border growing up in Arizona. My dad taught geology and would take me on his mapping trips along the border. I remember one occasion when he pulled over to look at some rocks, and two migrants, who had no water and appeared to be in dire straits, ran out of the desert and jumped into the back of his University of Arizona pickup truck. I was a little boy and in the cab. My dad ended up driving these two men to a nearby gas station, helped get them water, bought them a six-pack of beer, and dropped them off outside of Tucson. 

It was an impactful experience. I am sure it was a moral dilemma for my law-abiding dad: “Do I save these men in my government vehicle or do I take them to the Border Patrol?”

In Saslow’s article, I am struck by how the Chiltons, despite the many problems that mass migration is causing for them, demonstrate this humanitarian compassion for people seeking opportunity and refuge in America, along with pushing for more support and implementing changes to our immigration policies.

The article inspired me to revisit a compelling film entitled Lone Star. This neo-Western murder mystery film stars Chris Cooper, Kris Kristofferson, and Matthew McConaughey. Set along the Texas-Mexico border in the 1990s, the story begins when a skull is discovered in the desert. This results in Cooper’s character investigating a murder and unearthing disturbing secrets that had long been buried. It’s a dark film, but captures the crime, racism, migration, lawlessness, and mystery of the border region. It portrays a time when the migration was usually from Mexico, rather than what Saslow’s article describes—refugees arriving at the border from all over the world. The film also captures the interaction of Anglos, African Americans, and Mexicans and the debates over how to tell that history and what is truth. 

I’ve spent a lot of time in my academic career thinking about borders and frontiers—both physical and intellectual. My research in graduate school included looking at debates on immigration and refugee policy in the 1950s and 1960s that are incredibly relevant today. Most recently, I have been thinking about the physical borders in the Southwest, as I was teaching my class on the history of the American West. 

The land described in Saslow’s piece has long been a place of violence and lawlessness where different cultures have clashed seeking opportunity. Sometime around 1300, the Apache migrated from the north and raided Tohono O’odham peoples who had lived in the region for over 1,000 years. Then, the Europeans came, and warfare between the Spaniards, the Apache, and other nations raged for hundreds of years. In the 1850s, the Americans arrived, and the Apache were forcibly removed after devastating violence. The land was transformed by this conquest, as rivers dried up from overuse in agriculture and mining. The border was porous, and there was all kinds of contact between Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Americans for the next century.  

The 1965 Immigration Act set the first-ever limits on Latin American immigration, and removed a migratory work program that allowed for seasonal migration for Mexicans to work in America. The unintended consequence of this change was that “illegal immigration” became a new political reality. By the 1980s, drug trafficking began to pick up along the border along with more violence. In the same decade, asylum seekers from El Salvador added a new dynamic to the migration patterns. Today, as Saslow captures, we see the ascendancy of cartel power and violence, as well as massive flows of migrants—not just from Latin America, but from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Scholars of immigration often talk about the “push” and “pull” factors of immigration and migration. We can go back thousands of years and see these patterns. The Ancestral Puebloans migrated from the Four Corners region to the headwaters of the Rio Grande to escape drought and climate change in the 1200s. The Irish came to the U.S. in the 1840s to escape famine. Despite the suffering and pain, there was a sense of hope and a desire to find peace and contribute to society.

As part of my dissertation, I looked at the Hungarian Refugee Crisis in 1956. Hundreds of thousands of Hungarians fled a Soviet invasion of their country. At that time, American immigration law discriminated against Southern and Eastern Europeans and excluded Asian immigration. Because of Cold War tensions and geo-political realities, Eisenhower used executive authority to admit 57,000 Hungarians fleeing violence. I interviewed one refugee who was a doctor and played a key role in discovering connections between certain commonly used chemicals and cancer. Yet, at the time of this immigrant’s entry, a Democratic congressman who was an arch-restrictionist worried that these Eastern Europeans were a threat to our culture and society.

Saslow’s article reminds us of the human and emotional relevance of migration issues. It is interesting to read about how a long-time Arizona rancher on the front lines is thinking about this issue. In the history of America, we have gone from times of mass migration to periods of restrictionism. The Know Nothing political party emerged in the 1850s as a reaction to Catholic immigration from Ireland and Germany. The Immigration Act of 1924 basically shut down immigration as a result of Southern and Eastern European immigration from 1880-1924. The Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 virtually banned all immigration from Asia. 

The 1965 Immigration Act is the foundation of the policy we have today and has had many unintended consequences. We are likely to see restrictive immigration policies develop in response to the changes that more open immigration has brought to our society. From my perspective—having written extensively on the combination of global unrest, the rise of authoritarian regimes, and climate change—immigration will continue to present stable, democratic nations with millions of people clamoring for safety, security, and economic opportunity.

An interesting exchange in Saslow’s article occurs when Sue Chilton asks her husband Jim if he has everything he needs for his border trip. Jim replies, “I am as prepared as I can be.” To this Sue replies, “I guess it depends which version of the border you see.”

Humanely and intellectually we should all ask ourselves which version of the border we see and how we can open our eyes and hearts to the border in the context of the multiple issues at hand. How can we as a society look at the border issue holistically? As Saslow relates in the article, Lowell Robinson, one of the Chiltons’ cowboys, thinks of it this way: “We have three mandates from the Creator: to take care of widows, orphans, and the sojourner. If we can’t do that, what good are we?”

The current discourse on immigration calls for a holistic approach that transcends simplistic narratives and considers various interconnected factors, including immigration policy, national security, economic impacts, humanitarian concerns, and international relations. Viewing the border issue holistically means recognizing that any effective solution must address the complex interplay of these factors.

Kudos to Eli Saslow for his unique, necessary perspective, which reminds us that a key part of our school’s mission is to help students look critically at issues and consider a variety of viewpoints.