Reading Charles Bowden in Júarez

Charles Bowden

Charles Bowden, a prolific writer and critical observer of the U.S.-Mexico border, died at home in Las Cruces, New Mexico on Saturday. I was introduced to Bowden’s work on my first night in Ciudad Júarez, when I visited in January 2011. The passage below, an excerpt from Amor and Exile, attempts to capture the experience of reading Bowden in Júarez.

An earlier version of the story on Bowden’s death in The Arizona Republic closed with a fitting tribute, a line Bowden once dedicated to another writing hero, Edward Abbeey: “R.I.P., but I doubt it.”

Excerpt from Chapter 7 of Amor and Exile: The Waiver Scene

Betty Campbell has a mischievous, sardonic grin for a 77-year-old nun. My first night in Ciudad Juárez, she offered me her cluttered bedroom, insisting that she preferred sleeping on a mat on the living room floor so she could hear sounds from the street—the sounds of gun shots, peeling tires, and screams, maybe not every night, but frequently enough.

I threw my bag down in the quiet, cold back bedroom at Casa Tabor, Sister Betty’s house in one of Juárez’s northwestern colonias—the unpoliced and forgotten dirt and cobble street neighborhoods that house tens of thousands of underpaid factory workers and urban poor and now drug dealers and gangsters as well. It’s a neighborhood of concrete block houses of mixed quality—some with iron gates and red roof tiles, others run down and abandoned with tin roofs, boarded up windows and holes in the walls. The modest Casa Tabor stood out with its neat yard and pink hued adobe façade.

Charles Bowden
Charles Bowden (1945-2014) / Jack Dykinga via Simon & Schuster

Later that first evening, with a warm smile and slightly manic glint in her eye, Betty handed me the May 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine folded back to Charles Bowden’s “The Sicario,” an intense interview with a Juárez hit man that Bowden later turned into a book. At first I thought that Betty was trying to haze me into the fraternity of fear that has gripped this town since about 2008, when murders began to skyrocket. But the gleam in her eyes also served to inoculate me from that fear with her absolute faith in the resiliency and creativity of poor people in Latin America.

I wrote “sicario” in my little notebook, knowing it would come in handy over the next couple of days. Mexican sicarios have gotten the upper hand on reporters in recent years, enforcing a regime of censorship through fear at Mexico’s still spunky and highly competitive newspapers. Ten journalists were killed in Mexico in 2010, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which ranked Mexico among the top ten deadliest countries for reporters every year between 2004 and 2011.

At least 29 people were murdered in Juárez during my five days there in January 2011. That statistic comes from the “Frontera List,” an archive that New Mexico State University librarian Molly Molloy maintains, dutifully recording Mexican media crime reports and relevant commentary on the drug wars, mainly from Juárez. I read Molloy’s dispatches every day for a few months, but then had to stop reading every single report because they were becoming too easy to dismiss, as in: There were only three murders in Juárez today.

For the Harper’s story, Bowden, an American writer who has followed drugs and crime along the border for decades, tracked down a former Mexican police officer who had worked for years as a hit man for narcos, kidnapping and executing and burying people across the country. The man was in the U.S., hiding from the drug cartels. Bowden sat with him at an anonymous motel, recording his life story in gruesome detail: the stranglings—his expertise—the chemicals he used to literally disappear bodies, the anonymous holes in the ground where mass graves still lie, undiscovered by authorities. The cocaine and whiskey and paranoia and the eventual salvation that came with being hunted himself.

Betty warned me before I read the piece that it’s a searing account, essentially damning to the Mexican authorities in passages like this one:

They hardly ever do police work; they are working full-time for narcos. This is his real home for almost twenty years, a second Mexico that does not exist officially and that coexists seamlessly with the government. In his many transports of human beings for bondage, torture, and death, he is never interfered with by the authorities. He is part of the government, the state policeman with eight men under his command. But his key employer is the organization, which he assumes is the Juárez cartel, but he never asks since questions can be fatal.

Some mixed-status families to get immigration reprieve

Waiting room at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez

After a year or more of quiet planning, the Obama Administration will announce today that it intends to process immigrant hardship waivers within the U.S., allowing many more undocumented immigrants with U.S. citizen spouses and parents to apply without risking the immigration bars that have plagued hundreds of thousands of families since 1997.

Julia Preston at the New York Times broke the story early Friday morning, quoting Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that handles waiver requests: “The goal is to substantially reduce the time that the U.S. citizen is separated from the spouse or child when that separation would yield an extreme hardship.”

The changes are not immediate and will have to undergo a year-long rule making process, according to the Times. They may also be subject to significant political and Congressional push back during the coming year.

The waiver process has been a major element of my reporting for Amor and Exile, and I have been hearing hints of this change for about a year now, though the Administration kept it under tight wraps. In January 2011, I visited the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico where 75 percent of all of these waivers are processed and officials there hinted that USCIS was working on a plan to consolidate some of its international operations within the United States.

In August I had discussions with congressional staff on Capitol Hill who told me that the Congressional Hispanic Caucus had been pressuring Obama to make this change.

More recently I learned that things had been changing in Juarez since I visited a year ago. Much of the USCIS staff had left for posts in the U.S. and immigration attorneys in the U.S. were noticing the wait times growing and some degree of disorganization in processing hardship waivers. USCIS announced a conference call on October 14 to explain a new procedure for people wishing to file their I-601s, or hardship waivers, in which they would send the application to a service center in the United States rather than filing at a foreign consulate or embassy. But on the same afternoon that it was scheduled, the conference call was suddenly canceled, even as attorneys waited for the call to begin. It was never rescheduled.

The expected announcement Friday in the Federal Register signals the administration’s intention to allow immigrants to apply for the I-601 hardship waiver from within the United States, rather than forcing them to leave the country first, which triggers 3-year, 10-year and even permanent bars from re-entering, and presents a high risk for many families who may otherwise qualify. The new policy, once approved, would provide more assurance that an applicant qualified for the waiver before he or she left the country to pick up the visa. It could help out many mixed immigration status families who qualify for waivers but have been afraid to leave the U.S. in order to apply.

According to the New York Times:

The journey toward the green card to which they were entitled was so fraught with risks for the illegal immigrants that many families simply decided to live in hiding and not apply.

Now, Citizenship and Immigration Services proposes to allow the immigrants to obtain a provisional waiver in the United States, before they leave for their countries to pick up their visas. Having the waiver in hand will allow them to depart knowing that they will almost certainly be able to return, officials said. The agency is also seeking to sharply streamline the process to cut down the wait times for visas to a few weeks at most.

I have not seen the language of the Federal Register notice (it does not appear to be posted as of 3 am EST Friday) nor have I spoken to anyone since seeing the New York Times article on Twitter just now, but there are a few major questions about this policy that come to mind.

  • Will it further define “extreme hardship?” Up to now, the immigrant seeking a waiver has to show that their American citizen or permanent resident spouse (or fiancé/fiancée) would suffer extreme hardship if they were not granted a visa. But that hardship is not very well defined and is largely up to the discretion of the official reviewing the case. For example, having American children together or being forced to live apart from a spouse is not considered a hardship.
  • What about couples who do not currently qualify for a waiver? Common immigration violations like re-entering the country after a deportation or even just a quick trip home disqualify many people for the waiver. Many of the families who have avoided the waiver process and remained in the shadows may still not qualify for this new program.
  • What will happen to families who are denied the provisional waiver under the new process? Will they face immediate deportation?

I will try to get some answers to these questions soon. [UPDATED post here.]

In the meantime, the news gives new hope to many families. From the New York Times story:

“Yay!” said Nancy Kuznetsov, an American citizen and immigration advocate who was separated for more than four years from her husband, Vitali, from Belarus. Ms. Kuznetsov has battled for years for the waiver fix.

“This is a wonderful humane change that recognizes the importance of American citizens,” said Ms. Kuznetsov, vice president of American Families United, an organization of Americans facing struggles with the immigration system.