“Immigration,” pioneer TV talk show host Jack Paar once quipped, “is the sincerest form of flattery.”That flattery is surely manifested in the millions of immigrants who have flocked to these shores since our nation’s inception, including the estimated 11 million who currently reside in the United States without proper documentation.As Congress and the Obama administration try to decide the fate of these latest immigrants, my thoughts turn to a transcontinental bicycle ride I completed in the fall of 2009 along the southern tier of the United States between San Diego and St. Augustine, Fla.The “Southern Tier Route,” as mapped out by the Adventure Cycling Association based in Missoula, Mont., is never far from the border with Mexico as it passes through the desert Southwest. At some points in California and West Texas, the route passes right along the border, and Mexico can be seen stretching off to the south beyond the Rio Grande or across an ugly border fence.Near Jacumba, Calif., and at El Paso and Fort Hancock in Texas, my bicycling companions and I were right on the border.As we attended an outdoor parish festival at Santa Teresa Catholic Church in Fort Hancock, we could see the lights of the Mexican towns of Francisco Sarabia and Rinconada de Gallegos just across the Rio Grande.Because of the proximity to the border, bicyclists traveling the Southern Tier Route have frequent encounters with U.S. Border Patrol agents. Dressed in olive drab and with sidearms at their hips, they man the checkpoints on roads out of Mexico.Their helicopters flit through the border airspace, and their white and green vehicles race along the highways and creep through cotton fields in their search for “illegals.” Huge truck tires with chains attached are towed through the sand and dirt between roads and fields to smooth the ground so that fresh tracks can be spotted easily.Our interactions with Border Patrol officers, usually young men, generally were pleasant. They first asked whether we were U.S. citizens and then where we were headed. When we said, “Florida,” the reaction was something along the lines of: “No way?! You got to be kiddin’ me! Man, there’s no way I could do that.”Only once, on a long desert stretch of California 78 between Brawley and Palo Verde, did I see any people detained. At a Border Patrol checkpoint, where we refilled our water bottles from gallon jugs of water brought in a pickup by a local cyclist from Brawley, two downcast young men stood beside the checkpoint building. A short time later, a California Highway Patrol trooper, apparently summoned by the Border Patrol, pulled over and began questioning the men. They apparently were illegal border crossers, but I never learned their fate.I don’t believe that work as a Border Patrol agent would afford me much satisfaction. I’m aware of the arguments that it’s a job that must be done, that a nation has a right to secure its borders, that the southern border is an avenue for drug traffickers, killers and terrorists, that the “illegals” are a drain on our economy.But I’m also aware that much of that sentiment is fueled by a virulent strain of xenophobia that has greeted every wave of immigrants — Germans, Jews, Irish, Italians, Chinese. In the 1750s, for example, Benjamin Franklin railed against the influx of Germans to Pennsylvania, saying they were too stupid to learn English and would never assimilate.As a descendant of immigrants — and most of us are — I can’t help but believe that the vast majority of people who cross our borders, illegally or otherwise, come here for the same reason that my forebears came here: the search for a better life for themselves and their families. If I walked in their shoes I’d do the same thing.Let us hope that our lawmakers and president keep in mind the human element in their deliberations on the future of these 11 million human beings.
James R. Peipert is a retired Star-Telegram editor.