TONY GARZA, AWAY FROM HIS MARBLE residence in Mexico City, was learning about the “migration problem.” He strolled through the plaza in the little town of Altar, Sonora, and observed the men gathered everywhere. There were several hundred of them—dark-skinned, moonfaced men who had made their way here from throughout Mexico in worn-out tennis shoes. They carried their lives in small backpacks. Their hair stood up like it hadn’t seen water for days. Some of them wore knit caps and layers of sweatshirts and fleece jackets because they’d heard that at night the northern Mexican desert was freezing. The Mexican consul general traveling with Garza told him that this was where the migrants connected with the drivers who would shuttle them to Sásabe, which sits right on the border with Arizona some fifty miles down an unmarked dirt road. There they’d meet up with the polleros, their walking guides, and hit the trails into the mountains, dodging Mexican thieves, border cops, and scorpions as they went. In the serenity of this cold January afternoon, a few of the migrants disappeared into the old stucco church to say a last prayer, while groups of bright-eyed children purchased their own bottled water and snacks for the journey, which they carried in white plastic bags that hung from their hands like wilted flowers.
Garza, who is 45, stood in sharp contrast to them. He was tall, handsome, güero, americano. They had no idea that he was the United States ambassador, of course—that he was, in fact, the most important diplomat in Mexico. Nor did they know that three weeks before, he’d stood in Washington beside his close friend George W. Bush, the president of the United States, and watched him announce a sweeping new proposal for immigration reform. The plan, Bush had said, would acknowledge that the U.S. critically needs Mexican laborers to function. It would provide work permits for those who agreed to return to their countries after a yet-to-be-determined period. It would institutionalize legal, safe, orderly migration.
The discourse had excited the ambassador, who even before he’d taken office had insisted that immigration was the most important issue facing the U.S. Indeed, the timing had once seemed perfect for putting his own stamp on the subject. Bush had begun his presidency, in 2001, as a man whose vision was set south—who believed, like Garza, that Mexico was the country that most influenced the day-to-day life of the United States. And Garza, whom some observers view as a future Republican candidate for governor, seemed just the man to help usher in the new era of “convergence” that he felt was dawning nearly a decade after NAFTA. Think about it, Garza would say excitedly in conversations. The Latino story is written every day in the U.S., and the new age of democracy and change is written all the time in Mexico. He felt with conviction that the two countries needed to transition from being distant neighbors to strategic partners; their challenge would be figuring out how to manage the vast movement of labor north and the movement of capital south.
But during Garza’s first year in office, any rumblings about the need for migration accords had faded into echoes. September 11 had shifted the administration’s gaze to the Middle East, and after assuming his post, in November 2002, the ambassador was consumed with persuading the Mexicans to support a war. To the Bush administration, Mexico suddenly looked less like a migration partner and more like a key vote on the United Nations Security Council. Garza found himself finessing conversations at the highest levels of government to get that vote, and he failed soundly. He was working in a pacifist nation with a historic grudge against what it perceives as the United States’ penchant for telling others what to do. Less than six months into his new job, any talk about how the U.S.-Mexico relationship needed to change had ended in silence. And at least some observers posited that Garza was the right ambassador, but for a time that had already passed.
Garza is an optimist, however. He’s sophisticated but simple, philosophical but practical. Bush’s January announcement on immigration, coming after a year of paralysis, had at least brought the issue back to the table. Which is why, on this day, the ambassador was on the border, observing the “migration problem” firsthand—and witnessing how the grand rhetoric of neoliberalism and globalism can sometimes be deflated by the weight of broken spirits. No dollar dreams could have prepared the migrants for the austereness of the border, this part of their country that felt so strange and foreign. Garza watched as members of Grupo Beta, a federal Mexican border rescue team