Ketchikan Daily News Staff Writer
As a child, it was exciting to head north on Interstate Highway 5 from San Diego to Los Angeles.
You knew the immigration checkpoint was there, just past the U.S. Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton. At night, its bright floodlights were visible long before mom or dad stopped the car for inspection. Sometimes the Border Patrol officers would wave us right through. Other times, they'd shine a flashlight into the car, scan its interior and ask a few questions.
"How many people?" "Where are you coming from?" "Where are you going?"
You could see the cars and people who'd had to pull of the highway for further questioning or inspection. They didn't look happy.
That never happened to us.
The youthful me knew what the checkpoint was about. My mom's people had picked crops in California's Central Valley during the Depression. Immigrants, legal or otherwise, could be a touchy subject.
But I didn't know any migrants. Despite growing up in an economic landscape shaped by immigrants, I -- probably like millions of other Americans -- have understood very little about the recent history of immigration and have viewed the ongoing political debates in the impersonal abstract.
Therein lies one of the virtues of Ketchikan author Michael Harpold's book 'Jumping the Line.' With clearly drawn characters, a crisp storyline and illuminating details, Harpold succeeds in personalizing the story of agriculture-based migrants into the United States from Mexico. The motivation and situations of illegal and legal migrants fro the 1960s to the present day are brought into sharp focus, as are the economic and political forces at work. There are no abstractions here. These are people.
"Jumping the Line" is a fictional account of Miguel Hernandez-Ochoa, a family man from rural Zacatecas, Mexico, who's anxious to get into the United States to work in the agricultural fields of California and send money back home to support his wife and children.
Harpold describes Hernandez' life and travails as a illegal migrant worker, and branches out to track the lives of other people who've come into contact with Hernandez along the way.
There's the farm owner who hires Hernandez, and the legal worker who's fired for alerting authorities to the illegal's presence on the farm. Each action provokes a reaction. Soon enough, Harpold is providing a rich perspective into how the circumstances of birth, citizenship and economic status have shaped the lives of his characters. He carries the story through to the next generations, helping us understand how policy changes and an evolving society affect the individual characters.
As a story, "Jumping the Line" works well -- and it has the right of authenticity. The characters are fictional, but Harpold clearly knows these folks.
He worked 35 years with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, beginning in 1962 as a border patrol officer at Calexico, Calif. His writing is evidence that he was an observant officer; perceptive of human nature and capable of seeing past the regulation book to understand the impact that those rules had on people.
To Harpold's credit, "Jumping the Line" isn't a political tract. He's chosen to describe his subjects' lives with a simple, effective accuracy, avoiding the sort of rhetorical flourishes, philosophical asides and emotional overstatement that other authors might employ to promote their particular point of view.
I appreciated that in "Jumping the Line." It felt honest and real; informative but not preachy. Something of value.
Not too long ago, I was back on Interstate 5, this time heading south through California amongst vast tracts of agricultural land. I thought about the Miguel Hernandezes and Ohscar Romeros of "Jumping the Line." The John Pinchneys and Janice MacDonalds.
I was looking at a landscape in human terms, and continue to be thankful of Harpold for that perspective.