From the outside, it is hard to know that people live in the Ramada Inn. The parking lot is always empty. The hotel sits facing a wide suburban boulevard called Kipling Street, just off Interstate 70 in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. The interchange where Kipling meets the freeway is packed mornings and evenings with daily commuters going to or coming from Denver and with skiers heading west into the Rockies. Hotels dot I-70 as it cuts through the 764-square-mile stretch of suburbia that runs from the city into the mountains, but at the intersection with Kipling is a cluster of seven budget-savers that travel websites warn tourists away from. The hotels advertise low prices—ranging from $36 to $89 a night—on neon signs next to gigantic flags that whip in the Front Range wind. Most offer even lower weekly or monthly rates. The Ramada is farther from the frontage road than the other hotels and is harder to notice, with its plain yellow stucco and dimly lit red sign.
Inside the lobby, which has wide windows and a clear view of a long, low mountain called Table Top and the snowy peaks beyond, are plenty of clues that the Ramada is more than just a hotel. Off the lobby sit two sets of washers and dryers that each take a dollar in quarters, and on weekends families use one of the bellhop carts kept in a back hall to roll out baskets of dirty laundry. In the late afternoon, schoolchildren do their homework on the dozen tables where guests have breakfast. Residents sit at the two computers with Internet connections. They wander around in sock-clad feet and chat with whomever they run into.
At any given time, roughly 20 to 40 guests are staying long term. Since they pay by the week, they call themselves “weeklies.”
The path across the border is littered with bodies. Bodies old and bodies young. Bodies known and bodies unknown. Bodies hidden, bodies buried, bodies lost, and bodies found. The stories of the dead haunt the frontier towns from Nuevo Laredo to Nogales, and even deep within the interior of Mexico down to Honduras, someone always knows someone who has vanished—one of los desaparecidos—during their journey north.
Many of those missing end up in the South Texas soil. Out on the Glass Ranch, a man named Wayne Johnson stumbles upon a skull, some bones, and a pair of dentures scattered near a dry pond. During a bass fishing tournament at La Amistad Lake, anglers come upon a decomposing corpse near the water’s edge. Late one summer night, a train rumbles down the Union Pacific Line, but it fails to rouse a father and son slumbering on the tracks. For 2012, Brooks County, with a population of just 7,223, reported 129 deaths from immigrants trying to evade the Border Patrol checkpoint in Falfurrias, double the previous year. The county judge told the San Antonio Express-News that Brooks had run out of space for John Does in its Sacred Heart Cemetery.
The dead appear in springtime, when temperatures hit the triple digits, their fading T-shirts and tennis shoes strewn about the land like wilted wildflowers. Whether they tried to cross for money, love, or security, they did so knowing they might not make it alive.
At 10 P.M. on a Sunday night in May, Lauren and John, a young couple in the Washington, D.C., area, started an emergency 14-hour drive to the state where Lauren grew up in a strict fundamentalist household. Earlier that day, Lauren’s younger sister, Jennifer, who had recently graduated from homeschooling high school, had called her in tears: “I need you to get me out of this place.” The day, Jennifer said, had started with another fight with her parents, after she declined to sing hymns in church. Her slight speech impediment made her self-conscious about singing in public, but to her parents, her refusal to sing or recite scripture was more evidence that she wasn’t saved. It didn’t help that she was a vegan animal-rights enthusiast.
After the family returned home from church, Jennifer’s parents discovered that she had recently been posting about animal rights on Facebook, which they had forbidden. They took away Jennifer’s graduation presents and computer, she told Lauren. More disturbing, they said that if she didn’t eat meat for dinner she’d wake up to find one of the pets she babied gone.
To most people, it would have sounded like overreaction to innocuous forms of teenage rebellion. But Lauren, who’d cut ties with her family the previous year, knew it was more.
When Marco Saavedra was arrested for the first time, during a September 2011 protest against U.S. immigration policy in Charlotte, North Carolina, he thought he was prepared. It was what he’d come to do. Still, he was taking a risk. Saavedra is undocumented, and he was aware that the Charlotte police had an agreement with the federal government, under what’s known as the 287(g) program, that gave them the power to apprehend illegal immigrants and turn them over for deportation. Saavedra, who was then 21, had known dozens of undocumented activists who’d been arrested without being deported. But as he was sitting, handcuffed, in a gray-brick holding cell at the county jail, it was hard to suppress the fear. He’d felt it most of his life, since his parents brought him from rural Mexico to New York City when he was three; growing up, he’d done all he could to make sure that even his closest friends didn’t know his status.
“The euphoria of the protest, the chanting in the street, was gone,” he says. “It was lonely and desolate. They took us out one by one to process us. And one of the others came back with paperwork indicating they planned to send him to an immigration detention center in Georgia. I panicked for a moment.”
On a Wednesday in August, Dan is setting up for Hungry Hungry Hippos night. On the white coffee table, he’s laid out a platter with sliced boiled eggs dusted with paprika; mini carrots and tomatoes; Sour Patch Kids; and a dozen pot cupcakes that have collapsed into themselves. “I can make brownies, but the cupcakes I can’t get right,” he says. He’s got backup: a six-foot glass bong. The table’s centerpiece is Hungry Hungry Hippos, a children’s game in which players operate four plastic mechanical hippos and try to gobble up as many marbles on the board as possible.
By the time an artist friend walks through the door, Dan is stoned, a fact he broadcasts loudly. “I’m high!” he tells her before bursting into high-pitched laughter. Dan offers her a hit, bringing a flame to the bowl. She takes one, exhaling with a grimace.
“What is that?” she says.
“Isn’t it great?” Dan asks.
“I used whiskey instead of water for the filter.” “It’s harsh, man,” she says.
During the Obama years, secession has mostly been an antic folly of the political right, courtesy of Texas nationalists, Dixie nostalgists, white supremacists, “sovereign citizens,” and gun nuts. There was no small amount of hypocrisy, of course, in this conservative rebellion. When Texas Governor Rick Perry in 2009 spoke publicly about a possible Lone Star secession, he billed it as a constitutional right in the face of overreaching government—though Republicans mostly hadn’t complained when George W. Bush was demanding profligate budgets and stabbing the sacred document with pencil holes.
Yet here in granola-eating, hyper-lefty, Subaru-driving Vermont was a secession effort that had been loud during the Bush years, had not ceased its complaining under Barack Obama, did not care for party affiliation, and had welcomed into its midst gun nuts and lumberjacks and professors, socialists and libertarians and anarchists, ex-Republicans and ex-Democrats, truck drivers and schoolteachers and waitresses, students and artists and musicians and poets, farmers and hunters and wooly-haired woodsmen.
At the rate things are going, tens of millions of us could end up in the role of Task Rabbits. Not actual Task Rabbits, mind you. But temps, contract employees, casual day laborers, baristas, warehouse pickers at Amazon, fast-food workers, call-center operators, nurse’s aides, underemployed “consultants,” and adjunct professors all have one core trait in common with freelance errand-runners: They have lost bargaining power. Even people with regular paychecks are less likely than their parents to have decent pay, benefits, and job security. In its technology, the Task Rabbit economy is very 21st-century, but it brings back the 19th, an era when most people who didn’t farm or own property were casual labor.