Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Border, The People, The Questions: Part I

This is the first in a two-part reflection on the "border crisis."

A lack of solid information has never stopped an American from forming an unshakeable conviction, and so it is on the question, what to do about the border with Mexico.

I don’t know how the "border crisis" will end or even whether it will end. I do know that NAFTA and CAFTA are making it worse for Mexico and Central America and for us. I do know that keeping our focus exclusively on illegal immigration keeps our attention off the far greater threat of privatization, disaster capitalism, and the flagrant disinvestment of major US corporations in the future of America.

I also know that cries for a border wall and protestations of national sovereignty are too often made by people who've never been southwest of Cincinnati--often the same people who support invading Iraq and taking its oil because our need makes us entitled to it.

For me, attacking people who have the guts to walk across this killer desert to pursue hopes their leaders and ours have made unrealizable at home, is just wrong. Even the rhetoric we use distances us from our capacity for empathy and thus from the conviction to pursue a truly just and lasting solution. These aren’t “illegals.” They, like us, are dreams incarnate. For more, keep reading.

Part I

If you could visit southern Arizona with me, you would see that the line that marks the US-Mexican border is utterly arbitrary. If we went to Nogales, for instance, you would see a wall that cuts a town right in two. You would see that on one side of that wall, most of the people have brown skins and black hair, and on the other side, most of them have brown skins and black hair. Many are related. Many Mexican families have been on this side for generations, and have relatives on both sides.

There’s not a lot of difference. Except for the signs, I guess, and the houses. The first time you see them, so close, the differences are repulsive. On that side, shanties of tin expand and ping in the rising heat. They run up the hill alongside the wall next to one-room cinder-block dwellings, squat, rough-mortared, and often aslant. It’s bad. It is said that just crossing that wall will raise a person’s income 10 times over. It seems likely. On this side, modest houses sit in tidy ranks athwart the hillside, here a white clapboard Victorian, there a dusty 1950s bungalow, and over there a low, khaki Territorial, its peaked tin roof flashing in the ubiquitous sun.

On Nogales’ outskirts, the broad expanse of desert makes a tawny foil for a Jay-blue sky and distant violet mountains. The desert’s subtle palette and the glass-dry air agree to make a fool of us: It doesn’t look so tough, does it? It’s flat, after all, and there’s not much brush. But out here, they say that whatever lives in the desert is probably poisonous and either stabs, stings, or bites. Only your angle of view obscures the ragged arroyos, deadly in a flash flood. High, shard mountains that seem four or five miles away are maybe two days out, by foot—if you’re fit and have water.

If you’re new here, and if you’ve come here in the summertime, you will already have discovered why a person can easily die in this desert. Your body will have experienced this truth well before your mind has even begun to come to terms. A person in ordinary physical shape, sight-seeing as one might in DC, say, will find that a thirty-minute stroll in 108° Fahrenheit brings a vague dizziness, fatigue, rasping thirst, and a goodly dose of humility.

But you’re there, air-conditioned and watered, and this world is a million miles away. All you really know is what you’ve heard: There’s a “border crisis.”

Most Americans are as intimately familiar with our “order crisis” as with the challenge of democracy in Egypt. But lack of good information has never yet stopped any of us from offering an opinion.

So what would you say to setting up immigration checkpoints along Interstate 19, which links Nogales with Tucson and points north? Seems like a good idea to check all northbound vehicles for stowaway immigrants and coyotes, and when you find them, arrest them and send them back home, right? Bueno?

Maybe not. Here’s one first-hand, been-there point of view--from the Rev. Randy Mayer, a officer of Humane Borders, and a citizen member of a Green Valley committee considering the location of a checkpoint on the north side of I-19:

From my perspective as a community resident and faith leader who has been actively involved in border issues, I struggle with the deception and distraction the checkpoint conversation makes on real security and real border and immigration reform.

It is pretty clear that the checkpoint does very little in making our country or community more secure. It just pushes the undocumented immigration and drug-smuggling activity further to the margins, deeper into our neighborhoods and further into the shadows, while it quietly sweeps meaningful immigration reform under the carpet.

In essence, the checkpoint makes the cheap appearance that if we take the law enforcement approach, we will be safe and secure — all will be well.

The reality is that we have given the federal agencies in charge of border security, customs inspections and drug enforcement plenty of time to get a grip on the problem. In fact, over 13 years, we have given them an increasing supply of money, technology and agents to achieve "operational control." Each year, they come back saying that if only they had this or that they could get things under control.

With this strategy and mind-set, we now have 12 million undocumented migrants in this country, an endless supply of illegal drugs and over 3,000 people dead in our deserts.

I do not blame the law-enforcement folks at all. They have been asked to do the impossible, to fight a battle that they cannot win because they can only address the symptoms of the problem.

The root causes are much bigger, stronger and have a lot to do with economics, unfair free-trade agreements and the basics of human survival.

I oppose the checkpoints because I think it is a sellout to addressing the root causes. It allows the politicians and policy-makers an easy way out and leaves our community and the rest of the nation with a throbbing wound.

We need comprehensive immigration reform that includes a strong guest-worker program that allows migrants to work and encourages them to return home with their earnings to build a vibrant economy in their countries and villages of origin. [First published as an op-ed in The Arizona Daily Star, and reprinted in Desert Fountain, August 9, 2007, the newsletter of Humane Borders]

How about building a border wall? Many Americans are all for it, but I imagine that if you came here, you’d have some serious questions about its feasibility. Like me, I expect you’d think one look at the Patagonia and Huachuca Mountains and the Atacosa Highlands would nail that plan for several reasons, but fools rush in, apparently. The current plan is to put up two layers of reinforced fencing across 700 miles--five sections of the border--with electric underground sensors, lights and cameras.

By my count, that makes 1,400 miles of fence to defend a fraction of the 1952-mile US/Mexico border. I don’t see how that’s going to work. For the $2.2 billion estimated cost (which will double or triple), this wall will only raise the prices the coyotes (human smugglers) charge their victims, and, like checkpoints, drive the immigrants still further into the wilderness. More death, more danger, more venal abuse, more corruption.

And then there are the objections of environmentalists, and the opposition of the Native Americans, some of whose land these fences would traverse, and the reaction of the Mexicans themselves. Animals don’t recognize borders, and “reservations” are sovereign nations, and fences create bitter resentment that only supercharges folks determined to get past them.

All but the Minuteman types point out the obvious: People adapt. Desperate people adapt quickly. Fences can be climbed, flown over, blown up, caved in, and dug under. Even Republicans admit that 50% of those who try succeed in climbing over the wall in San Diego. The nightly news has documented sophisticated tunnels used by coyotes and drug smugglers. There are always work-arounds.

Fence the southwestern United States? I call it a scam. It’s a crony works project meant to reward Republican loyalists and hoodwink the rest of us into thinking something’s actually being done. You can’t stop a whirlwind with a sledge hammer, and you can’t fix an economic problem with a paramilitary response. It’s the wrong tool. You’d think Iraq would have taught us something about that.

Added September 15, 2007: Washington Post article
Texas Observer article

See Part II for more.


Anonymous said...

I live on the border. It's a mess that needs to be fixed. One problem I have is that few speak out on holding Mexico accountable. No one held a gun on the Mexican government and MADE it sign NAFTA. The Mexican government was screwing its own people and knew it from the git-go.

When the Mexican government chooses to erect statues to Fox over investing in infrastructure you know Mexico is not too interesting in solving the problem.

I'm also not too happy with many of the so-called environmentalist groups. On my own, I usually spend 2 or 3 days a week cleaning up the trash. It is a disgrace, and yet they stay mum. Based on the amount of degridation I've seen, I have no doubt both the land and the animals would be better off with a secure border fence.

Much to my surprise, I've also learned that many coming here are not as destitutde as portrayed. I base that on the articles I've found left behind.

Hold Mexico Accountable.
Save the Environment.
Build The Fence.

Pico said...

To the extent that you mean a super-wealthy Uberclass in Mexico and the US is destroying the means of livelihood for both Mexicans and us, I agree that Mexico's ruling class and ours need to be held accountable. But damn if I can see how building a wall that people will climb over, or under, or through puts pressure on the Mexican oligarcy.

So it's the environmentalists who ought to take a stand against immigrants because they respond to our companies' and our government's bait-and-switch cheap immigrant labor con-job? I don't get your logic. I think we should put our own government in the hot seat to make fair, sane, and just immigration laws AND pass laws that protect US workers AND immigrant workers from unsafe conditions, exploitative wages, and all the rest that goes along with worshipping capitalism above all things.

Look, as I said, I would be livid if migrants dropped crap all over my ranch or in my neighborhood. I don't blame you for that at all. But I disagree with what you think are the solutions. Here's why:

Ever have a family problem and try to ignore it or wall it off in hopes that it will go away? Ever notice that it doesn't go away but instead explodes all over everybody? It's like that. We in the Americas have a problem. Until we get to the root, putting a stopper in it (building a wall) ain't gonna solve a thing.