Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Fence

Our government wants to put up a fence on the border between the United States and Mexico. Proponents of this ambitious landscaping plan claim that this will help accomplish three things: (1) discourage migrant workers from entering the U.S. illegally, (2) help curtail the narcotraffic in the region, and (3) prevent terrorists from sneaking in across the desert. I don’t buy it, though. Furthermore, I don’t think there’s a single lawmaker naive enough to believe that a silly fence—even a high-tech zillion dollar a mile fence—will do much in the way of resolving any of those issues. It’s more a symbolic gesture than a practical one. It might be a boon for a few lucky fence-builders, but otherwise it’s an ill-advised, pricey, and undiplomatic scheme. Which means, of course, that it’s right up the Bush administration’s alley.

But, just for the hell of it, let’s try to come up with ways that people can come into this country illegally even if there’s a big ol’ fence in their way...

1) According to maps, there are two large bodies of water flanking Mexico on either side. To the west, there is the “Pacific Ocean”, while to the east lies the so-called “Gulf of Mexico”. Seeing as this is true, it stands to reason that a person could, theoretically, get their hands on a boat. Armed with a floating conveyance, the border-crosser could then completely circumvent our fancy new fence!

2) Abundant in both Mexico in the United States are contraptions known as “ladders”. These devices, if a person was limber and willing enough, could be used to scale the fence. Now, we must take into account that our fence isn’t a single fence at all, but instead three fences in a row, all of which will be outfitted with sensors and infra-red gadgets and whatnot. It is very possible then that three ladders will be required, and that the individuals wielding them will have to be quick about it.

3) Also easily available in Mexican and United States hardware stores are implements known as “shovels”. Given a certain level of desperation, a group of border-crossing individuals could perhaps band together and use these tools to burrow underneath our fence. This would, however, take a lot of work, so maybe we should just assume that thousands of hungry people with impoverished families to feed would all decide spontaneously that such a major digging endeavor isn’t worth the trouble.

4) It is understood that any fence across the entire U.S.–Mexico border would have to be a very long fence indeed. Since this is true, and since our Border Patrol can’t be everywhere at once, it seems likely that if someone has their mind set on coming into this country, they might be tempted to find an unguarded spot and just break through the fence.

5) Finally, if all else fails, someone with their heart set on crossing the border could take it upon themselves to hide in someone’s trunk, trailer or cargo hold and then slip through our fence

You don’t have to be particularly devious to come up with this stuff. You don’t have to think very long before it becomes obvious that fencing ourselves in won’t do much to prevent illegal entry into the United States. It’ll just make it more inconvenient and perilous. But that’s good enough for the officials who trumpet this plan and, strangely, it seems to be good enough for a large swath of the Republican base. These are the people who want our leaders to “do something” about illegal immigration, and by “do something” they don’t mean something with foresight, wisdom, and/or intelligence. No, they’d prefer us to do something hollow, ignorant and counterproductive so that they can feel like their leaders are standing up for our national sovereignty and stemming the scary foreign tide that threatens our culture, our language, and our way of life. Our government, in its reliable zeal to pander to the confused and scared, is only too happy to oblige.

The problem is that illegal immigration has become yet another one of those issues that have been debased into soundbites and screaming by our current political/media situation. So, instead of a reasoned, thoughtful discussion on the effects that undocumented workers have on our economy, we get paranoid blather about “reconquistas” and their Aztlan scheme. This constant race to the lowest possible level of discourse is a big part of what keeps us from making any progress on the issues that vex us.

Do undocumented workers depress wages for everyone? Or do they benefit our economy by doing necessary labor for comparatively little reimbursement? Would a guest worker program really benefit them, or would it only legalize their exploitation? How would an amnesty program work? Who would qualify and who wouldn’t? Wouldn’t the best way to reduce illegal immigration be to encourage higher wages in Mexico, so workers there wouldn’t have as compelling a reason to risk crossing the border? Finally, why shouldn’t we just consider illegal immigration a natural result of a wealthy nation sharing a border with a poorer nation? Is it possible, or even advisable, to try and “do something” about a phenomenon which is as natural and predictable as the earth going round the sun? Should we change our focus to finding ways to channel this flow to the benefit of both countries, rather than trying to stop something that cannot and will not be stopped?

I don’t know the answer to any of those questions, of course, but I’d like to hear them debated more often. Too many, the discussion gets bogged down by people who, for whatever reason, want to demonize and abuse the people who cross the border. This is bullshit, plain and simple. Most of these people are hard-working, honorable people who have made a choice that makes economic sense. Why toil for twenty cents an hour, when you can make fifty times that in the United States? If I had a family to provide for and I could only earn enough to give them a better life by sneaking into Canada, you can bet I wouldn’t be too concerned about the legalities of going up north. Sure, there’s inevitably going to be some sleazy people coming over, but they’re the exception and shouldn’t be allowed to tarnish the reputation of the rest. And as for their inability or unwillingness to speak English, who cares? No one’s going to force you to learn Spanish, even though you probably should, because it’s a really beautiful language.

It comes down to this, though: we can’t fence the world out. We can’t put up a wall and then think that we can just stop dealing with the things we don’t want to deal with. We shouldn't hide when we ought to be talking