July 25, 2014
By Eladio Bobadilla
I wanted to see the border first-hand. The first time I crossed it, I was undocumented, but young, and as several migrants have told me, “it was easier then.” I was smuggled in a van by a coyote who enlisted her children as tools of the trade. Using their English and their papers, they had little trouble making trips across the border with “pollos”—and made quite a bit of money doing so. A nervous child, I was terrified of being separated from my parents, more so when it meant I had to be in a car with strangers for several hours to do something I knew was illegal. All it took, however, was some cough syrup to put me to sleep. From there on, all I remember was moving in a vehicle—slowly but steadily—toward the north, as I drifted to sleep, only to wake up in a new world.
These days, few migrants slip across the border in this manner. Fake documents are not enough. The lines are ridiculously long here at the “line”: anywhere from two to five hours, sometimes more. But those crossing are legal for the most part (surely, there are still undocumented people who try crossing here, but not many). Those who are undocumented have been funneled elsewhere, to the “mountain” or the desert, where they stand a better chance of slipping through undetected, even if they also up their chances of dying alone at the hands of the elements, illness, or criminals.
It would be difficult to call this anything other than a humanitarian crisis. Over the past few years, unsanctioned immigrants have been dying in troubling numbers, even as the overall number of crossers has been falling. And answers to this crisis are hard to come by. Conservatives insist that American policymakers need to prioritize enforcement and that the border needs to be closed at all costs. Of course, this will never happen. As long as hunger, violence, and all manner of suffering exist south of this border, people will keep coming, they will keep crossing, and they will keep dying.
Those on the left sometimes decry the walls, the militarization of the border, and the emphasis on deportations and border security. But this too is unreasonable. Idealists among us certainly dream of a world without borders, but the realities make it hard to justify open borders. All we have to do is imagine what would happen if the northern borders were simply taken down: an influx so massive that the north would surely begin to look like the south: defined by poverty, unemployment, and insecurity.
The situation as it stands now, in all honesty, works quite well for everyone, save the migrants: American businesses get cheap exploitable labor, government agencies maintain their relevance and importance, Mexico and other sending nations continue to have a valuable escape valve for their excess labor, and no one has to worry about truly revolutionary improvements and changes. It is also important to understand why mass migrations happen: in this case, neoliberal and free trade policies bear at least some responsibility for the current situation. These policies have displaced the poorest people, flooded crop markets, pushed people out of work and destroyed their livelihoods. And globalization has made cheap labor cheaper, more abundant, and more easily exploitable.
It is, then, tremendously hypocritical for the United States to complain about an “invasion” that it itself created, or at least helped to exacerbate. At the same time, decades of incompetence on the part of national, state, and local government south of the border has made migrating the most attractive option, even if the trek promises to be uncertain and life-threatening.
How do we fix this problem? It is not easy, and answers are in short supply. What is clear, however, is that we are all in denial. We want cheap labor, cheap goods and services, “free markets,” and secure borders that limit migration. Some of these goals are mutually exclusive, and we have to have a serious and long conversation about what we value most: is it free trade or is it social stability? Is it border security or cheap products? Is it cheap labor or is it a just economy? We cannot continue to scapegoat immigrants while enjoying the fruits of their labor. We cannot continue to call for open borders while failing to demand more of governments south of the border. And we cannot continue to pretend that this crisis is one that developed independently, spontaneously. We must confront the realities that our own policies and our own power have created a monster, one that we must now deal with, preferably humanely and justly.