They funnel all of us into the same corridor, down the same escalator, and into the same concrete-block cavern. Three heavies have arrived simultaneously at Chicago’s O’Hare International - it’s a big crowd to manage.
Two agents in official-looking suits are shouting at us, “One line! One line! All the way to the end! All the way to the end!”. They’re brusque and officious and rude. The hall isn’t big enough for all of us, and when the line snakes and crosses over itself, they yell louder.
This is what it is like to go through customs/immigration at O’Hare. A succession of unhappy government employees shout at you to either keep moving, or stop moving, and they all seem perturbed by your presence. We stand in line to scan our passports. We stand in line to answer questions. We stand in line to stand in line and we know it is time to move forward when someone shouts at us again. It’s as if all the immigration officers hate their jobs, and want to be sure that our experience is just as miserable as theirs’. As an American citizen, it angers me to be treated this way, and it embarrasses me that we don’t make entry a little more welcoming for our visitors.
But while the attitude bothers me, the process doesn’t. This is an official port of entry into the USA - a de facto border crossing. Part of the process at every port of entry - every border crossing - into every nation on earth is to have your papers checked and to stand, physically and personally, in front of a government officer and tell them why you’re there. It happens in Chicago, in Vancouver, in Lagos, London, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv and Tijuana . . . every crossing into every country, everywhere.
The most basic element of any nation’s security is to have control over who is entering, and in some cases, who is leaving. While it is far from foolproof, it is a layer of protection against those who are known to be dangerous, it is a way to track the movement of individuals and populations, it is a barrier to epidemics of disease, and an obstacle to illegal trade. Border control is such a fundamental piece of safety, security, and sovereignty that every nation does it.
It is a particular challenge for us on our southern border with Mexico right now because a lot of people wish to cross into the USA, and they aren’t all willing to stand in line, show their documentation and answer the questions. They aren’t all willing to follow the procedures to secure the proper visas and permits for the purpose and duration of their stay. They seem to have an expectation that the magic word “asylum” will gain them entry, and if that fails, they can just find a remote location to cross the border on their own.
It isn’t a new situation. Individuals have been crossing the US/Mexico border outside of the official entry stations for decades. “Coyotes” make a business of it. For a fee, they gather small groups of migrants and smuggle them across the border in cars, trains, or trucks, or they drive them into the desert to places they can cross on foot. Millions have done this so far, additional people try it every day, and even more enter legally, but then overstay the terms of their permission. All of these people have bypassed our legal procedures and that is a violation of our law, so whether you like the terminology or not, they are illegal aliens. We shouldn’t be squeamish about using that language.
My current social media feed is populated by right-wing memes insinuating that the illegals are all dangerous and untrustworthy, but I’m not going to jump on that bandwagon. Certainly, there are some who have fallen into criminal careers and committed violent acts, but most, I believe, have done their best to live into the American dream that they came to pursue - they’ve started businesses or worked in ours, they’ve had families and raised their kids, they’ve participated in our communities and our economy in a productive way. I believe most of them have found it more difficult than they thought it would be. In the times that I get to sample the pieces of their culture that they’ve brought with them, I find myself enriched. In most cases, I’m glad they’re here and am not in favor of sending them back.
But I can’t support how they got here. Our border controls and our immigration laws are in-place to keep us safe from the threats that other people can bring with them, and people south of our border continue to cross with impunity. For our safety, this has to stop.
Border control is not just a mean-spirited thing invented by bigots to keep the wetbacks out of Texas. In addition to screening known criminals and enemies of the state, border control has real implications for economics and public health. A personal example of this was my last trip to Nigeria. It was 2015 and near the end of a big Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Countries close-by had suffered greatly: Sierra Leone was downright dangerous.
Nigeria’s government is renown for its world-class corruption and incompetence, but one thing they managed to do right, was to suppress Ebola within their borders, and a piece of that effort was to screen every single person entering the country. Part of our entry process included a questionnaire, and being met by a health worker who checked us for fever. The health screening was efficiently integrated into the time that we were simply standing in line for our turn at passport control.
The procedure was easy to implement because the border control infrastructure already existed. Without this control, diseased people would have been able to move much more freely and may have infected untold masses in the most populous nation on the African continent. It was a huge win for public health, enabled by effective border control.
I remember as a child in school being told about our unfortified borders with Canada and Mexico and I’ve always been sort of proud of them and happy that we Americans get along so well with our neighbors. It seemed like another bit of the greatness that makes our country a beacon for so many others.
Unfortified borders remind me of the neighborhood I lived in for the first seven years of my life.
Most of the backyards were unfenced and the neighbors liked and respected each other so kids were free to run all over the place - it made for epic games of hide and seek.
But this openness only works as long as neighbors respect and look out for each other. When some neighbors let their dogs crap all over the other yards, or a household starts throwing its trash around, it’s time to be more protective of one’s property line. That’s where we are with our neighbor to the south.
For too long Mexico has looked the other way while their own residents illegally move north. Mexico has been ineffective in resolving the conditions that make their citizens want to leave, and has used our porous border as a piece of their welfare system. Mexico has been unable or unwilling to control drug cartels which have made the border lands much more dangerous. And now, Mexico is providing a transit route for “caravans” of thousands from countries further south who wish to walk their way into the USA. This is not how good neighbors operate.
The idea of a fence or a wall along our border with Mexico is not new, but it has taken on new life with the election of Donald Trump as president - it was one of his campaign promises. I have to admit that I’m conflicted on the wall. I have changed my mind in just the last week, and may come to regret writing this. My head says it is a matter of security and to go ahead and build the wall, and my heart says it is a matter of humanity and not to. This head/heart conflict is one root of our national controversy over the wall - some of us are lead by our heads and others by our hearts. Another root of the wall controversy is that some of us will take our stand simply because we like or dislike Donald Trump and it is too bad that so many of us are so petty and shallow.
I wonder if thinking about other walls will bring clarity to the situation.
Remember when the Berlin wall came down? It still gives me goosebumps to watch recordings of President Reagan saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”. I remember the videos of the crowds climbing the wall and using hand tools to chip away the concrete and no soldiers showed up to stop them. I celebrated the symbolic end - and our victory - of the Cold War. Tearing down the Berlin Wall was appropriate - the dictatorial government on one side was failing, and the people on both sides were open to reuniting.
In another recent writing (souvenirs) I talked about my encounter with the separation wall in Bethlehem, Palestine. I said it was ugly, and it is. I said I hated it and I do. I said Israel could have done the noble thing and looked for solutions, and instead they chose to build the wall and divide the people further. I said all of that and I meant it. It was my emotional response to the persecution that I was witnessing.
But I also pointed out that the Bethlehem wall had been effective in reducing violent attacks. While I called on Israel to move toward reconciliation and to treat the Palestinian people better, I didn’t call for them to tear down the wall, because from a safety standpoint, that wall has worked. Violent attacks are down by 90%. Tearing down that wall before having a peaceful plan to move forward, would be premature. So some walls need to come down, and some walls need to remain.
A while back President Trump famously used the word “shithole” in reference to some nations that aren’t as well-developed as we are. It was an unfortunate choice of words - not very diplomatic or dignified and it was yet-another point of embarrassment from a president who seems intent on showing the world what an ass he can be. But here’s the thing - “shithole” was accurate.
There are “shithole” countries out there with governments so corrupt, dis-functional, and belligerent that the citizens have no way prosper. The people have no way to actualize, or even visualize, peace or progress. They’re hopeless and they’re desperate. These are the refugees fleeing war in Myanmar and Syria. They’re the ones running from famine and abject poverty in Africa. And they’re the ones leaving their homes behind in Central America, and walking or hitching rides north toward the United States. I can’t imagine how bad my home country would have to be for me to feel compelled to leave it. My heart goes out to those people and the conditions they have to endure.
It is when I think of the people that I become conflicted on building the border wall. My faith leads me to ask questions like, “what would Jesus do?” and I reflect on the story of the Good Samaritan. Those lessons give me pause and trouble my thinking. I really wrestle with this. I can’t say I blame desperate people for trying desperate things, and I do not want to be accused of not being compassionate.
But there has to be a different answer for everyone who is suffering than, “let’s move to America”. Just as Europe can’t absorb all of the refugees flooding in across the Mediterranean Sea, the USA can’t take in everyone south of our Mexican border. We are only one nation of 350 million people and there are probably that many more people south of our Mexican border who would move north if given the opportunity. We can’t take them all.
I’m not sure where the notion comes from that our southern border is open to anyone who wants to cross. I’m not sure why it is an accepted line of thought that this particular border has a different set of standards than any other in the world.
Nobody thinks this way regarding the borders of, say, India and Pakistan, or China and Russia, or Argentina and Paraguay. On any other border, if you showed up in a mob-strength mass, you would be repelled with military force and if you bypassed the controls and crossed on your own, you would be arrested and face a long prison sentence, provided you weren’t shot, first. That we don’t shoot invaders is a testament to the compassion and sense of justice of the American people.
I’m not proud of falling on the pro-wall side of the debate - I don’t feel good about it. I’m not going to jam my opinion down anyone’s throat or post an in-your-face meme on facebook. I’m sure our wall will be as ugly and awful as the one in Bethlehem. But, the fact that so many people on our southern border have so little respect for our sovereignty is reason enough to build a wall. When you can’t trust your neighbors - fences go up.
As the caravans form and move through Mexico, about half the the US population is shouting “build the wall” and the other half is deeply opposed and instead says, “we should have a conversation on immigration reform”.
Yes, yes we should have a conversation, but talk is cheap and sometimes “conversations” are nothing more than a tactic of delay. For as long as this problem has existed, this “conversation” could have happened during an Obama administration, or a Bush administration or a Clinton administration, but it didn’t - they all kicked the can down the road.
Love him or hate him, there’s a president in office today who takes our border security seriously, has a solution in mind, and is ready to move forward with it. If a “conversation” is still in order, then let’s have it now: those in favor of building the wall should bring their plans to the table, and those who oppose the wall should bring effective alternative ideas, and solutions should be implemented immediately.
Doing nothing is unacceptable - we’ve already tried that and the problem didn’t go away on its own. Delaying action is unacceptable - we’ve already tried that, too. Another term of politicians pointing fingers at each other is unacceptable. Leaving our southern border in its current, porous state is not an option because without control of that border, we really have no national security.
And, then, with the border secure, because we Americans are compassionate people, we should have another conversation about what role we can play in making the shitholes less stinky. Until then, and unless you have a better idea, let’s build the wall. And if we don’t build the wall, then the next time I return from overseas, I’m flying into Matamoros and swimming across the border into Brownsville because it sounds a heck of a lot more welcoming than going through immigration at O’Hare again.