Sunday, September 06, 2009

Just like Arlo

I was reminded of Alice's Restaurant when I read this article about Walt Staton, a fellow member of the UU church of Tucson being arrested for "littering" in the context of civil disobedience related to something much bigger. In Arlo's case, the war was in Vietnam; today it is much closer to home: a war on peasants. Politicians -- even "Christian" politicians -- grandstand about things they do not understand, and people die as a result.

Actually, we are not exactly "fellow members" in the literal sense. Staton is a young divinity student who attends the UU Church of Tucson, Arizona, where Pam and I were active members in the early 1990s. In those days, the church was pre-occupied with its own internal squabbles. I am glad to see that the membership has turned its attention back to making a difference in the lives of real people. Before our time, in the Reagan years, this church put itself on the line for refugees during the Sanctuary Movement against Reagan's criminal policies in Central America. Today, the church is once again taking a stand, on behalf of the victims of a misguided war on undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America.

In the 1980s, people were fleeing civil wars that were often funded by the United States; then they would be deported if they sought asylum here. Today, the causes of migration are somewhat less severe, but the consquences of crossing the border can be much worse. People are fleeing economic catastrophes rather than wars. Economic pain in Mexico and Central America benefits U.S. consumers who enjoy cheap coffee, cheap clothing, cheap radios and televisions, cheap corn, cheap ... fill in the blank. The relationships are complex, but the short version is that if rich consumers are getting something for less than it should cost, a poor person somewhere is making up the difference.

From living in the border zones of Arizona and Texas for a total of seven years, we learned that the area within about 100 miles of the border is more like a third country than it is Mexico or the United States. Anti-migrant sentiment (which flares up with every recession like a fish rising to bait) has in this instance focused like a laser on the center of that broad swath of land.

Politicians and pundits from far away have sliced the border zone in half with giant walls, creating even more problems. First, walls are built with regard only to political boundaries and not with any regard to cultural, economic, or ecological connections. Impoverishing the border region is no way to solve immigration problems. Second, the walls can actually contribute to longer migrant stays in the United States, as many of those who survive the ordeal are not inclined to repeat it. Third, the walls have been built to block relatively easy crossings, deflecting migration to the most hostile lands. The migrants, however, do not understand this and the coyote smugglers do not care.

The result is that hard-working, ambitious people who have paid thousands of dollars for safe passage across the border find themselves abandoned in the harshest environments in North America. Many, many have died, and people of conscience intervene. They are not encouraging migration, since they are ameliorating a problem that the migrants do not even know about. They are not smuggling; indeed, they are trying to stop the deaths of those who have been victimized by smuggling.

Since the article was published, Staton has been sentenced to community service -- 300 hours picking up litter -- and one year of probation. Further developments will be posted at No More Deaths.

What does this story have to do with geography? Everything. Complex and imbalanced economic relationships drive the migration. An even more severe imbalance exists between quasi-military strategists in the United States and their impoverished adversaries, in terms of access to geographic information about the border region. And lack of geographic education about the border contributes to political support for policies that do not serve the national interest.

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