Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Why Walls Won't Work

Because Congress rarely acts on immigration, presidents always do, couching "amnesty" in whatever terms they find most suitable, whether focusing on the work ethic of immigrants as Ronald Reagan did, or on the cohesion of families, as Barack Obama has done. Nothing belies putative commitments to "free markets" and "family values" more than the nasty treatment of millions of migrants who lack documentation.

Economies undergo cycles, and so does xenophobia. When the economy is strong, immigration is not considered a problem. When the economy is weak, current migrants become scapegoats, while previous generations become icons of long-lost virtues. When the economy is savaged -- as it has been in recent years by an unregulated cadre of financiers and other gamblers -- the scapegoating becomes savage as well. The labor of the undocumented is always welcome, of course, but their humanity is not, as I have written extensively with respect to the "human sieve" effect in general and the Mitt Romney phenomenon in particular.
Berlin Wall in 1989. As Stephen Green has explained (as quoted by James Joyner), "The Berlin Wall did not just fall down. It was torn down. It was torn down by the very people it was meant to cage."
All of which is to say that although Barack Obama has deported more people than any previous president and has continued to invest billions of dollars into walls both steel and electronic, "border security" remains a clarion call, and it means: "Ain't no wall high enough."

This mantra assumes many facts not in evidence, no matter how often it is repeated. My Sieve Details post refers readers to the work of Roque Planas, who explains the many problems with over-reliance on the giant walls, including their likelihood of increasing the amount of time individual migrants spend on this side of the border.
Most migrants are not coming over or under walls.
Reporting for WGHB's The World, Monica Campbell provides an additional reason that the southern wall "works" only for the contractors who scare Congress into over-funding it. With migration from Mexico in decline, Asian-Americans are now the fastest-growing group of undocumented Americans. And as anybody paying attention in the Boston area know, Obama's executive order will affect plenty of western Europeans as well.

This is not to suggest that one population should be substituted for another as scapegoats until the bankers give us our economy back. Rather, it is a reminder that debates that affect the lives and livelihoods of millions of our neighbors are often based on a willful ignorance of basic facts about them. I recently had the privilege of hearing a presentation by Pulitzer-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, director of the film Documented. He was brought here from the Philippines as a child and is now making the case that immigration should be treated as a long-term civil-rights cause, rather than a short-term legal problem. Nothing is going to change about our economy's proclivity for drawing in migrants, so something needs to change about the treatment of the humans in our midst.
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