Three true things about the southern border

January 1, 2023 4:01 am

Migrants board a Border Patrol bus after being processed on May 21, 2022 in Eagle Pass, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Bell | Getty Images)

In an average month in 2022, immigration was No. 4  in the “Most Important Problem Mentions” found by the polling folks at Gallup; higher than other hot-button issues like COVID-19, crime, prices at the pump, abortion, or the environment. 

Judging from the airtime that immigration receives from some of Montana’s politicians, immigration is a particular problem here at home. Nevermind that the Mexican-American border is 18 to 32 hours by road away from here.  Sen. Steve Daines mentions it often.  And Rep. Matt Rosendale seems unable to utter a sentence that doesn’t have the words “Southern Border” in it.

And so it’s time to talk about three sober, solemn things about the Southern border.

One: Immigration along the border is understood to be a problem that has a solution. It isn’t, and it doesn’t. 

It’s better understood as a chapter in the history of migration.  And it’s best to remember that migration casts long shadows.  Aryans migrated to South Asia 3,500 years ago.  The “original” Dravidian population still remembers being driven southward.  In the Old Testament’s Book of Ruth, Naomi is a Judaean who had migrated to Moab.  Following the death of her Judaean husband and their sons, she returns to Bethlehem with her Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth. Ruth has famously begged Naomi:  “Entreat me not to leave thee … for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge:  thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” 

Ruth subsequently marries a Judaean and begets Kings of Israel.  (Fun fact:  David’s great-grandmother was a migrant.)  Still more centuries later, Europeans – and, sometimes, their African slaves – came to what became the United States.  To coin a phrase, in a “great replacement” they altered the complexion of the country. 

Shouldn’t we stop pretending that current events along the Southern border are unique and have a happy ending?  They aren’t.  And they don’t.

Two: Although historically ignored by migrants, borders deserve protection.  They are where sovereignty begins.  And ends.  Caveats apply, however. 

For an example of designed-to-fail, look no further than the asylum system that fumbles around down there.  Meant to distinguish bona fide asylum-seekers from other wayfarers, the scheme is under-designed and under-funded.  Asylum-seekers typically wait years for their status to be determined.  Some wait along the border, others are obliged to wait in Mexico, still others simply fade into the lower 48. 

Respect what the columnist George Will has called “America’s reservoir of decency.”  We’ve all seen that photograph of the border-patrol cowboy riding down a migrant like a Charlie Russell cowboy lassos a maverick.  But does the reservoir really hold with strategies that separate migrant infants and children from their migrant parents?  Did then-president Donald Trump really talk of fortifying his wall with a moat full of alligators and snakes?  Or of shooting “migrants in the legs to slow them down?”

Consider Doug Ducey, who, in his final weeks as the governor of Arizona, continues to build a wall of shipping containers along the border with Mexico.  3,000 of them, some reports say.  The scheme is illegal: It occupies federal property.  It’s also useless:  refugees – also, it turns out, protestors – climb around on the containers.  Presumably even live in them.  As humor, it’s priceless.  (Although we also have Gov. Ron DeSantis’s Rube Goldberg scheme to fly immigrants from San Antonio, via Florida, to Martha’s Vineyard.) 

During the recent gubernatorial election, Hobbs said:  “It’s not land that’s our land to put things on….  I want to use our state’s resources not for things that are political stunts but that will actually solve the problems.” 

Do things that are good, even though they’re not perfect.  Perfect isn’t available.  To dissuade refugees, Europe has the Mediterranean Sea to its south.  England has the channel.  By comparison, migrating from central America to Mexico’s northern border can be a walk in the park. 

Three:  Migration is rather more push than pull. 

Understandably, migrants are attracted to safety.  More often, though – or, better said, more directly – they are repelled by war, violence, conflict and persecution.  These terrors are often why people cross international borders to find stability in, say, the United States.  Perhaps, then, a solution to the Southern border lies not at the border, but farther south. Could American foreign aid make Latin America less volatile?  Could their governments and societies become more reliable partners in the enterprise?  Not likely, and not likely. 

Many Americans think that foreign aid represents 5 to 25% of the U.S. budget and few would favor increasing it.  (Fact: Less than one percent of that budget is earmarked for international aid.)  And even if it were enhanced, what about those reliable partners?  Transparency International, which studies corruption worldwide, finds only four countries south of the border that are cleaner than the global average:  Cuba, Costa Rica, Chile, and Uruguay.  It also finds that three other countries – Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela – are among the most corrupt places on earth.  So, little help there.

Given the sobering nature of these true things, the political go-to responses have been predictable.  Democrats don’t talk much about the problem.  (Does Montana Sen. Jon Tester even mention it in his website?)  It’s as though they know that there is no happy ending.  Republicans don’t want a happy ending because, for them, the issue is a cudgel for beating Democrats.  (You noticed that Sen. Daines recently voted against the Respect for Marriage Act because it was “another attempt by … Democrats to distract the American people from the southern border crisis….”  And that in September Rep. Rosendale voted against a “Short-Term Continuing Resolution, keeping the federal government funded for the next two months” because of “record-high illegal border crossings.”)  With enemies like this, who needs enemies?

So we’re returned to square one:  The Southern border is better understood as a chapter in the history of migration.  And, to paraphrase the source that gave us Ruth,”Ye have the migrants with you always.”  It’s a shame that folks seldom read further, to the clause that says:  “and whensoever ye will, ye may do them good.”

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Bruce Lohof
Bruce Lohof

Bruce A. Lohof is a native of Montana. A former professor and a retired diplomat, he divides his time between Red Lodge and Vienna.