Books May 2006

Exodus

The ominous push and pull of the U.S.–Mexico border

For those who are fed up enough to dial 1-800-MINUTEMEN, Arizona Republican Congressman J. D. Hayworth has now weighed in with his own bookful of border and immigration remedies, titled Whatever It Takes: Illegal Immigration, Border Security, and the War on Terror. It is a perfect specimen of modern partisan political pamphleteering, in which Hayworth not only slams what he calls “lettuce liberals” (those who warn that food prices would soar if higher wages brought Americans back into farm labor) but also demands that George W. Bush apologize for having, last year, called the Minutemen “vigilantes.” Hayworth proffers a long list of draconian solutions: a new “Americanism” movement to make English the official language, military troops on the border, a $4 billion to $8 billion wall running from the Pacific to the Gulf Coast, more detention centers to house captured illegal crossers, repeal of U.S. citizenship for future “anchor babies” (children whose birth on U.S. soil makes them citizens and anchors their families in the United States), the expulsion of Mexican diplomats who criticize American border policy, the hiring of 10,000 new work-site enforcement agents to arrest violators, and even a temporary but renewable three-year ban on legal immigration from Mexico.

This final, punitive measure, Hayworth argues, would “create a domestic constituency in Mexico demanding that the Mexican government cooperate with the United States on illegal immigration.” The logic here, if any, is a bit tough to follow. How would clamping the lid down tighter on an already overflowing economic pressure cooker do anything except create more instability, more social conflict, and probably even more illegal immigration? (The last time Mexico experienced a revolution, 10 percent of its population wound up in the United States.) Questions of that sort are probably of little interest to Hayworth, whose policy notions seem derived more from pandering to his own domestic constituency than from facing up to complex issues with global implications. He offers no advice on what to do about the 12 million illegals already living in the United States. And he makes the preposterous statement that “free markets are incompatible with illegal immigration,” when, in fact, the flow into the United States is almost exclusively about an open market for jobs. Borders that are open to the free flow of capital are going to be readily crossed by job seekers (human capital), with or without visas.

Nevertheless, Hayworth’s mad-as-hell approach now dominates the congressional debate. Last winter, his House colleague James Sensenbrenner pushed through a landmark bill that mandates the construction of 700 more miles of border walls and makes illegally entering or residing in the country a felony (it’s currently only a civil violation). Sensenbrenner’s measure—if matched by the Senate—would also permit felony prosecution for any American who in any way assists or hires an illegal, and would thereby make thousands of American businesses, housewives, and gardening enthusiasts guilty of high crimes.

This spring, the Senate is expected to craft its own border-reform package, one likely to be somewhat more in touch with reality than the House measure. But virtually no one involved in the debate is willing to guess what a final conference package will look like. Not willing, because they know that for some decades now, our border and immigration policy has reflected only our internal fears and fancies, and has in no significant way been informed by the realities on the ground. The border between the United States and Mexico, much more than a mere political boundary, is the volatile meeting point of economic and social tectonic plates. Legislating against the resulting earthquakes makes little difference.

One thing is for certain: those battered vans in Altar will continue to load up every afternoon, and every evening, their human cargo will find a way across the border. If the migrants run into some new Sensenbrenner wall, they will simply go around it. Or over it. Or under it. Mexicans will show as much ingenuity in getting into the United States as Americans would in breaking into British Columbia if the Canadian minimum wage were $70 an hour. “Nothing really changes here,” Charles Bowden said to me, as a chill night descended on the Tucson desert. “When people ask me what the solution will eventually be here, I say, ‘This is it.’”

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