Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Border Rumors

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The rumor of a great city goes out beyond its borders, to all the latitudes of the known Earth. The city becomes an emblem in remote minds; apart from the tangible export of goods and men, it exerts its cultural instrumentality in a thousand phases.
– U.S. Public Relief Program, "Metropolis and Her Children," 1938
Visitors to a zoo in Amsterdam watched in horror yesterday as a group of sloth bears chased, attacked, mauled, and then ate one of the macaques that shared their exhibit. Zoo officials said they carefully arrange habitats to avoid such episodes but ultimately shrugged off the incident, observing "they are and remain wild animals." The zoo plans to move the macaques from their current exhibit to another part of the park.

Such a solution may seem self-evident to many but President Bush, for one, might have disagreed with it, arguing instead that what was needed were more guards patrolling the borders along the two animals' shared environment. In a major speech last night, Bush came closer than ever to endorsing a path providing eventual citizenship for the estimated twelve million illegal immigrants in the United States – while avoiding the dreaded "amnesty" word. ...more »In counterbalance, he announced he will immediately send as many as six thousand National Guard troops to the U.S. border with Mexico.

Surprise, surprise! The New York Times found this a terrible plan, calling it "a victory for the fear-stricken fringe of the debate" in its morning lead editorial.

However, the Chicago Tribune liked the idea, arguing it was "a speech intended to shake the status quo . . . That's desperately needed." The Tribune went on to explain that National Guard troops on the border "should put more pressure on Congress to pass a broad bill that increases the Border Patrol." The Atlanta Journal-Constitution agreed, saying "the nation should give serious consideration to using military forces to assist in guarding the border" so long as the role played by the military was "limited and temporary."

There were certainly political factors motivating this proposal from the President but also practical ones as well. At a time when the Republican Party is weak, Bush needed to reassure his conservative core without alienating Hispanic voters completely. He also needed to find an approach that might find favor with the enforcement-focused immigration reform bill already passed by the House with the more lenient one proposed by the Senate, even as those two chambers seek to negotiate a compromise.

The use of the National Guard is a move full of inflammatory symbolism. It is also quite a major cost in resources. The Guard is meant to temporarily fill in for the six thousand additional Border Patrol officers that Bush wishes to see hired and trained. However, since they will be working in shifts rather than full time, that means something more like one hundred and fifty thousand personnel will be required. While their main role is intended to be intelligence gathering and surveillance, they will still be armed and authorized to use force to protect themselves.

"There is a rational middle ground" to the illegal immigration problem, the President insisted in his speech and all pundits agree that any immigration reform must be comprehensive (i.e. include enforcement) to be successful. Politically, middle ground is about all Bush has with which to work.

This is because GOP surveys show the immigration issue does not cut the same way in all competitive Congressional districts in this year's mid-term elections. Hispanics are those most likely to passionately protest stricter enforcement. Those most likely to base their vote on its necessity cut across Party lines, tending to be less educated and less affluent. Many are senior citizens.

Democrats have been largely critical of the President's plan. Rather than increase Homeland Security, they argue this approach will weaken our security by drawing off National Guard to deal with immigrants and decrease their preparedness should we be hit with another terrorist attack.

Yet the bottom line is that just under seventy-five percent of all Americans said they favored using National Guard troops to patrol the U.S. border with Mexico, according to a Washington Post–ABC News poll conducted before the President spoke. In fact, most Americans say they cannot support a guest worker program until they are first reassured that the borders are secured.

Indeed, the chief problem with calling out the National Guard may not be that it is too extreme a solution for the problem but that it is impracticable, at least in the long term. The same democracy that President Bush believes in so deeply that he views it as America's duty to export to the rest of the world also calls the rest of the world to us. It is a call that knows no natural borders and which flatly refuses to recognize political ones.

People who are willing to cross burning desserts, run gauntlets through barbed wire, crawl through makeshift tunnels, and jam themselves into one hundred ninety degree truck holds to taste freedom will not be deterred by gun-toting guards. No matter how many we are able and willing to kill, some are going to get through. Likewise, the idea of amnesty and completely open borders runs the risks of making it all too easy for us to excuse the creation of a second-class citizenry, whose role is to do our least desirable jobs for us.

Unlike the macaques in the zoo, there is nowhere else in the American park to move Mexican and other illegal immigrants. This implies some degree of coexistence between them and ourselves is going to need to continue whether we like it or not. And that may be the best argument of all for bringing the National Guard to the border at this time. We have our own version of sloth bears already pacing about out there.

I am thinking about folks like the Minutemen and other vigilante and/or Latinophobe groups who have begun volunteering in record numbers to protect the rest of us from what they perceive as a dire threat. Now, I am sure that but vast majority of membership in these groups is motivated by sincere patriotism. However, there are two distinct risks.

One is the loner who either is pathologically virulent in their hatred of immigrants or who simply desire a chance to shoot at human beings. These groups can provide legitimate cover for such individuals until it is too late. The second problem are the large rallies that have been attempted lately in which a mob mentality could easily form. A few too many beers at the Bar-B-Q and the crowd that came to build a fence might easily be persuaded that beating up any Hispanic-looking individuals in the area might be a better alternative.

Very few would argue that better control of our borders is undesirable even if we might disagree as to how urgent and severe a problem it represents. Yet as we seek to build fences and mount armed guards to protect ourselves from the rest of the world, we would do well to remember that we are and remain human animals. As such, we respect and respond to borders that go deeper in our psyches than any that national governments might seek to draw upon the land.

To be an American (unlike being English or French or whatever) is precisely to imagine a destiny rather than to inherit one; since we have always been, insofar as we are Americans at all, inhabitants of myth rather than history.
– Leslie Fiedler, "Cross the Border–Close the Gap," 1969
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