Immigration at the Southern border is a complex topic that raises many questions for citizens in the US. Do we have room for more people? Should we remain closed even after the virus is managed through herd immunity? Are we worried that allowing so many to enter the country from South America will change America as we know it enough to essentially make it feel like a different country? Will new arrivals be assimilated? Will they be so numerous that they take over our society and turn it into a carbon copy of their homeland? How big a burden will these new arrivals be on our safety net and for how long? Will they become working members of our society, or will they be have to be subsidized for decades? Will we become a Spanish speaking nation or a bilingual nation? Will they be Conservatives or Liberals?
These are things we rarely discuss because they seem racist and inappropriate. Since these questions underlie all the emotional debates we have about immigration at the Southern border they create an enormous fog of unexplored worries, mostly hypothetical, with no extensive data to supply answers. The entire situation remains fraught with fear and the desire to just not deal with it, to wall it off and place an impenetrable barrier between “us” and “them.”
But our humanitarian side sees our neighbors as leaving the countries they love, where their roots lie, not to overrun us, but to escape strife and land that is suddenly infertile due to climate changes. What was once a fertile triangle has become almost a desert that no longer produces enough food to feed the nations it once provided for. Young people are also being forced to either join gangs or drug cartels, or face terror and even death. The powers of these cartels have sidelined the powers and assets of the governments of these nations.
We recognize that, as parents, we might also choose to send our children to another place where they might be safe, have enough to eat, and have better opportunities if it became necessary. We also recognize that inviting people who are poor into our nation when it is already doing an inadequate job of dealing with our own poor might increase the violence we are seeing among our own younger people who are trapped in poverty and who will seek any way out, criminal or not.
Perhaps we even feel some guilt for pumping chemicals into the atmosphere that have changed weather patterns enough to cause that drought in the Northern Triangle of Central America, and, given the demand for drugs in the US we have even contributed to the failure of governments in that same area. In Venezuela the failing economy seems to stem more from too much dependence on oil and gas to provide income in a market where prices have fallen. Whether we are driven by guilt or necessity to consider the plight that drives migration from parts of South America to the US, even in a pandemic, it is our problem to figure out, and if we are who we say we are, it is our dilemma to figure out how to deal with migration as humanely as possible. We can start by recognizing this as migration and not immigration.
President Biden has offered a tasty bribe to the President of Mexico to help stem the tide of migrants for a while, at least until we get COVID under control. He has exchanged doses of vaccine for cooperation, a deal that helps both sides. This is a temporary solution and it is unclear how effective it will be. Biden also plans to invest in the home nations that migrants are fleeing to correct some of the conditions that are causing the exodus. We must assume that there will still be migrations to the US from South America as we cannot hope to solve all of the problems among the nations losing citizens.
We have this moment and perhaps not much of a moment to figure out the answers to all of our questions about immigration or migration, or whatever you choose to call the ‘en masse’ movements of people that we experience so regularly. Can we come up with a decision about whether migrants are welcome, which migrants are welcome, how many migrants are welcome, what kinds of structure will be put in place that will be adequate to manage the migrations that will most likely continue? Will it actually be possible to set the terms for future migrations or should we come up with ways to deal with the real numbers that we can see are actually on the way? What would such a system look like as it would have to be adjustable for periods of more and fewer migrants?
It would be informative to follow what happens to migrants who are turned back and what happens to those who are allowed to stay but then we might have to understand the suffering that people are trying to leave behind and deal with our own callous lack of concern for our neighbors.
After the pandemic, I would like to see a kinder system that recognizes the pain people feel at making the decision to leave their home country and family to start over. People who have a plan for what they would like to do in the USA and some reasonable connection or resources for pursuing that plan might be allowed a visa that would allow them to stay in America and visit home as often as possible, in other words, move back and forth across a more porous border. Those who apply for asylum and plan to never return home, who would seek citizenship and make America their new home, could be sheltered by a family member or sponsor as they are now, or counselled to come up with a plan for how they would make a living in the US and perhaps be provided with some aid to make their plan possible.
I don’t believe that we can continue to turn people away at our Southern border and still claim the humanitarian high ground globally. Immigration/migration is a very complex issue indeed, but even a complex issue is unraveled by taking one step and at a time and readjusting as necessary. Once the pandemic ends or herd immunity is reached what steps do we want to take? Right now that depends on the Democrats, but at the next election the approach could change drastically. Yanking policies right and left periodically will not make any of this any easier.