The Differences between Irun and I run…

The bay is peaceful, calm.  Fishermen troll both sides of it for merluzza and tuna.  Couples old and young walk the banks of the splashing ocean, taking in the beauty of a sunny afternoon in northern Spain.  Buoys bob, boats float, people talk, couples kiss, and life is as it should be despite the fact that Irun is a border town and the other side of this particular bay is France.

 Seeing people running along the jetties and beachfront sidewalks seems as normal as anchoas (anchovies) or vino tinto here in Pais Vasco. That is, until one thinks about the very different connotations of running here in the borderlands between France and Spain and the highly militarized frontera between Mexico and the United States.  Here, running is a great way to work off late-night tapas or to replace a siesta; in the Rio Grande Valley, however, it can imply that one is guilty of illegal immigration, drug smuggling, or a host of other activities prohibited by either nation´s border governances.  One runs on a sidewalks here in Irun, whereas to run on the southern border of the U.S. means to run on Border Patrol trails and run the risk of having a gun drawn on you or having to show some piece of identification, some sort of explanation.

It wasn´t always this way.  But a few years ago, Texas was alternately a sparsely populated state of Mexico, an independent republic, and then an annexed state in the Union.  The Border Patrol didn´t come into existence until the 1920s, and intense militarization of our nation´s southern border wasn´t realized until the 1990s.  Now however, every person crossing the US-Mexico border is filled with some sort of fear.  For regulars, they worry that if they are stopped and asked to have their car searched, they might not make it to that 8:00 a.m. meeting on time.   For winter Texans, they wonder whether it is legal to purchase cheap medications and transport them across the border.  And Latinos, be they recent immigrants or hand-me-down multigenerationals, are filled with a fear of racial profiling, discrimination, and the trepidation that perhaps they forgot their passport this time. 

It wasn´t always this way.  But a few years ago, France and Spain were at odds.  The ever-wealthy France was continually at odds with a Spain struggling to industrialize and modernize after the repressive Franco regime. The franc perpetually trumped the weak lyra, and the French vacationed on the cheap in every city in Spain.  But, with Spain’s economic rise, immigrant surge, and induction into the European Union, the two countries are coming to an equilibrium.  Brders in the European Union are no longer patrolled, no longer militarized, no longer stigmatized.  Crossing is as easy as walking, driving, jumping, swimming, talking.  It is easy to see the outlandishness of borders when people on both side of the imaginary line speak French and Castellano Spanish, eat seafood and drink wine, wake late and eat even later. 

For some Americans, it is easy to write the E.U. off as being very similar to the United States.  To an outside observer, it might at first seem that the countries of Espana, France, and Romania act very much like Pennsylvania and New York.  However, striking similarities bely the stark differences between these two situations.  In the E.U., countries apply for induction.  Nations maintain most of their autonomy, whereas states in the U.S. are mostly subsidiaries of the Federal government.  Additionally, whereas the United States had but a single civil war some 160 years ago, Europe has been torn by civil conflicts, dictators, marauders, raiders, and world wars for centuries.  Therefore, though the borders with the E.U. act very similarly to states in the U.S., it is no small feat.  The E.U.´s continued success speaks to the power of nonviolence over violence – what no war was ever able to accomplish (peace, mutual benefits, prosperity), the E.U. has been able to produce through diplomacy, compromise, and networking.   

The E.U. is far from perfected, but from where I sit on this side of the Atlantic, the United States could do well to model its North American policies after the European model.  Instead of perpetuating an outdated, self-limiting agreement such as NAFTA, we must rethink and reevaluate our relationships with Canada and Mexico.  The very issue of immigration is a symptom of our failure to properly address relations with our neighbors near and far.  And even though Italy´s restrictive immigration policies are cracking down by raiding Romanian ¨gypsy¨camps while Spain´s liberal immigration policies are humanely allowing extranjeros (literally strangers) a chance of earned citizenship, the E.U. at least is attempting to forge a copartnership where borders are less important than relationships and mutually beneficial arrangements trump xenophobic patriotism. 

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