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Smart Borders

January 15, 2008

        Our borders define us. By definition, they define where a country ends and where it begins. Our country began with open borders, encouraging immigration, but to hear current bombastic rhetoric and to see the doubling and tripling of our border security budget, America’s modern history would read as a long chapter of closing itself off to rest of the world. Our borders now define us as a terrified nation arrogant enough to think we have nothing more to learn or gain from would-be immigrants. From without, our borders show us to be distrusting, hypocritical. And within, 12 million extralegal residents live without rights and/or recourse to fundamental protections most enjoy by birthright. The 23 million legal immigrants also struggle to carve out a life for themselves, many with the hopes of bringing their families one day.

        Borders are ambassadors, and the U.S. border with Mexico has long been a deaf consulate. The Secure Fence Act of 2006 does not address the real needs of Americans or Mexicans, or for that matter Somalians or Mung or Iraqis or Bosnians. A border which ceases to be permeable is just a wall unresponsive to the needs of either side.

        Smart borders are permeable boundaries set up to ease administration and to profit those on both side of the border. Cities have long employed smart borders. To ride a train from New Jersey to Philadelphia is to cross borough lines, city lines, and state lines all without the hassle of a security check or a passport stamp. Free movement between cities is expected, and for most Americans so is free movement to other countries. Much like the wars which we support because they are so far away, so too are our fears of being unable to cross borders whenever we so wish. Perhaps if Americans were treated like a Muslim man in an airport or a Mexican day-laborer – perhaps then we would finally admit that freer movement of all peoples is a necessary human right that we have taken for granted.

    America needs more than a border wall. This nation must honestly address immigration reform for its human rights issues, social justice, and its economic implications. We must work to integrate and desegregate all residents in the United States regardless of race, color, sex, or citizenship. We must simultaneously renovate an inhuman immigration quota system which blockades countless workers and family members who could positively contribute to our nation.



  1. Globalization is inevitable but moral economics, just migration rights, and mutually beneficial borders are not.

  2. The world has always been globalized through environmental issues, economic matters, and social movements; and recently has become further linked through technology.

  3. Rigid borders are inherently violent, both in cause and effect, and also a means of perpetuating inequality and injustice.

  4. Borders are best when they are instruments of choice, tools which help governments better serve the people on both sides of the border.

  5. Borders are best when they are a seam and not a rift, when they are permeable lines of distinction (ideas) rather than concrete, uncommunicative, unresponsive walls.

  6. Choice of habitation strengthens both the country which receives the immigrants and the country which gives them up.

  7. Cities already have working borders which allow for and encourage economic, social, and cultural interchange.

  8. Communication is more time-intensive but has longer-lasting effects than rigid, unresponsive border enforcement.

  9. Nonviolence is the sole tool of change which strives for consensus and equality.

It is the purpose of this blog to make globalization accountable through communicating the concept of smart borders, permeable instruments of choice and mutually beneficial relationships. To the extent that the violent, nativistic, limiting borders of today can be replaced by liberalized, humanizing, and progressive borders tomorrow, this blog and its readers will have been successful in being a “voice for the voiceless.” There is no greater force on earth than an idea whose time has come, said Victor Hugo as quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. As we elect our next political leaders and a potential border wall looms in the distance, the time for this idea has come.

Duty Free

January 14, 2008

        The border is a fascinating anomaly. Here, pesos and dollars can be spent on either side of the Rio Grande. Spanish and English are accepted at most places of business, and the schools teach countless students who cross a bridge every day for their education. Everyone knows medicines are cheaper in Mexico, and just a 90-cent toll to walk across. Animals cross in broad daylight unhindered by la migra.

Which brings us to the singular case of duty-free goods. A host of duty-free shops on either side of the border sell discounted liquor and tobacco products. The buyer gets a claims ticket, walks to the bridge, and as they are passing through the turnstile, their product is then handed to them. All that is left is to walk across to Matamoros, then turn around and head back through U.S. Customs. The very idea seems ludicrous, laughable, and yet thousands of people do it a week.

Duty-free stores highlight the absurdity of our current, unresponsive, dehumanized borders. They are set up to be impermeable for people (think the 2006 Secure Fence Act), and yet goods and products are encouraged to cross the border many times. When the United States moved many of its automobile and textile manufacturers over to Mexico, this free movement of products was surely brokered into the deal. Why then are people viewed so differently by the current immigration laws?

America’s immigration laws are being disobeyed covertly nationwide. Some 12 million illegal immigrants currently work and reside in the United States. The problem, is, that those businesses which lured them to the United States do not want to “declare them” to customs or fight for a real path to their citizenship. No, instead, American capitalism is content to keep them illegal (read exploitable).

In his publication Young India, Mohandas Gandhi worded it in the following way.

We have too long been mentally disobedient to the laws of the State and have too often surreptitiously evaded them, to be fit all of a sudden for civil disobedience. Disobedience to be civil has to be open and non-violent. (emphasis mine)

Gandhi clearly saw that the rules were being bent freely. He decried this form of evasive disobedience, though, because it merely bends the law and encourages lawlessness. The world is a different place because men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. chose not to bend bad laws but instead break them, openly and fully intending to accept the state’s punishment. Only then can true change happen.

Starting with the Bracero Programs in 1942 which sponsored about 4.5 million migrant workers, the United States has uneasily bent its laws concerning immigrants it deems it needs economically but does not want socially. Countless restaurants and fields and factories across these United States currently employ Mexicans and other illegal immigrants at substandard wages and without benefits. This “duty-free” work force is capitalistic cowardice.

If we truly welcome immigrant labor, our immigration laws must be reformed immediately. For too many years, government policy has been “hard” on immigration and soft on enforcement. This sort of double-speak, this mental disobedience embodied by the border has allayed the conscience of Capitol Hill, has freed it of its duty to its citizens, those Americalmost immigrants, and those businesses valuing an economic edge above social welfare.

However, we are never free of our duty to any resident of these United States. Pretending that 12 million living and breathing and loving and working people are negligible simply because of they lack a classification that came to many of us freely at birth is to ignore our duty. For Americans, our borders have been “duty-free” places for decades. Our modern wars abroad do not touch us anymore with rationing, peace-gardens, and can drives and so cease to be real; in the same way, Americans are granted an international bill of rights at birth which enables them almost carte blanche access to the rest of the world. How different it is just a few hundred feet across a river!

There is no such thing as “duty-free” living, and it is our duty to speak out against border policies and immigration laws which are unjust and limit residents’ rights. As Gandhi famously wrote, “Noncooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good.”

Essentially Good

October 4, 2007

People are essentially, innately good. For Martin Luther King, Jr., this was the crux of nonviolence – you are acting on the goodness within you in an attempt to draw this goodness out of your enemy. The more one lives, the more sees this goodness yearning to get out, yearning for a chance to make itself known. Theologians voice this belief in citing that we are “created in the image of God.” Yes, there is not enough kindness and love in the world, but that is only because so few people are living up to their potential.

As a teacher, I am always wrestling with the fact that I am messing with people’s lives. However much I wish to pass on certain values and philosophies that I hold dear, I fully realize that there is a fine line between impressing values upon my students and preaching dogmatically. Even though I am uber-excited about nonviolence or faith or service, I work hard to make it a choice for them rather than a requirement. But when I simply suggested service in my classroom, it was met with vocal excitement. In the first 6 weeks, my 130 ENGLI students volunteered more than 250 hours in the community. I suggested a few ideas, but many of them came up with their own – mowing a neighbor’s lawn, cutting hair for free, helping practice with a middle school basketball team, tutoring students at a nearby elementary students, teaching ESL at my Wednesday night adult literacy sessions. As the good work started coming in, it was all I could do not to cry with pride.

Shockingly, for many of the students this was their first time ever volunteering. To see them wield a rake at the zoo or happily help a neighbor, one would think they’d been doing it for years. All it took was a suggestion, a simple assignment. Apparently, no one had ever told them that it was a good idea to do some pro-bono work for the community even if it was not ordered from the court. Perhaps teachers in the past had thought students in the poorest city in the United States wouldn’t be willing to help out others. Maybe teachers figured these students didn’t need to add volunteer work to their resumes because they would not be applying to college or “those” types of jobs.

Whatever the reason, all it took was for me to volunteer with them one time for these students to see its utility in the community. As for those who didn’t think teenagers or students receiving free/reduced lunch would wish to volunteer, it is imperative to remember one of life’s greatest paradoxes – the surest way to feel better about yourself is to lose focus of yourself by helping others. Whenever we volunteer, we begin to see the innate goodness in those we serve, and in turn, our own goodness coming through.

A demonstration

September 10, 2007

This past weekend I had the pleasure of taking part in a demonstration against the border wall here in Brownsville, TX. We stood on the international bridge, straddling the rio and the imaginary border between these two nations, protesting a law which would build a wall of division right here.

Admittedly, it was exhilarating to stand out in the sun in an effort to bring light to the countless tangible dilemmas with such a wall and the few intangible, unrealistic benefits which are touted by this effort. It is always envigorating to gather together; the Bible was right in saying that, “wherever two or more are gathered together in my name, there I will be.” There is an electric energy, and it was certainly felt this Saturday as held hands and signs of “No Border Wall; No al Muro.”

I was even moved enough to speak at the aftermath rally at UTB. While my comments were brief, rambling, and unprepared, my soul was pricked for the issue of citizenship. Yet I was troubled by the disorganized nature of the rally, the gungho support of everything and yet nothing well. This protest, like so many others, had its hangers-on, those outliers who are out for a revolution for revolutions’ sake, the individuals that would stir no one if they were imprisoned, however unjustly they cried it to be. King and Gandhi would have looked askance at the divided nature of the group, the multitudonous cacophony of words and concerns which distracted from the main issue at hand. The gathering eventually fizzled out, having said some important things which were lost amidst so many off-track hoorahing. One cannot be civilly disobedient in everything, or else no one knows where the protest lies…

Still, as the third week of school begins with my ESL students, the idea of citizenship looms ever more on my imagination as the way in which the United States can alleviate much of the touted problems with illegal immigrants in this country. It is infinitely hard for me to look at juniors and seniors who have labored four or five years to get a decent education, who have never revisited family or friends in Mexico for fear of being unable to reenter the country, who have dreams of college and yet cannot secure citizenship because it is based not on merit but on a blind lottery, not on earned rights but on birthright.

It is lunacy that ours, a country built on the work of hard-working immigrants from a host of other nations should base its constitution of a legal, voting citizen on the birthright of that individual. In essence, this was what Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about when he preached equality for all, regardless of the race, gender, or culture to which they were born. Let us now add to that nationality. It is just as bigoted and backwards to base citizenship on a person’s birthplace as it is to base it on their birth-race. The plethora of hard-working, diversifying foreign-born sons and daughters “illegally” living here or struggling to gain citizenship here deserve these inalienable rights as much, if not more, than the man or woman born here consuming yet not contributing to the brotherhood of this land.

We must redefine the very idea of a citizen, for it is not patriots or predecessors who create true citizens, but a genuine willingness to contribute to this community, an eagerness for education…. No one in this country should study here for 5 years and be denied a college education because they do not bear the trite title of American citizen. What hypocrites we are, to turn away an educated voter from becoming a legal citizen! Our country cannot continue to be great if it, in and of itself, does not greet globalization with the arms it must. There must be means provided for illegal immigrants within our coutnry to work towards citizenship and there must be more precise qualifications for incoming immigrants. This would not decrease the number of new citizens in this country, but it would greatly bolster the number of new citizens actively pursuing education, meaningful work, and a voting democratic community.

The best way to defeat your enemy is to make him your friend – that is the message of love, the heart of the Gospel, the lifeblood of nonviolence. Granting citizenship to residents willing to work towards it will truly strengthen our country, dispel any supposed security risk, and make it that much easier to pinpoint those few residents living in the United States who do not actually wish to become citizens.

As I return to school tomorrow, I will again teach my students irregardless of their citizenship status, irregardless of their birthplace, without thought of the language or religion or culture spoken at home. I wish there was some way to invite the American government into my class, into every class in a border town, to see the almost effortless ways their immigration worries have already been solved.

An adult’s affirmation

September 1, 2007

There she is, a freshman in the clarinet section. And there he is, hammering the dulcimer in the football halftime show. There she is, dancing with a winding colored flag; there they are, all of them seeking affirmation.

Too often, teachers underestimate the impact their presence carries. Simply going to a football game or a volleyball match could be all the self-esteem boost a freshman needs to stay in band. Some of these kids have parents in the crowd tonight, but so many of them don’t. By proxy, all these teachers in the stands who wave to students who may or may not have passed their class, they are the affirming parents these kids need this night.

Perhaps it is even more pronounced in such border schools, where students are often delving into new territory that their parents cannot affirm. As new immigrants learn a new language and culture, their parents are generally happy for their upward progress but also saddened by the rift which language brings. In this case, the students look to other adults for affirmation in their new tongue, and we as teachers must realize our awesome task of affirmation. A kind word, a specific praise, even your general presence of support can often be just the encouragement a student needs to press on to arenas their parents haven’t gone before.

Private vs. Public Language

September 1, 2007

You see them in the halls and understand the mindset of cliques and the way cities quickly divide up into ghettos by nationality. Este vato! No’mbre hue! No manches hue! Que onda? The phrases fly back and forth as fast as the teenage hormones. Newcomers separate into cliques with other Spanish-speakers, partly out of fear that another student will make fun of them in English. The few students who speak solely English keep to themselves as well, strangers here in a border school. But when the bell rings, they are all thrust into my English class for 50 minutes, and I need to make it work.

“Speaking Spanish in an English class is like using a baseball bat at soccer practice.” The nods from my soccer players give me all the impetus I need. “I am not a hater, but I don’t want to cheat you. The state tests you in English, I test you in English, so I would be remiss if I allowed you to speak Spanish within these walls, other than for direct translation.”

Private language meets public language meets a freckled outsider from Pennsylvania. I know it is hard, will be extraordinarily difficult for some of these students to achieve fluency, but it is still my job to try.

It always rains the first day of school, Mister…

August 28, 2007

Another school year begins in the Rio Grande Valley. As expected, it rains. The freshman in my class look as if my room were the last refuge from a deluge just outside my door. They are young, malleable, innocent and idealistic (though they would indignantly deny it). This will not always be so.

Working with freshman English students, and specifically with ESL (English as a Second Language) students, gives one intimate insight into the ways in which politics, immigration, and language acquisition all converge on the shoulders of students too young to make sense of the word “adolescence.” How many of these students will disappear as the borders tighten and the border wall begins changing from a symbol to a concrete structure? How can a school encourage pride both in a Spanish-speaking heritage and in an American dream they’ve only seen in our oh-so-pervasive media?

Immigrant students, be they legal, illegal, or refugees, inevitably struggle with the sense of identity I am tinkering with on this first day of school. Mexican students wish to please their parents by doing better than they, but these teens also worry about becoming “pochos” who are no longer Mexican. In the Rio Grande Valley, specifically, it is all too easy for newcomers to speak broken Spanish, fractured English, mish-mashed Spanglish – at what point do students no longer feel the necessity to develop a proper language of official discourse?

All these things flow through my mind as I take attendance on the first day of my sophomore year of teaching. There is a primal desire for language here, something which might go uncharted by state tests and NCLB legislations but is evident in these students’ giddiness for the first days of a new school year. Given the right tools and a learning environment which respects other cultures through the particulars of English language, these students could move out of the Valley, could succeed in New York, in Chicago, in Houston, in Minneapolis. Given only some vocabulary without direction, though, they will be stuck in the netherland which is the border towns along the Rio Grande, a “ghetto” both distended and remote.