Posts Tagged ‘European Union’

Hungarian and American Viewpoints on Asylum

June 23, 2009

Meeting with Dr. “Steven” Ordog, the Hungarian Deputy Minister of Immigration, it was fascinating to hear him speak about his country’s reformation of their border patrol, their struggle with integration, and his hopes to make asylum issues more of an important subject in public discourse. [CAT Report]

When Hungary joined the E.U. in 2004, they began the process of dissembling their elite border patrol and transitioning this role to the regular police.  In Hungary, as with many eastern European countries, the Border Patrol had been the crème de la crème, outfitted with the best technology, public acclaim, and pay.  With their new permeable border, Hungary changed its border enforcement to the regular police, much to the dismay of those who had appreciated their power in these much sought-after positions. [For more information, visit:]

As Dr. Ordog spoke of the problems with the Border Patrols’ treatment of some Somalis and other minorities, it was hauntingly close to home. In his country, these “protectors of the border” were trained to use whatever force necessary and sometimes abused this power, particularly against asylum-seekers.  In Hungary, once asylum-seekers report their asylum claim to the office of immigration, they are protected until the resolution of that claim.  Some members of the Hungarian Border Patrol, however, would patrol the grounds outside this office, picking up asylum-seekers mere meters away from the front door of safety. The Border Patrol praised such action for a time, as it considerably boosted their number of apprehensions and public image.

In the United States, the reverse is true creating similarly perverse incentives.  If an asylum-seeker shows up at a border crossing or a port of entry and asks for asylum, that individual is whisked away to a detention center until their asylum petition is either granted or denied.  This creates the incentive for asylum-seekers to enter the U.S. and keep their asylum petition secret until they have done the requisite research.

Dr. Ordog also spoke about Hungary’s struggle to integrate the Somali and Iraqi refugees in his country.  Traditionally, these resettled refugees have viewed Hungary as a gateway country en route to Scandinavia or other European economies.  As a result, integration services were minimal because these migrants were expected to leave soon.

Ordog worries that insufficient integration mechanisms for the growing number who have decided to stay could spell trouble for Hungary’s future.  Hungary is still largely a native-born, white population, and minorities will undoubtedly struggle to get jobs, learn Hungarian, and find housing.  Racial discrimination is rampant and not explicitly illegal. House showings can turn into racial profiling, and job interviews might turn into status quo screenings.  Although the current number of immigrants to Hungary is scant, Ordog worries that they are ill-prepared for any increase in immigration

As Dr. Ordog spoke, the themes of integration, nativism, and fear of outsiders all rang loud and clear.  Though America certainly deals with more immigrants annually, it is similarly confronted with the quality of its welcome.


A Last Stand on the Border

July 2, 2008

Gaining momentum from the Supreme Court’s refusal to examine their waiving of more than thirty laws in the construction of a border wall, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is continuing to up its efforts in an attempt to build the hotly contested border wall in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas within the month.

On Monday evening, the Brownsville City Commission met for more than three hours to discuss the DHS Secure Border Initiative, a plan to build 10 acres of “removable wall” until the city reinforces 2.4 miles of levees to DHS satisfaction. This comes two years after the Secure Fence Act of 2006 was initially passed and more than a decade after the first wall was constructed in California.

The plan proposed by DHS would have the poorest city in the United States hand over 10 acres of taxpayers’ land, at an estimated $95,800, for free. While the City Commissioners were seriously weighing the decision of whether or not to surrender this land, the public made its voice known for more than three hours in the public comment session. Police officers made protesters leave “No Border Wall” signs outside the City Hall, signs which were carried 126 miles from Roma to Brownsville in this past March’s No Border Wall Walk. Still, the sentiments of Brownsville residents were made abundantly clear – No Deal. Texas Border Coalition (TBC) chair Monica Weisberg-Stewart advised caution and encouraged the public with the hopes of a successful suit recently filed by TBC. (

John Moore, representing the Border Ambassadors, showed 123 signed testimonies from landowners opposing the border fence. Having personally accompanied him through many of these small, tight-knit communities, I can attest to the fact that this number is only a glimpse of the real opposition to this wall and the DHS strongarm tactics which have terrified so many border residents into acquiescence. John Moore and Kiel Harell and I have personally talked with border residents who were asked to sign blank documents, or were given waivers in English when they are pure Spanish-speakers. We have sat and spoken with women who were intimidated by the federal agents asking permission to survey and then buy their land. We have talked with several border residents who sold their homes and multi-generational lands for a measly couple thousand dollars.

Commissioner Troiani ended the meeting by trying to get Brownsville residents to focus on their immediate interests. He said, “It comes to this…either you’re going to try to solve the problems of the city or the problems of the world.” Troiani’s comment belies the underlying reason a border wall is being discussed and supported at all. The very idea that the issues of a city are not hopelessly caught up in the problems of the world belies one of life’s basic tenets, that in the words of Dr. King we are all “caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” A wall, removable or otherwise, in Brownsville, Texas, sends a signal not just to Matamoros on the other side of the Rio Grande. No, any wall sends a signal to the entire world, to the hundreds of thousands of immigrants waiting to legally migrate to our nation. Any wall whatsoever sends a signal to the 4 million displaced Iraqis that we do not want their problems to set foot in our nation. A wall or fence broadcasts to the European Union, China, India, Japan, and England our “Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them.” Any wall, fence, or border barrier which neglects to realistically solve the issues of globalization and movement of peoples inherently affects Minnesota, New York, and Pennsylvania just as much as it does the Rio Grande Valley or Tamaulipas Mexico. If you are reading this, you are affected by the decisions being made right now in this city of 140,000. Please write your senators, legislators, or add your name to the growing list compiled by No Texas Border Wall. If a wall is built in Texas, it will be to the shame of our entire country and, in fact, our globalized world.

The State of Immigration

June 23, 2008

            Around the world, the state of immigration is in a period of flux.  As most countries today have set boundaries and centralized governments, and as technology has facilitated easy communications and travel between once-distant societies, immigration is on the rise and with it, a rise in both pro-migrant and in anti-immigrant sentiments.  The state of immigrants globally ranges from the welcoming economy of Spain and the closed-fist stance of neighboring Italy to the construction of a border wall on America’s southern border and the 11.4 million refugees currently awaiting any country to allow them entry. (New York Times)

            More than 2 million Iraqi refugees have already fled to neighboring countries since the United States led the invasion of their nation in the spring of 2003, while another 2 million have been displaced within their war-torn country (New York Times).  Currently, the State Department is struggling to keep its promise of admitting 12,000 Iraqi refugees by this September 30, allow that would mean more than 6,000 refugees finding homes in the next 3.5 months.  Towns like Rochester, MN, with a population of only 100,000, have been waiting and preparing for months to receive the 60-70 Iraqi refugees which they have been gratefully assigned.  In speaking with a representative of Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement, it struck me just how enthusiastic she was to be able to extend a warm welcome to these Iraqi refugees, whose homeland is being destroyed by her own home country. 

            Beyond these self-produced immigration patterns caused by our nation’s myriad “conflicts” (read invasions) over the past 40 years including Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Somalia, our nation is simultaneously attempting to address the ongoing issue of illegal migration by erecting a $30-billion border wall.  This Secure Fence was the focus of Time’s most recent cover story, and while the Department of Homeland Security is still attempting to overturn public opposition in Texas in order to complete construction by the end of the year, Time highlighted the fact that the wall is not stopping immigration – it simply changes its form and direction.  While the Border Coalition in the Rio Grande Valley is suing DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff for seizing land unjustly, Stanford historian David Kennedy notes “the difference in per capita income between the U.S. and Mexico is among the greatest cross-border contrasts in the world,” and therefore the push factor of immigration will only be bottled up by a wall rather than stopped.  As residents of on the Texas border currently try to oppose the construction of this last portion of the fence, we as taxpayers and voting citizens must clamor for real immigration reform that addresses the deeper issues of skewed quota systems, the lack of legal paths to earned citizenship, and lopsided international relations.

            In other parts of the world, this same closing of borders is taking place as well, albeit not in the monstrosity of a physical wall.  In Italy, for example, a law was proposed recently by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to make it a felony to enter Italy illegally.  This would jeopardize the thousands of extralegal immigrants currently employed in burgeoning markets such as home health-care for Italy’s aging population.  Berlusconi has not yet heeded the advice of Welfare Minister Maurizio Sacconi who campaigned to legalize some of the 405,000 extralegal residents who filed for adjustment of status last December (New York Times)

            Far from being a lone actor on the global stage, Berlusconi is taking his cues from the E.U.’s shocking new legislation passed last week which would allow extralegals to be detained for as long as 18 months pending deportation.  This shift in philosophy for the European Union is one step closer to dehumanizing immigrants, and paves the way for even more uncompassionate and unjust legislation such as Berlusconi’s recipe for mass arrests.  In the United States, whose extralegal domestic population equals the number of worldwide refugees under the care of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (New York Times), the Supreme Court just ruled that it was illegal for the United States to continue holding detainees as “enemy combatants,” without rights or appeals, as it has done since 9/11 (New York Times).  Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Guantanamo Bay detainee Huzaifa Parhat, hopefully bringing an end to the more than six years he has spent in this prison camp without hope of appeal or habeus corpus.  While it has taken more than six years for the U.S. government to finally amend its unjust policy of detaining individuals without appeals in places like Guantanamo Bay, this has not yet been extended to the dozens of immigrant detention centers cropping up in places like Hutto, Raymondville, Port Isabel, or the Ramsey County Center.  Though Europe’s move to detain immigrants is surely a sad shift, this shift happened years ago in the United States and more centers are being built every year to capitalize on the multi-million dollar industry. 

            Immigration has been occurring ever since Adam and Eve emigrated from that Garden so long ago.  How we choose to integrate our fellow man into our own home bespeaks much about ourselves and the future of our society.  Let us pray the future is not one of walls and prisons, detentions and displaced persons.

United States and Spain Square off on Amnesty

June 12, 2008

Visiting Spain with Rotary International, I was struck by the diametrically different way this country was constructed. In the United States, the basic premise is that if corporations and businesses succeed, then people will likewise be successful. As a result, corporations and big businesses get tax breaks with the idea that it will then trickle down to the general populace. Spain’s laws, however, are organized with a dipolar paradigm, that if people are satisfied then businesses will do well.

I traveled Spain with minimum insurance, knowing full well that if I were sick I would be treated for free because of their socialized health-care system. When asked about their country’s healthcare system and the resulting 50% taxes, every single Spaniard I met voiced the fact that this was the only fair way to do healthcare. Rich businessmen and down-and-out vagrants all said that it was only right to make sure everybody got their basic needs met, irregardless of their income.

Spanish legislation has taken this one step further by providing basic human rights and opportunities to all immigrants, whatever their legal status. Deportation doesn’t exist in Spain; instead, the emphasis is on integration. No country in the world has run more legalization programs than this European Union nation. Just a decade ago, a mere 2% of Spaniards were immigrants. That number has risen to nearly 10%. (New York Times, June 10, 2008)

The marvel is that Spain not only attracts immigrants but also provides for them and their family’s assimilation. Immigrants are provided free health insurance, and in the six legalization programs since 1985, all working immigrants were eligible to become legalized citizens. And the education system has been revamped to integrate these new immigrant families into Spanish society, even though two of the top five sending countries – Romania and Morocco – do not speak Castellano Spanish. ((New York Times, June 10, 2008)

Perhaps even more telling is the government’s rationale for these legalization programs. In the United States, Reagan was decried for his Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 because it provided amnesty to millions of extralegal working citizens. Syndicates and the general populace criticized Reagan by stating that amnesty only encourages more illegal immigration, although this has less to do with amnesty programs and more to do with overly restrictive quotas and demoralizing lottery systems. Spain’s reasons for their six legalization programs were, in part, to ensure that lawbreaking employers were not given a competitive edge. However, the major reason espoused by all government officials is social rather than economic. Jesús Caldera, who was labor minister during one of these legalization programs, stated in the New York Times yesterday that, “If you practice exclusion, you risk the future of your country. You risk terrorism, violence.”

From here in rural Minnesota, there is little I can do to actively oppose the border wall in la frontera, a border wall initially proposed to stop illegal immigration. But I can work to change public opinion, the prevailing nativist rhetoric, and ultimately the antiquated and criminalizing laws which produce illegal immigrants rather than facilitate legal migration. We all can.

Leaving Borders

June 9, 2008

In Irun, the small town on the Spanish border with Spain, there has long been a border culture. During their revolutions and civil wars, residents of both countries traversed the imaginary line separating these two lands. A complex culture of smuggling developed, as in most border towns. People, goods, drugs- the rules of supply and demand are never bound by borders, however much governments might like to believe. While in Irun, I was told a story of a man who crossed and recrossed the border every day on his bicycle. The border patrol agents checked and rechecked this man, suspecting that he was transporting some contraband. Never once in the twenty years did they realize he was riding to France on an old bike and returning with a brand new model.

These sort of trickster stories, and the border culture they exhibit, have been made irrelevant by the erasure of borders in the European Union. America’s border with Mexico, though, must be creating hundreds of thousands of tricksters with the increasing militarization of la frontera and the constantly impending border wall now scheduled in Hidalgo County for July.

Driving out of the Rio Grande Valley on either 77 or 83, the only two evacuation routes, one encounters a military checkpoint complete with automatic weapons, drug-sniffing dogs, patrol cars, and heaps of bureaucracy. As I wait in line, my car packed to the hilt with all my earthly possessions, I contemplate that this is one of the many signs that the Rio Grande Valley is considered outside the mainlaind United States. Brownsville, the poorest city in the United States, is left below this second border in a no-man’s land, left to fend for itself. In fact, the talk of the town last week was that the United States Border Patrol was going to be checking the residency status of individuals during hurricane evacuations (Brownsville Herald) . That its citizenry must be questioned and searched before entering the rest of the continental U.S. is a stunning assumption of criminality. When it is my turn with the Border Patrol agents, I am waved along because of my white skin and American accent.

Tacitus once wrote in his Annals, “Once we suffered from our vices; today we suffer from our laws.” Indeed, unjust laws create criminals out of upstanding individuals, and in no area of legislation is this more true than immigration. Extralegal immigrants, many of whom came to the United States legally, are punished by our current law primarily for doing precisely the actions for which we praise our citizenry. The motivation of the majority of immigrants is religious freedom, economic opportunity, family safety, education, freedom of speech, liberty – how can an antiquated quota system cause some to be punished for acting on these principles and others to be praised?

As I drive north, farther and farther away from the Rio Grande Valley I’ve called home for the past two years, I pass the fertile hills of Kansas and the wide expanses of open grazing in Oklahoma and the lush fields of Iowa. I look at these natural wonders and think of how blessed I am to live in this land, and how attractive this must be to people receiving less than 8x the income we enjoy in our prosperous nation. I look at this massive farmland and know that extralegal immigrants know this land far better than I will ever understand; without them, many of these fields would lie fallow, so many of our meals would remain uncooked, so many houses would never be built, so many ideas never imparted, so many languages never added to the multiplicity of cultures here in the United States. Driving through the natural beauty along Highway 35, it is easy to see that natural law and constructed law clash when it comes to the issue of immigration in these United States. If we will only take a good look at our country and realize just how blessed we are, we would be more understanding of people desirous of migrating here. If we would only appreciate the perspectives and culture and language and talents that immigrants always bring, we would see extralegal and legal immigrants as the assets they are. If Spanish were not viewed as a language subservient to English, then perhaps we could learn from the Spanish immigration system as well as from Mexican and Latin-American immigrants themselves. As I leave the border region where the “rights” and “wrongs” of immigration laws are as muddy as the Rio Bravo and as I head north to study immigration law at the University of Minnesota this coming fall, I realize that I will never leave the border because the border is not a place on a map but a place in people’s hearts. In telling stories about the good people of la frontera and in studying the laws of immigration, I hope to turn the borders of American hearts into E.U. borders instead of the walled border in California and Arizona.

The History of the World in America

May 25, 2008

Traveling Europe, one is enmeshed in a profound history reminiscent of Tolkien´s Middle Earth.  The oaks of Gernika which give the Basques shade also survived both world wars and a bloody civil war as well.  The cathedrals like St. Maria´s in Vitoria or the Cathedral in Burgos have endured the changing of styles, religions, plagues, and multiple conquests, and are still being updated and remodeled today.  Murallas, or city walls, have lasted far beyond their initial purpose of staving of the Moors, or the Romans, or the Crusaders, or the Vikings.  Storefronts and house facades have seen a seemingly infinite cycle of businesses, hopes, and dreams flow through their doors.  Traditional music harks back centuries, foods to times immemorable.  One is overwhelmed with the constant reminders of mankind´s propensity for benificence, penchant for creativity, susceptibility to power´s corrupting influence, and ability to endure, endure, endure.

 America makes up for its lack of profound history with its wide open spaces, its distances which both offer hope and anonymity.  This fledgling country has struggled and largely succeeded in creating a rich history in a matter of centuries.  Being young, it still views itself outside of the history of the rest of the world.  Being new, the United States has been able to escape some of the deep-rooted tribal wars, linguistic and cultural disparities, and woeful dictatorships which have shaped so much of the rest of the world.  Being still green, the United States has been able to be progressive and forward thinking at a rate much faster than more established nations in the rest of the world. 

However, in the past few decades, America has seemingly tried to catch up with the rest of the world´s bloody history by becoming the aggressor and instigator in several violent conflicts which have destroyed nations and families while bolstering our military power in a time when nations should be disarming.  Caught up in a global power struggle for economic dominance, we have been unable to ensure all citizens are ensured basic medical care which is standard throughout the E.U. and our neighbor Canada.  The American motto seems to be that if businesses succeed, then people will also succeed.  In Europe, I have lived with the opposite, this philosophy that if people benefit then surely businesses will also prosper by proxy.  And now our xenophobic and nativist sentiments have become so loud that we are already constructing portions of a 700-mile border wall on our nation´s southern border. 

Traveling Europe, it is impossible to ignore how every decision is steeped in history and every choice has far-reaching repercussions.  Haphazard borders have plagued Europe every bit as much as Asia and Africa.  Rigid borders ignore real problems and so also avoid real solutions.  Rather than focusing on renewed diplomacy and meaningful compromise, borders insist that neighboring countries can continue existing despite a gross disparity of wealth, rights, and standard of living just across an imaginary line. 

The permeability of the E.U.’s open borders should be a model of the rest of the world. Though not perfected as yet, the idea of flexible borders legitimizes the basic human propensity and right to migrate.  It has occurred for thousands and thousands of years, from Phoenicians to the Gaels, from Vikings to African tribes, from the Moors to the Hebrews, from the Greeks to the Romans, from the Gauls and the Polynesians to the Huns and the Mongolians, from the Persians and Babylonians to the Egyptians and Europeans.  Humans migrate.  To deny this basic fact by erecting impassable borders or sinister Secure Fences is to design a system which, by definition, must fall because it is contrary to natural law. 

As a teacher, it pains me to think of the billions which have been spent and the billions proposed to be spent on the completion of a border wall touted as a stalling tactic for immigration.  Working with eager ESL students and their families desiring assimiliation, I weep to think of how much those billions of dollars could mean for their integration into modern American society.  For in the end, the history of the world teaches us that it is not conquest but community that matters, integration not destruction, assimilation not annihilation, love and not fear, nonviolence and not violence.  Dr. King warned us that, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”  I believe MLK would also have extended this apt warning to programs such as anti-immigration tactics like border walls.  Nations which spend more money on separation than integration are bound for disaster.  Countries which hold national security above international community are in a sad state indeed; as Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Anyone who trades liberty for security deserves neither liberty or security.” 

From the banks of the Rio Bravo in Texas to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in Spain, the whole world is hoping America will learn from history as it continues to write history in this 21st century.  Our legacy is yet unfinished; we still have time to stop such medieval gestures as a border wall and to regain our place as a progressive nation embracing the global community.   

Immigration as Nonviolent Tactic

May 22, 2008

¨Those immigrants, we give them everything.  When they have a baby, they receive 2500€ and a cochecito (baby carriage).  And when those babies grow up, they get all the help in the world.  Those immigrant kids get into good schools instead of good Spanish kids who´ve been here and belong here.¨ (A man in Barcelona)

Americans have long been partial to isolationism.  Far too often, we think we are the only country facing certain issues, and therefore we look no further than our own borders for the answers to issues the entire world is facing.  Immigration is not an issue limited to the Rio Grande Valley where the government is so desirous of erecting a border wall, nor is it specific to our fruit fields, urban restaurants, construction sites, or factory jobs.  By definition, immigration is a global issue, a fact which makes a border-wall solution to immigration bitterly laughable. 

Nearly half of extralegal immigrants in the United States came here legally on visas and work permits.  One can look at this and campaign for militaristic campaigns to treat all students and workers on visas as if they were on an extended parole, but that would be missing the point.  The fact is that this makes absolute sense.  Immigration is no longer limited to the Vikings of 500 years ago, nor is one country outsending all the rest (though government officials would have us think our southern neighbor is invading us with good workers, family-oriented individuals, and bilingual neighborhoods).  Students and workers from all over the world come to the United States for a better opportunity, but they do not count on the lack of opportunities for earned citizenship and naturalization.  As a result, hundreds of thousands overstay their visas, holding out hope that one day their opportunity to pursue happiness will be legitimized by the government that invited them here in the first place. 

 Immigration is a global issue, and one which needs global solutions.  If a paranational organization were set up to monitor immigration laws in sending and receiving countries, like the ones which exist for shared water rights and common resources, then perhaps a freer migration pattern could result, one which focused more on the task of assimilation and integration rather than rigid quotas and discrimination.  Embedded in immigration is one answer to the complex problem posed by the disastrous overkill combats of the last century.  Many people wonder if there can be nonviolent solutions for war and conflict, and immigration and emigration, if controlled by an international entity, could sap such dictators and warlords of their necessary resource – “expendable” souls.  Few people praise death and desire war, but out of a sense of duty and/or fear, the poor have always been expected to shoulder the immense burden of war campaigns.  What if Hitler announced his plans to wage all-out war throughout Europe, and half his working class emigrated to Spain in a matter of weeks?  What would happen if countries were held accountable to their constituents not by a vote of paper but by a vote of presence? 

We are entering a new age of globalization, and immigration is surely one of the most exciting aspects of modernity.  Technology has shrunk distances, media has brought divergent cultures together, and ideas are being interchanged at the speed of cyberspace.  Immigration might be the 21st-century answer to empires, dictators, and overpopulation.  Giving people a choice of living conditions could reinforce good policy and punish bad governance.

According to an immigration advocate here, Barcelona is one of the biggest receivers of immigrants in Europe.  Ecuador happens to be the largest sending country, which makes sense based on the linguistic similarities and shared heritage.  However, the number 2 sending country is slightly surprising.  Italy, another nation in the European Union, would hardly seem like a country facing a mass exodus.  However, Italy´s current government is so awful that many Italians are more than willing to immigrate to neighboring Spain, even though it means learning Castellano and Catalan as well as leaving behind their heritage.  A government such as Italy´s cannot continue to make bad decisions, or it soon will be like the ruler alone on his own planet in The Little Prince, with absolute power over no one but himself.

The Differences between Irun and I run…

May 16, 2008

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. 

Satyagraha in Manhattan and the Americas

April 11, 2008

The MET is staging Satyagraha in New York City. Philip Glass‘s 1979 opera about Gandhi’s life and philosophy of “holding on to truth” is a spectacle which makes me wish I were in Manhattan for a matinee. Julian Crouch, one of the artistic directors of Improbable Theater Company of London, stated that the giant puppets of this opera were chosen because “…we wanted to use very humble materials in the making of the opera…We wanted similarly to take these materials, maybe associated with poverty, and see if we could do a kind of alchemy with that, turn them into something beautiful” (NYT). This opera shows Mohandis Gandhi meeting with his philosophical mentor Leo Tolstoy and with his inspired follower Martin Luther King, Jr. In the meantime, newspapers are transformed into puppets, wadded pages represent rocks, and other texts are molded to resemble Hindu goddesses in a transformation of the mundane into the sacred, the profane into the divine.

I wish the Improbable Theater Company could travel to Brownsville, Texas, bringing with it the ideas of nonviolence and civil disobedience to a border region currently preparing to oppose an unjust border wall through its homes and backyards. If Satyagraha could be staged in Dean Porter Park, perhaps the poorest city in the United States would see that it does not need money or political power in order to stand for the Truth. The Truth is compelling, and when men and women refuse to resort to violence but instead seek reconciliation in the face of injustice, we have to believe that the spark of the divine will be ignited in our fellow Man when he is confronted with the morality of our plea. A border wall, above and beyond beyond environmentally unsound, politically backwards, and environmentally devastating, is morally reprehensible.

On April 1, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff used the REAL ID Act to waive 39 laws in an effort to speed up the construction of the border wall. All 100 Senators voted for this act, a piece of legislation predominantly concerned with driver’s licenses but with a rider granting unprecedented powers to waive all laws in constructing border barriers. In traditional Jewish law, a law which was passed unanimously was thrown out – something must have been amiss. In Gandhi’s book, Satyagraha, he writes, ““It is a superstition and ungodly thing to believe that an act of a majority binds a minority…all reforms owe their origin to the initiation of minorities in opposition to majorities” (18). The overwhelming vote for the REAL ID Act must not dissuade us from speaking truth and campaigning for the overturning of these waivers.

Valley residents are not alone, however. The minority in opposition to a wall is growing, and we have the moral power of knowing we are right. Thank you, Rep. Thompson, for your courageous stand along with 14 other Congressman. We pray your Amicus Curiae brief will persuade the Supreme Court to take case with Homeland Security’s ability to waive unlimited legislation to expedite the Secure Fence Act of 2006. It is encouraging to know that the unanimous vote in the Senate is not the entire story.

It is also encouraging to note that the European Union is currently considering the introduction of a decade of nonviolence, a year after dissolving the last of its countries’ borders. It is heartening to know that the E.U. recognizes, “Gandhian non-violence to be the most appropriate means of ensuring that fundamental human rights are enjoyed, upheld, promoted and respected” ( It is encouraging to know that the spirit of nonviolence was not killed along with Gandhi and King, that it survives even though the United States has already started clearing brush from its levees in South Texas, fully intending to build a border wall between itself and its neighbors to the South. Nonviolence, that soul-force which King preached and which is parading in New York’s MET right now, still walks the streets and marches on, despite the fact that the Secure Fence Act of 2006 still stands as a blight upon our nation, culture, and all immigrants, a symbol of division in a time when we need unity.

We, the people of the Valley, call for the prayers and support of all concerned citizens at this crucial time in American history. The people of the Valley are already fighting the legal battle and will continue to campaign for Justice through the courts. In addition, we are readying for civil disobedience, should it come to that. Groups such as Fellowship of Reconciliation and Christian Peacemakers, as well as individuals like the American Gandhi, have already expressed interest in training a group of concerned citizens in proper, positive civil disobedience.  We welcome any and all support in our efforts of reconciliation as opposed to division. We join with Christian thought in recognizing that we inevitably reap what we sow, and we seek to keep the United States from sowing a seed of dissension and division rather than working on communication and mutually beneficial relations with brothers and sisters of the world.

La Frontera in North America

March 7, 2008


    Father Amador of Immaculate Conception Church in Rio Grande City, Texas, has made the trip for 21 years. Every summer he travels to Rockport and Kingston and Wellesley Island to visit friends, wed couples, and sail the sparkling Saint Lawrence. His time in Canada and upstate New York is refreshing for him; this other border community certainly has elements of home, despite its northern exposure.

    My own parents live in Ogdensburg, New York, but an hour south of Ottawa. When I first moved to Brownsville, Texas, I drove my trusty 1994 Dodge Spirit from border to border. Though it needs to worry more about sand than snow here on the Mexican frontera, Brownsville and the Rio Grande Valley most assuredly feel like home.

    This kind of coincidence is more than happenstance. La frontera, the border, Rio Grande, Saint Lawrence, a Maple leaf, Stars and Stripes, or an Eagle killing a Snake – these countries and their border regions are hopelessly intertwined. Our histories run in and out of each other’s like red and white run in all our flags.

    Herein lies the problem of treating borders as lines and not lifestyles, maps without morals, rivers without life, concrete divisions rather than dual communities. To divide Brownsville, Texas, from the Matamaros, Mexico, Bruce Springsteen sang about is more than simply building a wall along a levee – it is severing conjoined sister-cities. God forbid we do the same thing to Derby Line, Vermont, and Stanstead, Quebec, by building a wall down the 45th Parallel and cleaving a town in two. The Secure Fence Act of 2006 itself is an affront to the community and interconnected cultures we have cultivated in la frontera.


    In the name of the Thousand Islands Bridge arching over the shining Saint Lawrence and the Gateway International Bridge suspended over the muddy Rio Grande, we ask all citizens of Canada, Mexico, and the United States to campaign a thousand times for legislation and policies which will foster positive relationships along the border rather than sever them.

    In the name of the Juarez-Lincoln International Bridge and the Ogdensburg-Prescott International Bridge, we urge border-crossers to make their international feelings felt and their voices heard from Capitol Hill to the local town hall.

    In the name of Ambassador Bridge and Rainbow Bridge, we pray that our nations will continue to view the diverse rainbow of immigrants as ambassadors of hope and progress and promise.

In the name of the Progreso-Reynosa and the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridges, we affirm that true progress in North-American relations is not far off, that our cultures and our environment and our economies are caught up in “an inescapable network of mutuality.”

    In the name of McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa Bridge and the Fort Frances-International Falls Bridge, we note that the United States’ Secure Fence Act of 2006 was a fall from grace, a detrimental piece of backwards law which promoted artificial divisions instead of natural coexistence.

    In the name of the beautiful Blue-Water Bridge and the arching Peace Bridge, we call for all militarization and violence along our shared borders to cease as we construct immigration policies, drug-prevention programs, environmental cooperation plans, and mutually beneficial trade relations similar to those of the successful European Union.

    In the name of all these and more, let us build bridges not walls. Let us rebuild broken bridges and the relationships they represent. Let us rebuild the bridge to our past, learning from dehumanizing immigration laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the literacy test. Let us forge new tri-national immigration legislation like the DREAM Act and earned paths to citizenship so that all people have the right to pursue their happiness in whichever North America it resides. Let us spend more time on our welcomes than our goodbyes, our fragile ecosystems than on our nativistic ego-systems, more money on our combined poor than on poured concrete.


    “Oh Canada,” “Viva Mexico,” “America the Beautiful” – God bless us all and may we learn to coexist as our borderlands have long exemplified. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote that, “whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured” (“Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”). If we can work on ways to progress beyond NAFTA and CAFTA to truly promote a working relationship, the idea of a border wall on the Mexican-American frontera will seem the absurdity it is and the push/pull factors of immigration in all three countries will be substantially reduced simultaneously.

     Mexicanos, Anglos, Canadians, North Americans, IMMIGRANTS – UNITE. We hope you will express solidarity with Father Amador and myself as we begin our upcoming march tomorrow. Along with numerous others, I will be walking 120 miles from Roma to Brownsville, Texas from March 8-16, and we would love to get support from the international community. This No Border Wall Walk invites any and all concerned citizens, whether they speak Spanish, English, French, or a mixture of them all. Please come and make your voice heard. Dr. King felt that “the ultimate tragedy in Birmingham was not the brutality of the bad people but the silence of the good people.” Come speak out for yourself, the immigrant among us, and la frontera – good people must no longer be silently complicit in any North American country. Be the bridge you wish to see.