Immigration and the Wall: A Book Discussion

David Smithers reviews Michael Dear's "Walls Won't Work: Repairing the U.S.-Mexico Divide",

Harmful and untenable

The principal book I want to talk about is one that is very recent. On December 17, 2002, Michael Dear “began traveling the entire length of the U.S. Mexico border, on both sides, from Tijuana/ San Diego on the Pacific Ocean to Matmoros / Brownsville on the Gulf of Mexico, a journey of 4,000 miles….What began as an impulsive journey of discovery was rapidly overtaken by events… to begin before the US undertook the fortification of its southern boundary… an unintentional witness to the border’s closure…. completed in March 2005. The author has continued his visits up to the present.”

The product of those experiences and reflections resulted in this 2013 book from Oxford University Press, Why Walls Won’t Work. But first I want to go back again to another book I read in early 2008. This was the volume by Stephen G. Bloom, a University of Iowa professor professor, who as a modern American Jew tried to explore the clash of culture in Postville, Iowa and between Bloom and a group of new York City emigrants, a group of Lubavitchers, very orthodox Jews. There is a very good 2001 video discussion at the University of Iowa Santa Barbara by Bloom at http:// www.uctv.tv/shows/Stephen-G- Bloom-Postville-A-Clash-of- Cultures-in-Heartland- America-5476. In 1987 this zealous Jewish group opened a kosher slaughterhouse just outside the small town of Postville, population 1,465. An initial welcome by the town turned into confusion, dismay and even disgust.

The Jewish business owners turned the business into a worldwide success. Postville would then witness the consequences of a different set of immigrants, indigenous Guatemalans, many of them parents with their children. Though fellow Christians, the barrier between the town residents was one of language and race, and between landlords and tenants.

In 2008 a dramatic workplace raid was conducted by the very new post 9/11 Department of Homeland Security and its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. I remember that spring; I was still a Democrat and had spent a few months promoting Joe Biden for President in 2007.

It turns out that I would introduce the future Vice President of the United States to a group at the Washington, Iowa library. That spring saw a tornado devastate a small northern Iowa town. Right around this time the raid took place in Postville. My politics were set to change, and I was beginning to realize that. 2008 would be the last year I would be a Democrat after 30 years of caucuses and conventions.

In August, local and worldwide activists reacted to the family separation and the brutal administrative “justice” brought down on a group of people in chains and in tears. The workers, mostly mothers, with children at home or playing in a near by park near the plant; the children witnessing the armed helicopter swarm that would change their lives. Luckily, the local Catholic Church nun and pro-immigrant activists were able to take care of the kids and try their best to advocate for the detained workers. The War on Terror generated a border- industrial complex aimed at people who were in civil violation of the law. The civil offense of breaking immigration law became criminalized theatre and tragedy.

The long car trip to the obscure town was my political awakening. My wife took many pictures. The thousands of activists from Iowa, the Midwest, and from around the world attended an interfaith service (Jewish-Methodist- Catholic) at the Catholic Church that had become a refuge and survival link for mothers, wearing electronic leg cuffs and their husbands in the deportation process. I marched with them. My sign said “Open Borders + Open Hearts = Prosperity” attached to a flagpole capped with the U.S. flag.

Law enforcement watched from every corner; the activist marshals kept us in an orderly parade of thousands. At the now-closed plant there was the fire truck; probably ready to hose us if necessary. We wrapped back to downtown and marched through a small gauntlet of anti- immigrant protesters. There was a sign that said we were all going to Hell.

In the wake of Postville, the contradiction between immigration / emigration as human rights and capitalist- engineered nationalism led me to my socialist calling, long delayed. I’d been an unconscious and frustrated communist for 30 years, after all.

Michael Dear’s book talks about repairing and healing a wounded U.S.- Mexico border that had become a fortified divide. The Bush-Obama deportation nation had gained in speed. A year later, the plant in Postville where the mass deportation took place was bankrupt and the managers were facing prison time. The Northeastern Iowa economy was in free fall.

This brings me to my more general comments about the border wall and the divide between U.S. and Mexican workers. Dear summarizes in his book why the wall has failed and will continue to fail in the points below – my additional commentary in parentheses:

1) because the border region has long been a place of connection, especially north-south;
2) because the wall is an aberration in a long history;
3) because prosperity for border cities (and beyond, on both sides of the line) requires there be no barriers;
4) because people always find ways over, under, and through and around walls…. the borders walls ignored ecological demands, separating animals from water sources and dividing joint education and work relations;
5) because governments and private interests continue opening portals in the wall, and some have even become see- through fencing;
6) because “Third Nationhood” is already on people’s minds in the borderlands, stretching far into both Mexico and the United States.
7) because diaspora and diversity trump the border industrial complex. (In any case, it was the world capitalist system that caused the economic collapse of 2008, not impoverished workers trying to find jobs in the United States. Fortified borders and racial profiling turn our attention away from the real enemies.)
8) because Mexico is going global and democratic… despite the drug war deaths, Mexico, a G20 nation, is no longer the picture of Third World backwardness expected by racist patriots;
9) because walls always come down in the end.

Echoing words by President John F. Kennedy at the Berlin Wall, “we are all Berliners.” We socialists proclaim that we are all workers. Workers have no nation but one worldwide class allegiance; an injury to one is an injury to all.

Twenty years later Ronald Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” A decade later, the people took it down in one evening. I say, President Obama, tear down this wall and eliminate the border industrial complex that costs more than the NASA space exploration budget and more than real jobs programs that could ensure economic justice for all workers regardless of national origin. We workers will bring it down and forge a world of comradely prosperity.

We shall overcome, someday.

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