On my drive from Flagstaff back to Bend last week, I took a detour to see the border (Okay, I was actually going to San Diego). It was a riot – insofar as it is hot and ugly and I had to go through three Immigration and Customs Enforcement checkpoints. I didn’t have it too bad, of course: it would appear that if you’re white, they wave you through, and if you’re brown, you have to submit to a thorough search of your car.
Anyway, this is what the border itself looks like:
I took the picture because I think the physical border itself is worth pondering. I don’t talk to people about immigration much anymore. The hysteria has died down, along with hopes for immigration reform anytime soon. When I do, though, I inevitably get the impression that people think that those people crossing the border are the most desperate and destitute their countries have to offer. It’s a sentiment that is expressed not just by deranged paramilitary Minute Men but also well-meaning erstwhile friend of immigrants. And it’s a view enshrined on the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
I was surprised my freshman year when I learned that this view is dead wrong. A long term, longitudinal study of tens of thousands of immigrants conducted by sociologist Doug Massey has determined that undocumented immigrants from Mexico come from poor communities, but tend to be the most educated and most skilled people from those places. Of course, no one ever believes me, which is where this picture comes back in.
Immigrants used to cross the border in beautiful San Diego, where it’s perpetually 72 degrees. We’ve since cracked down, but they’re still coming – except through Arizona, where it’s 110 in the shade. When you actually look at the border, it obvious that immigrants are in fact incredibly motivated people, especially when in a “good” year only 256 die in the attempt. Frankly, I’m scared to drive that stretch of road; and they’re walking. All that, and they’re coming here and doing this, which quite frankly looks like it sucks:
“Fixing” immigration isn’t as complicated as we make it out to be. We know how to make a sensible policy, because we’ve done it before: a mix of amnesty, more low-skilled visas, and assimilation programs could easily allow the U.S. to reap the benefits of immigration while avoiding its negative abnormalities. The issue is not one of policy, but of perception and political will, and of convincing people to look at immigration a different way. It’s not enough just to convince people that immigrants aren’t actively ignoring our language, flooding our emergency rooms, and stealing our jobs (though they aren’t). I think we also need to show that immigrants possess the initiative and aspirations that we think make someone “American.” Who knows, maybe the picture doesn’t make that case, but I think it’s a case worth making.