Maribel Alvarez on abolishing the border
Maribel Alvarez is an anthropologist and folklorist living in Tucson, Arizona. She is Associate Dean for Community Engagement in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.
I have always respected pragmatism in politics and life. As the fierce organizer Grace Lee Boggs once said, “A rebellion usually lasts only a few days. After it ends, the rebels are elated.” But the real work of transformation has only just begun. Real change requires patience and a tolerance for compromise. This is still my preferred course of action for most social issues. But when it comes to the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border, the rhetoric of pragmatism has failed to bring about common sense solutions. In fact, it has plunged American immigration policy into an absurd game of cruelty, indifference, and disavowal of responsibility for harms we played a role in creating in the first place.
The national conversation about border policy is not really a conversation but rather an echo chamber that demonstrates a profound lack of imagination. Border policy today stems from the assumption that a border is necessary and inevitable—in the most sympathetic arguments, some would say perhaps even a necessary evil. Once we accept the terms of debate as a binary, the only choice worth considering becomes that between more or less enforcement, apprehension of families with child separation or without. This is the lie we tell ourselves: that a border is essential to our national interests. Hence, election cycle after election cycle, a static and monolithic view of the border gains legitimacy.
Luckily for us, there are voices in our country that reject this stale border narrative energetically. Among the most dynamic are interventions by artists, journalists, and grassroots border residents. The Tejana feminist Gloria Alzaldua referred to the odd psychological experience of living in “a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary.” Artists have gone to great lengths to call attention to the artificial premises that lead us to consider the border immutable: painting the border fence blue to blend against the open sky, organizing bi-national events that straddle the separation line, and calling the bluff on the historical accuracy of where a true border boundary should be located.
Despite these invitations to imagine a different approach, politicians’ statements about our “border problem” universally imply that the only reasonable policy is one that accepts the border as given. The contradictions in our national discourse about border policy can barely hold up the weight of our hypocrisy. See, we already operate a largely open border with Mexico when it comes to the flows of manufactured goods, produce, or money. Trade with Mexico stands at around half a trillion dollars annually. We don’t have much of a problem with a “borderless” vision of our relationship with Mexico as long as we are talking about electric garage door openers, tomatoes, and investment capital. And even the crossing of people is more nuanced than we are told by law enforcement cheerleaders: our ports of entry already process more than 350 million legal crossings into the U.S. every year. The economy of many cities in the American Southwest would collapse without the influx of Mexican shoppers and patrons. And when we in the U.S. have needed low-wage workers to buttress our scarcity of labor power, we have created “sensible” guest worker programs to help ourselves. In other words, the policies that regulate our border traffic are artifacts we create, reinvent, or discard as necessity dictates.
But political vitriol and racism have steered the border and immigration debate into a hopeless theater of upmanship: everyone proclaims to be for a “safe” border because the alternative would be to advocate for an “unsafe” border, right? Nonsense. I propose we need an urgent national conversation on whether our national interests would not be better served by no border at all. There are models for this scenario around the world that can be studied and debated thoroughly. With a fraction of the money we spend now on border enforcement we could help fund a plan for prosperity and peace for the entire southern hemisphere. We already grant the dignified possibility of free transborder flow to mangoes and microwaves. Why not extend that option to people, too?
This essay is part of CREATIVE FUTURES, a series of provocations by thinkers across the arts, documentary, and journalism on how to reimagine their sectors.