Migration, border crisis, united states, Sarah Illingworth

Sarah Illingworth on boundaries, & the US border crisis

Who has a right to be where is a cloudy issue at the best of times – and it always has been, as the animation below so powerfully illustrates. Still, we wrestle over ownership and the occupation of spaces, both physical and social, all the time. Whether it’s a neighbourhood we live in – or want to – or a social group we are included in, or excluded from, we are constantly negotiating boundaries. While Palestine and Israel continue to contest their parameters in a brutal and bloody way, and Ukraine and Russia do the same, the Southwest of the US is dealing with its own battle over borders.

The border crisis, as it has been termed, is most certainly that. More than 50,000 unaccompanied children have crossed Southwestern US borders since October 2013, and the official estimate is that the count will rise beyond 90,000 by the end of September (a friend who works for a related non-profit thinks it will be significantly higher). The US is under pressure from the UN to consider this a humanitarian crisis, and to treat the children as refugees, not prisoners as is currently the default.

I met someone who runs an airline out of Arizona last week, and he said they’ve been facilitating up to three flights per day of around 500 kids each, being sent back to the border for ‘processing’. He told me they arrive handcuffed, and look like those you’d see walking down the street in any US community: baseball caps and sneakers, jeans and t-shirts. A father, this sight shakes him up every time – and has brought home to him the fact that, rather than being the worst off, these are the ‘lucky ones’ – the ones whose families can afford to give them a shot at a better life in the US. Indeed, for many parents, paying smugglers to transport their children north, away from the deep poverty and gang violence that is making their home countries increasingly dangerous to live, is a last resort, and the safest option.

The border crisis is a complex issue, but one that US policy, and action, has helped to create. The Wilberforce Act, the policy charged with triggering the current influx of children was signed off in 2008 by the Bush Administration for one, and the roots run far deeper than that. (Successful) historical attempts on the part of the US to influence Central and South American economies have undermined their economic stability, including through the so-called War on Drugs and pushing for free trade agreements that have allowed these markets to be flooded with American products, which has in turn helped to undercut local industry. The fact the benefits of these policies are largely skewed toward the US, along with the fact many US businesses rely on the cheap labour undocumented migrants provide, only heightens the irony that backlash against migrants from these regions can be so extreme.

Of course, there are also many Americans who are sympathetic to this perspective, and doing what they can to make sure the children currently seeking refuge are looked after. I drove to Bisbee today, an old mining town close to the Arizona/Mexico border – I didn’t realise how close until I almost bowled through the checkpoint. I pulled to the side of the road right before I hit it, taking in the fence that loomed either side, and a few minutes later another car pulled over too. It turned out to be a couple from New Haven, Connecticut who run a non-profit reuniting children with their birth parents, or helping to place them in safe foster or adoptive families. They’re currently looking at ways to help the border children too. I’ve been working on this piece over the last couple of days, so meeting them blew my mind a little bit – and even more so when the woman, looking at the border fence, said quietly, “I’ve just been in Jerusalem.”

Us humans can go to great lengths to cling to what are essentially castles in the sand. In an increasingly globalised world, in which so many of us are mobile – or at least able to connect across oceans and borders via digital networks – we should be asking how important ownership, and borders, really are. Ownership is still so valued, such a priority, despite the fact ownership of land in particular is becoming increasingly out of reach for many of us, and even our ability to engage in day-to-day consumption is so often facilitated by debt.

As countries become more and more interlinked, and the global population grows, conflicts over space and resources are only going to become more common and we need to decide how we deal with that. Whether to continue to settle said conflicts through war, or to evolve beyond this.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.