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The Southern Border Is an Exercise in Cruelty

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Borders are cruel. I know this because I’ve been studying the U.S.-Mexico border for more than 40 years. It features prominently in two of my books, written in different decades. It keeps pulling me back. Every time I cross that border, I say to myself that this is no big deal — I’m used to it. And every time, I feel that familiar fear-or-flight jolt of adrenaline and hear the inner warning: Watch out! Things go wrong here.

The border is cruel because it gives some people what they want and denies the needs of almost everybody else. Still, the hopeful come, lately in swelling numbers. Sadly, the cruelty of the border has ratcheted upward. It didn’t have to. U.S. policies have added unnecessary meanness to the innate hurt of the dividing line we share with Mexico. Here are a dozen “realities” of the border that I try to keep in mind while mulling the latest disasters.

1. Nothing will “fix” the border, not a wall, not troops, not presidential bombast

Some of the thousands of families from Central America now streaming to the border and surrendering themselves to U.S. authorities are desperate because crop failure and poverty have denied them the means of subsistence. Others are desperate because the gangs that now control large portions of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador threaten them with murder, extortion, and persecution. In many cases the families are desperate for both reasons.

This is an immigration phenomenon of recent vintage, but it belongs to an old tradition. Steep differences in wealth, opportunity, and political security divide the societies on either side of the border and, as long as those differences exist, have-nots on the poorer side will keep trying to join the haves on the other.

Unsolvable predicaments like this require management — continuous care, if you will — in the same way that chronic disease or steadily rising sea levels require it. Our efforts to manage the situation can be wise or stupid, mostly benign or downright sadistic, cost-effective or absurdly wasteful, realistic or hallucinatory. The task facing this country is to make it less awful and more humane than we have so far shown much talent for doing.

2. Donald Trump’s “Great Wall” is about gratification, not immigration

For every complex problem, there exists a simple solution — which is completely wrong. In the case of the U.S.-Mexico border, Exhibit A is the president’s proposal to build a 30-foot-high (or 55-foot-high), 1,900-mile (or 1,000-mile) wall — the president’s numbers vary with the moment — to provide security. The imperative behind his fixation arises from his boisterous, demagogic, and chronically over-counted political rallies. More than Fox News, more than the sycophants who surround him, the rallies are the mirror before which he preens. They are his political Viagra, a drug that takes effect when the crowd begins to chant. Even two years into his presidency, Trump can’t stop talking about Hillary Clinton and, when he mentions her, his admirers rock the rafters, yelling “Lock her up!” It’s the MAGA mob’s way of reconfirming that he hates who we hate, which is the DNA of Trump’s appeal.

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