SANTA TERESA, N.M. – Recent headlines in the U.S. have focused on a major influx of undocumented immigrants crossing our southern border with Mexico, many of them children either traveling alone or with single mothers seeking refuge. According to Homeland Security some 52,000 children have arrived on the U.S.-Mexico border since October of last year, most coming from Central American countries including Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, looking to escape the upsurge in violence and destitution threatening those countries. Some, apparently, are trying to take advantage of special treatment afforded children and families that cross the border illegally which they believe, mistakenly or otherwise, will allow them to stay. The paid “coyotes” smuggling them encourage this misinformation in promoting their services throughout the perilous journey from their home countries to the border. This is only the latest in the influx of undocumented (illegal) immigrants from the south that have looked to the U.S. for shelter from economic and/or violent social oppression in their homelands. While the details may vary, the problem of illegal immigration is not limited solely to the U.S., but is in fact a global problem that requires a far more comprehensive approach than we or any other nation is taking.
Upsurge in Europe
For instance in Europe there has been an upsurge in illegal immigration going back many years where impoverished and persecuted peoples from Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and former Soviet Union countries have made the often perilous treks to enter Europe in hopes of finding a better life. Many arrive by inland routes crossing into Eastern Europe via Albania, Greece, Turkey and other eastern European borders, coming from such countries as Georgia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, and Bangladesh. Others take sea routes from Africa in the Western and Central Mediterranean, with refugees fleeing the poverty and violence in Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Somalia, Eritrea and elsewhere. Latest figures show at least 103,000 people illegally entered the EU in 2013, literally risking their lives, hoping to find economic opportunity and the security lacking in their home countries. Those numbers have only grown as refugees have fled from growing violence in Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa.
The dangers to migrants was underscored last October when a boat carrying over 500 migrants from Africa capsized just off the tiny Italian island of Lampedus, where over 350 drowned. Such hazards do not deter the desperate immigrants—Italians this year alone estimate that over 50,000 illegal immigrants have entered their country. In partial answer to the problem, Italy has launched a new program, “Mare Nostrum”— “Our Sea,” where the Italian coast guard and navy look to intercept the refugee ships, provide assistance where needed, and bring the refugees to Sicily for further processing.
Of the 4,000 refugees recently brought to Sicily as part of Operation Mare Nostrum, close to 2,500 were rescued at sea. The Italian Interior Minister estimates as many as 15,000 people have recently crossed the Mediterranean. He believes up to 600,000 (!) are ready to flee Libya in the coming months adding to the crisis. They are dealing with it as a humanitarian issue but, as elsewhere, are under strong political pressure to keep the “illegals” at bay.
Spain faces similar issues given only the roughly 30 miles between its southern coast and the North African nation of Tunisia. In fact to enter Spain, Tunisian and other African refugees need not even set sail in the perilous Mediterranean Sea. They simply can cross into the Spanish African enclaves of Melilla or Ceuta bordered with Morocco and find political asylum similar to Cubans who find their way to the shores of the U.S. in Florida. This particular crossing is not easy as a heavily patrolled, double barbwire fence separates Morocco from the enclaves. That said, thousands assault the fences every year in huge waves of humanity, and overcome the Spanish border guards there to deter them. Spain has appealed to the EU to provide them monetary assistance to “beef up” their borders in building better fences, as well as barriers, along their coast line. While visiting the small town of Tarifa, Spain (thirty minutes by ferry to Tunisia) last year, I noticed some construction work on the city’s port entry. My boat captain explained the city was installing more barriers around the port to interdict would be refugees from Africa. In looking at the miles of open beach for miles around, I could only think that such efforts were futile. As to better fencing in Melilla or Ceuta — “show me a ten-foot fence and I will show you a man with a 12-foot ladder.” In other words, such efforts are likely to be no more effective than the billions of dollars we have invested in new fencing and sensors along our own Southern border.
Back in the U.S.
Relatively isolated Australia is not immune from the influx of refugees seeking better economic and social security. Historically, Australia is a nation of immigrants settled mostly by citizens from England beginning in the 18th century. Since 1945 more than 7 million people have migrated to Australia, with some 900,000 arriving since 2000 mostly with origins in Europe. Most modern-day immigrants arrive in Australia by air, are documented, and can be processed through the government’s normal immigrant and asylum procedures. Beginning with the end of the Vietnam war and through today’s turmoils in Afghanistan, Indonesia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia a, number of refugees began to arrive by sea, the majority (greater than 85%) because of the manner in which they were forced to flee from their home countries without proper documentation or visas. Until recently these “boat people” were treated in much the same manner as other immigrants seeking asylum. Many were held in detention centers until their refugee status as defined by international law could be determined. If certified as refugees they were allowed special status within the country which could eventually lead to permanent residency and/or citizenship. However, this past year a new government has instituted mandatory detentionof “unauthorized” arrivals by boat, stipulating that such “illegal” immigrants would never receive legal status in Australia and stripping them of rights under Australia’s Special Humanitarian Program. The “illegal” immigrants are instead now sent to detention centers outside of Australia, under agreements with Australian-administered territories of Nauru and Papua, New Guinea. Since December of 2013 no new arrivals by boat people have been allowed or even acknowledged, and an unknown number of boats were forced to return to their countries of origin, even those who actually reached Australian waters.
With more than 11 million estimated illegal/undocumented, mostly Latino immigrants in the U.S. and more coming every day, the members and leaders of both major parties (including the President) recognize the need for comprehensive immigration policy and law. Unfortunately, driven by extremists and partisan politics on both sides, no comprehensive immigration legislation has successfully moved forward, and the issue appears all but dead as the nation moves into the mid-term elections in November. As to the new influx of children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, mostly knee-jerk reaction by the political factions calls for bringing the National Guard and other security measures to the border to stop the flood of “illegals” at our “porous” border. As in Europe and Australia, extremists are calling for the illegal immigrants to be repatriated to their homelands immediately, disregarding their refugee status or personal security issues that caused them to flee in the first place — this despite national and international laws to the contrary.
We claim to be a land of laws and demand that everyone adhere to the laws, including those who arrived and stayed without documentation. But we are also a land of immigrants beginning with our forefathers who fled the tyranny and political abuses of their homelands. All of the U.S., with the exception of Native Americans and enslaved blacks, arrived as immigrants, legal or otherwise. We have prided ourselves on being the “melting pot” of peoples, creating a new nation with liberty and justice for all. It has not been an easy passage in assimilating new peoples into this country. Each new wave of immigrants—from Ireland, Italy, Germany, China, Japan, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere—have faced challenges from those who were already here, those who feared they would lose what gains they had achieved to the new comers. Obviously our immigration policies are severely strained with the new demands of global economies, global security, and global environmental assaults.
Just as obviously, a comprehensive approach is needed in the U.S., as well as the rest of the world. We have been and can be again the model for the rest of the world in dealing with our immigration problems. Yes, we should ensure that everyone is adhering to the law, but we should also ensure that those laws and their application are just and humanitarian as well. In our own hemisphere we need to address the long-term problems causing immigration—poverty, lack of security, corruption, etc. As in the present case of children and their parents fleeing Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, much of the problem can be laid at the feet of the drug cartels and the violence that has turned those countries into the “killing fields” of Central America. As has been argued in this blog in the past, our drug policies, intended or otherwise, directly fuel the huge profits supporting the cartels and their minions. There are no easy answers to our or the world’s immigration problems, but guns and fences provide no long-term solution here or elsewhere in the world.