While People Are Busy Tearing Down Walls, Some Governments Still Insist On Building Them
We’ve always been a mobile species. Religious beliefs, art, technology, and genes have for tens of thousands of years consistently overcome the physical, linguistic, and tribal barriers in their way.
The birth of the nation-state and the emergence of stronger notions of sovereignty have done nothing to change this. In fact, thanks to modern technology millions of people each and every day literally fly over the obstacles governments have erected to inhibit freedom of movement. The customs agents awaiting them at the airport are too outnumbered to prevent more than a handful of the masses passing through their checkpoints from entering. Once they’re in, it’s extremely difficult and costly to track down and remove an individual that’s not willing to leave.
The state’s ability to regulate the flow of ideas is even more limited. Most of us share at least a few thoughts each day on the World Wide Web, making them available to virtually anyone with a computer or cell phone that cares to look for them and read them. Short of denying access to the Internet altogether, there’s nothing any government can do to completely obstruct the flow of ideas. Guttenberg’s printing press is now practically as antiquated as the quill pen, and only slightly more relevant. Traditional books are valued more for qualitative than practical reasons these days. We could get by with our laptops and Kindles if we had to.
The other day I visited a museum located next to Salt Lake City’s main library. Among the several exhibits was one dedicated to the history of flight. Like most museums, this one strove to maximize the information it shared with visitors by covering its walls with displays and boldly painted paragraphs containing relevant facts. On a panel beneath the wing of an old World War II plane suspended overhead the curators communicated in large dark letters the fact that the Salt Lake City International Airport saw more than 24 million people fly in and out of it in 2017. It struck me as remarkable how unremarkable I found this bit of trivia.
I, like virtually all of us, have grown rather accustomed to living on a small planet. For two of the first three months of this year I worked at a convenience store not far from the Salt Lake City Airport. I estimate that at least 5 to 10 percent of those coming in for gas or to buy some coffee were foreigners. A hundred years ago a resident of this part of the world wouldn’t see as many visitors from out of state in a week as I did Australians, Mexicans, Canadians, Germans, English, Chinese, Indians, and citizens of various African countries each day.
In 2015 my wife and I became grandparents. We received word of our granddaughter’s birth while living in Victoria, British Columbia. The wonderful news flew at the speed of light through wires that crossed the United States, but it did not originate there. The announcement came from Mexico.
Though my wife and I are both native to the US, and our daughter was born and raised in Utah, we were living in Canada when our granddaughter arrived, and our daughter was residing near Mexico City. She had moved south to be with her boyfriend shortly before we moved north. There’s a good chance that within five to ten years my family will consist of citizens of Canada, Mexico, and the United States. We already have two of those three covered. We’re working diligently on the third.
As you can imagine, each member of my family has an opinion on immigration. We’ve each experienced the ups and downs that come with unintended errors on forms that immigration officers are trained to sniff out and punish with rejection. There have been trips to an embassy as well as anxious last minute rushes to acquire documents needed to renew a visa expiring at midnight that we thought we had dealt with.
None of the paperwork, fees, or other inconveniences we’ve encountered have deterred any of us. In fact, I’ve grown to rather like straddling two sides of the border while a good chunk of my heart lingers in Mexico. Feeling like a citizen of the world pales in comparison to actually living like one.
There are those who claim that what opponents of border walls and other tough immigration policies actually favor is open borders. I can’t speak for everyone that opposes hardline immigration proposals, but I can say without reservation that in my case the people making these statements are right. I remember being able to drive into Canada or Mexico with nothing more than a driver’s license, and I wouldn’t mind returning to those days again.
The war on immigration, like the war on drugs, has been an abysmal failure. It will continue to be a failure no matter how many walls are built or Border Patrol agents are hired. Donald Trump could send the entire United States Marine Corps to the Mexican border without it having much of an impact. People would continue to do exactly what most of them are doing now: fly over the international boundary without even noticing there’s a wall and approximately 17,000 agents 30,000 feet below whose job it is to stop them from entering the country. Open borders aren’t a liberal wet dream. They are, for all practical purposes, already a reality.
Consider the Salt Lake International Airport again. It’s no JFK or LAX. It is a Delta Airlines hub, but even so, it’s still just an average airport serving a mid-size inland metropolitan area located on the south end of a dead sea. Of the 24 million passengers that came and went from Salt Lake’s airport in 2017, nearly 1 million of them were arriving or departing international passengers. Probably at least two or three million more were either boarding or disembarking domestic flights to or from a larger airport that got the honor of listing them in its international passenger statistics.
It’s safe to say that about 1 in 5 of these passengers, if not more, were actually citizens of a foreign country as opposed to Americans travelling overseas. That’s nearly 200,000 foreigners a year with a direct flight into the Salt Lake City area, along with probably at least another 500,000 or so arriving in Utah via a domestic connection. Multiply these numbers many times over for airports in states like California and New York, then multiply many times over again for the rest of the country. At the end of all your multiplication you’ll have some idea how many foreigners enter the US every year just through its airports. That customs and immigration officials fail to catch more than a small fraction of those likely to overstay their visas for one reason or another is quite understandable once one begins to wrap their arms around the shear magnitude of human movement now taking place on a daily basis throughout the United States and around the planet.
In 2013 the US Census Bureau issued a press release. In it they reported that one in five US marriages included at least one partner that wan’t native to the United States. Most of these partners (61%) had acquired US citizenship.
I’m not sure how many marriages in Mexico involve at least one partner that’s originally from another country, though I’ve already mentioned one case with which I’m personally familiar. According to one recent CNN story, “roughly 1 million US citizens live in Mexico.” A new US News article mentions a 2013 study prepared by Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography that found “a stunning 91.2 percent of Americans in the country don’t have their papers in order.” It seems the US isn’t the only nation with an illegal immigration problem.
In spite of all the data regarding a global population increasingly on the move — often without much regard for national immigration laws — there will still be those that insist open borders are impractical. To be sure, the bureaucratic and physical barriers currently separating many nations will not come down all at once. It would be foolish to suggest they should. As is the case within the European Union, open borders will initially be a fact of life only between nations that share a common border or region with one another.
With that concession to incrementalism out of the way, the trends clearly show that it’s those opposed to open borders that are likely to end up on the wrong side of history. Technology is enabling humanity to fulfill its lust for travel like never before. For more and more of us the capacity to easily visit other countries is already being taken to the next level. More than 9 million Americans are currently living abroad, approximately 4 million more than in 1999. Millions of students around the world now routinely incorporate at least some time at a foreign school into their higher education. For tens of millions of couples, to say nothing of their children and immediate relatives, multinational families are a fact of life. Governments will ultimately have little choice but to accommodate these realities.
I don’t know if the border wall between the US and Mexico will be torn down like its Berlin predecessor was, or will simply comply with the second law of thermodynamics and rust slowly away into the desert soil like an old broken down car abandoned along some forgotten dirt road. Regardless, I’m confident one of these or some similar fate eventually awaits it. Because technology facilitates it and people want it, freedom of movement is here to stay. Though media coverage often makes it appear as though xenophobia is on the march, the data reveal just the opposite to be the case. The nation-state may not be going quietly into that good night, but it’s still going.
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