Some years ago, in a sparsely populated part of Costa Rica, I listened to the sounds of rustling and murmurs throughout the dark night. At first I envisioned large animals out hunting, which was frightening enough, but I soon realized the sounds were people moving in endless procession, and my imagination turned to guerillas, drug runners, kidnappers. In the morning I learned the travelers were Nicaraguans on a perilous journey to a better life. Some of them undoubtedly ended up at the U.S.-Mexican border, where they became part of the crisis of illegal immigration, the subject these days of so much heated talk and so little proposed action – particularly around the 4th of July when patriots blabber on about “American exceptionalism” under siege from porous borders.
I don’t know the ultimate solution, but it seems clear that the old ways of thinking do not work. You cannot build a fence high enough or dig a moat deep enough to keep desperate people out. More importantly, what the new nativists don’t grasp is that this issue signifies, not America’s specialness, but how much a part of the world we have become.
For as more and more people gather at our borders and in our detention centers, what we face is not an immigrant problem, but a refugee problem – with a profile much like the rest of the world, where 45 million refugees, 80 percent of them women and children, live impoverished lives in squalid camps, breeding anger and discontent.