A Tale of Two Borders

By Samir Shukla

A harsh yet lovely landscape unfolded while gazing at the vistas surrounding the Rio Grande, the long ribbon of water separating Mexico and United States along the Texas Border. The temperature approached or surpassed 100 degrees during afternoons in mid-May as we drove through, explored and hiked around trails in Big Bend National Park, tucked away in southwest Texas. The park dead ends at the Rio Grande and there lies Mexico on the other side. The river is the border. There is no wall there, no barbed wire fences, just the muddy river giving sustenance to the life around it.

On the way to Big Bend from San Antonio, we explored one of the bridges that serves as a border crossing near Del Rio, Texas at the International Amistad Reservoir. We walked halfway across the bridge but didn't cross over into Mexico. There was hardly any traffic there. An occasional pickup truck crossed the bridge. It's a lovely, remote crossing.

Driving over the Rainbow Bridge, one of the border crossings between US and Canada near Niagara Falls, one gets a sense of humanity in motion. The bridge and activities on both sides were buzzing when we crossed it in early July. Of course, Niagara Falls is one of the busiest tourist areas in the world, especially in summer.

The mist from the falls rises in the distance and the area is lush and green. Pretty much most of the border between US and Canada is green, mountainous or covered with large bodies of water. I wondered about remote border areas between US and Canada while on the Rainbow Bridge, a busy crossing, and I thought of the emptiness of the Rio Grande region. I think you can just walk across a thicket of forest at many places along the Canadian border, just as you can easily wade across the shallows of Rio Grande into Mexico or the other way around.

Most of the border between the US and Mexico is hard, unforgiving desert.

That harshness gives a sense of "need" on the southern border and the lushness a sense of "have" on the northern border.

People cross borders illegally to get to a better place. They seek asylum, opportunity or safer lives. Sure, some criminals will exploit borders when money is to be made, but most migrants are just average folks, looking for a better life.

National borders are lines in the dirt that are inviting or harsh, naturally barriered or fenced, lightly patrolled or heavily militarized, friendly or bitter.

Some borders don't need fences or walls, as forbidding natural terrains, such as the Himalayas separating India and China, do the job.

The border between Canada and the US is of course much longer, but it is our southern border that is always contentious. What else can you do to make it more secure? What can you do to reduce desperate people risking their lives to reach here?

The Rio Grande looks like any other desert river, but is solidly embedded in the histories of US, Texas, and Mexico. If a few battles had gone differently in the past, it's likely most of Texas would be a part of Mexico today, as it once was. I stood at the river's storied banks at different sections near Big Bend and felt a sense of peace.

This was especially true at the river cutting through the Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend. Eagles soared, songbirds sang, butterflies fluttered around the shallow, murky waters of the river. At the end of a trail, which ended at the river, we easily waded to the other side of the canyon, into Mexico, and waded back.

I can imagine people trying to cross the desert and the river to get to the US. The days in the summer are brutally hot, as we experienced, but the nights were quite cool in the nearby town of Terlingua where we stayed. Much of the migrant crossings occur at night to avoid heat and detection.

Near Boquinvilas canyons in Big Bend, on a lookout point created on a higher perch, there were several Mexican men who had crossed over the shallow river from the town across and were selling little knickknacks. I imagined if they spot a park ranger or border patrol or an official looking vehicle, they would just slide down the hill, wade across the river and head back to their village. Such are the lives of those who eke out a subsistence living. But it's understandable that many people are uneasy about the ease of crossing borders. Tough talk on building walls at the border sounds like a solution to them.

The border wall is essentially a nonworkable idea near the Rio Grande. There is no way a wall can be built on either side of the river. Mexico will not allow it to be built on their side of the river. If we build it on our side of the river, we are essentially turning over the river to Mexico. In Texas so much of the land is privately owned that a “wall" would have to dissect countless ranches and private properties.

Nations have borders and of course they need to be protected, especially if the neighbors are hostile. Obviously, we need solid infrastructure to block movement of terrorists and transit of drugs on both northern and southern borders as well as at airports and seaports. No one wants open borders, but human migration cannot be fully stopped. It can be made beneficial for both sides. That takes work and sound immigration policy. Separating children from parents of illegal migrants is a toxically inhumane policy. Many illegal immigrants in this country arrived via legal means, through airports, and decided to stay past their visa expirations.

Immigration is a complex issue. America benefits from legal immigration as well as legal, temporary migrant workers. The bottom line is people from poor countries will try to migrate to richer countries. It is simply about human needs. One way to reduce illegal crossings on the southern border is to help economically uplift Mexico and Central American countries. Many people are escaping violence, lawlessness, and scant economic opportunities in those countries. It would actually be cheaper for US to work with and assist countries in Central America, where many of the migrants come from, to become economically successful. Our northern border doesn't have a big illegal immigration problem because Canada is economically viable for its citizens. There is safety, law and order and economic opportunity.

We spend billions annually on border security. We spend nearly $700 billion on national defense. Sound policy to redirect portions of those funds to help make our southern neighbors safe and economically secure is just a smart thing to do. This also requires willing and transparent governments in those countries. This is not about nation building, this is about neighborhood uplifting. Central America and northward is our neighborhood.

We can essentially end most illegal immigration from south of the border if the countries there can become economic models like, well, Canada. It's in our interest to help them do so. We will only be creating better economic partners in the long run. With economic opportunity and law and order in place, crime will reduce drastically there. Illegal migration will be curtailed. The distrust of immigrants will wane.

Borders are lines in the dirt, but they can also be economic connectors and conduits for mutual safety. The bigger picture here is about economic entanglements that are mutually beneficial. It comes down to blurring the line between needs and haves.

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Samir Shukla is the editor of Saathee magazine. Contact - Samir@saathee.com