Many forces shape the earth. It is shaped by the wind, by water in rivers and oceans, and the freezing and the thawing in soil and rocks. It is shaped by life, and especially by human beings and their movements back and forth across the face of the planet. Just as we cannot control the wind or contain the water in the oceans, we cannot prevent the movement of peoples across imaginary lines arbitrarily drawn on maps, across borders drawn in the sand, or on parchment, particularly when they are driven by human conflicts, climate change, and seeking a better life.
Immigration is again one of the ‘big’ issues, generating volumes of political and media blabbering and speculation. The current occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. owes his current position in part to the issue. Immigration was the focus of his campaign topped off with the proposal to build the Great Wall of America along our southern border. It is, of course, an issue that keeps recurring. It has been on and off the national agenda since the Administration of John Adams in 1798. It is always accompanied with a racial/ethnic component. The present incarnation is no different. But let’s look beyond the emotions of the moment and examine the larger issues and their implications.
Immigration has, is, and will continue to be a problem because it is one we, as a people, lack the consensus, the ability, and the courage to solve. Immigration has been a concern in one form or another since the founding of the American colonies over 400 years ago.
The challenges we face today are more complex and dynamic. They are concerned primarily with the effects of problems many don’t wholly grasp. There are four obstacles we face now and throughout this century. How we confront and resolve these issues will determine our course in the future. These hurdles are as follows:
1. Global warming, environmental degradation and climate change caused by human activities all over the planet, and the tremendous pressures put on ecosystems by expanding human populations.
2. Explosive population growth in the Third World.
3. The technological revolution in communications, including social media, development of A.I. coupled with the diminishing dependence on human beings in all aspects of manufacturing goods and providing services at the moment when the need for jobs for people is at its highest point.
4. Fundamentalism: The collision of the most conservative and reactionary thought and beliefs (Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and others) with the technological civilization of the 21st century, causing a crisis among those groups. Although Muslim and Christian fundamentalism represent the largest numbers of those most affected, it does not rule out the inclusion of other fundamentalist and similarly minded groups.
In consideration of these hurdles the specter of seeing a mass migration of Third World peoples to North America, Europe, and prosperous East Asia is not just a possibility; it is a probability and we see it happening today.
Explosive population growth, environmental degradation, and climate change are so closely linked as to be inseparable. In March 2012 global population passed the 7 billion mark headed, according to current estimates, to somewhere around 9.1 billion by 2050. Ninety-five percent of the increase will occur in poor countries, which will experience increased instability due to needing to create jobs, increased food production to feed the many new mouths, and a general demand for services from governments whose resources are already stretched thin. These factors lead inevitably to more pressure on and destruction of the environment and natural systems further aggravating climate change and global warming generally.
The rapid industrialization of China, India and other areas in the Far East coupled with growth in Brazil and the rest of Latin America and parts of Africa is causing rapid deforestation across the planet. The depletion of the Earth’s natural bounty is proceeding at breath-taking speed. The world’s fisheries are already under extreme stress, the Arctic Ocean is expected to be ice-free well before the end of the 21st century due to climate change, and the full environmental implications and effects can only be guessed. In May 2013 the planet surpassed the 400 parts per billion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, reaching that level far faster than anyone anticipated. The effects will be seen more slowly, but the long-term impact is expected to be substantial on living systems and weather at all levels going forward.
The technological revolution that includes the rapid spread of global communications and telecommunications coupled with a host of new products symbolized by smartphones, laptop computers, I-Pads, and other products has been given an exponential boost by the explosion of social media bringing the whole planet to even the poorest most remote doorsteps. Images of Western lifestyles, consumer goods, and youth culture across the globe have penetrated the most remote corners of the planet.
Ambitious peasants no longer need a messianic untouchable to urge them to leave by boat for Europe or North America; they have seen the inducements every day in their village or on their personal television sets. Villagers in the poorest and most remote places have seen and have become aware of a better life beyond their doorstep, and more and more people are voting with their feet to seek a new beginning elsewhere.
Lastly, religious fundamentalists, whether they are Islamic, Judaic, Christian, Hindu, or other, cannot resolve their conflict with the scientific and technological reality of the 21st century. It is a world they cannot “understand and control.” The 21st century is colliding with the 10th.
Rising population and unemployment provide abundant fuel to feed many fundamentalists’ ire. In many North African cities unemployment rates among youth range from 40 to 70 percent, providing highly combustible levels of frustration among young men who turn with interest to the anti-Northern messages of fundamentalist mullahs or, equally significant, to tempting televised portrayals of European lifestyles.
Migration of human beings from one place to another is nothing new. Moving seems to be as much a part of human behavior as walking erect. Humans have been moving in organized groups and as streams of individuals or families for a variety of reasons from the time of our arrival on the East African Savanna. In fact, it was our growing population and overuse of resources that forced our distant ancestors to take to the road in the first place. Migration and movement of people is an important component of all history.
In the course of time, there has been a continuous movement of men, women, and children over the land like water spreading to cover the surface of an empty pan. This movement is always rearranging. We are driven by the floods of famine, war, political, and religious persecution, or simply by the desire to find a better life for our families and ourselves.
The United States is a product created by this movement of people, and mobility has been a continuing part of our national character to this day, expressed by examination of each census, beginning in 1790.
Extensive international migration is not new either, but factors influencing, and circumstances have changed in American historic times. The growth of the nation-state in the nineteenth century with its more highly defined borders plugged for a time the far more permeable boundaries of the past where the ebb and flow or permanent movement of peoples was common. A second factor has been the rapid increase in human population from one billion at the time of the American Revolution to over seven billion today. The greater population has magnified the potential for mass movement across borders.
These problems create a strong stimulus for international migration and ultimately strike at the heart of our collective definition of the modern nation-state and of relations between them; specifically, that a nation is a definable entity and controls its borders.
The immigration problem faced by the United States today is a condition brought about by many diverse elements and is part of a general world phenomenon rich nations face in relation to the poor nations. The lure of a better life and economic opportunity combined with incentives of famine, disease, war or persecution, are enough to encourage migration. Some estimates suggest, at this moment, as many as 100 million people on the planet are on the move. If so, it constitutes the largest movement of refugees in known history but is only a fraction of the more than two billion who are predicted to have to move due to climate change and global warming in the 21st century.
The stream of Third World refugees and illegal immigrants will continue growing, eroding our borders and pouring into our cities. There is every indication Third World problems of poverty, unemployment, overpopulation; disease, political instability, and environmental degradation will increase for the foreseeable future. These conditions will push even greater concentrations of Third World peoples toward our shores.
The United States is the only rich country in the world that borders directly and dramatically on the Third World. Mexico, with about one-third the population as the U.S., has more than 300,000 more births. In the whole of Latin America and the Third World millions of new jobs must be created each year just to handle the increase in the work-age population. The solution to the American immigration dilemma is not to be found in Washington, but more likely in Mexico City, Bogotá or Manila. Until a solution can be found to fundamental problems of health, overpopulation, environmental degradation, and employment, the streams of unwanted immigrants will continue flowing toward our doors.
We in the rich West no longer have the luxury of keeping ourselves at a “safe” distance from the real world by hiding behind country club gates. Consuming the fruits of the labors of peasants and poor people half a world away without experiencing the consequences of our continued indifference is no longer possible. While we see a world where the division of wealth is extreme and becoming more so, the ability to sustain such a situation for any length of time is becoming increasingly untenable.
Many may shriek with horror at the thought of being overrun by boat people from Asia, Africa, and Latin America for the old myths of Western superiority based on racial purity, the old “white man’s burden” fades slowly into the mists of time and memory. In the end, we must conclude Western Civilization has made its contribution. Its time is at end. We are evolving a planetary civilization and we must accept the verdict of history. We all have a stake in and responsibility for the welfare of all who inhabit this planet. Our habit of dividing, separating and hiding from the larger community is no longer possible. Each stream meets ultimately with a bigger stream and becomes part of it until it eventually reaches the sea. Our civilization has reached the sea.
The time is not far off we will see a flood of refugees winding their way toward our borders. It’s the inevitable result of our failure to address the needs of the Third World or the planet for centuries. We are creating the flood. We think we can contain it by building a wall at our southern border. Such logic is mind-boggling. Building a wall to stop refugees fleeing in desperation is akin to trying to prevent the river from flooding by building a dam at its mouth. The results are predictably the same. The dam would fail, and the wall will crumble.