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General News    H4'ed 3/25/19

Tomgram: William deBuys, 12 Ways to Make Sense of the Border Mess

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Who now remembers the classic 1956 sci-fi movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers? In it, alien spores drop to earth in... yes, California (undoubtedly not too far from the Mexican border)... and develop into seed pods that can replicate and then take over any nearby sleeping human being. What a nightmarish film. It certainly scared the hell out of 12-year-old me! What a terrifying, fantastical vision of alien "invasion" and "invaders," terms that are now as comfortable for President Trump and his base as they were for the murderous Brenton Tarrant in New Zealand recently. In fact, both men used similar terms on the same day. Tarrant posted a 74-page white-nationalist screed in which he swore that his killing spree was "to show the invaders that our lands will never be their lands." The president, vetoing a Congressional attempt to block his national emergency to build his "great, great wall," claimed that "people hate the word 'invasion,' but that's what it is."

Of course, Trump, who has long wanted to militarize the U.S.-Mexico border and raised the possibility of sending troops there in the first days of his presidency (finally doing so last year), has regularly claimed that the citizens of this country face a literal "invasion" of aliens. As he tweeted last October, "This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!" He was then focused on one of the "caravans" of several thousand refugees from various devastated Central American countries who wanted to reach the border safely to present themselves as candidates for asylum here. Significantly -- as TomDispatch regular and border expert William deBuys points out today -- the cast of "invaders" crossing that border in recent years, like those filling the caravans, has increasingly been made up of parents (often mothers) and children.

In New Zealand, Tarrant's response to such "invaders" -- Muslims, not Mexicans or Central Americans -- was to slaughter 50 people, the youngest a three year old, the oldest 78. n the U.S., it's been other kinds of cruelty, but in both cases, the perpetrators are living in a distinctly sci-fi world in which modern versions of those body snatchers are the norm and, to take but one example, El Paso, Texas, was essentially the crime capital of the United States until it got its border wall. (It wasn't faintly, but no matter.) So believe me, it's a relief to leave the Trumpian body-snatching version of the border behind for a moment as deBuys explores what the realities of those borderlands actually are. Tom

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How to Make a Difficult Situation Awful
Or Why Donald Trump's Great Wall Is Viagra for Him, But a Border Disaster
By William deBuys

Borders are cruel. I know this because I've been studying the U.S.-Mexico border for more than 40 years. It features prominently in two of my books, written in different decades. It keeps pulling me back. Every time I cross that border, I say to myself that this is no big deal -- I'm used to it. And every time, I feel that familiar fear-or-flight jolt of adrenaline and hear the inner warning: Watch out! Things go wrong here.

The border is cruel because it gives some people what they want and denies the needs of almost everybody else. Still, the hopeful come, lately in swelling numbers. Sadly, the cruelty of the border has ratcheted upward. It didn't have to. U.S. policies have added unnecessary meanness to the innate hurt of the dividing line we share with Mexico. Here are a dozen "realities" of the border that I try to keep in mind while mulling the latest disasters.

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1. Nothing will "fix" the border, not a wall, not troops, not presidential bombast

Some of the thousands of families from Central America now streaming to the border and surrendering themselves to U.S. authorities are desperate because crop failure and poverty have denied them the means of subsistence. Others are desperate because the gangs that now control large portions of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador threaten them with murder, extortion, and persecution. In many cases the families are desperate for both reasons.

This is an immigration phenomenon of recent vintage, but it belongs to an old tradition. Steep differences in wealth, opportunity, and political security divide the societies on either side of the border and, as long as those differences exist, have-nots on the poorer side will keep trying to join the haves on the other.

Unsolvable predicaments like this require management -- continuous care, if you will -- in the same way that chronic disease or steadily rising sea levels require it. Our efforts to manage the situation can be wise or stupid, mostly benign or downright sadistic, cost-effective or absurdly wasteful, realistic or hallucinatory. The task facing this country is to make it less awful and more humane than we have so far shown much talent for doing.

2. Donald Trump's "Great Wall" is about gratification, not immigration

For every complex problem, there exists a simple solution -- which is completely wrong. In the case of the U.S.-Mexico border, Exhibit A is the president's proposal to build a 30-foot-high (or 55-foot-high), 1,900-mile (or 1,000-mile) wall -- the president's numbers vary with the moment -- to provide security. The imperative behind his fixation arises from his boisterous, demagogic, and chronically over-counted political rallies. More than Fox News, more than the sycophants who surround him, the rallies are the mirror before which he preens. They are his political Viagra, a drug that takes effect when the crowd begins to chant. Even two years into his presidency, Trump can't stop talking about Hillary Clinton and, when he mentions her, his admirers rock the rafters, yelling "Lock her up!" It's the MAGA mob's way of reconfirming that he hates who we hate, which is the DNA of Trump's appeal.

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Another chant at every rally is invariably "Build the Wall!" Its origins are instructive. The problem the border wall was initially intended to address was candidate Trump's lack of mental discipline. It began as a mnemonic. Advisers Roger Stone and Sam Nunberg wanted to ensure that Trump pushed the hot button of immigration at his campaign rallies. They correctly thought that the simple, monosyllabic notion of a wall would help him remember to do so.

The Trump campaign soon learned that invocations of a wall embraced a larger range of prejudices. Like yelling about Hillary, it indulged the visceral enjoyment of hatred. It celebrated keeping people out and putting them in their place. It was racist, but more than that as well. The incantation "Build the wall!" conjured up walling out and excluding everything that was threatening -- dark-skinned people, scary ideas, social and economic change, even complexity itself. Trump's present desire is not so much to build an actual wall as to keep the chant going or, even better for purposes of the 2020 election, to morph it into "We built the wall!"

3. Support for a border wall decreases the closer you get to the actual border

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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