THE AMERICAN DREAM DROWNS AT THE RIO GRANDE
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.
— Robert Frost, The Mending Wall
Unless you actively avoid all forms of digital interaction, you’ve likely seen the profoundly harrowing photo of a drowned Salvadorian father and his daughter on the Rio Grande’s shore. I’ll refrain from republishing it, but for those of you who have not seen it, I direct you to the the Texas Tribune’s story of how Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 2-year-old daughter, Valeria, lost their lives while attempting to cross the river’s treacherous waters.
Taking a step back and employing a rhetorical device that I’ve apparently come to rely on in this newsletter, let’s imagine that the year is 2040. The United States has divided itself into autonomous territories that fall roughly along the former state lines: there is the South, the Northeast, the Plains, the West, and the Pacific Northwest. There are strict borders, checkpoints, and walls. People who once held American passports are now relegated to the territories they occupied before secession. The climate crisis, already a cataclysmic disaster that has consumed Miami, Manhattan, Charleston, most of San Francisco, and parts of Los Angeles, has rendered most of these territories unlivable. The South is plagued with viruses spread by mosquitos, there is widespread famine, and crippling heat waves. The Northeast also struggles to feed its citizens with the rationed grains sent from the Plains; banks frequently seize many of these food shipments to distribute amongst clients who have paid for first rights. Drinkable water remains scant throughout the Eastern coast. Millions of refugees from Southern territories on both sides of the continent attempt to escape the perilous conditions by moving North and West. Your cousins, your friends, you parents, and your loved ones that somehow became foreign “illegals” (or more palatably: “undocumented”) at the drop of a bureaucratic hat want to join you in the West, where there is more food and only slightly more bearable conditions. They trudge towards the continental divide, where they are stopped at checkpoints and detained in shipping containers. Some decide to risk death and traverse the Rockies, others make the potentially fatal estimation that crossing the Colorado River, which has been damned to near oblivion, might be more feasible.
Hundreds of thousands of those waiting for entry into the Western territories die from extreme heat exposure, and even more people die attempting to navigate unguarded natural barriers. But there is precedent, lawmakers argue, for these walls and border policing. It is an unfortunate truth, they say, that during calamity not everyone can be saved. You concede that this is indeed accurate: people will die, especially the older among us whose tolerance for heat is naught and the younger among us whose tolerance for disease is naught. But another truth troubles you: what gives the Western territory the right to impede access to clean water and nutrition? And to deny these people a chance at survival — surely this is inhumane and unethical? It is our duty to protect borders and our assets, the lawmakers will retort, even against those who we once called our fellow Americans. Confronted by this authoritarian line: do you acquiesce? Or do you fight?
To some, this scenario might seem inconceivable. I urge you to recall the aftermath of World War II, when families in Germany found themselves split between different countries overnight. Recall the occupation and blockade of Palestine. Recall Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014 without much international challenge. Recall Sudan, which fractured into two autonomous regions in 2011 and continues to fight today. Most of the Western United States was a part of Mexico until 1848, and surely we can recall that this great nation of ours comitted genocide while carrying the banner of democracy. There are innumerable examples, but I hope you understand my point: Borders move, but the people are paralyzed.
Keeping our imagined future in mind, let’s return to the tragic deaths of Óscar and Valeria. While they might not hold a United States passport, they are our fellow humans, our fellow Homo sapiens. Unlike the invariable migration crisis that global heating will trigger, our current crisis is almost entirely manufactured. Worse, it is almost entirely the fault of the United States, which has relentlessly intruded into Central American politics with the goal of decreasing labor costs and increasing corporate profits. As the United States’ wealth swells, violence and severe poverty devastates El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (all of which were thrown into chaos by the US backed coups of democratically elected governments). Is our government not responsible for the people whose lives it upends and exploits? Will we watch idly as these kindred souls die chasing freedom and the illusion of an American Dream that we hold so dear?
Importantly, too, we must also ask ourselves: Are Óscar and Valeria any different from those who could be stranded on the unlucky side of a potentially splintered United States? Do borders make us any less human? Does one territory have the right to prohibit the free movement of peoples? If the answer is yes, we should consider the fluidity of borders throughout history. If the answer is no, we should consider how a nation’s relative wealth empowers its borders and how this contributes to the distorted notion that an organized community must be enclosed to be considered valid. Furthermore, if borders are constantly being redrawn, whose land is it anyway? Western “pioneers” (more accurately: “migrants”) certainly didn’t regard the Native American territorial boundaries with the same authority.
As for the urgent situation at the border, there are a few bandaids you and I can apply to temporarily alleviate the suffering of our earthly brothers and sisters. We can support or even join the aid workers who are risking prison to strategically place food and water at perilous crossing points along the border. We can donate to the legal funds of refugees and their representation. We could flood the border in California, Arizona, and Texas, en masse to demand that detained children and adults be reunited then released. We could show up at internment camps in Florida and Oklahoma and demand the same. But the way I see it, there is only one option to prevent more avoidable deaths, to keep innocent people out of cages, and to assuage the world’s increasingly tense nationalism: Burn down these walls! Demolish borders now! —Eleanor Sheehan