Monday, September 7, 2009

Book Review, "Midnight on the Line"

Investigative reporter and author, Tim Gaynor, interviews smugglers, migrants, and the enforcers tasked with keeping them out, all along the US-Mexico border. His descriptions are vivid and real, because he is there. He walks where they walk, and for a short time, tries to live in their shoes. I am enraptured by the story.

Gaynor confirms my instincts that "one size fits all" solutions rarely work. On the fourteen foot double fence in urban areas there is no razor wire. No-one wants images of dead migrants hanging from a cruel fence. Rather, the mesh of the fence is too tight to get a toehold. The fence is formidable, but not deadly.

But these great double fences, heavily watched, would be ineffective across the great stretches of barren wilderness along the border. In the wilder areas, a border patrol can afford to allow a smuggler or illegal immigrant to spend a few days trekking to civilization. Often the harshness of the land does the work for them, and the fugitives are more than happy to be picked up. Out in the wilderness, a fascinating blend of horse-mounted trackers, military strength helicopters, and pilotless drones do their work.

What have I learned from the book? Real solutions requires us to not be too quick to lash out answers. Talk to the people on the front line. Walk with them and learn what they know. Different conditions may demand a variety of responses. Listen. Extra funding can help where workers are overwhelmed (i.e. Tijuana), if intelligently applied.

The root problem is we have an inequity, marked with a border. We've created "us versus them". Reduce the inequity, and the demand goes away. We are maybe not ready for a borderless world, but perhaps this humbling recession will reduce the strain.

Edited to add: Another gem from the book, which confirms my concern that throwing money at the problem can cause unintended results. At the very end of chapter 9, Corruption, page 226, public servants are nervous about mass hiring to fill in a gap. A similar mass hiring in Miami resulted in a sharp rise in corruption uncovered a few years later. Those in the know are concerned about hiring too many people at once, many who might be less qualified. Paul Charlton, a former US attorney in Arizona, states, "My greatest concern is that the public will lose faith in law enforcement and our government. You only have to look at government south of the border to understand what that means," he said, in reference to Mexico's corrupt authorities, regarded with a mixture of apprehension, contempt and despair by most Mexicant. "Once the public loses faith in its law enforcement, once they no longer trust that the individuals wearing uniforms are working to protect them but [see that] instead [they] are working for their own benefit, then there is a whole greater degree of lawlessness. That kind of disrespect actually attacks the fundamentals of our democracy."

I think the principle of trust between government and the governed is older than democracy. I quote Confucious, "Tzu Kung asked about governing, and the Master said 'Adequate supplies of food, adequate stores of munitions, and the confidence of the people.' Tzu Kung said, 'suppose you unavoidably had to dispense with one of these, which would you forgo? The Master said, 'Munitions.' Thereat Tzu Kung asked if of the remaining two he had to dispense with one, wich he would forgo. The Master said, 'Food; for all down history death has come to all men (and yet society survives); but the people who have no confidence (in their rulers) are undone.' "(xii. 7.)