Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Walls and Borders

I've seen this now in two different articles on the subject of the border, and immigration policy, and I can't stand it any more: pictures of Hadrian's Wall, which the Romans built "to keep out the Scots."

Well, no, they didn't. They built Hadrian's Wall, and its northern neighbor the Antonine Wall, to keep out the Picts, who lived in Scotland in the first couple of centuries AD and didn't like the Romans very much. If you're interested, you'll find a good article on the Romans in Scotland here, see p. 4 of the article for the history of the walls. Or you can read Rosemary Sutcliff's classic novel, Eagle of the Ninth, which will be a lot more fun. It's classed as a "young adult" novel but I can read it still.

In fact, the "Scots" or Scoti as they're sometimes called, came to Scotland from Ireland, where they settled around the third or fourth century AD; they moved to Scotland and united with the Picts against the Saxons and Danes, around the 7th-8th century AD. You'll find a rather wordy history of the Scots at www.electricscotland.com. I'm not sure how much I trust their scholarship but it repeats stuff I've read elsewhere.

Getting back to borders with walls on them: we just don't learn, do we? Walls don't keep people out; they just make them mad. The people who smirk and quote Robert Frost, "Good fences make good neighbors", haven't read the whole poem. Frost was extremely dubious about fences.

This particular set of proposed walls is not just expensive, ineffectual, and stupid; it's expensive, ineffectual, stupid, and racist.I observe nobody's proposing a wall on the Canadian border, even though it's quite as porous as the Mexican border and a whole lot easier to walk across in the summer. And as I mentioned in my post on the Dubai Ports World mess, we're at a whole lot more risk from stuff smuggled into a seaport in a container, because only 5% of them are ever inspected. They could put a whole Al Qaeda strike unit inside, an Islamic Trojan horse, and who'd know?

And at least a third of the people who enter the country illegally each year don't come from Mexico at all, and if they do, don't sneak across the border: they come in legally on a visa, and they just never go home. We'd do far more for national security to spend the money on beefing up port security.


  1. Anonymous7:36 AM

    Seems like I read a story once about how the United States build a dome over the country so it could finally keep the foreigners out. As I recall the rest of the world was pretty happy with that!

  2. Anonymous6:38 PM

    hedera, I'm not sure which method would prove the most effect, but something needs to be done to secure the borders and the seaports. If we would quit hemorraging money & lives down the Iraqi rathole and bring the troops home, maybe we could turn our attention to the immigration problem. Not addressing the reality of thousands of mystery people crossing our border, is no way to run a country or keep it safe, secure and free.

  3. I wish there were easy answers to this situation, cooper. Stephen is probably right that the rest of the world would be happy right now if we built a dome.

    Frankly, I think we should allow more people to immigrate. Most of the people who come are the same sort of immigrants as the ones who came through Ellis Island, or for that matter the same as my grandparents, who came down from Canada in 1921. They're looking for a better life, and on the way they make the country better.

    The issue with the current "immigration problem" is that the only immigrants anybody really worries about are the Mexican immigrants; and that's just stupid, as well as racist. It's this week's racist flavor du jour: a hundred years ago the signs said "No Irish need apply;" seventy odd years ago it was the Italians, and everybody was freaking out because they were "southerners" (i.e. had darker skin) and were lazy and shiftless; and then it was the Poles, they were stupid... does this sound familiar? All racism is pretty much alike, it's not even original.

    I'll tell you one thing: I've been watching a gang of construction workers remodel the house next door, and I'm morally certain most of them are undocumented Hispanics, and you can NOT say these guys are lazy!

    You're right about one thing, which is that with the flood of undocumented people who mean well, it's much too easy for a few to slide in who don't mean well. I think the answer is better immigration programs, not border fences.

  4. Anonymous9:23 PM


    Thanks for giving my likely Pict ancestors their due. I do come from a long line of pains-in-the-ass.

    Yeah, Mexicans are damned good, quite capable workers, based on what I've seen.

    This immigration hoopla is nothing more than an election year load of dingoes kidneys, with Republicans hyping the threat-of-a-dirty-bomb-coming-across-the-Rio-Grande angle. Karl Rove strikes again, larger social consequences be damned (just like the Lee Atwater/James Baker/Bush Junior Willie Horton ad in 1988, which Senior had to be talked into using). Certainly hope the backlash in the Latino community keeps gaining momentum. Would love to see some humongous rallies.
    WASP America is too brain dead at this point to qualify as a treasure to be preserved, especially since their one potential virtue, devotion to the Bill of Rights, seems to have gone the way of valid elections in Florida. Besides, we're all immigrants, including the Native Americans, who came across from Asia, if I remember correctly.

    It's not like bad people are displacing good people. That phenomenon occurred in Washington in large numbers beginning in 1994 and culminating in the appointment of Junior in 2000. This is just people struggling to get to what they believe is a better place. There are smart things we could do - we won't. There are really dumb things we could do - we will.

    Smart electoral politics in America has become synonymous with really dumb, really simple-minded policy proposals/claims/dissembling
    and relentless fear-mongering.

    Anonymous, apparently pissed David

  5. Anonymous11:53 AM

    Well, from the position of living a mere 11 miles from the border with Mexico, there are a few points to consider. The first point to get out of the way concerns people in general. There are, perhaps, more per-capita hard working immigrants in the US than per-capita born and bred types. This is most likely normal. If you immigrate somewhere for economic improvement, you are very likely to work your bunnies off regardless of being a legal or illegal immigrant. If you are born in the US, you may well be a proponent of the Puritan work ethic, or you may be more laid back on a sliding scale of not quite verticle to totally horizontal - even if that means living at home at 30something with a fine paying job the proceedes of which is your pocket money.

    Okay, outside of the Oh no, Those People Are Differnt that Hedera so clearly pointed out is nothing new, what is the problem with illegal immigration as seen down here? Most illegal immigrants work at lower to even lower paying jobs. If you are not legally in a country, and you are being paid in cash, even possibly not minimum wage, your avenues for complaining about much of anything connected with your job are limited. You most likely don't have medical insurance. This means avoiding going to the doctor when ill, which is neither good for you nor society in general. Then, for instance, if injured and having no choice about going to the doctor, you may run into embarrasing questions that lead to a combination of medical care and a visit from immigration. (I'm shortcutting things here, but you get the point.)

    The local hospital that treated you is not reimbursed for your medical treatement. Between uninsured illegal immigrants for whom no governmental enity reimburses the hospital, and compassionate entry, where a seriously ill or injured individual is allowed through the border checkpoint to go to the hospital, hospitals down here have problems. The illegal immigrant doesn't pay. The compassionate entry individual doesn't pay. Hospitals close to the border have simply gone under and closed as a result of such financial problems. We're not even going into the pregant woman who crosses the border, has her baby in a local hospital, leaves without paying, and with a bona fide American citizen. (I understand there are countries where a child born in country is automatically a citizen only if the parents are also citizens.)

    If you are being paid under the table, and often sending a large portion of what you earn back home, you seek out the cheapest living accommodations, which results in very legally resident landlords renting small apartments to way too many people. These living situations get dire, no one is really in charge, or knows what is really going on in the apartment or house, and so are local slums maintained. This is not the renters' fault as they are being taken advantage of, but once again, they have no avenue or redress. They are also, due to their illegal status, subject to pressure from those operating on the dark side of the law both here and in Mexico. They get taken advantage of on a regular basis.

    Of course, if you are being paid cash and sending as much as possible back to the folks at home do you pay taxes? No? then local amenities are being maintained by everyone else, and you get to use them scot free.

    The school system takes a big hit here, because eventually, people being people, illegal immigrants marry or do manage to get their families over the border. X amount of tax dollars divided by Y number of students becomes a diminishing return when not all of those students' parents pay taxes. Then there are the students who live across the border, give the school authorities addresses in town where they do not live, and cross over every day to go to school in the US for free. (The schools don't have the resources to verify residency, and they say they aen't immigration officers.) This also puts pressure on the school to provide second language learner classes which are needed by the in country immigrant as well as the border crosser - more stress on the tax dollars.

    I won't go on with examples, because you can see the drift. The point is illegal immigrants have few to little rights. They are at the mercy of those who see ways to benefit from their illegal status or perhaps lack of legal status. Do they take jobs that otherwise might go begging for employees? Sure they do, and most of them provide decent work for their minimum wages.

    What is needed is a way to give such immigrants legal status that will provide them with the same "rights" as the rest of us. This doesn't necessarily mean anmesty. Most folks in this country legally have ancestors who came through Ellis or Angel Islands. Prejudice or objective, not everyone who arrived was allowed to stay. We need a guest worker program, because not everyone who comes wants to stay. This would also allow government pressure on employers who hire illegal immigrants.

    We need to offer illegal imigrants a chance to apply for legal status - messy as that will be with the numbers involved. This will also solve the problem of adults brought to this country as small children who are illegal immigrants. They grew up here, yet their illegal status limits their job and social oportunities. If, and often when, their illegal status comes to the notice of the authorities, they can be sent back to a country they don't remember, whose language they speak imperfectly, and denied any possible chance of returning to the US.

    Unfortunately, sorry, but some folks may have to be escorted out. Some folks who apply under ordinary curcumstances are denied entry. Perhaps the rules or guidelines need revision, that I do not know, but successfully getting in illegally is not usually an automatic acceptance of an individual's presence. No country takes everyone who applies. No employer does either. Many clubs don't. Universities don't. I'm just saying either you have rules, or, in the case of immigration, you have open borders for all.

  6. Anonymous12:02 PM

    Sorry, That first paragraph:
    ...in the US than per-capita hard working born and bred types...

  7. There are no easy answers here, are there, boggart? All you say is true. I agree that we have to have some kind of controls; and maybe not everybody gets in. But we have to come up with something better than a 700 mile fence; and we certainly have to come up with something better than what we have now.

    The real statement - there was a letter to the editor in the S. F. Chronicle today on this subject - is that Americans would take the jobs now taken by illegal immigrants if they paid a living wage. Even the soi disant "minimum wage" now is not enough to rent a one-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country at market rates. And as you righly note, illegal immigrants generally don't even get minimum wage. How did we come to value physical labor so poorly?

  8. Anonymous2:02 PM

    I think the value of physical labor dropped when the idea that the more money you make the smarter you are. You hear “work smart, not hard” all the time. The idea being that only stupid people actually have to work hard. Dumb kids take shop, go to VoTech schools, work outside, etc. If you are smart, you work indoors, making lots of money for no real effort. Media hasn’t really helped change this perception, the blue-collar types are all a little slow, the white collar types are shown with lots of leisure time and all the money they need. (Well, they were when I watched TV; I can’t imagine it has changed.) Curiously, welfare culture comes into this too, since I know people who would rather sit at home getting welfare, than work at Wal-Mart or something “beneath my dignity”. Immigrants work the low paying, no glory jobs because no one else would sully their hands with it. How many kids do you know that grow up saying “I want to be a ditch digger when I grow up!”

    I grew up helping my dad with his construction company. I was told to work smart AND hard. I try to pass that on to my children. While I have more education than my father and can do some things he can’t, the same certainly applies in reverse. Why don’t we value the person with “menial” skills? The early settlers and pioneers had to be able to do everything and do it well to survive. I know that specialization was a necessary side effect of the industrial revolution, but can’t we still value those people with “low tech” skills? Too many people see the only education of value to be a formal one. Unless you are a teacher, then you have years of education and still get squat for wages, but that is a whole other rant. Or if you are a professional athlete, then you make millions a year for being able to catch a ball, no education required! What is UP with that?

    Sorry, I need some quiet time.

  9. Stephen, we're starting to get into a rant I was composing but hadn't finished yet. My father was a blue collar laborer, he drove forklifts at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, and moved officers in and out of quarters; eventually he rose to become a Leadingman Laborer. (There's a title for you.) As for working smart, I have the award he got from the Navy for ten years of supervision without a lost-time accident; having worked in construction, you'll appreciate that.

    He never bought anything in his life if he could make it. He never paid anyone else to fix a thing if he could fix it, although as he got older and cars got more computerized, he kind of had to give up on them. He was the only person in his family to graduate from high school; it took him until he was 21. He and mother insisted that my sister and I go to college and get "good" jobs; and maybe that's what you're saying.

    I never thought there was anything wrong with doing mechanical work, or with working outside (although after the skin cancers began to develop, we had to persuade Dad to wear hats).

    Do NOT get me started on professional athletes... or, for that matter, teachers' salaries.

  10. Anonymous8:32 AM


    I know exactly what you mean. I was the first in my family to graduate from college. My parents were thrilled, my Dad especially. He actually went back and got his Associates about 8 years ago. Never stopped construction because he loves it and, IMHO, he is one of the best. Thanks to him I really enjoy working outdoors and am able to do a lot of stuff on my own. Building-wise anyway, can’t work on a car to save my life!

    I hope I didn’t come off as disrespecting blue collar workers. That was the exact opposite of what I had in mind. I have a lot of admiration for people who can fix mechanical things. Some times I have a hard time being proud of what I do because no one understands it right off. How do you explain telecommunications? I just get a blank stare. :-)

  11. Stephen,
    No, I didn't get the impression that you don't respect blue collar workers, and I don't think anyone could read your post and think that.

    I sympathize with you about telecomm, though - at one point in my life I was a (wait for it) mainframe systems programmer. Try explaining that at a cocktail party; it's worse than telecom. At least people know what a phone is... Now that I've reached the august job description of "architect", I sometimes say that I design computer systems; but mostly I just say, "I do computers."