When I was deciding what modern language to learn about fifty years ago, I remember deciding that Spanish would probably be most useful for me because I could easily predict an influx of Spanish speaking people into this country. I had no way of knowing then how this would serve me and how it would influence other choices that I would make in life. But my prediction has proven true, and my knowledge of Spanish, as is the mastering of any second language, has inevitably changed my character and world outlook. As a bi-lingual teacher, I found myself in a classroom full of eager students, just as bright as any American student I ever had, but severely disadvantaged because of their immigration and economic status. Some of those students are still close friends even twenty years later, I have heard their stories and I have come to know their children who are now in school in America.
My lessons of the history of Rome have not been lost on me. It is clear that there were serious social problems which led to the collapse of the great ancient civilizations, including Rome. Some of the factors were things like citizens and non-citizens, corruption, slavery, and even religion. The Roman Empire held off the barbarian migrations as best they could, but when they finally flooded in, everything changed. The classical period of European history was over and Europe entered into what was called the dark ages typified by feudal warfare, enormous economic disparity between the classes, and gross ignorance on the part of almost everybody, owing to there being almost no educational opportunities.
Is our 21st Century western civilization in an analogous situation and ready to plunge into another dark age? We have enough corruption, disparity of wealth distribution, slavery, religious fanaticism, teaming masses on our borders, and a class system of citizens and non-citizens to make our civilization look very much like Rome on the eve of its fall. In addition we have alternative civilizations wishing to destroy the civilization we have built because they consider it to be evil.
Of course it might not be so bad if the human population didn't breed like rabbits, especially in so-called developing countries, but our civilization has contributed to that through improved health care. Malthus was correct when he said that the human population was naturally controlled by famine, pestilence, and war. We have managed to fix most of those problems, and look, we have our human population totally out of control, so much so that scientists have named the age we are in the "anthropocine epoch" because of the significant effect the human race has on the planet's geology and ecosystems. We have had economic bubbles and recessions, but they are nothing compared to what could happen. A nuclear holocaust is only one possible scenario of a cataclysmic collapse of our civilization. The leaders of the world, and even the Pope, can not help but think of these issues from time to time. We have relative peace and prosperity in the world now. We better use this opportunity to solve some of the world's problems.
Of course it will probably not surprise anyone if I say I am not confident that the present direction of politics in the United States and even in Europe will lead in a better direction. Taking the problem of migration alone, it is easy to see how overwhelming it is, but in a way it is itself a consequence of colonialism and the post-colonial mercantilism that has resulted in the enrichment of the old colonial powers at the expense of the developing world. I cannot adequately describe the situation, but the immorality of it seems clear. So if, for example, the people in Honduras are poor, and that is why they want to migrate to the United States, it is really a problem of our own making, or at least the making of those who have preceded us in this world arena. If we think that the people of Honduras are just happy agricultural people (peasants)who live in paradise cutting bananas for our breakfast table, and that they have no aspirations beyond that, we are woefully wrong, because the Hondurans have television, and it is like having a window into our comfortable suburban dining rooms. They want the American dream too. So social unrest in Honduras prompts some parents to send their children north to seek a better life. Who can blame them? Then these innocent kids end up in our schools and on our inner city streets and are brutalized by the problems we have right here, mostly a legacy of racism and segregation. Some get involved with gangs and drugs, and some get deported back to Honduras, now as hardened criminals. Go figure! It is a vicious cycle of violence, and the legacy of the way white Americans have treated persons of color and native born Americans is part of that cycle of violence.
Pope Francis said, "Build bridges, not walls." It may be said that the Great Wall of China allowed Chinese civilization to prosper and continue to develop in an age of intense pressure of migration. Maybe it did, or maybe it didn't. I don't know. Hadrian's Wall in Britain may have allowed Roman civilization to continue somewhat longer than it might have without the wall, but eventually Roman Britain was overwhelmed by people coming from another direction. The Great Wall of China is visible from space. If you look at Google Earth, you can even see the fence between The United States and Mexico. If President Trump builds a "big beautiful wall", you will surely be able to see it from space. But what will be the effect of such a wall, and what will be its future? Obviously it is a useless expense because there will always be another way around it, or over it, or under it. In addition, it would be putting a separation between two areas, the South West of the United States and Mexico that at one time were all a part of Mexico. The people on each side of this unnatural border are mostly Chicano or Native Americans, except for the white Americans whose ancestors migrated into the area with their African slaves after it was taken from Mexico. For the native Americans, there has never been a meaningful border anywhere between the United States and Mexico, and for the Latinos, no matter how American they have become in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, they are still the same people as their relatives who live on the other side of the border. As for the migrants who come from Mexico or Central America to work and then return, many of them have families that span the border, and although many of them have the freedom to come and go across the border, others do not. The border is an enormous inconvenience and it is apparently going to get worse for them.
At the present time we have something close to eleven million undocumented people in the United States. We don't even know who they are. They are out of sight, out of mind. But they are here and their children are in school. There is a whole underground economy of people who are undocumented. They work hard and receive dollars en efectivo for what they do. If they have a green card and a social security card, they are not really undocumented at all, although their permission to stay here may be limited. Most undocumented people have no hope of ever becoming American citizens. The reason for such a high number of people without papers is because immigration has been so restricted that it is virtually impossible to emigrate to this country legally unless you are part of a preferred class, mainly the highly educated, who can contribute significantly to our economy. Family members of American Citizens can also apply and frequently receive permission to come, but the most needy people, the poor, the sick, the persecuted, the downtrodden, are systematically excluded, so they have to come in another way if they can make it, and many of them do.
Europe has an even more acute crisis of migration, mainly due to Islamic insurgency in the Middle East and in Africa. There is no wall between Europe and these areas, but there is a vast sea. Nevertheless, thousands have made their way into Europe driven by conditions made impossible for them at home by war and ethnic cleansing. Perhaps the European memory of the First and Second World Wars and the Holocaust has prompted them to take a somewhat different approach from what has been happening on the southwestern border of the United States for the past fifty years or more. In Europe asylum is being offered to persecuted people, and an assertive effort to settle them perhaps permanently in European countries is underway. I have an on-line Syrian friend who converted to Christianity and was being threatened by his Muslim friends and family. He managed to get out and is now safely in Sweden. Too many others have simply died attempting to cross the Mediterranean. It is interesting that Europe took down all border check points between countries in the European Union, and it became possible for people to move freely between countries and to work freely in any of the countries. So even though they are still divided by languages and culture, Europeans can freely travel throughout Europe. This has not been without problems, and Brexit is perhaps a sign of the disintegration. of Europe, just as Trump's ascendancy is a sign of the same type of disunity in America. But the example of Europe should be something for us to consider with regard to us and our neighbors.
Why can't America fix its immigration system? Clearly everyone agrees that the system is broken and is not working. There may be many who have taken advantage of the situation, and indeed its very brokenness may have resulted in the swarm of undocumented people we have in the country at present. But politicians have promised over and over again to pass comprehensive immigration legislation and have failed to do it for years and years. It seems to me that the political cost to any incumbent in office is just too high, and rather than comprehensive legislation to fix immigration, we end up with the issue becoming a political football, and the immigrants are the victims, with their situations unresolved. I have sometimes wished that the situation would become so bad that it would force Washington to do something. I may be getting my wish, but not in the way I like it.
Fundamentally I agree with the Pope that we should be building bridges, not walls. The American people and the Latin American people are closely tied economically and culturally. It is the same as the European people. We would all benefit from freedom of movement throughout our continent. We might also benefit from economic integration. Clearly the vast difference in the standard of living between different parts of America is not advantageous to anyone except very few, perhaps, and many of them are criminals. So instead of building a wall, I would urge Trump to build bridges, roads, and railroads linking the United States and Mexico. We should encourage tourism in both directions, and educational opportunities for young people. Our policy should be to help Latin American countries solve their economic and social problems. Most of the people on both sides of the border are of noble and friendly character. It seems to me that we should set out to make them our friends, not set them up to be our enemies by building a wall and saying we will make them pay for it. Sadly, I think that if we try to keep them out, they will come anyway. The historical record proves this to be true. Remember the fall of Rome.