The shutdown is over—for the moment anyway—and the country is breathing a sigh of relief. However, the drama over the imaginary need for an ineffective, un-American “wall” (or steel slats, or intermittent fencing, or other symbolic barrier) continues.
We, the American public, are told that this “wall” is vital to our safety and security, that we are in grave, immediate danger from “caravans” composed of hordes of dangerous invaders. In reality, the wall is imaginary. Even the concept is fictitious. The language used to talk about “the wall” evokes the picture of an impenetrable concrete rampart along the length of the southern border, but this picture does not resemble any realistic possibility for a partition. “The wall” is a symbol which serves to stoke and capitalize on fear, insularity, and hatred born of racism and xenophobia. The rhetoric around it misleads the public, inflates and invents threats, and strips the humanity from the nameless Others against which it purports to defend.
In 1948, Woody Guthrie wrote a song, “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” about Mexican farm workers who died being deported from California. It begins,
The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting,
The oranges piled in their creosote dumps;
They’re flying ’em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adiós mis amigos, Jesús y Maria;
You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be deportees
and goes on to describe the pain caused by dehumanizing, othering and outright vilifying immigrant workers:
Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract’s out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.
In 2019 as in 1948, public discourse and escalating cruel policies toward immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers shape the public’s mental picture of these human beings—people who we need to make our economy work—into the worst kind of criminals. President Trump’s language in calling for “the wall” is as lurid and extreme as he can contrive, far harsher than “outlaws, rustlers, and thieves.” He plants images in the public imagination of horrific human trafficking practices, enormous loads of illegal drugs coming through unmonitored sections of the border, and hordes of crazed and violent gang members storming into the United States and wreaking untold criminal mayhem. These images are fictions that stoke fear and hatred among the public. They also draw attention away from real problems like the way human trafficking and drug smuggling actually happen at the border, and the real sources and causes of crime within the US. The more Americans’ anger and fear of immigrants is inflamed, the easier it is to accept and justify cruelty like family separation, caging and withholding care and medical attention from children, tear-gassing refugees on foreign soil and other atrocities.
Data tells us that undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than US citizens. Our economy relies, as it always has, on the labor of immigrants, many of whom are unauthorized, to do the work that most Americans will not, at wages that most Americans will not accept. This labor force is as crucial on the Eastern Shore as it is in other parts of the country: crab picking, agriculture, construction, and many other industries cannot function without these workers. More importantly, basic human decency and American founding principles of equality, liberty, and an open society demand that we welcome those who come here seeking refuge or opportunity.
“The wall” does not need to be contiguous or unbreachable, or even built, to fulfill its true purpose. To people who wish to come to this country, “the wall” signals that while the rich and powerful American nation might be willing to allow desperate people who cross the treacherous desert with their children seeking refuge and safety to clean our toilets and pick our peaches at low wages, we will do so while communicating as brutally as possible that they are feared, hated, and unsafe on our shores. The message to the American public is that that we need extreme levels of protection, and that fear and hatred directed toward refugees and asylees is reasonable.
It is our American tradition and heritage, a primary defining component of our national identity, to enfold immigrants into our population. This tradition makes our national community stronger and healthier. It is also part of our history to exploit them, to abuse them, to bring our basest and most fearful instincts of insular hatred, racism, and distrust to bear on our treatment of newcomers. The first of these traditions moves us toward a more perfect union; the second holds us back and deepens a shameful stain on our history and our national character. Let us work to strengthen the former and extinguish the latter on the Eastern Shore and throughout the country.
Let us resist all encouragement to ignore or dismiss the humanity of those we perceive as foreign or different from ourselves. Let us remember that the people crossing the United States’ southern border have names and families and that America is strongest and healthiest when we treat everyone according to our best national ideals of equality, liberty, and opportunity
Maria Wood returned to academic life in 2014, after a two-decade career in the music business, earning a BA in American Studies and a Certificate in Ethnomusicology from Smith College in 2018. Most recently, she served as Deputy Campaign Manager for Jesse Colvin for Congress.