It was utter coincidence that while the immigration debate began raging anew in the US media and tighter restrictions along the US-Mexican border were being called for, I visited Mexico in June for the first time.
I flew into Mexico via Phoenix, Arizona, the current hotbed state of the political debate about immigration. On April 23, 2010, Arizona governor Jan Brewer signed a tough new anti-immigration law, SB1070, which gives power to local and state police to demand immigration papers from anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. Scheduled to take effect on July 29, 2010, this state law immediately caused a national uproar. On July 6, 2010, President Obama’s US Justice Department filed a lawsuit against it, arguing that it would “hinder the current efforts underway from the federal government to curtail illegal activities at the border, including the pursuit of terrorists, gang members and other criminals.” They argued that the law would divert their focus from capturing these people and instead “waste time and resources on those who may not have committed crimes” and by causing “the detention and harassment of authorized visitors, immigrants and citizens, who might be unfairly singled out.”
During a visit to Isleta (Little Island in Spanish), Indian Reservation outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, a tribal police officer once told me about the fascinating history of the US-Mexican border. Prior to 1519 Native American Indians did not draw borders, and it was only after 1535 when Spain established a colonial government did the various border lines get drawn multiple times until they became what we see today. Having grown up in Ireland, I understand the consequences of arbitrary lines being drawn on a map, and the resulting – often violent – north and south divide of a country.
974 miles south of the US-Mexican border in the sleepy Mexican town of Todos Santos (All Saints), I came upon a charming hotel in the center of town – Hotel California. It was a vivid illustration of how similar life is north and south of the border. In the leafy garden café a Mexican guitar player sang the lyrics of the famous Eagles song, “Hotel California” (no connection to this hotel despite rumors to the contrary), and as I explored the sun-drenched garden courtyard with a sparkling blue swimming pool surrounded by brightly painted walls in shades of blues and reds, his voice filled the air: “How they dance in the courtyard, sweet summer sweat…some dance to remember, some dance to forget… welcome to the Hotel California, such a lovely place, (such a lovely place,)…” Alongside bold paintings of local artist Gabo, the palm trees swayed to the late afternoon rhythm of the music.
The hotel manager told me about the thriving local arts scene and the large number of painters, sculptors and artisans who call Todos Santos home, as well as the vibrant American ex-pat community that lives here – no doubt lured by the beauty of this palm groove oasis which overlooks the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Sierra de la Laguna mountain range on the other. Here they live out their lives relatively cheaply and comfortably south of the border.
Meanwhile, up north in Washington, D.C, President Obama tackles the thorny issue of national immigration reform. History teaches us that borders don’t always work smoothly and that comprehensive and just immigration reform is the only real solution to border conflicts everywhere.
Returning to New York from Mexico, once again I changed planes in Phoenix, Arizona. And as I sat in the large airport terminal, I watched the flow of people around me – each one hurrying to be someplace else. Our world has become an increasingly smaller place, and around the world every day millions of people move back and forth across borders between countries to study, to visit, to retire and to work, and I am reminded that in order for this flow to be smooth and safe, borders must work fairly – in both directions.
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