The baby boom spawned me as it spawned the geraniums beside the two-car garage, as it unearthed hydrocarbons to churn out transistor radios, Chevy Impalas, flights to Hawaii, Tupperware parties and Apollo moon missions. The breakdown of Earth’s climate quietly tracked the passage of our lives, and some standards of living were sacrificed for others.
In retrospect, it’s obvious. From 1961, as this map shows, crop production in the equatorial regions have declined on account of human-driven climate change, with some African and Central American regions losing forty percent.
And so it continues. Today, more people are in danger of displacement for climate than for armed conflict.
Harvard Kennedy School-educated Carlos Salinas de Gortari paved the way for NAFTA, by undoing José López Portillo’s 1982 nationalization of Mexico’s banks. Bill Clinton signed NAFTA in 1993, opening Mexico to cheap U.S. corn. Small Mexican farms and shops faltered as U.S. retailers moved in to sell products cheaply made in Asia. Goodyear, which didn’t have to pay union wages to Mexicans, offered just $1.88 per hour, according to Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. And that is how U.S. capitalists betrayed their country’s working class, even as they supercharged Mexico’s inequality.
What can stop the movement of people whose children are hungry? Humans, like all primates, evolved to survive on the run.
The U.S. government built its first border fence between 1909 and 1911—”to prevent cattle from wandering between the countries,” wrote Rachel St. John in Smithsonian Magazine. Built along California’s southern edge, the fence was made of barbed wire—a contemptible invention that followed our destruction of ecosystems to promote animal agribusiness.
In the 1940s, continued St. John, “the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service coordinated with the International Boundary and Water Commission to erect chain-link barriers on the border. More fences, a border patrolman later acknowledged, forced unauthorized migrants through dangerous mountains, deserts and rivers” to get around the fencing.
Bill Clinton’s border fortification in the 1990s exacerbated the hazards and resulted in thousands of deaths.
The U.S. government now purports to “help illegal aliens”—knowing that’s the language of disparagement, disdain, and death. After all, killing, as psychologist Richard Koenigsberg incisively observes, is the nation’s right. This, though the nation virtue-signals its love for the tired, poor, homeless, and tempest-tost…
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.
…but where in Heaven’s name is this almighty empathy? Where is it right now? Over the past fiscal year, as unendurable heat descended on the southern hemisphere, 748 migrants died crossing into the United States. Seven hundred and forty-eight migrants fell to their deaths; they drowned; they baked in the desert.
Never mind the New Colossus. We pledge allegiance, under God, to a political construct that thwarts humanity’s birthright to move across our own planetary habitat.
Imagine dying of heat. You lose your way, you stumble, you can’t carry your things. Your head pounds; your body gasps. You pull your clothes off. Nausea overwhelms you. You fall into convulsions, and finally lose consciousness, as your overloaded heart fails. Our government knows this happens daily. It collects the mummified bodies. But discrimination, based on a made-up otherness, a constructed enemy status, keeps feeding the cruelty.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection is one of the world’s largest law enforcement agencies. “Charged with keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the U.S. while facilitating lawful international travel and trade,” it also feeds on the existential fear in people fleeing scorched farms and rising sea levels. All the better to hunt them with, it’s buying K9 robots from Ghost Robotics, a company willing to equip its robots with long-range guns. (Another company, Boston Dynamics, is famous for its K9 robots; but its ethical principles forbid the weaponization of its products.)
Ghost Robotics trained the robot dogs near El Paso, where the conditions—oxygen depletion, dangerous heat—are known to overwhelm border guards. An announcement for the project from the Department of Homeland Security is peppered with inane dog jokes. Consider the depths of this profanity. The borderlands once belonged to the indigenous people of Mexico, and to the coyotes and wolves, to the agave-feeding nectar bats. And to the pronghorn—antelope-like beings who cannot jump fences. Is it any accident that the Real ID Act of 2005, by which the U.S. government imposes its authority over state identification cards, allows the waiving of federal, state, and local environmental laws on the borderlands?
Border survivors linger in hundreds of U.S. warehouses. The profit potential of Geo Group (formerly Wackenhut) and CoreCivic (née Corrections Corporation of America) isn’t lost on investors keen to scrape some money out of the New York Stock Exchange. In a time of climate breakdown, companies that commodify human displacement stand to make ample gains.
The grimly named Department of Homeland Security, which oversees detention contracts, was formed in the GWBush-Ashcroft-Cheney era—a time of acute fear that led Congress to disband the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Why haven’t Barack Obama or Joe Biden put the DHS to rest and brought back the INS? Surely, reorganizing agencies that control migrants, and ending the corporate warehousing of noncitizens, would be steps forward in the pursuit of, as Biden calls it, decency?
This is not to say that bringing back the Immigration and Naturalization Service is enough. It was the INS, under Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department, that signed the first migrant detention contract when the Corrections Corporation of America “founded the corrections management industry in 1983.” Donald Trump could easily hold a blatant disregard for the lives of noncitizens (“These aren’t people. These are animals”) in a culture that considers animals and some people subhuman. Steve Bannon, of course, got charged for failing to send money to build the wall—not for promoting the killer wall itself.
Under Bill Clinton, a pair of 1996 laws—the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act—expanded the categories of noncitizens who face mandatory detention, so that judges can’t examine their individual circumstances. This set of laws was fortified by the Bush-Cheney era USA-PATRIOT Act of 2001, by which noncitizens can be detained without hearings, without any showings that the detainee poses a danger or a flight risk. Should we be shocked now, as social control finds its way into every corner of our political and personal lives? As citizens are rewarded for turning their peers over to the police state? When a divide-and-conquer mentality becomes the keynote of a culture?
A case in point is the white supremacist “great replacement” rhetoric spouted by Tucker Carlson, mass shooters, and lawmakers. U.S. Rep. Scott Perry raved in the halls of Congress that “many Americans” believe “we’re replacing national-born Americans” to “transform the landscape of this very nation.” Trump campaigned on the notion that “the West will never, ever be broken. Our values will prevail. Our people will thrive. And our civilization will triumph.” And the corollary notion that U.S. and European culture will cease to exist if it doesn’t defend itself from “forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East…”
As the rise of white nationalism meets climate chaos, struggling cultures have credible fears of displacement. “Great replacement” propaganda positions the privileged of the world to rebuff their pleas, to turn borders into fortresses, and to jettison the rights of refugees.
The affluent “West” has done the most to cause the crisis of global heating, and is now best positioned to insulate itself, at least for a while, from its harshest impacts. At the same time, people facing the worst climate devastation, with the least resources, are left to their fate within borders, with the Mother of Exiles nowhere to be found. That future is repugnant to everything good in this world. If we want to attempt to evolve as an ethical—and sustainable—humanity, it’s time to think critically about nations and borders.