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Rosenblum: Not a border 'crisis' — cruel needless tragedy

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Rosenblum: Not a border 'crisis' — cruel needless tragedy

  • A small cross hangs on the columbarium at Evergreen Mortuary and Cemetery. The small niches hold ashes, including the remains found in the Sonoran desert that were often unidentified by the Pima County Medical Examiner.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comA small cross hangs on the columbarium at Evergreen Mortuary and Cemetery. The small niches hold ashes, including the remains found in the Sonoran desert that were often unidentified by the Pima County Medical Examiner.

A migrant I just visited has finally found a permanent home across the border behind a minuscule door labeled, "Arizona." Gaily painted with cactus in bloom, it opens to a small box of unidentified ashes in a scruffy remote corner of Evergreen Cemetery.

Odds are 89 percent that he, or she, was Mexican. If not, almost surely from farther south in Central America. The notion that terrorists from distant lands brave a hostile desert frontier is one of the fallacies that distort a callous politically manipulated immigration debate.

The remains of "John Doe" — really Juan or Juanita Doe — are in a columbarium, a cluster of urns set among pauper's graves a short walk away from where Martin and Mary Rosenblum are buried in a greener part of Evergreen. Their stories are essentially similar.

My parents' families fled persecution and poverty, one from what is now Belarus and the other from Ukraine. They sold everything to lead terrified children on perilous voyages. In an earlier time, both of their stories had happy endings.

Greg Hess, Pima County medical examiner, knows the overall numbers. But he sees each casualty as an individual, likely with a spouse and probably kids, loved ones desperate for news — or closure. His sleuths spend up to a decade trying to link human remains to families.

"We deal in people, not politics," he told me at his compound in Tucson's industrial zone. The "fully fleshed," he said, usually can be identified. But decomposition is quick in the heat, with circling buzzards and scavenging animals. His team keeps trying, year after year, to find DNA matches or a relative to provide a name.

In one room, plastic sleeves hold migrants' last possessions: love letters, photos, rosaries, phone numbers scrawled on bits of paper and tattered wads of pesos that would barely buy a decent meal. In another, he has skeletons in the closet, more than 100, each labeled with the place and time they were found.

Across the world, people who fear for their lives or can't feed their families spend their last savings in desperate flight. America's "border crisis" is a small part of an inexorable human tide. Because of conflict, despotic regimes and climate collapse, it is rising by the year.

The U.N. International Office of Migration tallied 272 million international migrants in 2020, nearly double the 2010 total, and the trend is rising. Some of them emigrate legally into safer, wealthier countries. Many do not.

Intelligence analysts see a grave threat to global security. Bitter young migrants with no other options are a boon to criminal gangs, terrorist groups and stateless guerrilla armies. Humanitarians see selfish societies slamming the doors on people they could easily help.

Families might wait years in sprawling, squalid camps. Others set out on their own, making their way across the Sahara. Human waves wash up on Mediterranean shores from Gibraltar to Greece. War refugees come east toward Europe, facing hostile resistance in Turkey.

But in the United States, "crisis" is only a logistical problem that a rich nation can resolve. It could easily live up to its Geneva Convention commitments with more screeners and judges to process cases quickly, keeping families together in decent conditions for brief periods.

Definitions are crucial. Migrants simply seeking a better life need a visa, which can take decades, if not a lifetime, unless they have a sponsor. Asylum seekers, far less numerous, may be allowed in. Most work hard to make new lives, raise families and enrich the society.

Every country needs to control its borders. If migrants cannot make a convincing case for asylum and do not qualify for a visa, they must be safely deported. But America has plenty of room and stable population growth.

Germany, with seven times the U.S. population density, took in a million refugees in 2015, mostly from conflicts it opposed. Studies show its economy is far better for it. America, after triggering so much upheaval, accepted only 65,000. Trump then capped the limit at 18,000.

As so often happens, Americans form ironclad opinions without regard to history or human realities. Donald Trump's baseless ethnic slanders— Mexicans are killers and rapists; Muslims are terrorists bent on jihad — are likely why he conned his way into the White House.

The Republican narrative is absurd. Criminals and terrorists find easier ways in. Most hide in trucks or trains at ports of entry. Some fly over or tunnel under. When dark, calm nights confound aerial surveillance, some jet-ski across from Tijuana. Others just falsify documents.

A few migrants manage to slip past surveillance worthy of the Berlin Wall, secreting themselves in our midst to work hard and avoid running afoul of the law. Most are detained on arrival and face America's idea of justice. The rest die slowly from exposure.

During the Trump years, anti-migrant sentiments hardened. Germany's growing right-wing campaigns against new arrivals. Opposition is strong among its 26 European Union partners. Italy bears the brunt of illegal immigration, but its welcome mat has long been worn thin.

Castel Volturno, the once classy seaside Roman Empire resort near Naples, is overrun with illegal migrants struggling to survive as shopkeepers and street vendors, but also as prostitutes and drug dealers. Nigerian gangs fight bloody turf wars against local mafias.

At a Catholic mission I met a Ghanaian volunteer who crossed from Libya in a leaky boat, evading Italian patrols. Borders are arbitrary lines on a map, he told me, and governments should not prevent people from moving freely,

"We were all born in the same world," he told me. "No one has a right to stop me from going where I want to go." National laws say different, he acknowledged, but he knows committed people will always find a way, whether they seek a better life or simple survival.

The only sustainable solution, most immigration specialists say, is to help people stay at home, with the possibility of working for short periods in wealthy countries in need of labor.

I grew up along the border south of Tucson when much of it was marked by a few strands of floppy barbed wire. It was porous in both directions. Mexicans needing money crossed over, picked cantaloupes or hauled bricks, and then went home to their families.

Until the 1960s, the Bracero program helped Mexicans and Americans both. Farm workers moved back and forth with the seasons to harvest crops. They paid taxes on wages they took home, where most would rather be, until they were needed again.

Push is a far greater problem than pull. Despite common belief, "they" don't want to be like us. In Mexico and everywhere else I cover migrant flows, I find most people would rather stay in their own cultures, among families and friends. They leave when there is no choice.

At an immigration rally years ago, a kindly Mexican woman asked me, "You think I want to clean your toilets for $5 an hour?" She had sneaked across decades earlier, acquired papers to stay, and put two daughters through school, a lawyer and a doctor.

Today, push is a massive shove in much of Central America. As climate patterns collapse, alternate drought and storms devastate fields. And more, U.S. foreign policy has fortified thuggish leaders since the Reagan '80s. The Contras — "freedom fighters" — grew rich feeding America's drug habit. In brutalized societies, gangs and corrupt police kill at will.

In response to the wave of refugees forced to flee northward, Trump slashed aid to Central America as punishment. That made a desperate problem worse, pushing yet more to leave home and wait in perilous limbo on the Mexico side of the U.S. border. Those who managed to cross were separated from young children in a heartless effort to discourage others.

Joe Biden now faces a fresh influx from migrants who see hope in his humane approach. Yet Republicans rile up their base by excoriating Kamala Harris for not visiting the shambles they left behind. Like runaway Covid-19, the "crisis" is somehow Biden's fault.

In fact, Harris is doing what she should. Biden's long-range approach to increase aid to Central America, and his tough-minded vice president is tasked with obliging — in private — military leaders and corrupt law enforcement agencies to use it as it is intended.

Whether that works depends on 2022. If Democrats lose their razor-thin edge in Congress, Biden has little leverage on authoritarians who expect no carrot to accompany a stick. It also depends on how well aid can be designed to reach the people who need it most.

Money alone is no answer. Since 2017, the European Union has paid well over $100 million to Libyan warlords, some linked to slavers, to turn back frail craft. In one authenticated video, crewmen stopped the German mercy ship Sea-Watch from rescuing victims off a crowded boat they capsized. The Italian coast guard kept electronic watch from a distance.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi has softened his predecessor's tough stand on migrants only a bit. Patrols still attempt to deflect landings. Nonetheless, 3,000 people in small boats made it to Lampedusa island this year by late May. The Sea-Watch remains impounded in Sicily.

On June 7, a front-page New York Times piece from Guatemala said Biden's increased aid was not working, as if entrenched dysfunction could be reversed in a few months. And the first paragraphs made clear why so much "development aid" has failed in the past.

American contractors showed coffee farmers a new app that lets them check international prices "to be part of a modern agriculture." One grower asked if there was a phone number so they could call the Americans "and tell them what our needs really are."

This reflects a challenge equal to that of curbing migration. Past foreign development aid has gone largely to pay American experts to apply solutions not suited to local situations. Large schemes tend to end up feeding corrupt officials' bank accounts.

Effective help for people who need it — coupled with quiet but muscular diplomacy to protect them from police and criminal gangs — would likely take years to make a significant impact. Yet another reason why the next presidential election is so crucial.

In the meantime, migrants and asylum seekers will keep coming. If we don't deal with them as luckless fellow humans in dire straits, and appropriate funds to process them quickly, medical examiners like Greg Hess will need much more space to bury our shame.

This opinion piece was first published by the Mort Report.

Mort Rosenblum is founding editor of the quarterly, Dispatches. From 1967 to 2004, Rosenblum was Associated Press bureau chief and special correspondent in Africa, Southeast Asia, Argentina and France, reporting from 200 countries. From 1979-1981, he was editor of the International Herald Tribune. Based in Paris and Provence, he returns each winter to the University of Arizona to teach global reporting. Among his 12 books are “Escaping Plato’s Cave: How America’s Blindness to the Rest of the World Threatens Our Survival,” “Who Stole the News?,” “Coups and Earthquakes,” “Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light” and the best-selling “Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit.” He can be reached through

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