Considering the uses of a border wall

My brain is a trouble-maker. I swear it isn’t really me. Just my brain.

Every other time I write something online it brings out the attack dogs. I try to tell my brain to cool it. But my brain is like, “Look at this! Just take a look at the facts!”

  • As early as the 1970s, Exxon (now ExxonMobil), the world’s largest oil company, had convincing evidence of the threat of climate change connected to the burning of fossil fuels. For decades they responded by funding misinformation campaigns in an effort to conceal the evidence, but their own scientists were well aware of the truth. The wealthy individuals and corporations, who now fund the campaigns of the most powerful policy makers and also fund climate change denial spin, have all the data. They know that they are lying.

  • The most widely supported current models for climate change predict that even with the international goal of limiting climate change to a 2°C global temperature rise much of Central America, the Middle East and North Africa could become uninhabitable or at least unfarmable. These regions. which already experience significant drought, will likely have so little water by 2050 that widespread and extreme famine is probable. (I know it happens to be cold right now for many of us, but in Australia the daytime temperature is melting car tires. The small global temperature rise is just an indicator scientists use to talk about a much more complex change. It’s the extreme drought in farm country that will probably end up troubling you.)

  • Border walls are the new “in” thing internationally. All over the world countries have gone from high-tech border security solutions to the medieval wall tactic. At the end of WWII, there were only seven border walls or fences around the world. Today there are seventy-seven. Several of them have been erected specifically because of climate migration, such as the massive 1,700 mile barbed wire fence between relatively prosperous India and low-lying Bangladesh, which is densely populated and loses more of its land area to flooding from rising oceans each year.

  • Europe has already witnessed crowds of desperate, climate refugees massing at border barricades and being forced back .

  • Trump’s campaign promise of a border wall—together with the supposition that Mexico would pay for it—was so cartoonish that even his supporters didn’t seem to entirely believe him. Trump supporters at the time were often on TV saying, “I don’t care if Mexico really pays it, but I love that he says it.” But now Trump has made significant political and economic sacrifice in an attempt to force the construction and US-tax-payer financing of his border wall.

  • Illegal crossings over the southern US border are at an all-time low. Most “illegal migration” in the US today involves people arriving by air and overstaying their vises. And rising illegal migration from Asia is currently a bigger issue than that from Central America. It is more than strange that Trump is insisting on this wall now. Analysts pass it off as crowd-pleasing for his anti-immigrant base. But the political and economic costs of the lengthy government shutdown go beyond crowd pleasing and seem likely to sour even Trump’s supporters.

Too complicated? OK, boil that down:

  1. The border wall isn’t needed for real security now.

  2. Trump is making significant sacrifices to get a border wall.

  3. Elites all over the world are building border walls, particularly against areas hit by climate disasters.

  4. Climate change analysis warns that Central America could become uninhabitable through drought and famine within decades.

  5. Trump and his primary supporters in the fossil fuel industry have had access to evidence of this very climate change longer than anyone else.

“So….” my brain winks suggestively.

OK, I’ll say it, though it will no doubt bring the attack dogs out yet again.

I think it is possible that Trump is well aware that the border wall will not help with current security, but his vehement insistence and significant sacrifices to ensure that it is built actually are rooted in rational—if cold-blooded—reasoning.

If climate change creates massive, unending drought in Central America there will not just be caravans of refugees or migrant workers. There will be waves of starving people.

Creative Commons image by Thomas & Dianne Jones

Creative Commons image by Thomas & Dianne Jones

Millions of starving people.

We have seen a military-style response on the border with tear-gas being fired at refugees. I fear that we are being prepared for a new normal, in which we will be outraged, but in the end, helpless to stop a full military defense at a border wall with deadly ammunition in a situation in which food and most particularly water have become significantly more scarce commodities.

Do I have proof?

Not more than the facts piling up. I don’t have a memo from fossil fuel execs to Trump directing him to stick to his guns on the border wall or we’ll be invaded by millions of starving climate refugees, which by sheer numbers would probably spark actual economic hardship rather than the economic boost that current immigration brings to the country.

No, but the general public has just about everything short of that.

Am I just being alarmist and depressing?

I know that things like this tend to demotivate and depress people, as in, “The future is bleak. Let’s go drink and binge watch Netflix.”

Nope. Not helpful.

What is helpful is recognizing the deeper reasons behind policies and addressing root causes. Until now, we may not have considered immigration reform advocates and climate activists to be close allies, but we should be. Not only would the physical wall itself harm delicate desert ecosystems and perpetuate inhumane foreign and immigration policies, it is also very possibly a crutch to allow the fossil fuel industry and their bought policy makers to continue to ignore the immanent threat of climate change.

Just saying.

When "no politics" isn't neutral

Imagine if a miraculous alien was suddenly transported into our polite, neighborly conversations, to our dinner tables or into our schools, workplaces and places of faith. The alien is miraculous because it can speak English perfectly and can physically participate in our activities without much difference.

The alien wishes to be polite and diplomatic, so it observes table manners and learns to say "please" and "thank you," but its understanding of social niceties is limited. Imagine then that you are appointed as a cultural ambassador charged with guiding the guest through our world.

And because it is 2018, people ask you to above all else avoid involving the alien in the contentious politics of the times. We want to give the alien a good impression of earth's development and human society after all. 

But unfortunately for you, the alien is very observant. First, you offer the alien something to eat and the alien asks what the dish served is. 

Creative Commons image by Fibonacci Blu

Creative Commons image by Fibonacci Blu

"Chicken," you reply.

"Ah, an animal," the alien says, tasting politely. "You humans eat these animals. It's the way your world works."

"Many people eat only plants," you say, feeling a bit uncomfortable. The other guests at dinner also look disturbed. "Would you prefer something vegetarian?"

And someone mutters. "Getting political already." 

The alien raises its equivalent of an eyebrow at you. "Oh, do some humans think it is better to eat plants than animals? Did you ask the plants how they feel about it?"

Someone mentions factory farming and the alien checks its research about earth.

"Oh dear, you're quite right," it remarks. "Factory farming is one of the things killing your planet. Those greenhouse emissions are causing wild fluctuations in your atmosphere. If you don't stop this type of agriculture and your use of fossil fuels, you'll be hard pressed to grow any food in a few decades. I hope those of you here are among the humans who don't contribute to such devastation."

Everyone stares at the alien and then down at their plates. The politicization of lunch isn't welcome.

After lunch you are ready to show the alien around. You go out to get into your car but the alien stops, staring at the vehicle. "Is there no other way to get there? Can't we walk or take one of your trains? This vehicle is contributing to the devastation of your planet."

The rest of the human delegation grumbles. More politics. 

Somehow you persuade the alien to get into the car and you drive to a local high school. At this point the alien needs to go to the bathroom. They do that on their planet too, apparently. So you take the alien to the restrooms. But of course, there are two restrooms. 

"Can I just use whichever one I want?" the alien asks. 

"No!" you reach out a hand urgently to stop the alien. It is your job to keep the alien out of controversy after all and this is a school. There are few places where people are more concerned about gender separation at the toilet bowl. You explain about human gender, a bit about reproduction and that the bathrooms are segregated.

"Oh dear," the alien mutters. "Do you do reproduction in restrooms? Is it necessary to keep the young ones apart to prevent premature reproduction?"

"No no," you explain. "It just makes humans uncomfortable to share a restroom with the opposite gender. So, which are you? Female or male? Do  you... er... grow the babies or fertilize the babies on your world?"

"Both," the alien replies. "We are a species with both of those parts in one individual."

It's hopelessly political to get your alien to the toilet, but you manage it (possibly by clearing everyone out of one of the bathrooms and declaring it temporarily genderfree). 

The alien then follows you into a classroom and sits quietly for a while, listening to the teacher talk about the ten most important authors of the past century. When the teacher opens the class up for questions, the alien raises its hand (or equivalent appendage) and asks how the teacher determined that those were the most important authors of the previous century. 

The teacher points to history books, popularity, cultural impacts and the wealth and fame of the authors. She is proud to point out that the list of ten authors includes one author of color and two women. 

"But I just learned that your female gender makes up half of the population. Are they mostly too busy growing babies to write?" the alien asks innocently. 

The teacher explains about historical inequalities and claims that we are now much more equal. She lists several more well-known female authors, though the alien is confused about why half of them use male pen names. 

Then the alien asks why only one of the authors on the list is a person of color. The teacher tries the same method of explanation, but the alien stops her. "The vast majority of your planet is populated by people of color. Surely, they wrote things, even if you didn't know about it at the time."

The teacher explains about borders and nations and says that while she didn't actually say it, she meant this was a list of the most important authors from your country and... er... well, your allies, which are mostly white.

"Is this why you put so much of your resources into war and killing the humans on other parts of your planet?" the alien asks. 

The teacher glares at you and the alien and states sternly that this is a discussion of literature, not politics, and you need to take your political rants elsewhere. 

You leave school and head toward your workplace. On the way, the alien seeks to clarify its understanding. "These divisions are very important on your planet, I see. You divide people up into two genders and you have all these lines on the ground that divide people and it is very important what color your epidermis is. Why is this? Do different kinds of humans need very different things or have very different abilities?"

"No," you admit. "We don't. But people used to think that we were very different. We now know that we aren't. But some of the divisions remain."

"Even you were concerned about which restroom I should use," the alien says. "So you have not abandoned the divisions."

"That's true," you say. "I was trying not to get political."

"So, keeping one gender out of the other restroom is not political?" the alien asks. "And keeping hungry and endangered humans on the other side of a border is not political and letting them in would be? Bombing other humans is not political but talking about it is? Killing and eating either plants or animals isn't political but talking about it is? And killing your planet isn't political, but mentioning it is?"

"Yes, you're getting the idea," you sigh, already exhausted. 

"You humans don't like it when something is about power or politics. I can tell that," the alien says. "I really want to be polite. How can I avoid political topics when it seems like they crop up everywhere?" 

"You probably should avoid criticizing what we do," you mention hopefully.

The alien nods. This is good diplomatic advice.

At your workplace, you show the alien how the company you work for functions, all of the different jobs and you get into economics and how people work for money in order to then buy those things they need to survive.

The alien is quiet during a lot of this. Finally, it nods and does its equivalent of a smile. "I think I see now. You divide people into these groups by color and nation and gender, so that you know that mostly brown humans should do the hard jobs that get paid very little. Then they can pay to live in places that are broken, polluted and unsafe and eat food treated with chemicals that are destroying your planet. Some paler humans are also doing these hard jobs and living in these unsafe areas too and that causes a lot of strife. I can see now why you try to pay attention to the divisions."

Your colleagues stare at the alien with open-mouthed shock.

The alien continues. "I see that the pale females can do very busy jobs that get paid a bit more than the hard jobs. They are also close to the pale males, so that they can provide pleasure to the males.. Mostly the pale males make much more money and they do jobs that you feel are very important, but they mostly consist of sitting and telling the brown and female humans what to do."

Your superior who asked you to keep the alien out of politics gives you a meaningful glower.

You gently take the alien by something like a shoulder and move away from your colleagues. "I told you not to criticize us," you say with some irritation.

"I wasn't criticizing," the alien says, with a bewildered look in it's ocular nodes. "I was just checking to see that I understand these important realities of your world. I wouldn't want to wander into the wrong restroom or job."

"All right, whatever," you say. "Let's go someplace even you can't make political." 

You take the alien to your community of faith. You belong to a spiritual path that is very tolerant, open-minded and apolitical. Surely, the alien can't find anything to criticize here. 

You walk in and you are greeted by many different kinds of people. Everyone is friendly and loves meeting the alien. They all exchange pleasantries. It's true that mostly the white people are in the center of the room, talking loudly. People of color are there though. They are happy and fairly quiet. The leadership is shared between women and men. The female spiritual leader even does a lot of the talking, while the male leader sits, looking dignified. 

The only person who cannot come in is your friend who uses a wheelchair, but several of the people in your faith community visit him at home. And there is a blind woman who sits at the back of the space. She is included by being there and she is well liked because she mostly smiles quietly.

You listen to an uplifting service about divine love and acceptance, about hope and reassurance for your purpose in life. What a relief! You are glad you came. 

You look around to see how your alien friend liked this apolitical inspiration. The alien is doing the equivalent of putting its head in its hands and sobbing. 

"I thought you said you didn't like being political!" the alien cries.

"This wasn't political. It wasn't about who is in power and who isn't," you explain. "This is a place where we find hope and peace." 

"You find hope by continuing to destroy your planet at an alarming rate without mentioning it? You find peace by enforcing silence about the divisions and inequities in your daily lives?" The alien looks utterly confused. "This is all about power and politics."

---

There are infinite variations of what might happen in that scenario with the miraculous alien. But the bottom line is that what we consider to be political is all about who and what has the power to destroy or gain in our world. That is the heart of politics. 

To stay silent on the most pressing issues of today, the divisions, injustices and destruction in our world is a brazenly political act. It is an open declaration of support for the existing divisions and the ongoing injustices and destruction. 

Many institutions and groups today say they want members to refrain from bringing politics into the group or activity to avoid strife. Whether this is done in a community of faith, a school or other institution or a commercial enterprise, it is not politically neutral. Instead it is a declaration of a political position protecting the status quo. 

Due to toxic rhetoric and events, many of us are exhausted. And this leads to many well-meaning calls for certain spaces to be apolitical, places where injustice, race-relations, environmental problems, human rights issues and war won't be discussed. These topics are stressful and painful for a lot of us.

The problem is that silence is not "neutral." And in fact there is often no "neutral." When the lives of vulnerable refugees, black boys on the streets or any other people are at stake and one side is engaged in killing them and another side is trying to stop the killing, there is no such thing as "neutral." You either defend those being harmed or you are supporting the injustice.

Likewise when one group is being publicly maligned and trashed because of characteristics they could not choose for themselves and that group is either absent or not strong enough to respond, there are no bystanders. 

There is no neutral. If I do not speak up I become part of the bullying and so I have sometimes spoken up in spaces declared apolitical because to remain silent would be a political act. 

"Welcome to Canada" unless you have a disability

Canada's appalling discrimination against immigrants with disabilities threatens to derail the country's enlightened track record. The long-standing ban impacts professionals, children and anyone subjectively believed to be a potential "burden," causing families to be denied reunion and stunned individuals to be subjected to significant hardship. 

My husband and I both love a spirited political discussion, so it's good that we agree on a lot of things or home life could become contentious. But there is one place where sparks fly. That's--amazingly--Canada. 

My husband's argument is by his own admission emotional and irrational. Sixteen years ago, he went to the Canadian embassy to apply for a visa as a Czech citizen because we were traveling to the US--in part to get married--and he wanted to go look at the beautiful mountains near Calgary on a road trip. He already had a year-long visa to the US (no small feat) and was confident that the Canadians would give him one as well. 

Now, I'd like to point out that my husband has never been known to put out an arrogant or abrasive vibe. Everyone who knows him will vouch that he is--unlike me--well versed in diplomatic behavior and expression. But I wasn't there, so I can only take his word for it.

The Canadian consul took hum in for an interview and at some point asked--rather acidly, he says--if my husband simply assumed Canada would issue him a visa, because the US did. My husband replied "Yes, I think you will." And his visa was denied. 

I was shocked. This is simply not the Canada I know as a friendly and overly polite northern neighbor. But George W. Bush had just been elected and I was fairly sure that the complaints of an American fiancée could only hurt his case under the circumstances. 

So, we didn't go to Canada for the road trip and my husband has never forgiven them. Any time Canada comes up in political discussion he is uncharacteristically sarcastic and negative.

And Canada comes up a fair amount because we are both very critical of most US imperial and corporate-welfare policies. I was brought to tears of gratitude when Canada refused to forcibly return a few American soldiers who fled there to escape being deployed in the ridiculous and often marginally legal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have also heard plenty of stories of Americans going to Canada to buy desperately needed medicine at reasonable prices. And watching the actions of Canada's marvelously diverse cabinet--particularly when they announced that they would take in thoroughly vetted Syrian refugees rejected by Donald Trump--is a delight and a rare breath of fresh, piney air in these stifling times. 

I've always vehemently stuck up for Canada in discussions with my husband or anyone else, which is why the news that Canadian immigration policy flagrantly discriminates against the most vulnerable possible group--children with disabilities--hits me like a sucker punch. 

An article in The Washington Post explains that Canadian policy means in practical terms: "Families can be rejected for having deaf children and spouses can be denied because they use a wheelchair, a practice too harsh for even the United States’ difficult immigration system." And this long-standing policy calls into question precisely how honest the Canadian boast of welcoming refugees from war-torn Syria, where many will have been injured, really is.

The article goes on to list horrifying case studies of families denied reunion or exposed to extreme hardship, due to a member with fairly minor disabilities. A German woman, with multiple sclerosis--a condition that can be fairly mild and is certainly not contagious--who married a Canadian man was denied a residency permit. A family was even stopped at the airport in 2008 after their immigration from Britain had been approved because their daughter had an apparently visible genetic difference. The family of a Costa Rican professor hired by Toronto University was denied residency because of a child with Down Syndrome.

I have to say, flat out, that in the year 2017 this list--and it goes on in The Washington Post--leaves me breathless and gagging. And it makes me look back again at that moment when my husband was denied a visa and wonder if behind the humanitarian and progressive face presented by Canada there actually lies a smug, entitled and ultimately self-serving heart, as he has always maintained. 

Photo by Larry Dickerson  No, those are not Syrian refuges. That's me in the red coat in February or March 1980 in northeastern Oregon. Note the super-thick glasses--definitely not admissible to Canada, even today.

Photo by Larry Dickerson

No, those are not Syrian refuges. That's me in the red coat in February or March 1980 in northeastern Oregon. Note the super-thick glasses--definitely not admissible to Canada, even today.

You see, before I was an American (yeah, it took a month for them to file my birth certificate so technically there was a before), I was a child with a disability. My family's house burnt down while my mother was pregnant with me and my family, including my then one-year-old brother lived in the back of a truck through one snowy, mountain winter. I was born in the spring in the loft of what was then a one-room cabin built by hand around that truck, the fresh-cut boards still smelling of sap. 

And my mother, having endured all that and living in physically harsh conditions, then found out that her new baby was blind. 

We weren't immigrants, but given all that had happened, we didn't look much different from your standard refugees. 

And no one could have predicted it then, but I became an immigrant 22 years later--to the Czech Republic, which--soon after I came--joined the European Union. 

And the comparison to Canadian policies could not be more striking. 

As an immigrant in the EU, I was officially classified in the worst of four possible categories of disability, though I technically have some sight. I once ran into overt discrimination because I was an immigrant with a disability and that was from a doctor who refused to issue me legally mandated medical documents, because she did "not believe foreigners should get the benefits of society" even if they pay the same taxes as everyone else. I dumped her in our wonderful European single-payer health-care system and got another doctor. Problem solved.

Many terrible things have been said about the notorious Foreigner's Police in the Czech Republic and yet astoundingly after 20 years of dealing with them I have never felt that they discriminated against me because of my disability. Far from it. While their 12- and 18-hour waiting lines and their occasional collusion with the Ukrainian mafia are egregious, they never seemed to notice my white cane.

Not only did I not face discrimination from Czech or EU authorities, I was given the same benefits of society that a citizen has, as soon as I had the equivalent of a Green Card as the spouse of a Czech and EU citizen. And I was even given disability accommodations when I took a citizenship test after fifteen years as a permanent resident to assess knowledge of the language and culture, because--surprise surprise--Czech officials actually cared more about whether or not I, as a prospective citizen, had truly integrated into their country and become one of them than they did about my physical difference.

Having seen a thing or two in my time in many parts of the world, I was always waiting for the discrimination shoe to drop. But it never did. 

I'm not a big tax payer, but it's hard to say whether that has more to do with my disability or with my profession as a writer. My husband pays a full share and I make a lot of his work possible. I am an exceedingly good bet for the Czech single-payer health-care system, being extraordinarily healthy. My disability has only once required medical attention and that was for cataract surgery, which eventually affects more than half of all adults. 

Oh, and then there are the savings the state has gained since I adopted two infants from an orphanage that the Czech state would have otherwise had to support for 18 years--given that they were considered "unadoptable" due to local ethnic prejudices. I never had to pay a cent for the adotions (for the record) and I also never got a cent for taking that burden off of the Czech state. I did get a family and a country that welcomed me, however. 

And so for once, I stand in awe of my good fortune--the simple luck that I am in the EU and even Eastern Europe, rather than the much admired land of Canada.

And to Canadians I want to say this. You have my heartfelt thanks you for giving sanctuary to American soldiers forced into illegal situations. Thank you for taking in refugees, including refugees from my adopted country the Czech Republic, when ethnic tensions, violence and rampant discrimination here caused thousands of Czech Roma to flee to Canada. You complained and sent some back, but some were able to stay and thus escape a different form of discrimination--racial discrimination--here.

None of us are perfect. But this policy of blatant discrimination against people with disabilities is disgusting, unwise and ultimately self-defeating. You are an enlightened society and can easily absorb the fact that people with disabilities are no more likely to be a "burden"  to your society than any other group of immigrants.

For centuries, uninformed and misguided policies around the world have called immigrants in general a burden. And nation after nation, that opened up to immigrants and enjoyed their energy and industry has shown those exclusionist policies to be simply ignorant. 

The same is true of societies that have opened up to full participation by people with disabilities. Such openness has only ever helped a society and boosted economic growth.

People with disabilities are different. That's true.

But given access to the same rights as other people, we have never been a burden. Just as we are different, our contributions are outside the norm and often therefore in areas others would not have gone to address needs in society that otherwise would have been left wanting--such as my adoption of children considered un-adoptable by locals. 

Canada, this policy is beneath you. Fix it. Please.