Julien Pearce is a French journalist studying for his master’s degree at the Institut Français de Presse in Paris. He is doing a summer internship at KPBS.
Monday, July 26, 2010
I was very young when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. It was the only barrier I had ever seen separating two countries until I arrived in San Diego and saw the triple-layer fence separating the U.S. from Mexico. Indeed, most European Union countries have agreed to abolish the check points at their common borders.
Before arriving in the United States, I was aware of the immigration problem. It is not unlike the debate in other industrialized countries. Same goals. Same fears.
The European Union encounters huge problems in regulating the flow of illegal immigrants coming from various places: mostly from Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East and Central Asia. Migrants leave their countries because of war (Iraq, Afghanistan, Georgia, Palestine, Darfur, etc.) and poor living conditions. Coming to Europe is a big investment for them. They pay huge amounts of money to human traffickers for a dangerous trip that takes months.
A Ghanaian migrant travels more than 2,000 miles north from the country's capital, Accra, to reach Morocco’s coasts. That means crossing four countries and the Sahara Desert before assaulting the Mediterranean Sea on cheap boats headed toward Spain. A lot of these people die or are apprehended during this long trip.
Among European countries, the political debate over illegal immigration is one of the most passionate and sensitive topics. Economic depression, unemployment and insecurity fuel the fear of many people already distressed by government failure to deal with the problem. Through their populist rhetoric, extreme-right parties are the big winners. For example, in Switzerland, the Democratic Union of the Centre (UDC) – a party well known for its racist stance toward immigration – has in recent years become the strongest political force in that country. However, Europe’s tougher immigration policies haven’t stopped the flow of migrants.
When I first saw the fence along San Diego’s border with Mexico, I was impressed by the disproportion. Helicopters, border patrols, barbed wire and cameras gave me the impression of entering into a warzone. But on the Mexican side, this fence is part of everyday life. This is particularly obvious on the Tijuana beach I visited where children and teenagers enjoyed life while ignoring the fence that ends in the ocean.
“This is a war,” says Britt Craig, a Vietnam War veteran who patrols the border with a loaded handgun and shotgun. I met up with Craig as he drove his van along the border at Campo in east San Diego County. Craig is a member of Jim Gilchrist’s Minuteman Project, a group of activists who want to stop the flow of illegal immigrants crossing the border.
But they aren’t the only activists involved in the immigration debate. Enrique Morones is the leader of Border Angels. It is a faith-based organization that helps illegal immigrants who are crossing the border by dropping bottles of water in the desert, where many die from the heat and the cold. Border Angels also gives food and clothing to migrant day laborers who wait hours for low-paying jobs at places like Home Depot.
Envision San Diego takes a closer look at illegal immigration, exploring why migrants take big risks to work in the U.S., what happens to the children of deported parents, and how this region benefits from -- and pays a price for -- its unauthorized migrant labor pool.
Abundant low-paying jobs are exactly where the entire problem lies. California’s economy is heavily based on tourism and agriculture. These industries rely heavily on illegal workers who provide a steady source of hard working, flexible, cheap labor. This is perfect for a globalized economic system focused only on gains of productivity.
Both the Border Angels and the Minuteman truly believe in their cause. But leaving water in the desert or patrolling the border with a gun isn’t going to solve the problem. Until industrialized countries stop relying on this cheap labor and help stimulate economies in developing countries, illegal immigrants will keep coming. A wall or a fence won’t stop them.