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Closing our borders can't mean turning our backs

To many, George Bush's $2 billion border fence will be but another testament to the futility of walls. In the face of persistent adversaries and technological advances, each of history's more notable barriers have proven obsolete over time. The 1500 mile Chinese wall was penetrated at least three times, most famously by the Mongols in the 13th century. The 300 mile Roman barrier of Limes was useless against the mass migration of Huns and Goths after the late 4th century, while only Hadrian's wall could claim some efficacy, until its garrison withdrew abruptly for the defence of Rome. And of course, the Maginot and Siegfried lines were spectacular failures.

That barriers can nevertheless be somewhat effective, however, is a reason that they continue to be built. The Moroccans built a 1600 mile wall to control Western Sahara in the1980s, and Israel has built a 120 mile barrier in the West Bank, and is planning to extend it by 140 miles. More pertinent perhaps to our interest, India is about to complete a 3034 mile $1 billion fence against Bangladesh to protect its precious Northern wilderness from 150 million Bangladeshi, many of whom have been displaced by the flooding that Indian deforestation of the Himalayas has caused.

The question is, though, how effective can barriers of any kind be in the long run. Bush's border fence, which could cost as much as $30 billion, not $2 billion, will not stop the one third of people who did not walk across the border illegally, but rather just entered on tourist, student or work visas and over-stayed. As for the other half million who come illegally each year, one has to realize that American corporations are so addicted to cheap labour, and smuggling is so lucrative, that come hell or high water ways will be found around the Tortilla Curtain, by land, sea or air.

What is troubling about most of the immigration-reduction movement---of which I am a part---the conservative wing particularly, is that they don't look at problems like the negative impact of immigration on the North American working class, and on the environment, and ask questions which go to the root causes of those problems. Questions like: "Why do people from very poor countries like Mexico want to leave their families and homeland all behind so badly that they take so many risks to move here and work for miserable wages?" American Republicans against amnesty don't ask these kinds of questions because they really don't know much about NAFTA and its impact on the Mexican people, nor do they care. Nor do they know anything about the IMF and Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs), and their impact on the people of the Third World. They take no responsibility for Mexican poverty or the hardship and misery of the billions who will never even catch a glimpse of the Californian dream. They have no questions. Only answers. One answer. Send them home and slam the door shut behind them.

Well I agree that the door must be shut. And so does Ralph Nader, Presidential nominee for the Green Party in 2000, who said that open borders "is a totally absurd proposition." The environment must be allowed time to recuperate from the demographic onslaught it has suffered in the past two decades. Immigration-driven population growth is killing biodiversity and thwarting Kyoto targets. Each immigrant costs America one acre of farmland every minute and generates 23.8 tons of GHG annually. Canada has lost 18% of its best farmland to urban sprawl from immigrant-propelled growth, which is also threatening 70% of its endangered species. But shutting the door is one thing, keeping it shut is another. To do that we must relieve the population pressure that is coming from the outside.What is generating that pressure? The tautological answer would be population growth. But it is not just a fertility issue. It is an issue of economic justice, unequal distribution of wealth, and greed---institutionalized by larcenous trade agreements.

NAFTA, by allowing heavily-subsidized US corn and other agra-business products to compete with small Mexican farmers, drove two million Mexicans off the land and many of those that remain are living in desperate poverty, and attempt to cross the US border to feed their families. NAFTA's service sector rules also permitted large companies like Wal-Mart to sell Chinese-made goods so to bankrupt 28,000 small and medium-sized Mexican businesses. Mexican wages, not surprisingly, have fallen under NAFTA. It is considered the province of corporate lobbyists, not a "human" issue, and why not? Desperate conditions in Latin America and Mexico produce lower wages, pressure to reduce environmental protection, and help union-busting prospects.

If Mexico's plight is desperate, that of the global proletariat is worse. In Planet of Slums, Mike Davis reports that one-third of the world's urban population live in 250,000 slums, half of them people under 20, and 100 million of them street kids. In a decade nearly half of all city dwellers will be poor. Davis makes it clear. The IMF put those people in those slums and made it their "implacable future", by using the leverage of debt to restructure the economies of most of the Third World, and force the retreat of the state and its social safety net. The gap between rich and poor nations widened by century's end to a Gini coefficient level of 0.63.

SAPs forced developing countries to dump their raw unprocessed commodities for cheap prices in an effort to pay off the debt and pay for expensive imported goods from developed countries which often barricaded their agricultural products. Fifty third world countries depend on three or fewer commodities for over half of their export earnings. Some spent more on debt servicing than on education. Observing this relationship it might be said that the First World preaches free trade but practices good old fashioned mercantilism.

In describing the IMF program of slashing social services and infrastructure, escalating resource extraction to generate hard currency, re-orientating farm production from serving local needs to serving global markets, and increasing dependence on imported capital-intensive technologies---all in the name of debt-servicing---Raj Patel compared IMF policy to a weapon of mass destruction:

A fertilizer bomb that kills hundreds in Oklahoma. Fuel-laden civil jets that kill 4000 in New York. A sanction policy that kills one and half million in Iraq. A trade policy that immiserates continents. You can make a bomb out of anything. The ones on paper hurt the most.

Dale Allen Pfeiffer, author of the seminal book, Eating Fossil Fuels, put the case eloquently and cogently in his article Energy Depletion and Immigration:

Closing our borders alone will not stop the flow of illegal immigrants. It will only leave them more at the mercy of their employers within this country. As long as there is such a disparity in wealth and well-being between the US and other countries, there will be people attempting to flee to the US no matter what abuse they are met with on this side of the border. If we truly want to solve the immigration problem, then we must start by addressing the reasons why people would rather slave in the US than remain in their homelands. To solve the immigration problem, we must first face the fact that the US has built itself up on the riches of other nations (and) stop the flow of illegal immigrants into this country, then we must raise up the living conditions in their homelands. If these people could make a decent living in their own countries, they would not want to leave everything that is dear to them in order to slave in the US.

Unfortunately, Pfeiffer is among the vast army of environmentalists whose environmentalism is trumped by their laudable human rights agenda. Like many others, he has catalogued not only the appalling economic cost of the Bush border fence, but its cost to the wildlife whose viability is dependent on cross-border mobility. But he doesn't consider the countervailing cost to wildlife on the whole continent that the population growth from out-of-control immigration will cause. Indeed, the prime focus of any critique of world trade arrangements should not be there effect on global wealth distribution, but the fact that unfettered trade permanently reduces carrying-capacity. Ecological considerations supersede all others.

As Dr. William Rees has noted, trade only appears to increase carrying capacity because each trading country or region is treated as if it is a separate open system, and not integrated into a closed global system. Many wealthy nations have ecological footprints vastly in excess of their bio-capacities. For the UK, Holland and Japan, it is four, five and six times larger respectively, and the United States burdens the global commons with an ecological load twice its biophysical limit. Why?

Trade allows consuming populations in ecological overshoot (eg. the UK, the US) to feel insulated from their stressed local ecosystems, and without negative feedback they feel little need to curb their over-population or material growth and confine it within carrying capacity. Developing countries too, who receive remittance payments from expatriates in wealthy countries are somewhat buffered from the harshest reality of natural capital depletion.

So while open-borders advocates argue that is unjust to allow goods, services and finances to flow unhindered across borders but not people, Rees counters that "merely liberalizing migration to match the free-flow of goods/capital, the world should rather seriously consider re-regulating both to help achieve sustainability. On a planet in ecological overshoot, achieving sustainability will demand lower levels of material consumption, reduced movement of goods and people, and the rehabilitation of ecosystems." ( Globalization, Trade and Migration: Undermining Sustainability?")

Like a 21st century enclosure movement, global capitalism has chased third world farmers off the land into the lap of the cheap labour employers of North America and Europe. To open the doors ever wider would only serve its interests, it would only further depress the wages and displace the jobs of low-income native residents, further despoil the environment, not relieve world poverty but cripple our ability to alleviate it.

But not accepting immigrants or refugees makes it a moral imperative, and a matter of urgent self-interest, to aggressively redress trade agreements and SAPs or abolish them, and vastly increase foreign aid conditional on family planning. Building walls, figuratively or materially, is but an interim complement to these measures, a necessary but not a sufficient step to protecting our environment. An immigration moratorium, and a population plan that provides for population stability within our national carrying capacity as determined by that plan, can only buy us time.

Ultimately, we cannot build a wall against global warming, peak oil, peak grain or the tsunami of humanity that one day will sweep over us if we don't get the IMF and the World Bank off their backs and turn back the clock on globalization.

In closing our borders, we must not turn our backs.

Tim Murray
Quadra Island BC
Canada V0P 1N0
October 22, 2007.