I’ve been trying to picture plunging into the ocean off the Moroccan coast and swimming to Spain in search of a job and a new country. What would you wear? A bathing suit? Bermuda shorts? Long pants with a belt and some proper underwear? A long-sleeve shirt, a T-shirt, no shirt? Barefoot, I assume? Or maybe old tennis shoes or some kind of water shoe?
What else, if anything, would you try to take with you?
Would you maybe tie a small hiker’s belt to your waist, into which you place…what? What extra does one think to take along when swimming to a new world?
A spare shirt? Some prized family jewelry you hope to sell for a few euros once you wash ashore and evade the waiting soldiers?
Some sealed nuts or candy? A good-luck amulet? A toothbrush?
What would you take, besides the shirt on your back, assuming you are wearing one?
In its annual migration report of January, 2020, the World Economic Forum estimated there had been 272 million migrants on the move worldwide the previous year, representing 3.5% of the global population. These figures were up from 150 million and 2.8% of the population in 2000.
While refugees and political asylum seekers represented just under 10% of the migrant total, it is safe to say the vast bulk of the remaining 90% were impoverished people seeking greater opportunity by leaving their country of birth.
Of those, it is even safer to say that people plunging into the sea in a dangerous, usually failing attempt to swim to a new life represent the poorest and most desperate of the poor.
But would we, say, give them a surplus room in our homes? Share some of our not-so-surplus hours from our jobs?What are we prepared to give 272 million people who have basically nothing…?
According to a report in Al Jazeera this past Wednesday, more than 8,000 people—mostly men but some women and children, too—had made the journey the previous two days from Morocco to the Spanish territory of Ceuta that juts out from the tip of northernmost Africa.
Some 6,000 had made it on Monday alone by swimming around a breakwater perched on the Mediterranean Sea, while others climbed over a border fence that separates the two countries.
There, as seen above, they were most all met by Spanish security forces who were being bolstered all through the Monday onslaught. After briefly detaining the migrants, Spanish authorities had already sent thousands of them back to Morocco by mid-week.
We used to read about such events—Freedom Flotillas, boat people, continent-crossing caravans—with awe and astonishment. Now, they occupy a seemingly permanent place in the news cycle, almost like a daily weather report.
“And now, for today’s migration update, we turn to…”
Setting aside for a moment the pure humanitarian and economic challenges of the world’s migration crisis, I have also come to see it closer to home as perhaps the chief threat to the success of the Biden administration and its quest to hold onto both Congress next year and the presidency in 2024.
Let me put it plainly: Does anyone know what the Democratic Party’s position and plans are for managing the ceaseless flow of immigrants on our southern border? I sure don’t.
Republicans would be positively giddy to remind voters of that every day over the next three years.
Biden & Co. look and sound just as frozen and muddled on the issue as previous administrations have been, albeit with far less bellicose rhetoric and overt cruelty than we experienced with No. 45.
Probably the most consistent voices come from the left, which don’t back so much a set of policies as they do a state of mind and heart, with the latter always open and overflowing with compassion. This seems to boil down, near as I can tell, to the firmly squishy position that if people want to come into our country, they should.
Whether they want to do it the old-fashioned way by filing papers, waiting their turn and securing official legal status, or by making dangerous dashes across the desert and over fences where armed guards patrol, becomes almost immaterial. Because, “No human being is illegal.”
While my heart is all on board with that position, my head asks, “So this means open borders?”
If not, and there should actually be some level of regulation and limitations, then what steps do we take to accomplish that, based on what criteria? Who do we let in, and who do we turn away?
And what DO we (and Spain and Greece and Germany and Russia and France and and and …) do when undocumented, not-arrived-by-legal-means people show up by the thousands upon thousands on our borders, exhausted, broiling from desert heat or shivering from ocean waters, in dire, pleading need of comfort and care?
Give them some surplus shirts that never make it from our closets to our backs? That’s easy. But would we, say, give them a surplus room in our homes? Share some of our not-so-surplus hours from our jobs?
What exactly does it mean to be our brother’s keeper when we have 272 million brothers, with many millions more in their wake?
What are we prepared to give so many who have basically nothing, but if we truly wanted to help them, in all their need, it would surely cost us more than we think of as surplus?
That’s not so easy, but until we get clear on it, and accept that there are trade-offs and excruciating decisions to be made about life on this earth that, if we have any semblance of conscience, do not let any of us escape scot-free, we will never project anything but muddle and contradiction and no small amount of hypocrisy on issues so challenging and tortuous to everything we think we stand for.
This is what I see as the true original sin. It’s not that innocent babies are still paying off Eve’s bite of the apple, but that like a hapless fly stuck in a spider web, whether we turn left or right, up or down, say yes or say no, try or don’t try, we cannot escape our predicament, cannot do the purely right thing because everything we do or decide not to do comes with a cost that we may not intend, but that is built into the very structure of existence on a planet where all creatures are mortal, resources are constrained, and all the light we see and yearn to merge with is backstopped by shadow and void.
As longtime readers and friends know, mine was an immigrant family, my parents displaced from their native Hungary by World War II. Our family of five was waiting out the Marshall Plan in Germany while hoping the final cosmic roulette wheel would land on the U.S. rather than Ecuador or Australia or several possible other destinations.
My parents came with almost nothing—no money, no serious job history (my dad was an athlete in a strictly amateur sport, my mom a housewife), minimal English. But still. They were on a big boat operated by the U.S.A, with papers, processed through Ellis Island after passing by the Statue of Liberty.
Gazing at the images of those swimmers, imagining the shrug of their shoulders as they considered the danger not so much of going into the water but of staying out of it, I can’t help but admire their sheer audacity.
Sure, “When you ain’t got nuthin’, you got nuthin to lose.”
But in their desperate splashing and thrashing and flops ashore, only to be apprehended and sent right back to the lives they saw as doomed and worth any risk to get away from, they represent all creatures everywhere, in every time, who recoil from a hopeless status quo and set out across one wilderness or other in pursuit of a freedom and security they can barely fathom, but whose glimmers drive them ever onwards, one wobbly, hopeful, ultimately uncertain stroke at a time.
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Detained migrants by Sky News, UK https://news.sky.com/
Diver from stock footage, public domain
Interestingly, Bob and I have had this conversation numerous times. There is certainly no clear answer to all the questions that would arise over any scenario that deals with desperate souls seeking safe harbor versus how much we can actually give to offer viable opportunities to immigrants. Unfortunately, bias and bigotry also enter into the mix making a complex and confounding situation virtually untenable. I have no real answer to the problem. And as I watch so many things going on in our country that have me questioning my location, I realize that in many instances, other countries are harder to gain citizenship than ours. The admisson that a solution seems to continually evade us is not only a scar upon global humanity but also spotlight on how much we are willing or able to help our fellow humans.
Couldn’t agree more, Claire. All of which makes the situation ripe for demagoguery and hypocrisy from all sides of the political spectrum. The questions and problems this crisis poses for us as humans are ones we are (understandably) expert at kicking down the road, and politicians, with one eye on the electoral implications of whatever they do, are all too happy to accommodate us…
Great piece, Drew, and I agree with just about everything you penned. The ultimate motor in all this, and the one that is never mentioned, is the birth rate in the departure countries. To ever begin to get a grip on this human wave, the rates of natural increase have to decline. Otherwise, it (the migrations) will be a never-ending phenomenon that becomes ever more brutal and heart-wrenching. Moslem countries and most of Catholic (and now fundamentalist Protestant) countries of Latin America still have population doubling times of 30 and 40 years. And African countries–in at least half of them (including those that are Islamic) doubling times are less than 30 years!! I think that those who propose open borders have no idea of the ultimate consequences of their position. And as for those Moroccan swimmers, it’s not like they’re in the middle of the sea/ocean (not that that lessens their desperation). We want to look at a map and see that Ceuta really should be part of Morocco, but Spain holds on to a colonial piece as the UK holds on to Gibraltar (which should be part of Spain). In other words, those swimmers (to me) are in a different category of desperation than say Libyans crowding in row boats and heading for Italy. But in any case, sadness reigns.
Good point, Bill—the earth’s carrying capacity kind of hovers behind everything, doesn’t it? I don’t know this for a fact but I suspect when Paul Ehrlich’s predictions, at least in terms of his timeline, turned out to be wrong regarding the outcomes of the population explosion, it undermined the whole discussion and caused the issue to drop way down in media coverage and hence public concern. Add the falling birth rates in the industrialized countries to that, and we see much more worry about not having ENOUGH people rather than the too damn many that you correctly point out we are faced with.
But you’re right that the birth rate in poor countries is a fundamental issue. Millions of young people milling about jobless, braving ocean and desert crossings to come snag anything they can in countries where AI is going to do nothing but displace its own low-skilled workers in coming decades, adds up to a potentially toxic conundrum.
Yes, I was kind of tickled when looking into this matter that it was a short swim for the Moroccans given the odd landholdings between the two countries, but the spectacle, specter and symbolism of it resounds in any case! Thanks for bringing this issue into the discussion.
Hey Bill, this just in!
Yup, been goin’ on now for a while in Eastern Europe, Japan, Chine and parts of Western Europe.and elsewhere. Still….UN projections of 10.9 billion for 2100 against a present count of 7.7 billion mean an increase of 3.2 billion between now and then!! Where those folks gonna be/go? It’s definitely a positive trend but, alas, international migration problems/conflicts will persist for some time.
Hard to fathom that 10.9 billion number, given the decline in so much of the world, but if it does get that high, it will likely be because so many of us boomers won’t get out of the way with our longer lifespans! But at some point, when that worm turns and our huge numbers start dying off, it may skew things rather dramatically. Better for the planet in many ways, but what will be the consequences of dramatically reduced demand and contracting economies on standards of living? Isn’t modern capitalism based on a growth cycle of forever?
All good questions, and the right questions, Drew.
“Swimming Moroccan immigrants” brings to mind the story of Thomas W. Doyle, my great-great grandfather, who immigrated from Ireland to Boston around 1845 and married Mary Murphy in 1850. They had two children, one of whom was my great-grandmother. Anyway, it seems that Thomas W. Doyle got wind of gold being discovered in California and left his family in Boston to strike it big. The family was reunited two years later in San Francisco, but the gold venture never panned out. He was also an Irishman who never found a four-leaf clover. In 1858, he was a passenger on the steamship “Oregon”. When it began taking on water off Point Reyes, he decided to make a jump for it but drowned. It seems all the other passengers remained on deck and were rescued by a nearby schooner. Family lore has it that Thomas W. Doyle, a pub regular, may have had one or two many sips of whiskey.
Robert, I’m none too sure whether to salute you or groan for that “gold venture never panned out” line, but it did get my attention. As for your unfortunate great-great gramps, I can only say that if you’re gonna go, Pt. Reyes is a fine & noble place to do so, and that the next time I take a sip myself—might be as early as tonite—I will do so while saying his name…
I liked this piece, Andrew. Thanks.
Glad to hear that, Chris; I appreciate you letting me know.