In 1966 I was fourteen years old, living in Southern California, and just beginning to understand the world around me. Occasionally we would cross the border for a day-trip to Tijuana, where I saw poverty that I had never seen before. Everything in Mexico was cheaper—much cheaper—but at what a price! Street kids in rags and bare feet; dusty, unpaved streets filled with an obstacle-course’s worth of potholes; wizened old men selling donkey rides or piñatas; wizened old women selling flowers or tortillas; an indescribable cocktail of odours both delicious and disgusting. And that was in the “nice” parts of Tijuana, where my mother took us.
Even then, there were more or less constant stories of Mexicans trying to cross the border. They were called “wetbacks” because some of them crossed by swimming a river, but I suspect a lot more of them were driven across in vans and trucks. At fourteen, I thought to myself, “If I were stuck in poverty like that, I would be a wetback, too.” It was clear to me then, and it is clear to me now: if the richest nation on earth shares a border with a country plagued by poverty, corruption, and violence, only one result is possible.
I had learned in school about the Marshall Plan. After World War II, the nations of Western Europe were in ruins. The U.S. feared that without significant aid their economies would struggle badly, depriving the U.S. of trading partners and inviting the growth of political movements friendly to the Soviet Union. The Marshall Plan’s actual impact on Europe’s economic recovery is still being debated, but Europe did recover. To my 14-year-old mind, the connection with Mexico was obvious. “We need a Marshall Plan for Mexico!” I thought.
Instead, we built fences and turned the border into a Berlin Wall. In this case, however, people were not being shot at as they tried to escape. Instead, they were rounded up and sent back to Mexico. Some of them, anyway. Others crossed successfully and found that Americans were delighted to employ them at wages no American would accept, often doing work that few Americans would do. Like so many immigrants, they worked non-stop, sent money back home, saved all they could, and in many cases built better lives for themselves and their children.
Many Americans are outrageously hypocritical about “undocumented workers.” They love the cheap vegetables the undocumented harvest, they love the cheap chickens they process, but they don’t like them. Racism is a big factor, of course. Personally, I’m with Walt Whitman and Emma Lazarus: let them all come in! If there is work for them, if they can build a better life, they will come and they will stay. If not, they will either leave, or not come at all.
On the other hand, it would be cheaper and more humane, even at this late date, to bring back the Marshall Plan idea, on a much bigger scale (it’s not only Mexicans, now) so that millions of people don’t have to leave their homelands just to have a decent life. Imbalance never lasts in nature. If poverty is on one side of a permeable membrane called a “border,” and wealth is on the other side, osmosis will take place until a balance is reached.
To imagine that walls and fences and border cops will overturn the laws of nature is . . . madness.