Ain’t No River Wide Enough
May 20, 2016
Terrified, confused, desperate, they crossed the river — often by night — uncertain of the reception they’d receive on the other side. They were without hope or a future if they’d stayed at home. They were refugees with little of value except their families and their labor and their dreams. There were risks, of death, of families divided, of failure. But however bad things might be across the river, conditions were far worse where they fled from.
That river is the Rio Grande, right?
It’s a familiar tale to those of us who follow the news: immigrants fleeing poverty, narcoterrorism, crime, political upheaval, war and joblessness in Central America and Mexico by crossing the Rio Grande into the United States — a land, they believe, of opportunity.
Or do I mean the Detroit River?
The new book “A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland” (Wayne State University Press, $34.99) explores the illegal migration of ex-slaves across the Detroit River into Ontario — then part of the British Empire. It was, as Flint native and Yale University historian David Blight writes in the forward, “the most active entry point along the United States-Canada border for fugitive slaves.”
Were they — these men, women and children — illegal immigrants? Economic refugees? Political refugees? Human rights victims? Freedom-seekers? Were there actually fundamental differences between them and those now seeking refuge in the United States from Latin America, from Syria, from Afghanistan and from other war-ravaged, violence-ravaged and terrorism-ravaged parts of the world?
The 19th century fugitives willing to brave what book editors Karolyn Smardz Frost and Veta Smith Tucker called “the often withering prejudice on the Canadian side” to escape from “the legal slavery on the American side. Frost is with the Harriet Tubman Institute at York University in Toronto, and Tucker is a former faculty member at Grand Valley State University and was curator of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Muskegon.
I would argue that the Detroit River as a destination, as a barrier, as a demarcation point, as a beacon two centuries ago parallels the Rio Grande as a destination, as a barrier, as a demarcation point, as a beacon today.
It’s a political tale this year as immigration and immigrants take a high-profile role in the presidential contest — a year when two sons of immigrants, Republican Ted Cruz and Democrat Bernie Sanders, — made serious, credible races for the White House.
A wall across the full length of the U.S.-Mexico border, Donald Trump says. Deport 11 million undocumented aliens, Trump says. Scott Walker called a wall along the U.S.-Canada border a “legitimate issue for us to look at” until be backpedaled. As for the now-moot tempest in a teapot about Canada-born Ted Cruz and “birthright citizenship,” you can draw your own judgment about how frivolous that manifestation of anti-immigrant sentiment was.
An inherent but usually unvoiced racism permeates the current immigration debate, just as racism reared its ugly ahead among some British Canadians opposed to the arrival of former slaves in the 1800s.
Honestly, would politicians seriously propose mass deportations if the vast majority of undocumented aliens were whites from the United Kingdom or Ireland or Norway? And what would their position be if the vast majority of displaced refugees from ISIS were Christian rather than Muslim?
I find especially troubling the failure of anti-immigrant politicians to ask themselves WWID — What Would I Do?
What Would I Do if my family lived in Honduras, Belize, Guatemala or El Salvador — four of the five countries with the world’s highest homicide rates, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Three other Latin America and Caribbean countries are among the top 10 worldwide in homicide rates — Venezuela, Jamaica, and St. Kitts and Nevis.
As for economic motivation to sneak into the United States, What Would I Do if my family lived in Honduras, Guatemala, or Mexico, which the CIA World Factbook ranks among the 20 countries with the world’s highest poverty rates.
If I lived in Honduras, Guatemala, or Mexico and held unpopular political views critical of the governing regime, wouldn’t I think seriously about fleeing north with my family? Freedom House’s 2016 “Freedom in the World” ranks those three countries as only “partly free.” For example, the report notes that Guatemala’s political rights rating dropped in the past year because of “the increasing influence of organized crime and powerful business interests in campaign funding, as well as the murder of municipal office candidates and their family members.” Freedom House also downgraded Honduras because of “the government’s failure to address corruption and impunity for crimes against journalists, human rights defenders, land rights activists, and the poor and other marginalized segments of society, who are routinely subject to violence by both state and non-state forces.”
I’m also troubled by the factual distortions that candidates are wielding this year. For example, the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank, reported last November that “the number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. has stabilized in recent years after decades of rapid growth” — an indication of some success in efforts to tighten the borders — yet some politicians have misleadingly railed that the number is increasing.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement reports that more than half of deportees have been undocumented aliens with criminal records since 2010, including 59 percent in fiscal 2015 — yet some politicians misleadingly accuse the Obama administration of failing to boot out convicted criminals.
And the president’s pledge to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States this fiscal year was dramatically distorted by political rhetoric to 100,000 (Ben Carson), 200,000 (Carly Fiorina) and — not to be out-rabbleroused — to 250,000 (Trump).
I’ll end with one more observation from history drawn from “A Fluid Frontier” because I believe it reflects the thinking of most of the people who enter the United States illegally from troubled spots around the globe: “The courage that had pushed the freedom-seekers to the border did not abate when they crossed the river. Fully embracing their hard-won freedom and political status, the newest African Canadians built places of worship, cleared land to cultivate crops, started schools for themselves and their children, and challenged colonial officials to recognize the civil rights they were fully entitled to as British subjects.”
If we change three words, that passage reads: “The courage that had pushed the freedom-seekers to the border did not abate when they crossed the river. Fully embracing their hard-won freedom and political status, the newest Americans built places of worship, cleared land to cultivate crops, started schools for themselves and their children, and challenged government officials to recognize the civil rights they were fully entitled to as American subjects.”
, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.