The drive along E40 from Belgium into France was seamless, the border invisible other than a small sign with “Belgique” and the EU stars in one direction and an equally small sign with “France” and the EU stars in the other direction.
The landscape of flat, rain-drenched farm fields was identical on both sides of the invisible line as I traveled from the North Sea city of Ostend in Belgium towards Dunkirk, the place in France where World War II’s most memorable evacuation occurred. Cars and trucks with license plates from around the EU – including the Netherlands, Poland, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Germany and Estonia – sped across the invisible border without stopping for a customs or immigration inspection.
Even entering Belgium from the U.S. was near-seamless. At the Brussels airport, an officer glanced at my passport, compared the photo with my face and stamped it. No questions about how long I would be there, the purpose of my visit, was I carrying any contraband or large amounts of cash, or how long I was staying.
Wendell Berry, a farmer-philosopher-poet, once wrote in an essay about the messiness of borders. He was talking about such borders as hedgerows separating farmers’ fields. Messy, yes, but oh so ecologically important. On either side of the hedgerows lay the monoculture of corn, of wheat, of hay, of other crops. But in contrast, there is a richness of plant and animal species alongside and in those hedgerows.
A close friend of mine worked as a hearing officer for a federal agency in the 1970s. His territory was northern New England, and sometimes it was quicker to use back roads to cut across the Canadian border to travel from one place in Maine to another place in Maine.
That’s no longer possible. Many of us in Michigan have U.S.-Canada border stories of our own. Common among them are grumpy tales about the frustratingly lengthy wait – sometimes well over an hour – to cross the Blue Water Bridge from Sarnia to Port Huron and clear U.S. immigration on the Michigan side, especially on a Sunday summer afternoon or a holiday weekend Sunday.
My early March trip to Belgium, with its brief detour into France, was just one of several recent events that made me think about borders.
Most widely evident, of course, is the COVID-19 crisis. It highlights the reality that political borders can’t block the transmission of coronavirus or other diseases. As epidemiologists and public health officials wrestle with how to track the chain of infection, we see how a single visitor from one country can trigger a chain reaction of transmission to people in other countries.
Government initiatives to dramatically restrict cross-border travel by countries with major CORVID-19 outbreaks, like Spain and Italy, will have only limited effect. So too will the Trump administration’s strict and confusing 30-day travel ban that prohibits most travelers from entering the United States from the 26 European countries – including Belgium and France – in the Schengen zone. Those nations have no internal border controls. A second presidential order added the United Kingdom and Ireland. Both orders’ primary exception was for U.S. citizens, legal residents and some of their relatives.
A second recent reminder of borders as a political issue is the Trump administration’s February decision to divert another $3.8 billion from the Pentagon budget to build the controversial wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. The administration had previously taken away another $11 billion that Congress appropriated to the Defense Department for counter-narcotic operations and military construction.
Third is the continuing controversy in Congress, in the courts and among our populace about refugees, asylum-seekers, Dreamers and others seeking temporary safety or permanent new homes in a country that once prided itself, as the words of poet Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty urge:
“Give me your tired, your poor,Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
In mid-March the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the administration’s “Remain in Mexico” asylum policy to continue while its constitutionality and legality are litigated. The Migrant Protection Protocols force non-Mexican asylum-seekers to go back to Mexico while awaiting a hearing in the U.S. As a result, hundreds of migrants are living for months in makeshift camps just south of the border, where human rights advocates say they are vulnerable to assault, murder and rape.
My fourth recent reminder is the continuing crisis that drives desperate immigrants from war-torn Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries in the region into Europe. We read of governments, especially authoritarian ones such as Turkey and Hungary, and overburdened ones such as Greece, barring immigrants or sending them back in violation of human rights.
And fifth, as we worry about the economic ramifications of the CORVID-19 crisis, we must acknowledge how porous international borders are essential for global trade and the jobs that depend on it.
That’s not to deny that tough border controls can’t serve some beneficial purposes, like impeding human trafficking, the drug trade and smuggling. But we can’t lock the borders of our minds.
ric Freedman, 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. He is a former Lansing Bureau reporter for the Detroit News and has been a Fulbright journalism instructor in Uzbekistan, Lithuania and the Republic of Georgia.