Spotlight on the U.S. - Mexico Border

What do our border policies say about our values as a nation?

President Obama committed to dispatching up to 1,200 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border and is asking Congress for $500 million for increased law enforcement in the Southwest and for other border protection tools.

The White House is calling the maneuver "a multi-layered effort to target illicit networks trafficking in people, drugs, illegal weapons and money.”  But in practice, beefing up border enforcement under existing federal programs has only drained our government resources, has put into serious jeopardy our commitment to due process under the law, and has presented serious human rights implications. 

For example, Operation Streamline, an existing Department of Homeland Security program, was instituted in 2005, and mandates the federal criminal prosecution and imprisonment of all people who cross the U.S.-Mexico border unlawfully.

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A Government that Reflects America's Values

According to a 2007 poll, Americans define human rights as the rights to equal opportunity, freedom from discrimination, a fair criminal justice system, and freedom from torture or abuse by law enforcement. Despite the current political wrangling over how to reform it, a majority of Americans even believe that access to health care is a human right.

There was a time when America’s leaders echoed those sentiments. President Franklin D. Roosevelt embraced them when he told Congress, “Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere.” And in 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the Civil Rights Act, forming the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The Commission was intended to conduct critical reviews of social needs and public policy – in essence, to be the conscience of the nation. Regardless of circumstances or leadership, the body was to operate as an independent voice for the broad range of civil rights issues facing the country.

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Framing and the Facts

Here at The Opportunity Agenda, we talk a lot about values, and the importance of building communications around them. In fact, we built a whole organization around six core values that drive our work and the way we talk about it. We do this, of course, because these values matter to us.  Seeing them realized and supported are central to our goals. But as NPR explained recently, leading with values is also a savvy communications strategy. In a story on people's beliefs about climate change, reporter Christopher Joyce describes findings from Yale's Cultural Cognition Project that people form their views about climate change, among other things, based more on their existing worldview - and values - than on the facts presented to them.

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The Politics of Heartlessness

The economic collapse and ensuing high unemployment rates have reminded us that no one is immune to the vagaries of the 21st century economy.  While there has been significant disagreement about how to jumpstart the economy, motivated as often as not by partisanship, most people in Congress understand that, at least in the short-term, basic human decency demands that our social safety net remain accessible to the millions enduring hardship because of the extended recession.  For one Senator, though, it is simply too expensive to provide even modest support to those among us who are have been hit hardest.

Thoughts On Cost

Money is a means to an end. To believe that it is an end unto itself is to ignore the greater values that his country is capable of standing upon. Some policies cost money; others cost lives. That ethos, I believe, is at the heart of the progressive movement.

The Most Rev. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and titular leader of the world’s third largest Christian denomination (my own, the Anglican Communion), has an essay about finance and economics in the upcoming issue of Newsweek. I am particularly struck by this paragraph:

We must hang on to the idea that not everything reduces to one standard of value. Treat economic exchanges as the only "real" thing that people do, and you face the same problems confronted by the evolutionary biologist (for whom the only question is how organisms compete and survive) or the Freudian fundamentalist (for whom the only issue is how we resolve the tensions of infantile sexuality). Traditional religious ethics—traditional ethics of any kind, in fact—do not require you to ignore the hidden forces that may be at work in any particular setting. Being human is learning how to ask critical questions of your own habits and compulsions, and it's learning how to adjust them against a model of human behavior—an idealized truth about the purpose of our humanity.

Those in positions of power are rightly concerned with “cost”, but all too often it is the wrong kind of cost. They speak as if money is the only thing that matters when weighing the pros and cons of a given decision.  Medical evacuations from Haiti to the U.S. were suspended for four days because Florida Governor Charlie Crist didn’t want his state paying for them. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is against giving Khalid Shaikh Mohammed the judicial rights our founders believed all persons should have because it would be “expensive for the taxpayers and… disruptive for New York City.” The Republican National Committee opposes cap-and-trade because, they say, "The Democrats are planning to jack up energy prices and pass the cost on to you and your family… Can you and your family afford an additional $3,100 in higher energy taxes a year?" (Ignore for a moment that that number is grossly exaggerated and focus on the underlying implication that fiscal cost is the only thing that matters.)

Money matters – you can’t do what you can’t pay for – but it should not make up the entire definition of the word “cost.” One of the most important textbook words I learned in college was “externality,” and Crist, Bloomberg, and the RNC have failed to internalize the externalities. They are not asking the right questions about cost. Yes, security for KSM’s trial would cost a bundle, but where does the Constitution say that “we the people” means only the people with cash? Aren’t our values supposed to be universal, not fiscal? Having the trial costs money; not having it costs our principles. Governor Crist, it’s only January; isn’t eleven months enough time to rework the budget for a new expenditure or to ask the federal government for retroactive aide? The evacuations cost money; the supsension costs lives. And yes, cap-and-trade might cost families a few hundred dollars a year, but do we really think that saving a few hundred dollars is worth the cost of 24,000 American lives lost each year to coal pollution, or that $300 per year is worth the cost of entire low-lying cultures?

Money is important. I’m ticked that, even without the stimulus and Iraq, the 2010 budget will have a bigger deficit than the 2009 budget. If we want to ensure that our most important programs are sustainable in the long term, then we can’t keep running deficits anywhere near this large. At the same time, however, there are things are worth paying for. When facing a choice between dollars and lives, money should be used on behalf of greater values. It should not be hoarded for its own sake nor distributed inefficiently through corporate welfare and tax cuts for the rich.

That is why I am a part of the progressive movement: My values remind me that people matter, and that money is nothing more than a means to an end. It may well be the most important means, but it is still just that, a means. Anyone who comes to believe that money, whether their own or the nation’s as a whole, is an end unto itself risks losing sight of the true power and depth of human relationships and of life. American citizens should seriously question the gap between our historical rhetoric and our modern reality.


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