A friend with a home on the Gulf Coast pointed in a northeasterly direction. "New Orleans is approximately over there," he said, meaning about 250 nautical miles away across the Gulf. Down a little to the east is Tampa. More to the southeast is Havana. A little more to the south and southwest are Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and its port city of Tampico, on the Gulf of Mexico.
Following the BP oil-spill catastrophe, many people only began realizing this vast body of water's relationship to other regional places. My friend says it's important to know who your neighbors are in the world.
Sometimes, looking at a map is more revealing than popular opinion. Take, for instance, Peggy West, a member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, who caused howls when she favored a boycott of Arizona because of its "Ask for Papers" legislation but didn't seem to know Arizona borders Mexico.
The Arizona Daily Star reported Arizona's U.S. Sen. John Kyl (R) was providing West with a map highlighting in yellow where that state shares the border with Mexico. Needless to say, a video of West's gaff went viral and brought lots of yucks all around. A Christian website quoted Proverbs 17:28: "Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent."
However, I doubt the Bible really meant putting a horseshoe in the boxing glove the way Proverbs was used. Meanwhile, San Antonio's city council, which resides about 135 miles from the border, passed a resolution condemning Arizona.
The border matter is of course not about objectivity and good public policy. Too many billions of dollars have been spent or squandered, and Border Patrol guards and National Guardsmen deployed over too many years for officials to admit misjudgments. Too many people are willing to scare themselves out of their wits over it. There is, frankly, too much political capital to be had, even when it comes at the price of many human cadavers in the desert.
A kind of unreality has set in.
Thankfully, an essay in The Independent Review, "If Mexicans and Americans Could Cross the Border Freely," by Jacques De La Croix and Sergey Nikiforov, is a discussion in this regard. Those who only like to hear the "pro" side of things will get upset hearing what's rational about what the cons believe. But what is new and refreshing is that the essay takes basic realities, not myths, into account.
In a way Kyl is right. Mexico, the U.S. and Canada are like three books on a shelf right next to each other, unlike books on another shelf, or in another section. Knowing geography is important.
One of the problems with getting neurotic about migrating Mexicans in U.S. territory is that it stunts discussion and reasonable scenarios. In fact, the essayists have the guts to force the argument: the U.S. relationship with Mexico is unique. It does not have to be confused with immigration from Italy or Senegal or "immigration" the way most restrictionists like talking about it.
Thought of geographically, we have migration issues for the three North American neighbors and immigration issues for the rest of the world.
The neighboring nations would benefit from looking at how the European Union protects national borders but allows migrations where neighboring people move about freely. They may set up businesses, seek work, send money home, and stay as long as practical. But European migrants are not entitled to citizenship or voting rights in the host countries.
The writers admit this doesn't come up because the "American imagination may be dealing mostly in nightmarish caricatures" and less so in practical realities.
But given the reality voids and the silliness of name-calling by grown people, wouldn't you think a geography lesson would help? Knowing where you are on the map is an advantage and not a fearful experience. As a North American, shouldn't you have the right to visit, live in and explore your continent where a map is your guide?
Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.