Every once in a while you run into a story that you can’t quite believe and you just want to hear more.
I found myself seated for dinner next to Isabella Alexander — a Ph.D. anthropologist — who has spent months living in the makeshift camps of sub-Saharan African boys and young men trying to get into Europe.
Her courage, putting herself out alone in that environment, borders on recklessness. But the story she brought back deserves hearing and surely, there was no other way to get it. I share it because it so starkly illustrates the increasingly painful dilemmas that we will likely face around immigration policy over the decades to come.
Within Morocco, in northwest Africa, there are a couple of tiny Spanish enclaves — vestiges of colonialism. These little patches of Spanish territory offer a land border that Africans can cross to reach Europe. Once they are safely inside, they can apply for asylum.
Not that their odds of getting asylum are good, but the word is out in the countries further south in Africa that the opportunity exists, so thousands of desperate migrants stream north with a dream.
In fact, the enclaves are surrounded by high razor-wire fences that are heavily policed. There is no way that a single migrant can get through. So, the migrants have developed a team approach. They gather over a period of weeks in forest camps near the enclaves. They can’t really set up full-fledged camps because the Moroccan police burn them regularly. But once they have a few hundred boys and young men together, they all rush the fence at the same time hoping that a few will make it over, escape the systematic beatings that await them when they hit the ground, and scramble to Europe.
While their odds of permanently making it into Europe are miniscule, the migrants are sustained by the stories (legends?) of a handful who have made the crossing and actually gotten legal status in Europe and are working and sending money home.
Although many of these migrants may have valid claims for asylum, their method of asserting those claims is beyond “illegal” — swarming the fence amounts to an assault, although an unarmed assault. But Dr. Alexander’s months of living with them allows her to see them as people, to respect them, to know their stories and to understand that they have no feasible alternative methods for asserting their claims.
They flee abject poverty and war and are driven only by the dream of sharing the safety and relative prosperity that even the poorest in Europe enjoy. Through her informed eyes one knows them as kind and honorable and brave. The picture I link to above tells it all — behind the boys on the fence lie thousands of miles of hard travel, harm and hunger. Ahead of them, paradise.
As climate change continues, all the temperate countries will likely face increasing pressure to welcome people from lands that become less viable for agriculture and even habitation. It is easy for the most affluent among us to favor freer immigration, but it is much harder for those among us who are struggling economically to welcome more competition and crowding: That is one thing Donald Trump’s election brought home.
Our choices on immigration policy are only going to get harder. I don’t have the answers. Those policy choices must ultimately be made at the federal level. But I do believe deeply that, at the state and local level, we need to do everything we can to help integrate those who arrive among us.
Read Dr. Alexander’s fuller accounts below: