The Crossing

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:

  1. The Crossing
  2. The freedom to travel isn’t a basic human right. It depends on where you’re born.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

48 replies on “The Crossing”

  1. There are immigration laws in effect that are representive of the will of the people. If these rules need to be changed or adjusted, there is a process in place that allows the will of all the people to participate in the process of changing them.

    Today, immigration has become nothing more then a political bully pulpit accomplishing nothing meaningful. Change will only follow when those elected simply “Do There Jobs!”

    1. Actually, that’s the thing I was pointing to, John. Most people are unhappy with our immigration policy and feel that it should change. But they disagree about the direction of change. There are different views among the people and the choices are hard.

    2. John you said it right these right wing politicians is to mush in favor of circumventing federal laws which actually iis a violation of the oath of office,stop companies from recruiting HB1 visas claiming americans wont do the job when actually federal law protected by the constitution is not for everyone arbitration(1) equal protection (2) civil rights (3) E_verify (4) the way companies get around hiring afro americans so they hire someone with same skin color so this weaping sob story you posted means nada to me stop circumventing the laws and enforce them sto limiting the first amendment and enforc it,john i asked for aa bill to be filed to protect my fourth anendmend to keep my union fron using my info against me well that bill failed they claim because some federal issue double standard when trump said block santuary cities everyone in the statehouse was uproared bills flying but what happen to my protection is that not what the oath of office state i will serve and protect aganst any foreign entity unhold and execute the laws faithfully

    3. On this issue I think it’s helpful to ask which people’s will we need be concerned with. I.e. is it the will of this state within the U.S., the national will, or a global will that’s most relevant.

      To our state senator I guess the will of citizens of Massachusetts has to be very important. Then what should our will be? Should we respect the will of the U.S. public as expressed by its vote for its current set of representatives, senators and president? Or should be consider that will morally illegitimate on this issue?

      I believe a case can be made for the latter position because immigration acts on the international stage. As an example, Canada’s recently seen a relatively large influx of asylum seekers as the U.S. appears less friendly and safe for asylum seekers. I.e. changes here cause changes there.

      The best clue for what is right, IMO, is in Angela Merkel’s brief chiding of Donald Trump a couple months back regarding international commitments to take refugees and asylum seekers. Without these kinds of agreements in international law or an equivalent moral position that pushes U.S. policy to act from a feeling of shared duty to place refugees and take asylum seekers, you’re left with this America First law of the jungle nonsense. This is to say that the U.S. general will is a particular will on the issue of immigration and that an “international will” is the only will that’s at the right resolution and is legitimate for this issue. The U.S. can be a leader here by doing its part (and more?) or it can be a leader in denying migrants and leaving them to the various humanitarian disasters they’d wish to flee. One of those is a morally legitimate position and the other is not.

      If the national consensus (in as much as there is one) is not morally legitimate, it’s reasonable at the level of the MA senate to make law that’s in opposition to the current national will, particularly if there is local consensus that the prior is the case and the latter is desired.

  2. ThAnk you for sharing this story of the reality and impact of violence and political strife!!
    It is so important for us to know the inhumanities that happen everyday for immigrants all over the world! Now let’s work on our immigration policies!

  3. Thank you, Will, for sharing this important story–probably the most direct and compelling account I have read about this immense problem. And thank you to Isabella Alexander, whose courage and dedication match those of the migrants themselves. The paradox is that we privileged people need to find deep reserves of generosity in ourselves to address this problem, and yet the problem seems to be pushing so many of us back into our defensive enclaves.

  4. Thank you for sharing this story. We need more open borders and open hearts to care for citizens of the world who are suffering through no fault of their own, and often because of the policies of so-called “civilized” nations.

  5. If you grew up, as I did, on accounts of people escaping and failing to escape Nazi Germany, it’s hard to say No to people trying to escape war in Syria or Africa. Isn’t it part of our national shame that in 1939 the US turned away a boatload of Jewish refugees and rejected legislation to admit Jewish children?

    1. No, because in the late teens we started to get anarchists and revolutionaries coming into the country. After WW1, Europe was in disarray and the situation was even worse because of the Bolsheviks. To PROTECT it’s citizens, The US Gov’t cracked down on immigration

      I’m sure the Gov’t thought there might be a few terrorist on those boats mixed in with the refugees. Better to be safe than sorry.

      My older cousin remembers going over to the military base in Southie and looking at all the Italian POWs behind the fence.

  6. And ya said that to say what they dont have open doors(1) two theirs americans here still waiting for housing people hanging around the streets because companies are allowed to xome here like colledges and seeking out Hb1 visa to come here to work claiming americans are lazy which is a bold face lie the regulations and policies here are biased mass allows these c so- called non profit agencies to operate under tge guise of quot unquote civil rights organization but dont have 1 person born here that knows what the 1964 act of civil rights are then when ya go to these folks for help they say they cant because they’re interpeting my civil rights of rights of people who came here illegal moral is take care of americans first put your rasisim aside that mass is embebbed with aand enforce the laws instead of doing like ann landry does try to circumvent them

  7. Allowing the immigration of destitute people is a limited and short-term solution. Ideally, to effect a drastic change in the development of poor countries would require long-term infusion and management of the country. Generations would have to be externally sustained to bring about such tremendous changes. The people in affluent countries would need to have their outlook towards the under-developed people drastically changed from the 1% outlook to the Isabella Alexander mentality. And I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny.

  8. Thanks for this post Senator Brownsberger.

    I made a proposal, which if implemented globally, can help to reduce the causes of the global economic migrant crisis.
    Please consider bringing it to the attention of other politicians.

    A cause for the migration for economic reasons is the Youth Bulge.
    In other words, organizations doing development work/help need to teach the local population about family planning.

  9. Thank you, Will, for sharing this heart rending story of despair and courage. Sallye

  10. Do you think our forefathers who came here LEGALLY and overcame many hardships were given any welfare to live here? To make a life for themselves? Learn our language? Raise legal families? BECOME AMERICANS?
    Find work or start businesses to SUPPORT THEMSELVES and their families?
    They were not, Senator.
    I believe it was mostly Democrats who created the Welfare System which is bankrupting our country today along with the outrageous salaries you vote yourselves. And we, the American people, who you are supposed to be supporting, keep voting you in over, and over, and over.
    Does the definition of insanity come to mind? Since you-all created the immigration problem, it’s up to you-all to solve it.
    Telling sad tales does nothing to solve this, does it?
    Or does it show people in other countries what fools we are and tells them it’s OK to break America’s laws? Come on in. Everything is FREE HERE.

    1. Respectfully, the land you call home was originally inhabited by native peoples. Except for the Native Americans, we are all immigrants and our country has traditionally welcomed them. My Italian grandparents had the same dream and were welcomed here.

      I know that we can no longer open our borders to all, but that does not mean completely closing our doors or hearts to those who have a dream for a better life.

      You sir need to seriously think about your own roots and be thankful that someone showed compassion and allowed your ancestors to also come here.

      1. Tony, You fail to address several cogent points Gordon has made: he is talking about the importance of citizenship in this country. I am going to guess your grandparents came here legally to become responsible citizens. No one objects to that; but if you set up the straw man of being against all immigration (to make him appear ignorant) that certainly doesn’t advance the discussion does it?

      2. My grandparents and my father were immigrants from Italy too, Tony. And they came in legally.

  11. Agree! Especially like your last sentence states clearly how we need to behave.

  12. Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead
    Thank you for your thoughtful and committed acts to help change the world for others.

  13. Thank you Senator Brownsberger for taking the high road, giving us a glimpse of the humanity of refugees. Our ethical choice should be clear- share the world with those who are our neighbors on this planet. I appreciate so much your sharing this story.

    1. read above: &
      So before you vote to spend my government tax dollars sponsor in some one yourself & help them get started take time off from work time off your life to help them get apartment etc….

      but definitely not sending them more money then our own citizens get on social security.

      Some elderly get $650.00 per month and new refuges get $ 2-3000 per month each ? how is that right?

      Money should be distributed trough churches and locally by people who see the recipient people every day.

      and if they do not make an honest effort learning English and looking for work, they need to go back or go to another country.


      1. Where do they get this money from, for how long, and what is the source of your information as to the amount?

  14. Thank you for talking about the effect of climate change on immigration patterns around the world. Formerly agrarian people crowd into cities, creating havoc and miserable conditions for everyone. Those who dare try to leave for a better life anywhere or die trying. People who say climate change is not happening need to see and accept the entire impact of changing climates all over the planet, and it’s impact on society.

  15. Nice story; but I would weigh this against the need to maintain our sovereignty and security, not to mention our economy and system of law (constitutionally and democratically legislated). Mexico deplores our new administration; but has very stringent immigration laws and a wall to keep the Guatemalans out. Spain likewise has a right and a duty to its citizens to protect its borders, especially given the terrorism threat Europe now has. Liberals and especially the liberal media like to conflate immigration with illegal immigration as if they are the same; but the distinction is important if we are to maintain a rational society based on the rule of law.

    1. I agree that protecting sovereign institutions is important. But Mexico’s Guatemalan wall isn’t there for the same reasons as Trump’s wall. Their wall is basically for our convenience, because so many desperate souls from Central America think ours is the promised land. Can you blame them for fleeing exploitative, corrupt and brutal regimes to come here? Could our support of those regimes possibly be a factor?

      What’s missing from your post is any sense that as citizens of America we bear any moral responsOibility for the situations these people find themselves in. After Saddam’s Gulf War miscalculation, our leaders put sanctions on Iraq that devastated and did in people there. Then we invaded, only to bestow on Iraq an Iranian puppet government (which we support) whose actions and incompetence invited sectarian pushback, now led by ISIS—which we also helped to create. And now that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Syrians have had to flee for their lives, we deny them succor because they might have grudges against us. Well, why shouldn’t they?

      America has losers as well as winners. You can find many in our country, not even counting the growing zombie army of opioid addicts. But there are far more losers scattered across the globe. Try to look at our nation through their eyes before you seek to justify measures to protect us from the consequences of our actions.

  16. As Dr. A points out, im/migration has been deliberately complicated through raising bureaucratic and physical barriers to citizens of least favored nations who face dire conditions. As more and more impoverished people victimized by
    * Food emergencies
    * Civil war
    * Insurgencies
    * Legacies of colonialism
    * Kleptocracies
    * Natural disasters
    * Climate change
    * Starvation wages and Unemployment
    and other factors, almost all of which are man-made (for the most part deliberately), the official actions of the Trump administration and other political leaders make me ashamed of my country. So ashamed that I even wrote a novel exploring the conditions that give rise to terrorism, which I doubt any publisher will accept because it doesn’t blame the victims of greed, violence, and oppression enough for their enmities.

    We need to enlarge our perspective to understand our own complicity in unleashing forces that drive people to flee across borders. The inequalities of income and opportunity that fuel these dynamics are only getting worse.

  17. tell the stories of those who are victims of these illegals who have lostfamily and treasure.why do you hide them?tell both sides.

  18. I came here to the USA in with a full screening process done! We came here getting away from communism. We did not come here to free load on the system, and we did not come here to be a burden on the system. We here in the USA need skilled labor and we do need a labor force that will be probationary on doing good and being good. So have people prove them self’s to be a good partner in our society. Limiting immigration to what we need is cruizser since if it was easy people keep shifting non stop from one place to the other, I am at ground level I see this daily. Now dollar strong they want to come here. but it has to be kept reasonable. and there has to be a distinction between people jumping fence and coming in and people who came here legally and over stayed. Balance must be reached with un-skilled labor trough sponsorship so we can fill the positions us Americans do not want to do any more.

  19. Point 2
    And there has to be a distinction between people jumping fence and coming in and people who came here legally and over stayed. Balance must be reached with un-skilled labor trough sponsorship so we can fill the positions us Americans do not want to do any more.

    our sponsors took us in their homes and help us look for work and apartment etc….

    it should not be the government indiscriminately trowing money at people and help them to sit on their ass and collect for the rest of their life and live off the system.
    each and every one has to go through an adjustment status, since back home before things went to shit they had a great life Nice cushy job with good pay and inherited house which they never had to pay rent since the house they grew up in was payed for generations ago.

    So before you vote to spend my government tax dollars sponsor in some one yourself & help them get started take time off from work time off your life to help them get apartment etc….

    but definitely not sending them more money then our own citizens get on social security.

    Some elderly get $650.00 per month and new refuges get $ 2-3000 per month each ? how is that right?

    Money should be distributed trough churches and locally by people who see the recipient people every day.

    and if they do not make an honest effort learning English and looking for work, they need to go back or go to another country.


    1. “new refuges get $ 2-3000 per month” Isn’t that support (federal support I assume) only for a few months? I also read that refugees have to sign a promissory note to repay the cost of transportation to the USA. See :
      “Before refugees coming to the U.S. leave the countries where they temporarily reside, they sign promissory notes agreeing to reimburse the U.S. government for travel costs.”

      I’m not arguing one way or the other about this, but I just want to have real facts to think about rather than probably wrong statements about refugees receiving large and unending payments.

    2. During WW2, if a refugee wanted to come to the US, they needed a sponsor to “swear” to be responsible for their care and expenses. The same for immigrants. Just ask Marty Walsh. His father had to have a sponsor. And if Marty Walsh’s father couldn’t work, the sponsor was responsible for all expenses so that he wouldn’t be a burden to the Gov’t.

      Here’s a clip from a 1941 movie demonstrating this fact. They were altruistic when they signed the original papers, but when the refugee showed up at Ellis Island they wanted to shirk their responsibility or pass the buck to one of the other guys.

      You TCM fans may recognize Milton Berle, John Payne, Glenn Miller and the mystery “refugee”. Notice what the “immigration officer” tells the sponsor.

      On the counter 12:05-to-17:45

    3. I’m afraid if you are an America Citizen, that you are eventually going to get the SHAFT.

      Just look to our neighbors to the North, Canada. Their citizenry are taking a back seat to incoming refugees and no one is taking up their plight.

      Canadian citizens are becoming homeless and Canadian citizens are forced to subsidize non-working refugees. Refugees making +59% more income than working citizens.

      Trudeau gives Muslims $43,000 as Seniors go without Heat!

  20. In honor of Earth Day it should be noted that the uncontrolled influx of illegals will cut down on arable land. There is already a problem with urban development cutting down the amount of farm land in many parts of the United States. This negatively affects the environment. We need to agree on a reasonable immigration policy; not just make excuses for those who break the law.

  21. “but it is much harder for those among us who are struggling economically to welcome more competition and crowding:”

    I keep struggling on this premise that immigration causes economic hardship on the community receiving them:
    Our blooming cities comes from those local then larger immigrations. Immigrants produce, pay taxes and consume.
    Most if not all our safety net and mutualized redistribution, are paid by the year’s tax, not from revenue from old funds.
    I totally understand about fear and non economic challenges, identities, perception habits. But is there any basis on the economic aspect?

    Once this is debunked, it become easier to focus on the actual causes of hardship amongst us, rather than going after the ones even weaker and poorer than us.

    Regarding comments on the freedom to move and the 2nd account of Dr Alexander. I am an immigrant, and see this freedom as a virus, going both way: exporting both ways the best of the cultures. It is a win-win proposition. For poverty and war to persist, you need enclosure: no one will fight where there is no one. Our modern wealth is based on people daily works. There is a few exceptions on resources…. we can deal with those differently.

  22. Thank you for your post, Will. It is all too easy in our obsession with boundaries to forget the human stories and suffering that often lead to migration. We need leeway, including at the local level to give those in need a hand, especially at a time when our national government is riven by paralysis in its ability to implement meaningful immigration reform. Most Americans recognize that our federal immigration laws are woefully out of date and if adhered to too closely without use of both heart and mind, lead to unjust and unfair outcomes. Our laws need to be changed. In the meantime, let’s not heap injustice on those in need.

  23. Thank you for sharing this story Will, and for keeping us aware of the very human suffering and contradictions inherent in the current status of immigration. That picture is chilling, and truly says more than 1000 words.

    Ann Dexter

  24. Thanks, Will. The people in the Washington Administration need to read and understand the truths presented in this story. We all need to continue to speak out on the issues brought out in this most poignant story.

  25. I’m sorry but we can’t save everyone on the planet. And any solution is going to involve multiple fronts of operations. Start with discouraging people to flock to US and Eu. Formulate plans to aid to people and governments in distressed countries – a Marshall Plan on steroids is needed. Keep refugees fleeing war zones closer to their homelands to make repatriation easier. Increase enforcement of existing US laws by hiring more ICE agents and going hard after businesses who hire illegals. Put businesses who hire illegals out of business. On another note, the high tech industries lament that their are not enough qualified tech workers is BS. Come with me to any networking group for unemployed tech workers – all are qualified and looking, but no one is hiring. (and yes, I’m out of a job and looking for work in high tech)

  26. Will: beautifully written!

    I have done psychological assessments of people applying for asylum once here. At the time I did this (ending in 2012), the Boston immigration courts allowed about 17% to stay in America — which is actually a lot more than in most immigration courts.

    Medical problems, poverty and joining family, among other other factors, are not considered acceptable reasons for staying. It requires persecution.

    Those sent back are often tortured and killed.

  27. BTW, the description above is not exactly a likely method for those who had it comfy where they were!

  28. This is huge, humbling and consuming. First, Senator, I am relieved and glad to know that your and Isabella Alexander’s paths crossed. Your lifelong dedication to justice, battling odds at every juncture, is a gift of life in service to humanity. Your opportunity to connect with a person of like drive, accomplishment and passion must be ennobling and so uplifting in an otherwise unimaginable challenge. I know that you are broadly balanced in your perception, dedication and plans. Forgive me to harking back to points you already know.

    The description of making it over the fence and surviving the journey to a better land is heartbreakingly improbable. Problems for the masses left behind have to be addressed within their homelands. That is also daunting and dangerous beyond words but kernels of potential growth might be rescued and nurtured. Their are missionaries in dreadful corners of the Earth working on just that. Sending American military forces to transform thinking and squash oppression has not worked in recent years. I know of no shared global imperative like that which existed before the Great War.

    This is not a copout. I encourage everyone I encounter everyday to open their hearts, wallets, strength and minds to addressing problems in situ in this country. We need to embrace the United Nations as the premier organization in this country, supporting its irreplaceable position in world life.

    1. Lorraine, Your point is well taken, not a copout, I agree that — if we could we would want to stabilize the countries from which people are fleeing and make them places people want to stay. Very tall order.

      1. This is a commentary about the refugee crisis from Stefan Molyneaux, the Canadian Vlogger who is a philosopher, has a BA and MA in History, a background in Theater Arts, was an entrepreneur (a software company)and gives a new perspective on issues.

        He said it would be cheaper to resettle Syrians IN the Middle East and they won’t suffer from cultural transplant shock.

        The relevant parts run from 1:43-to-6:37 on the counter.

  29. How about doing something for your constituents instead of creating liabilities for them. Selfstroking by trying to make yourself look charitable offering what isn’t yours has become your hallmark.

    Oooops, forgot about the bold stand giving yourself a pay raise. You’re a wonderful rubber stamp fraud. How could we get along without you. We might be looking at the next Ed Markey. Is he still alive by the way?

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