Duty Free

        The border is a fascinating anomaly. Here, pesos and dollars can be spent on either side of the Rio Grande. Spanish and English are accepted at most places of business, and the schools teach countless students who cross a bridge every day for their education. Everyone knows medicines are cheaper in Mexico, and just a 90-cent toll to walk across. Animals cross in broad daylight unhindered by la migra.

Which brings us to the singular case of duty-free goods. A host of duty-free shops on either side of the border sell discounted liquor and tobacco products. The buyer gets a claims ticket, walks to the bridge, and as they are passing through the turnstile, their product is then handed to them. All that is left is to walk across to Matamoros, then turn around and head back through U.S. Customs. The very idea seems ludicrous, laughable, and yet thousands of people do it a week.

Duty-free stores highlight the absurdity of our current, unresponsive, dehumanized borders. They are set up to be impermeable for people (think the 2006 Secure Fence Act), and yet goods and products are encouraged to cross the border many times. When the United States moved many of its automobile and textile manufacturers over to Mexico, this free movement of products was surely brokered into the deal. Why then are people viewed so differently by the current immigration laws?

America’s immigration laws are being disobeyed covertly nationwide. Some 12 million illegal immigrants currently work and reside in the United States. The problem, is, that those businesses which lured them to the United States do not want to “declare them” to customs or fight for a real path to their citizenship. No, instead, American capitalism is content to keep them illegal (read exploitable).

In his publication Young India, Mohandas Gandhi worded it in the following way.

We have too long been mentally disobedient to the laws of the State and have too often surreptitiously evaded them, to be fit all of a sudden for civil disobedience. Disobedience to be civil has to be open and non-violent. (emphasis mine)

Gandhi clearly saw that the rules were being bent freely. He decried this form of evasive disobedience, though, because it merely bends the law and encourages lawlessness. The world is a different place because men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. chose not to bend bad laws but instead break them, openly and fully intending to accept the state’s punishment. Only then can true change happen.

Starting with the Bracero Programs in 1942 which sponsored about 4.5 million migrant workers, the United States has uneasily bent its laws concerning immigrants it deems it needs economically but does not want socially. Countless restaurants and fields and factories across these United States currently employ Mexicans and other illegal immigrants at substandard wages and without benefits. This “duty-free” work force is capitalistic cowardice.

If we truly welcome immigrant labor, our immigration laws must be reformed immediately. For too many years, government policy has been “hard” on immigration and soft on enforcement. This sort of double-speak, this mental disobedience embodied by the border has allayed the conscience of Capitol Hill, has freed it of its duty to its citizens, those Americalmost immigrants, and those businesses valuing an economic edge above social welfare.

However, we are never free of our duty to any resident of these United States. Pretending that 12 million living and breathing and loving and working people are negligible simply because of they lack a classification that came to many of us freely at birth is to ignore our duty. For Americans, our borders have been “duty-free” places for decades. Our modern wars abroad do not touch us anymore with rationing, peace-gardens, and can drives and so cease to be real; in the same way, Americans are granted an international bill of rights at birth which enables them almost carte blanche access to the rest of the world. How different it is just a few hundred feet across a river!

There is no such thing as “duty-free” living, and it is our duty to speak out against border policies and immigration laws which are unjust and limit residents’ rights. As Gandhi famously wrote, “Noncooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good.”

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Martin Luther King once said “It is a tortuous logic to use the tragic results of segregation as an argument for the continuation of it.” By the same reasoning, it is a tortuous logic to use the tragic results of immigration restrictions (illegal crossings) as an argument for the continuation of it (we have been too long surreptitiously disobedient to be fit for civil disobedience).

    I say that simply because this is a compelling post of yours and something ought to somehow balance it. After reading it I have to say you ought to be writing your own column in a national newspaper. The way these blogs work, at some point you’ll hit a tipping point and then your readership will shoot through the roof. I’m honored to know you, Matt.

    Getting back to Gandhi’s statement, I have known for years that the spirit of the law is always higher than the letter of the law. The spirit of the law doesn’t allow you to cut corners; it requires more of its adherents, not less. I have also known that the civilly disobedient must be individuals who have never broken and then evaded the law. That kind of disobedience must be wide-spread enough to have the type of effect that a boycott can have, but it won’t work on the small scale. For that to work, it must be people strictly adhering to the law.

  2. […] to point you in the direction of a friend of mine who wrote an excellent article entitled, “Duty Free.” […]


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