Monday, May 12, 2008

Putting a Stop to Illegal Immigration. Wanna Bet?

South Africa has been called, "Africa's America" because it holds the dominant place on that continent in much the same way that the U.S. dominates North America. To carry the analogy a bit farther, Cape Town is that nation's Los Angeles. It's the nearest great city that immigrants dream about as a destination where they can start a new life.

Like the United States and Mexico, South Africa and Mozambique share a common border that is partitioned with a formidable fence, constructed by the rich country to keep out refugees from the poor country. But here the similarity ends, because in Africa the people who wish to migrate to the south of the African continent face the ultimate obstacle: animals who see them as food.

On our last trip to Cape Town, my wife and I sat with a local couple in a trendy bistro down on Cape Town's wonderful seaport development with its world-class shops and restaurants and hotels. There, in posh surroundings with a view of the harbor, the locals described to us how would-be immigrants try to deal with the predator cats that block their way to a better life. Unlike our situation along the United States southern border where the immigrants are mostly fit and able young men, the would-be immigrants in Africa begin their journey with entire extended families including the old and feeble. It is generally understood by everyone that, if lions or other predators are encountered along the way, the old and the feeble will be sacrificed as food so that the younger family members can survive. Such are the harsh realities in that part of the world.

If immigrants are fortunate enough to run the gauntlet and reach Cape Town, their lot is still bleak. Chances are, they will find themselves living in one of the townships. These are the shantytowns, like the slums and Hoovervilles in Depression-era America, but with populations that can number a million or more. Townships are characterized by narrow dirt roads, lack of running water, and flimsy shanty dwellings constructed by hand from confiscated materials. The local euphemism for this is "informal housing." We really have nothing like this in the United States, and in Cape Town the contrast between the townships and the rich upscale neighborhoods is absolutely staggering. Our conversation in an atmosphere of elegance about predator cats eating old and feeble human beings was a kind of metaphor for Cape Town itself, with all of the economic and environmental differences that are found there.

Informal housing, slums, shantytowns- by whatever name you call these desperate neighborhoods- they are found throughout the third world. In South America they are called "favelas." However, unlike the "favelas" of Rio (which are so deadly that even the police won't enter them), these Cape Town slums are safe enough for white outsiders to go in and spend time. So we did just that on the morning after our seaside dinner. I had some doubt about the authenticity of the story we had been told the night before, but our trip to the slums dispelled that. Inside a tiny hand-built shack we interviewed a man who had lost his parents to a lion attack. He had left Zimbabwe with his extended family and headed south on foot. Near the northern border of South Africa, they had encountered a pride of marauding lions. The mother and father had advanced toward the threat while the younger family members retreated in the opposite direction, and several days later they were told by people in a local village that human bones are routinely found out in the bush.

As I listened to this man tell his story, and as I saw the intensity in his eyes, I wondered if he might not chuckle at the thought that leaders in the United States think they can stem illegal immigration with a fence, or with electronic surveillance equipment. That’s American hubris for you, believing that gizmos can change human behavior better than the threat of being eaten alive by a beast.

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