In 2007, David Danelo took the journey of a lifetime along the entirety of the 1,952-mile US-Mexico border. He recounts these poignant experiences in a brand-new edition of The Border (to be released on June 1st), a narrative that is part travelogue, part memoir, and part ethnography. Prior to publication, Stackpole Books provided YPFP with an advance copy of The Border and a one-on-one interview with Mr. Danelo himself. Armed with these materials , we delved into a review of what promises to be one of the most interesting and relevant books of 2019.
As a Marine Corps veteran, a researcher, and a proud Texan, Danelo’s vision of the border is that of a common cultural thread, winding through a series of linked communities, economies, and connected histories. To form this view, Danelo documented the stories, views, concerns, and hopes of individuals on both sides of the current immigration debate. He spoke with Border Patrol officials, hopeful Central American immigrants, US soldiers formerly deployed at the border, Native American historians, local entrepreneurs, and activists, etc.
Although Danelo clearly states his stance on the US-Mexico border debate both in person and in the introduction to his book, his intention in this book is not one of pure persuasion. His writing style is closer to that of an observer, one who understands the complexities, and even contradictions, that life on the border represents for the humans on both sides. Danelo’s interviews and experiences, gathered through four months on the road, are reported in such a way that each perspective is afforded respect and lent a degree of credence. Readers are allowed to make their own decisions after each encounter, to make sense of the often-contradictory information and the almost indistinguishable lines between right and wrong, between liberal and conservative, and between Mexican and American. Danelo’s goal is to draw readers’ eyes to a new perspective on the debate and to encourage discussion.
In our interview, Danelo elaborated on what solution he, as a former director of Policy and Planning for the US Customs and Border Patrol Agency under the Obama administration, would recommend in terms of future immigrations reforms. He calls for an “Ellis Island” approach where if a US employer is need of temporary or low-wage earners, that employer can advertise online, willing workers from Central America can apply for those jobs, be accepted, make an appointment at the consulate, be screened and vetted, and then proceed to work in the US. “We’re really missing an opportunity right now to capture the moment and reform immigration,” Danelo concluded.
However, Danelo doesn’t balk at the need for security on the border—citing that it’s important to know who’s in our nation and to prevent harmful terrorism or drug crimes. But he also believes that importing low-skilled labor can enhance America’s free-market economy and that remittances could play an important role in strengthening the economies of Central American nations. Trump’s plan for a physical barrier, Danelo stated in our interview, is “not going to do anything.” People have been finding ways over, under, through, and around walls for thousands of years. They’re not going to stop now. Instead, he calls for a change in the way Americans view migration, suggesting the nation focus first on immigration reform and then restructure security policies to support that reform.
One of the reasons the border is so important to Danelo is because he sees a similarity between veterans and migrants. There’s a shared desire “to move on, to build a new life” between the two groups. Having served in combat in the Marine Corps, Danelo relates that coming home from war was difficult. At times, he struggled to get by and found it difficult to build a new career as an author and researcher. Migrants, he believes, are just trying to do the same thing. Maybe they, too, are seeking to transform their lives into something else, away from the violence in their home countries. Maybe they’re just trying to get by, to care for their families, and to escape the systemic poverty of their homelands. “When I look at them, I see me,” said Danelo. “I find myself identifying with the similarities between the veteran community and the migrant community.”
In essence, that’s what’s different about The Border. Like its author, the book manages to identify with people of diverse backgrounds and offers something to think about for all paradigms. It starts a new conversation about the border, one that is more centered on people than on politics. It’s exceptional reading not only for anyone trying to better understand the current debate, but for anyone interested in delving into how a clash of cultures resulted in an enthralling mix of beauty and harsh realities, of harmony and discord, and of honor and greed. The border isn’t simple. And it’s past time we stopped thinking of it that way.
Elizabeth Brandeberry is YPFP’s 2019 International Development Fellow. Find her on Twitter: @thebusylizzie13