Border Crossing

Last week, I was able to experience Rick Shaefer’s Refugee Trilogy, an exhibit at the BYU Museum of Art.1 Three immense triptychs formed the walls of the one-room exhibit, each symbolizing a different form of refugee travel: “Land Crossing,” “Sea Crossing,” and “Border Crossing.” Although all three pieces were moving (especially when considered and felt together), I found “Border Crossing” particularly striking. The large charcoal sketch is crowded with figures: feral lions, alligators, and hippopotamuses; armor-clad soldiers and bare men; angels and infants. All struggle with each other in a violent and haphazard display of what a border is and what it effects. It struck me that although “land” and “sea” both present difficulties for refugee and migrant travel, borders and border enforcement are unique in their particular social constructedness—even though natural and supernatural elements play a significant part in the piece, the border becomes the crux of these interests only after humans decide the place and function of the given border. Considering the arbitrary nature of borders and enforcement, then, it is no wonder that the sketch is composite black and white with an incredible amount of gray. In the midst of the commotion, though, the central figure to me is the lion. His anthropomorphic features, quite unique in context of the other animals portrayed in the exhibit, betray a morose countenance. Even he, one of the enforcers, is dejected—disappointed—demoralized by what he sees. He seems to ask, what is the cure for this suffering?

Even considering the fact that immigration and border reform have long been topics of modern public discourse and artistic debate, the exhibit still seems particularly timely for the United States. Last year saw the first time that the U. S. resettled fewer refugees than the rest of the world, dropping from 97,000 in 2016 to just 33,000 in 2017.2 As for other migrants and asylum seekers, most readers will be familiar with one of this year’s biggest border crises, in which strict enforcement led to the incarceration and separation of thousands of children from their families. As of August 31st of this year—according to the Washington Post—nearly 500 of those children are still in U. S. custody.3 Considering how much horror can be experienced at borders, it is sometimes seems difficult to even fathom how they are created and why they exist.

Robert Frost famously found similar perplexity. In “Mending Wall,” Frost presents a narrator at odds with his neighbor. As they come together to mend the fence between them (a wall that decays naturally as entropy takes its toll), he questions his neighbor as to why they need a wall in the first place; their trees are different enough that no man-made border would seem necessary to keep them from encroaching on one another’s property. His neighbor simply replies, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Frost’s narrator, though, isn’t having any of it:

Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offense.4

Frost seems to ask: when enforcement becomes only an end in itself, to what actual use is the border? On a broader plane, it recalls to me C. S. Lewis’s lecture, “The Inner Ring,” wherein he examines the human desire to exclude. As humans, he says, we tend to create “inner rings” of “deserving” individuals in order to puff ourselves up and look down on others. Now in some instances, exclusion is necessary to the activity itself, such as the size of a classroom for a given course. However, the “passion for the Inner Ring” can often lead us to feel superior and create borders where they aren’t needed.5

 Lewis’s paradigm may seem tenuous when applied to specific cases, as people could most likely question or justify the limits of their own or other inner rings no matter how qualified or farfetched their arguments may be. Not to mention, lines could hypothetically be acceptable at one degree and not acceptable the next, leaving absolutely every institution and activity up for rigorous skepticism and debate. For example, to what degree are college admissions limited by the university’s resources versus their desire to retain high rankings? No one would ever really say, even if they could. And oftentimes, the motive can be both at the same time. This perception of borders might help to understand some of their functions of borders within a nation while at the same time expanding it to the point of not being able to adequately talk about it. Notwithstanding the breadth of such an paradigm, though, I do think it is worth considering where highly violent social borders (or rings) exist and what to do about them. What should we do when we approach these borders, either as travelers hoping to cross, enforcers (if only subconsciously) discouraging passage, or bystanders standing morosely in the midst?

One potential answer came to me this week during our Humanities Center colloquium. Marianne Hirsch, William Peterfield Trent Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University,6 spoke concerning “statelessness” and memory. At the beginning of her presentation, Professor Hirsch described her own experience crossing a border as a refugee from communist Romania. While just eleven years old, her family left Romania in search of a new life, and, in the process, their citizenships were revoked. They were thenceforth proclaimed “stateless.” During the remainder of the colloquium, Professor Hirsch described the nuances of being stateless, of dispossession, and of losing identity. She also described, however, that being stateless was a type of release, a freedom—even a symbol of openness and potentiality. While a violent memory in her mind, Professor Hirsch’s border crossing was nevertheless an experience that allowed her to lose herself and perhaps gain something more as a result.

Therefore, how would things change if we similarly saw borders not as barriers but as convergences? What would it mean as an academy, and more especially as a nation, if we perceived borders as areas of transnational synthesis rather than threats to national security or tools for superiority? Accepting the inevitability of some borders, social or physical, what if we rejected the calls to enforce or abolish them, and instead considered their affordances as sites of potential cultural congregation? And how might a humanities perspective aid in establishing the roots of such a perspective shift?

I must admit, in writing this, I do feel a bit helpless. What I neglected to mention at the beginning of this post was a companion exhibit to Shaefer’s Refugee Trilogy at the BYU Museum. Hidden away in a dark corner of the basement, an electronic exhibit plays a film loop recounting the experiences of the Lesbos coast guard in rescuing refugees traveling overseas to Greece.7 The footage, for me, is unbearable. Driven to desperation, people make the trip across the ocean in much too ill-equipped vessels. They lose lives along the way. With that exhibit in mind, I approach this topic of borders and travel with great humility, knowing that this is a real conversation surrounding real people’s lives, and in real time. I want to do what I can to help establish safe passage both physically and emotionally, and I know that simply saying borders are convergences won’t help those specific people anytime soon.

However, although I am still looking for the best way to contribute directly to specific causes surrounding refugees and other marginalized groups, I do think that discussing the possibilities of viewing borders differently would help to shift perception and eventually affect those seeking to cross. With borders as chances to merge experiences, a member of any inside group would feel encouraged to meet the person at the border to see what they offered. A traveler would approach it with more confidence. A bystander could serve as a proxy, aiding in the process of mediation. If we ever got to the point where saw borders not as blockages but as opportunities, ourselves not as enforcers but as liaisons, and crossers not as aliens but as explorers, travelers would have a more hopeful chance of crossing safely and bringing valuable contributions with them—both across physical national borders and in other socially constructed barriers. At the very least, I know that as angels and beasts fight over the transient passengers, I would have a less morose visage and a greater knowledge of how to help.

This post was written by Isaac Robertson, Humanities Center Intern.

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[1] Shaefer, Rick. Refugee Trilogy, BYU Museum of Art May 18-September 29, 2018, https://moa.byu.edu/rick-shaefer-refugee-trilogy/#1516405651164-1c84cfde-8c2e.

[2] Connor, Phillip and Jens Manuel Krogstad, “For the First Time, U. S. Resettles Refugees than the Rest of the World,” Pew Research Center, July 5, 2018, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/07/05/for-the-first-time-u-s-resettles-fewer-refugees-than-the-rest-of-the-world/.  All other countries together resettled 69,000 in 2017.

[3] Sacchetti, Maria. “Still Separated: Nearly 500 Migrant Children Taken from their Parents Remain in Custody.” The Washington Post, August 31, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/immigration/still-separated-nearly-500-separated-migrant-children-remain-in-us-custody/2018/08/30/6dbd8278-aa09-11e8-8a0c-70b618c98d3c_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.aa7c5e5d61c6.

[4] Frost, Robert. “Mending Wall.” Poets.org, https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/mending-wall.

[5] Lewis, C. S. “The Inner Ring.” C. S. Lewis Society of California, http://www.lewissociety.org/innerring/.

[6] She is also Professor in the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality, and Director of the Center for the Study of Social Difference.

[7] 4.1 Miles, BYU Museum of Art July 16-March 23, 2018, http://moa.byu.edu/e-g-4-1-miles/.

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