Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Breathtaking Determination

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, October 26, 2021 --  

Migrants are willing to endure great hardships to achieve a better life. They are exactly the kind of people America needs.

Morning at the ramshackle docks of Colombia's banana port of Turbo is a chaotic scene.   Afro-Columbian boatmen bound for villages along the muddy Gulf of Urabá call out for customers to fill their vessels.
All Aboard!
Port of Turbo in 2010
© 2021 David G. Young

Little more than fiberglass hulls with powerful outboard motors, the boats are crammed shoulder-to-shoulder before pilots  gun their engines across the Gulf toward the Isthmus of Panama.  Migrants, vendors, and tourists hold on for dear life as the hulls slap against the water, lurching from one sea swell to the next. 

For the few intrepid tourists, the arduous trip is the price for reaching the idyllic beach town of Capurganá.   But for the determined migrants, the boats are just the beginning.  After having flying to South America from their home countries, Turbo's boatmen take them to the unguarded edge of North America.  Paid guides lead them along muddy footpaths and wild rivers sixty-six miles inland across the mountainous jungles of Panama.  The lucky will survive to see the start of the Pan-American Highway in Yaziva.  From there, roads lead 2,795 miles across five international frontiers to the American border. 

The grit, determination and vigor needed to undertake this journey is breathtaking.  People from Cuba, Haiti, Africa and the Middle East leave desperate conditions for a better life in the United States.  They are willing to endure terrible hardships along the way.    

Despite varying faces and tongues, these are the same high-energy people who have been flocking the United States since its founding.  It is their kind who have given the United States its distinct national character.  Two centuries ago, early migrants would squat in the hulls of wooden sailing ships for weeks to cross the Atlantic, then set off on wagon trains toward the frontier.  The scale of immigrant hardships then are comparable to those now -- only the details differ. 

Migrants have always faced opposition.  Two hundred years ago, indigenous Americans fought the new European immigrants who spread disease and competed for scarce resources.   Today's opposition is led by nativist Americans whose anti-immigrant attitudes share much with the indigenous Americans.  They fear economic displacement (immigrants may take their jobs) and ethnic and cultural displacement (the loss of a European, English-speaking majority).   

Nativist concerns have some basis in truth — today's migrants are usually not white, usually don't speak English as their first tongue, and certainly have the gumption to work long hours for lower wages than workers born in the United States.  Yet cultural concerns are overblown.  Each wave of new immigrants becomes fluent in English within a generation, and usually leave their ethnic communities within two or three generations.    

The belief of many Americans that today's immigrants are different and dangerous is not new.  The right-wing "Know Nothings" said that about the Irish in the 1950s, and their ideological heirs said the same about the Chinese in the 1880s, the Poles and Italians in the 1890s, and the Puerto Ricans in the 1950s.  Immigrants’ detractors are as wrong now as they were then. 

Yet those who support immigration must be sensitive to legitimate grievances.  Low-skilled Americans are right to fear competition from folks willing to work so hard.  How many citizens would be willing to cross seventy miles of wild jungle for the opportunity to take a menial job?  Yet all Americans, including those who aren’t the brightest, must be able to make a living, too. 

Anti-immigrant Americans elected Donald Trump to build an enormous wall to keep the migrants out.   That wall has proven terribly ineffective, as shown by the recent case of a smuggler with a rope ladder who helped a 7-year-old girl defeat a 30-foot border wall near Calexico.1  Ironically,  America's more subtle immigration restrictions on arrival by air and sea (many of which are effective) have pushed migrants to use the overland route from Panama that ultimately ends at Trump's porous wall. 

After declining sharply a the start of the pandemic, apprehensions at America’s southern border have rebounded to the highest levels in over a decade.2  News is filled with dramatic cases like the Haitians camped under a bridge on the Texas border last month, rounded up by horse-mounted Border Patrol and cruelly deported by plane back to their Haitian misery.3  We don't hear the stories of the thousands who quietly make it over the wall, join friends and family, and start a new life of hard work like so many generations of immigrants to America before them.  

Those of us who welcome migrants filled with grit and vigor — people who actually do make America great — must find a way to build acceptance amongst countrymen who suffer their direct impacts.  America has thrived as an immigrant society for over 400 years.  With luck it will continue to do so for many years to come.

David G. Young rode the boats from Turbo to Capurganá as a tourist in the fall of 2010.


1. Washington Times, Video Shows Smuggler Abandoning 7-Year-Old Girl at U.S.-Mexico Border Fence, October 12, 2021

2. BBC, Number of Migrants at US Border Hits New Record High, June 10, 2021

3. Texas Tribune, "We Suffered a Lot to Get Here": A Haitian Migrant's Harrowing Journey to the Texas-Mexico Border, October 1, 2021