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Border crossing

06/20/07 12:00AM By Bill Shutkin
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(HOST) As we debate funding for the Iraq war and how to improve security on our border with Mexico, commentator Bill Shutkin worries that other security needs are being overlooked.

(SHUTKIN) Emma Lazarus would not be pleased.

As I waited to cross the border at Derby Line on the way back from a recent trip to Quebec City with my family, I couldn't help but notice the peeling paint and rust covering practically every square inch of the U.S. Customs facility, an outdated steel erector-set of a structure. My brief moment of patriotic pride - the one that happens, as if preternaturally, whenever I reenter the U.S. from abroad - was quickly eroded by the ungainly reality of the dilapidated building. This was no golden door welcoming the huddled masses, Lazarus's immortal words describing our most famous port of entry, the Statue of Liberty; it was an embarrassment.

How could it be, I thought, that a nation forged by immigrants into the wealthiest civilization in the history of humankind could let even one of its gateways and symbols of America's hope and promise, corrode into just a pile of rusting slag, an insult to the very notion of immigration, to say nothing of public space and border protection?

As I handed the customs agent my passport, I pointed to the blight and, trying not to offend, expressed my disappointment as a taxpayer and a citizen. As if relieved to hear my complaint, the man agreed wholeheartedly, as did his fellow agent, who happened to walk by. They both expressed the wish for a remedy for what to them is not only an important federal facility but a work environment that is both unhealthy and uninspiring.

The author Salmon Rushdie has said that immigration is the great story of the last century. As the first decade of the twenty-first century comes to a close, immigration remains a signal story, a hot button for everyone from nativist politicians eager to scapegoat illegal immigrants for society's ills to Vermont farmers and ski resort owners who depend on seasonal labor for their businesses.

But if immigration is a deeply contested political and economic matter, its place at the heart of our American narrative is indisputable. Its the cherished idea of immigration, of people moving at great risk from one place to another in search of a better life, that makes this building more than just another toll booth and that gives the traveler pause as he crosses the invisible line between who he is and who he might have been.

Driving away from customs, I was struck by the irony of how much we're spending on controversial new fences on the Mexican border - never mind the 430 billion dollars for the war in Iraq - all in the name of homeland security. Meanwhile, back home many of the very buildings already securing our borders are deteriorating. Makes me wonder what other facilities and programs, full of important social meaning and purpose, are beginning to fall apart?

Bill Shutkin is a writer, lawyer and Research Affiliate at MIT.

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