In Washington, far from the border wall slicing through the Sonoran desert where I live, a long overdue debate on immigration reform is haltingly beginning. Many voices will be brought to bear on this debate, and there will be heartbreaking stories of families torn apart, honor students unable to enroll in College, and American dreams denied to a segregated class of people. Yet as powerful as these voices are, their words will mean nothing if Congress sticks to its insistence that our border with Mexico be secured before any of the humanitarian aims of immigration reform are instituted.
To understand why the border will never be secure, and why it doesn’t matter anyway, we have to turn to other voices. These voices can’t speak to the hope and pain of the Dreamers, but can authoritatively educate us about the futility of borders and the impossibility of absolute security. They are the voices of nature—the biological organisms that have lived and thrived on this world despite endless security challenges for 3.5 billion years. Nature understands security and it understands borders.
Biological organisms implicitly understand that their world will always be filled with risk, but they don’t waste energy trying to eliminate risks. In short, a fish doesn’t try to turn a shark into a vegetarian. Living with risk is a daily reality for nature, but it’s neither a passive nor defeatist stance. Organisms actively live with risk by adapting—changing what they do and who they do it with—to solve immediate problems in the environment.
Adaptability is what has allowed natural organisms to survive, thrive, and diversify into millions of different successful creatures.
This continual process of adaptation informs nature’s deep knowledge about borders. For 3.5 billion years, borders in nature have been built, tested, overcome, rebuilt, and overcome again. The border between sea and land was breached by amphibians and later breached back by land mammals that evolved into whales. Borders between uni- and multi-cellular life have repeatedly been breached with the result being symbiotic partnerships—such as that between nitrogen fixing bacteria and legume plants–that make life on Earth possible for humans. And in a blink of evolutionary time the border between the immune system of birds and that of humans was breached by H5N1, avian flu. Janet Napolitano, the last sensible Governor of Arizona’s 370 mile border, expressed the power of adaptation to overcome borders perfectly when she said, “You show me a 50-foot wall and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder at the border.”
Unfortunately, all sides of the immigration debate play the security issue as if it is a real and attainable thing, something that 3.5 billion years of experience hasn’t already proved futile. On the right, long time foes of immigration reform use the security mandate for the only thing it’s actually useful for—political blackmail. On the left, the Obama administration and immigration reform advocates repeatedly proffer meaningless statistics supposedly showing dramatically increased security on the border. One commonly heard number is that despite many more border agents, arrests of illegal border crossers have declined by over 40% in the last two years, but we have no idea what this means. Is it because a few more miles of fence have made us that much better at deterring illegal border crossers? Or is it because far fewer people crossed during a period where the relative benefits of the US economy were fairly low? Or is it, as the border patrol agents and public defenders I play hockey with claim (yes, we have hockey in Arizona), because the budget slashed courts have no room for immigration cases and border patrol agents have to just turn anyone without tons of drugs or guns back out into the desert?
In general, absolute measures of security are meaningless because there will always be insecurity in a complex world. This is why in all of nature, not a single organism strives for perfection. Evolution isn’t about “survival of the fittest”, but survival of those good enough to solve the most important challenges at hand. What this almost infinitely repeated pattern tells us is that you don’t achieve absolute security to then solve problems; you solve problems to obtain enough security to survive and thrive. Immigration reform is the challenge at hand for America, and if done right it will help us thrive with a more diverse population than we’ve ever had in history. The long history of life—marked by a pattern of ever greater diversity despite enormous security challenges– gives voice to this truth.
Dr. Rafe Sagarin is an ecologist at the University of Arizona and the author of “Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease” (2012 Basic Books).