NPR’s John Burnett to discuss cross-border immigration at Sonoma Speakers Series
A year ago, few would have expected NPR border-correspondent John Burnett’s hotly anticipated speaking appearance in Sonoma.
But much has changed since the summer of 2016, as Burnett takes the stage at Hanna Boys Center on June 12 as the latest guest of the Sonoma Speakers Series.
The first Sonoma Speakers Series event, last October, featured a pair of long-time National Public Radio political commentators musing about the division in the electorate just a few weeks ahead of the Nov. 8 general election. But Neal Conan and Ken Rudin largely discounted Republican nominee Donald Trump’s chances of actually winning that election, given the extreme positions he took on so many issues.
Six months later, what once seemed unlikely has come to fruition. It’s President Donald J. Trump now, and while few predicted his victory, even fewer predicted the almost daily chaos that victory has brought to issues from White House staffing to Russian influence to, most recently, the environmental retreat of the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.
But nothing has hit as close to home, in as many communities including Sonoma, as the Trump administration’s positions on immigration and undocumented immigrants. One of the first executive actions issued by the administration was to ban immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries, an effort stalled by several appellate court rulings.
Another of his early executive orders was to move ahead with one of his most controversial campaign promises – the building of a border wall, a permanent barrier between Mexico and the United States. For NPR correspondent John Burnett, who has covered immigration issues many times over his 31-year broadcast career, it’s a tactic that “never did make a lot of sense on the Southwest border – and everyone down here knows it.”
Burnett will be the featured guest at the next Sonoma Speakers Series, on Monday, June 12, along with Sonoma Police Chief Bret Sackett. Ostensibly the topic is “Cross-Border Immigration,” and even Sackett acknowledges that it’s Burnett who will be the highlight of the evening; Sackett expects his contribution will be to “provide a local perspective and a clear understanding of our role in immigration-related issues.”
Despite his lengthy experience with border issues, Burnett also recognizes the impact that anti-immigrant policies, and rhetoric, has on local communities far from the border. While deportation policies expanded under Obama, Burnett said in a telephone conversation last week, “They’ll grab anybody now. And people without papers know that, and your population there and ours in Houston and Austin – everybody’s terrified.”
Burnett’s beat along the U.S./Mexican border has taken him from Brownsville, Texas, to San Ysidro, California, but it’s the remote landscape of Big Bend where he finds the border wall most absurd.
“It’s sort of a preposterous solution in a lot of areas,” said Burnett. “Invariably it’s people far from the border who are the biggest fans of the border wall, who don’t understand what a complicated international divide we have down here, with Indian tribal land and national parks like Big Bend – which is really one of the gems of the border down here.”
Added Burnett: “If you’ve never been here, it’s stunning.”
For, despite his NPR credentials, Burnett is a Texan, after all. He began his reporting career at the University of Texas, and his assignments for UPI and NPR have taken him to Iraq, Somalia and East Africa in addition to Guatemala and deep into Mexico, pursuing stories on the dangerous drug cartels.
Not only that, but the lanky reporter also plays blues harmonica with an Austin-based bar band, Whodo.
Which makes his defense of all things Texan a bit, well, defensive.
“Texas wanted to secede under Obama, now you guys want to secede under Trump,” he snaps. “And in terms of gun-totin’, yeah, Texans do love a gun.” (He doesn’t own one, however, believing Austin to be a safe city.)
But he disputes the easy characterization of Texas as a jingoistic, isolationist backwater.
“It’s not a frontier. We have five of the biggest cities in the country now, between Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth and San Antonio and Austin – these are big sophisticated urban centers,” located in counties that went for Hillary Clinton over Trump, he points out.
“It’s a complicated place,” he says. “It’s a state that votes Republican, it’s a state that soundly went for Donald Trump, and yet a solid majority of Texans don’t want the wall, and they are very skeptical of these extreme immigration measures, too.”
But it’s not Texas, but the border wall and anti-immigration policies that will be under discussion on June 12, at Hanna Boys Center. And on that issue, Burnett’s experience, intellect and heart has led him to a different side of that divide than the President.
“He thinks, we just need this big wall down here to keep undocumented immigrants out and to keep drugs out, but it’s such a simplistic answer,” says Burnett, almost marveling at Trump’s position. He points out that there are many different ways for people to get into the U.S. if that’s what they want to do, from boats to truck smuggling to something as simple, and wide-spread, as visa overstays.
“A wall, in and of itself, is kind of a big dumb answer.”
Contact Christian at email@example.com.