Build steel bridges, not steel cages

PHOTO: Jeff Wallace, Flickr CC

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

We’ve outlived our immigrant ancestors. Imprints of hungrier times remain etched on our communities, but they are easy to ignore. The fight for workplace safety and fair pay. The demand for free public education. The streets and amenities built to last beyond the mines on the edge of town. The shared humanity of the many over the tyranny of the few.

But I cannot escape a haunting notion. Transported to another time, the surnames painted in charming fashion on our Northern Minnesota cabins would have been the names on the clipboards outside the immigrant camps we read about in today’s news.

Dress it up however you like. You can claim that one foreigner is legal and another illegal, but the only thing that’s different is our government’s policies, then and now.

Here you might logically reply that the distant plight on America’s southern border means little to us here on the northern border. After all, as some have told me, we want to protect *our* jobs and *our* way of life. It’s only about trade, you see. And jobs.

It’s true, people here in Northern Minnesota broadly support trade actions against unfair foreign steel dumping by countries like China. During downturns, dumping affects local taconite mines and thousands of workers. This was one of the reasons Trump gave Republicans their first presidential win in several Mesabi Range towns since Herbert Hoover in 1928.

It’s certainly the reason President Trump came to Duluth last Wednesday to sell his policies and stump for his party. After all, Minnesota’s 8th District remains one of the most closely-watched Congressional races in the country. We all saw the company signs and smiling faces on the news, thrilled that the president said the word “mining” aloud.

But you can’t escape the peril facing this country. Yes, this despite the good economy that has all the mines working. I find it hard to write about the policy of our current administration, not just because of its outrageousness, but because of its incoherence and constant change. It’s like trying to pick out the melody of an improvised song in the alley behind the bar. (It’s possible that the story has changed again between my deadline and your reading this; I’ll take my chances).

Here we can unite the stories of trade and immigration. It’s true that we need enforceable policies on both of these issues. But xenophobia (the fear of foreigners) and protectionism (refusal to trade with the outside world) are more feelings than policy. History shows nothing but destruction when they are followed to their logical conclusion.

The Iron Range benefits from reasonable trade protections against state-owned industrial systems like China’s. I’ve been arguing for this for four administrations, not just this one. But we do not benefit from a trade war with anyone, and especially not Canada. Range mines send ore to Canada and American steelmakers send Canada more steel than we import. And that’s not even considering Minnesota’s agricultural exports, which would be obliterated in a trade war. The result of a trade war will be recession. And we all know recessions shut down mines quicker than a lightning storm.

On immigration, remember this. European immigrants to the Iron Range possessed a legal path to citizenship now denied refugees and immigrants from South America.

One easy answer for this is that the Steel Trust needed the workers. It was even willing to invest in educating them. Not only was that considered humane, it was a sound business decision. The wisdom of integration and education now becomes apparent every time you see an immigrant name on a ballot, or a business, or the mailboxes of our finer homes and cabins.

People forget that it took European immigrants a generation to learn English. Some never did. One-hundred years ago, immigrants sacrificed an entire life of security to give their children a fighting chance. That’s why we celebrate patriotism on the Iron Range every Fourth of July. That’s why service is a sacred duty here.

Last week we watched as millions decried the horrifying child separation policy created by the current administration. The president acquiesced, only slightly, by allowing parents to stay with their children in the internment camps. This at least put him on par with the worst chapter in Franklin Roosevelt’s political biography, the hushed-up one about Japanese-Americans during WWII.

Without evidence, the president labels those seeking asylum from deadly persecution as criminals. Children have been made orphans unnecessarily because their parents had no choice but to beg the land of liberty for help.

Immigration and trade. Yes, it’s all part of the same story. As we boil down the perceived security of harsh political policies, we brew poison.

Minnesota iron ore built 20th Century America — its schools and cities, roads and technology. The Iron Range of the 21st Century can build so much more than cages for the innocent children of refugees. A cage for any child is a curse to all our children. A country that fears its neighbors, or that shirks its stated values out of convenience or spite, is a country that will destroy itself faster than any enemy, real or imagined.

Bridges require more human labor and American steel than cages.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, June 24, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Thank you, Aaron.

  2. David Gray says

    There is no intellectually or morally serious reason to be suddenly upset at enforcement of this nation’s laws. Someone might be more upset at a previous failure to enforce the law.

    • Ross Reishus says

      There is no moral reason to accept the separation of young children from their families, EVER, unless it involves a medical quarantine, or murder offense.

      • David Gray says


        Children are separated from their parents pretty much any time they are incarcerated. It happens to American children every day. But that doesn’t, apparently, bother anyone.

    • Oh my, Mr. Gray, what a comment. First, many of the refugees whose children have been kidnapped are not illegal border crossers but applicants for political asylum. This is something protected by US law and by treaties to which the US is signatory. The situation become even more dishonorable when one considers that many of the people coming are fleeing chaos and injustice fomented, if not caused directly, but the United States. To further develop Aaron’s comparison with earlier times, we can note that many of the European immigrants coming to Minnesota were not only seeking economic opportunity but were fleeing official mistreatment. Possibly this is less important that the reality that subjecting children to trauma, especially when they are young and their personalities are in formation, is likely to do permanent damage. Trump, who abuses the helpless for political advantage, is an abomination.

      • David Gray says

        If you wish to apply for political asylum you must do it at an appropriate location.

        Your hysteria does not create any intellectual difficulty. Nobody is being “kidnapped.” International treaties do not dictate who we must admit as an asylum seeker. The US hasn’t caused the conditions in these countries whose internal problems generally reflect the failings of the culture of those nations.

        This law didn’t bother you until it was being properly enforced. That says a lot. The trauma of parental separation doesn’t bother you when it happens to American children but just the children of foreigners. That says a lot.

        And a man who supports legalized abortion has no standing to try and invoke moral authority.

  3. John Ramos says

    It’s the rhetoric that bothers me most. To listen to Trump squawking and screaming, you’d think a wave of murderous immigrants was raping and pillaging their way across the land. He talks about them killing people with knives because they can make it last longer that way, raping young girls, whatever. His crowds eat that stuff up like candy, which is a little disturbing in itself. But the truth is that immigrants are no more prone to criminal activity than native-born Americans (excluding the horrifying “crime” of crossing an invisible line on the ground, of course). In fact, two recent studies suggest that immigrants are LESS likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. One of the studies was by the Cato Institute, hardly a bastion of liberal propaganda. The other was by the journal Criminology.

    It’s one thing to be tough on immigration. It’s entirely another to demonize and scapegoat immigrants the way Trump does. I can’t even find words to describe how irresponsible that is.

  4. joe musich says

    If your standing on spearation and caging children rides only on the rule of law I gaurantee that will not come to a good end for your think process. The time will come very shorly wnen Trump and his kleptocrats bridging of the law for their own benefit will catch up with he and his. Much of it has become public knowledge already regarding many of his people. Then what will you say about “appropriate places” and “proper enforcement ” Accuse me of bias all you wish. Yes, I have propensity for the fair shake and fair play. As the GOP cuts your medicare and SSI benefits and may other things while you are staring at a worldview so narrow it has no room for love while you defend your rigidity. Might make right is really the outlook you are siding with if you are at least one bit honest with yourself. Moral authority goes to those who give it. If you choose life then choose life in it’s entirety warts and all, the beauty with the flaws is the perfect world. Let me remind you like it or not Sanders was asked to leave the restaurant under the rule of law. This is what a stiffed starched uninformed absolutist view has brought us. You are accountable.

  5. Kidnapping the children from their parents is exactly what trump administration did. No other previous administration has done this. Trump administration took children from parents who committed a misdemeanor. That would be akin to taking children from parents who have only gotten a misdemeanor for a single speeding ticket.
    Alan Muller is right. Children’s brains are developing and suffering trauma like this will cause permanent physical, mental and emotional damage. This is why orphanages had gone extinct by the 1960’s and replaced with foster care. States have thousands of children listed in foster care but the states know who and where the children are because they have paperwork on the children. The Trump administration had no policy, infrastructure or plan in place to deal with the chaos and confusion that anyone with a brain or heart could see would happen when they decided to grab kids from their parents with poor to no paper trails.
    Public defenders are now dealing with not being able to tell their clients where their children and no answers to when they will. Erik Hanshew, Assistant Federal Public Defender writes about court cases in which Federal Prosecutor agents don’t even discuss the child. The child might as well not exist until public defender cross-examines and judge forced agent to answer. When one defender asked agent where their client’s child, the prosecutor objected to the relevance of the question. The judge demanded to know why this wasn’t relevant, slamming his hand on the desk and said, “I can’t understand this. If someone at the jail takes your wallet, they give you a receipt. They take your kids and you get nothing? Not even a slip of paper?”
    Heinous and contemptible.

  6. I don’t have an axe to grind over Trump’s rhetoric, it’s been dangerously un-presidential and outside of his most loyal supporters he won’t win any argument by blaming the left for its actions if violence erupts, no the vast middle America will blame him too, and myself included. I do however agree with the idea that if we are a nation of laws, then they should be enforced, THAT IS THE PRESIDENT’S PRIMARY JOB for those who just want to blame Trump for “creating” this policy. So sometimes when a law is enforced it gets exposed for how dumb or horrible it is, and then it’s the legislative branch’s job to write and pass a new law. So far the Senate Democrats attempt to block basically everything that can be filibustered, so Trump is right to cast blame towards the Democrats for this policy. It actually is an overreach of presidential power when he signed that Executive Order to end the separations. Too many Executive Orders, too little action from the lawmakers. The Democrats haven’t voted to fix it now, and they haven’t voted to fix it for almost 30 years since it was enacted. Under Obama the separations occurred and we ignored it because the media accepted it as part of “preventing human trafficking.” It’s funny (no actually it’s horribly sad) how a political bias can translate 1 law from “saving children from traffickers” to “Trump is Hitler.” That is reprehensible, and it is right to condemn the media for their portrayal of this, they are actively manipulating the American mind.

    I know I’m going to get accused of being a Trump supporter simply for trying to inject reason and balance to the conversation, and there in lies the problem with the fights between the left and the right. Everyone, we are not at war with each other, we aren’t even at war with each other’s political beliefs, we should be united against BAD LAWS that have either been implemented by both parties, or both parties have failed to work together to end them. I know this sounds crazy, and I’m not giving him any credit for this because I think it’s mere coincidence, but Trump is exposing everything wrong with Washington and the media. The government does nothing about a bad policy, and the media doesn’t report anymore. We refuse to govern ourselves and we place all our hopes in a figurehead (Obama, Trump, Bernie, whoever). Well that’s the kind of crap that 3rd world nations succumb to. If we want to avoid that, we need to pay less attention to the President and the media, and instead focus on our elected legislative officials.

  7. We all have doors and locks on our houses. Why? To control who or what can come in the house. We are a sovergn nation with defined borders. We have a right to control who or what crosses those borders.

    There is no solution to this until we can regain control of our borders. Build the damn fence allready.

    Then we can start talking about a way towards residency or even citizenship for those already here, or who want to come here in the future. Until then, our standard of living is just too appealing to the rest of the world for anything else to work.

    The worst part is the standard of living could be just as high elsewhere if their governments would just get out of the way and let it happen.

    Our ancestors came here legally through recognized ports of entry. Also, a fair number were turned back for many reasons. There’s a big difference between Ellis Island and a hole in a fence in the desert somewhere.

  8. Meanwhile, the best way to get rid of an unjust or bad law is to enforce it, not to ignore it for 30+years.

  9. About that wall:
    One reporter drove the entire U.S.-Mexico border. Another flew above it. Here are their stories.

  10. About that wall:
    One reporter drove the entire U.S.-Mexico border. Another flew above it. Here are their stories.

  11. Sorry for the double post. There may be a 3rd. Something wasn’t working on the website.

  12. Thanks for the explanation, Aaron

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