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Fear on the Border



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Professor Laura Zanotti of our Department of Political Science and I just edited a theme issue of the Journal of Architectural Planning and Research entitled “Building Walls: Securitizing Space and the Making of Identity.” The volume includes articles addressing the Israeli Seam Wall, the Bamboo Walls of Taiwan and the Berlin Wall. One scholar had hoped to produce a paper concerning the United States’ border wall with Mexico for the issue, but ultimately was not able to do so in the time frame available. Nonetheless, our work on the papers set me thinking about how the new United States-Mexico wall construction compares with some of its earlier counterparts. “Our wall,” while similar to its predecessors in many ways, nevertheless fits our national character and identity badly and is unlikely to accomplish its intended purposes in any case. That said, it will surely have unintended implications that are not likely to serve the nation well.

The Mexico border wall has been justified in two primary ways. First, its proponents argue it will prevent “illegals” from crossing the border to take employment, rightly the purview of American citizens in the United States. Secondly, its advocates contend it will help to slow the supply of illegal drugs entering the nation. The first reason is often buttressed by claims that immigrants impose costs on taxpayers by enrolling their children in local schools and using publicly supported health, transport and other services. The second claim is often defended in turn by an accounting of the human and financial costs of Americans’ addiction to dangerous drugs. Indeed, extreme variants of these concerns have spawned the vigilante-like Minuteman border protection project, whose members make no secret of their antipathy to these alien “others” in ways that often sound perilously like nativist racism.

Critics of the wall, meanwhile, point out that immigrants do not tend to take posts Americans would otherwise occupy. Instead, they undertake work in low paying positions such as motel maids, restaurant kitchen workers, housekeepers and janitors and agricultural field hands. Wall skeptics suggest such employment is hard and often entails long hours and, in any case, is not often sought by U.S. citizens. They also argue these individuals impose few costs on the nation’s taxpayers, not least because they are afraid to become too well known for fear of deportation.

Justifications and critiques notwithstanding, it seems clear neither side addresses why this wall, which surely cannot prevent those who are determined from illegal entry or bar narcotics in the face of continuing demand, is being constructed in the first instance, complete with a controversial radar and infrared motion-sensing system in a so-called no man’s land along the border. Nor does the current debate explain the stark contrast of the current effort with previous united American support for two Presidents who famously opposed separational barriers. John Kennedy declared “we are all Berliners now” as the nation launched a perilous airlift to ensure the freedom of West Berlin. Ronald Reagan stood before the Berlin Wall and called on the Soviet Union’s leader “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” How is it that less than 23 years after Reagan made that famous speech and despite the justifiable pride Americans take in the Berlin airlift, America is building a border wall of its own to keep out the “other”? Americans sacrificed to secure West Berliners their freedom, they engaged in a protracted Cold War to overcome Soviet tyranny and now, ironically, they are building their own wall on a rationale virtually identical to that which sustained the walls they so long combated.

The Mexico Wall does not connote the freedom those two presidents embraced. It does not beckon to those who would build a nation in the tradition of so many mass migrations to America in the past. Instead, it seeks to prevent entry and to stop possibilities. It is predicated on an assumption that barriers matter. Nonetheless, scholars who have studied walls around the world suggest such barricades can do little to change social conditions or to prevent the “leakage” of ideas and meanings across them. The Mexico Wall cannot provide more economic opportunities for Mexicans in their native country, and it surely can do nothing to affect American demand for illegal drugs. A change in such claims must come from a shift in the attitudes and habits of those consuming them. Nevertheless, paradoxically, the Mexico Wall runs the risk of becoming a symbol, an iconic indicator, of a free nation’s fear. It can play a primary and obvious role in the slow enervation of the idea of the United States as a symbol of free aspiration in favor of one which seeks to clamp down and control “others” in its midst. It can, in short, begin to corrode the very social sinews that bind the nation and on which John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could each implicitly rely as they called on other peoples to permit and pursue freedom. However construed, this seems a very high price to pay for a wall that cannot secure the policy aims assigned to it.

Publication Date

March 21, 2010