Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.
–Robert Frost, Mending Wall
Last night, the Republican-majority Senate voted 80-19 to build a 700 mile double-layer fence along the US border with Mexico. Since the House has already passed the same measure, and President Bush is on the record as supporting it, it looks like a done deal.
I suppose the indulgence of Congress and the Administration in this symbolic gesture is an inevitable sop to the growing Republican constituency opposed to illegal immigration, but I’m afraid I personally just detest this sort of nonsense.
Building a wall is an ugly symbolic gesture. Our adversary in the Cold War built walls to keep people in, and now we’re going to build a similar wall to keep people out. This is bad art. It contradicts our values and our image of ourselves. 700 miles of brute negativity can never be compatible with what America is all about.
Any federal project on such a scale will always cost far, far more than initially projected. As the Washington Post observes, this wall is going to have to cross a lot of extremely difficult terrain, and cost overruns are going to skyrocket.
The fence, of course, will not work. Anywhere a guard with a gun is not standing next to it, people will find ways to dig under it or climb over it. Since we will have already invested a staggering amount of money in the project, efforts to make it work will inevitably proceed to more drastic and extreme measures, at further costs, both monetary and otherwise. Bad policy of this kind never stops at a single step. Folly will be piled upon folly as the desired goal continually recedes unrealized.
We are a fundamentally decent, liberal and humane society. A wall is only going to work if it features mines, electrified wire, watch-towers, guard dogs, and machine guns. We’re only just starting this policy with the initial wall. And exactly how far down that road do we really want to go? Are we going to shoot pregnant women trying to sneak over the border to clean our houses?
There are also other, perhaps minor, but unattractive considerations.
The fence will intrude on the Tohono O’odham reservation in Arizona, interfering futher than previously with that people’s free movement within its own traditional trans-border Sonoran desert homeland.
It will be bad news for Southwestern wildlife, which also has a habit of ignoring borders. The jaguar has been verifiably sited again in Southern Arizona recently for the first time in many years. A large predator of this kind, particularly in so difficult an environment, can only exist if it has access to an enormous range of territory. It needs to travel from far-separated canyon “islands” in the desert containing water over great distances. Is this fence worth removing the jaguar from the list of American species?
The proposed fence is really just a confession that we have a habit in this country of passing laws (immigration laws and drug laws) which we really don’t want enforced. Politicians vote for them, seeing strong opinion poll majorities in favor of restricted immigration and drug prohibition. But the same American public smokes the pot, snorts the coke, and gets its lawn mowed, its car washed, and a lot of its hard labor done by illegal aliens.
We could have been enforcing existing immigration laws all along, if we really and truly wanted them enforced. Federal agencies have tried and given up, because enforcement efforts have always provoked strong protests to congressional representatives, who time and again have intervened to put a stop to them.
The only positive thing I can say about all this is that it is just a sop. The fence represents only an expensive and symbolically ugly federal pretense at “securing our borders,” intended to appease those incensed about illegal immigration. Expensive, futile, and ugly as it is, it will obviously be less injurious to American life than the far worse alternative: a regime of identity cards (Paperien, bitte! – “Your papers, please!”), workplace inspections, and massive deportations of people who are (in overwhelming majority of cases) just here to do work we don’t want to do ourselves at prices we are willing to pay.