Wall-Eh? How to make an enemy on your border

Carolyn Moynihan
January 27, 2017
Reproduced with Permission

President Trump is pressing ahead with his wall to secure the border with Mexico and stop a major source of illegal immigration into the United States. It's not a nice gesture towards a neighbour and one wonders how it will actually work.

Will desperate migrants fleeing poverty and drug lords try to scramble over it or burrow under it, like the East Berliners did for nearly three decades last century?

Will they be shot, or otherwise die in the attempt, as 139 people did at the Berlin Wall?

Will it even last as long as that wall of inglorious memory, and not be torn down by the next American president? If indeed it gets built?

And what will happen to US-Mexico relations in the meantime?

If a wall is old enough it usually inspires respect, admiration and even affection. Tourists are in awe of the Great Wall of China, a 2000-year-long project to keep out warring nomads. Hadrian's Wall, built by Roman imperialists against British tribes, is now a cultural icon and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Old walled cities are generally charming.

Hadrian's wall at Greenhead Lough.jpg Hadrian's Wall in Britain. By Velella, Public Domain, Link

Then there's Wall Street, America's great financial centre, with high-rise buildings forming solid walls either side, but which seems to take its name from a structure that Dutch settlers put up, possibly to protect them against native Americans back in the 1600s. Distance lends enchantment to that scenario too.

Modern walls, however, are usually controversial and ugly. There's a sample of them at, appropriately, The Wall Street Journal . Most of them consist of fences and barbed wire and occasionally sundry other items like old oil drums - as in this photo of the Cyprus Buffer Zone.

The most extensive is probably the so-called Korean Demilitarised Zone, 2.5 miles wide and 150 miles long and bristling with soldiers and anti-tank landmines.

The most recent are the European migrant fences erected by Hungary, Austria, Bulgaria and other countries to turn back the flood of asylum seekers from the Middle East and elsewhere since 2014. These popular measures provide a sort of precedent for Trump's project.

Probably the most controversial walls today are those built by Israel around the Palestinian territories: the Gaza barrier, in place since the 1990s; and the West Bank barrier, consisting of wire fencing and concrete walls, begun in 2002 and still under construction - covering 283 of a projected 441 miles, according to WSJ.

President Trump's wall policy is not just controversial; it's more like a declaration of war. He seems to want concrete on the 2000-mile-long US-Mexico border. Already there is 700 miles of fence, begun under George W. Bush and completed under Obama. Trump wants to extend it to 1000 miles, the rest of the terrain being impossible to build on or impassable by anyone.

The cost could be astronomical - three times the $8 billion figure thrown out by Trump, with high maintenance costs -- but he says Mexico will pay for it - by having a 20 percent tax imposed on its exports to the US, according to his latest message on the issue.

The President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, has heard enough. He has cancelled a planned meeting with Trump. Some Republican lawmakers are also worried - about the tax idea, if not the wall, or anything that would damped trade with Mexico. CNN quotes a tweet by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina:

"Border security yes, tariffs no. Mexico is 3rd largest trading partner. Any tariff we can levy they can levy. Huge barrier to econ growth. Simply put, any policy proposal which drives up costs of Corona, tequila, or margaritas is a big-time bad idea. Mucho Sad."

"Build the wall! Build the wall! Build the wall!" is a great electioneering war cry, but one heck of a policy to implement. If it's done at all there will be no glory in it. One of the lessons of history is that a border wall has to be a thousand years old before anyone regards it as a wonderful thing, and even then only if it is picturesque - as slabs of concrete surely will not be.

Illegal immigration from Mexico is a problem, but a diminishing one. In any case, as this writer says, insulting and humiliating a good neighbour is not the way to keep that neighbour friendly and stable. There must be other ways to increase border security and remove the causes of illegal movement.

There are Trump policies, like knocking back the abortion establishment, that are unpopular with a lot of Americans but still reasonable and morally defensible. Building the wall is not one of them. It is not just, sad. It's bad.