All in all, you’re just another brick in the Wall

Pink Floyd’s The Wall album and movie are about as surreal and over-the-top as one can get, so this is probably the right intro to my first political post. About that Wall.

Let me begin with an admission: I am a conservative and a Catholic. So I hew to many straight line conservative positions (pro defense, pro law-n-order, pro free enterprise) but I have several significant deviations (anti death penalty, pro social services). I am pro legal immigration, and I strongly hold that the first obligation of any state, if it wishes to be recognized as a state, is to control its territory and the flow of goods and people across its borders.

All that said, I am against the Wall.  Here’s why:

First off, it addresses an imaginary problem.  I hate policies (left or right) that make you feel good but have no other useful effect: they are the auto-erotica of politics. The flow of illegal immigrants across the US border with Mexico is at a four decade low (check the CBP data here).  All those jobs NAFTA created in Mexico means more and more Mexicans are staying at home, which believe it or not, they prefer to do. Since 2009, more Mexicans left the US then entered.  The illegal immigrants still coming across the border are from Central America.  They are fleeing violence and poor economic conditions in the region, transiting Mexico, and then entering the United States. If we want to stop them, we need the Mexican government’s help.  When the Obama administration faced an earlier flood of such refugees, it arranged with the Mexican leadership to staunch the flow, which worked for a time.

Second, any military officer will tell you that a wall is just an obstacle, and unless it is manned and covered by fire (weapons) it is ineffective.  The only walls I have seen which were effective were the Berlin Wall and the Israeli West Bank barrier.  In the first case (Berlin and the old Inner German Border), the Soviets stationed armed guards every 100 meters or so with shoot-to-kill orders…and still hundreds got through.  The Israeli barrier is mostly fence, with the high wall only for those populated areas where they want to ensure no one can shoot through it. It is effective because it is closely monitored with an immediate military response. No one is emigrating or doing much trade across that barrier. That is, they just don’t care about trade with the Palestinians. Are we willing to station border personnel with free-fire authorizations from Texas to California? No. Are we willing to endure the complete cessation of goods and trade between Mexico and the US? No.

Third, some folks think the Wall will assist in preventing the flow of illegal drugs from Mexico to the United States.  Let’s put this line of reasoning to rest forever: as long as there is an insatiable demand for illegal narcotics in the States, drug cartels in Mexico will find a way to supply it.  You can’t escape the economics. Here are examples: Build a high wall, and it still pays for the cartels to dig an even more expensive tunnel under it. Build a deep and high wall, and the cartels will build slingshots to throw drugs over it, or use drones to fly over it.  Build an airborne barrier, and they will build submersibles and submarines to go around it.  Yes, they make so much money off illegal narcotics they can afford to build disposable submarines…if only one gets through, it pays for twenty more. So please, leave drugs out of the Wall discussion.

Fourth, its expensive.  Current estimates for construction alone are running over $21 billion dollars. And that does NOT inlcude all those armed guards on 24 hour watch, along with dogs, SUVs, blimps, ground penetrating radar, and surveillance drones. Some of those guard towers will be in US cities and in (what was formerly) American citizens’ backyards. And even if it works, just how efficient can it ever be? A one way airfare from Mexico City to Toronto is under $350 dollars.  While that may be beyond the reach of the poorest immigrants, many could afford it…so our vaunted Wall is also dependent upon the goodwill of both our neighbors. Or are we going to build two walls?

Fifth, and this is strictly an emotional point, the Wall is pathetic policy. Building such a wall makes the US that crappy neighbor on your block who has overly high fences and signs that say “trespassers will be shot on sight.” Big Walls are what history’s losers have built: See China, The Great Wall, France’s Maginot Line, or the aforementioned Iron Curtain.  The jury is still out on Israel. Building such a wall is the foreign policy equivalent of a teenager stomping off to a bedroom and slamming the door. We get it, people are angry, but what did that *BANG* accomplish?

There are many legitimate grievances which lead average Americans to conclude we need a Wall.  We need to spend the money we would waste on building the Wall to address those grievances.  We need a guest worker program so industries which rely on cheaper immigrant labor don’t collapse. We need job re-training and vocational education for those Americans most at risk from competition from immigrants.  We do need to develop the legal ways-and-means to deport illegal immigrants convicted of a felony. And we have to conclude some final legal status for the millions of illegal immigrants already here, probably in exchange for better cooperation from Mexico and other concerned governments.

This problem did not happen overnight. It goes all the way back to the World War II Bracero program, where we invited Mexicans to come to the States and work. For my liberal friends who think the current President is an outlier on this issue, I invite you to look at the policies of Jack Kennedy, who encouraged efforts to kill the Bracero program and FDR, who tacitly condoned the repatriation of more than a million Mexican-American citizens during the Great Depression. Immigrants have always been a whipping boy for both parties, when expedient. So climb down off that high horse.

We can’t solve this issue overnight, and we can’t solve it at all with a Wall. But we can solve it, if we want too.



9 thoughts on “All in all, you’re just another brick in the Wall”

  1. Good read. My guess is that were a complete wall to be built, the cost would be much higher than even you quoted. We are talking about our federal government here. This is a political stunt in my opinion. Hopefully congress will choose to fund small piece parts of it to satisfy the conservative base but focus more on meaningful policy.

    1. Dave, I think you’re right: perhaps the best outcome we can hope for is a little political theater and some fencing and move on.

  2. I really really miss you as does our profession . Never was there a time that we needed steady rationale hands on the wheel! Just an old knuckle dragger , what do I know.

    1. I miss my colleagues, and do feel like its a bad time to be gone. Must be like when your old unit is in combat, but you’re safely back home.

  3. I think you are right on all points here about the Wall. Very well articulated. However, I will point out that while I am obviously not a conservative, I am not a liberal–and I still think Trump is an outlier in more ways than I can outline here. I’m not on a high horse, I’m just really and truly scared about a man who appears to not only have never read, but also to not comprehend the nature of our constitution. The Wall is the least of our worries.

    1. Caryn, Thanks! My outlier comment was strictly meant in relation to immigration and the Wall. The fact Trump can institute some of his immigration policies within exiting law (much of it passed under President Obama) reinforces this point. Where he attempted to exceed the law (his “travel ban”), the system reined him in. I grant you his behavior is outside the norm, and frankly, beyond the pale. In other policy areas, he remains constrained by the system: the courts, the Congress, even his advisers. Fear in the face of executive incompetence is not unwarranted, but if the system could survive the very competent but malignant Nixon administration, it will survive Trump.

  4. Pat,
    Walls and barriers really do work. The Germans went around the Maginot Line in 1940. The Soviets on the other hand had a devil of a time breaking through the Mannerheim Line in 1939. The Israeli fence was in response to a nasty wave of bombings, which it stopped, and as I remember the U.S. funded to the tune of $100,000,000.00. There are about 1800 prisons in America and most have fences around them for a good reason: they slow people down.
    A wall might not seem like the best idea but it’s real. It’s solid. Reagan had an amnesty with the promise of a secure border and that did not happen so now a wall. If it won’t work why are the Mexicans so upset? Robert Frost got it wrong, good fences don’t make good neighbors but they might keep his kid out of your yard.

    1. Hi, Jim, good to hear from you! I think we agree that walls can work, but I doubt the US would be willing to do the things necessary to make them work (guards with guns and the right to shoot, for example). The biggest problem with a wall (from my perspective) is that it suggests trade with Mexico is a secondary topic, no big deal. This is simply not the case; our economies are interlinked.
      I can’t speak for all Mexicans (heck, I can’t even speak Spanish), but my sense is they are less concerned with the wall as with the characterization of Mexican immigrants (“rapists”) and with the notion they will pay for the wall…which is not going to happen. So they probably should not worry about that, but it offends their national pride, which is always in play when dealing with the US.

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