Walls don’t work

My favourite quote (of many favourite quotes) by the late veteran observer of life along the Mexican/US border, Charles Bowden, runs as follows. Bowden was interviewed for a radio program one night, not in a studio, but out in the Arizonan desert, in a national wildlife refuge near the border town of Sasabe. A couple of hundred metres from the fence, as the tape machine clicked on, he described what would happen on a typical night, what would almost certainly happen later that very night, as soon as the Border Patrol had moved on. He spoke about the hundreds of migrants out in the desert at night trying to make it to the United States, about the quantities of drugs that would be out there too, the men guarding them with AK47s, the dozens of Border Patrol personnel trying to stop it all. He described how the migrants would run, when they could, and walk when they couldn’t. He spoke about how they would be afraid: of the vast and lethal desert, of Border Patrol, of the drug runners; about how people who have been people all their lives suddenly turn into frightened deer the moment they cross the fence. He spoke about the difference between a man south of the border, unable to find decent, legal work in Mexico, yet move him a few miles north into America, he finds work, and becomes a machine for pumping cash back to his family to the south. He took a sip of the beer they’d picked up on the way, and while he did, the interviewer asked a question. “So, what’s the solution to this problem?”
Bowden’s reply; “What’s the problem?”

Charles Bowden (1945-2014)

What’s the problem?

It’s a question worth keeping in the back of your mind when you think about Mexico, and the US, or when you think about any border for that matter. What is the problem? The answer to that question depends on your point of view, of course. If you like ideas about independent nations, strong borders and controlled access for foreigners, then the problem is easily defined: how do we prevent illegal aliens from coming into our country? Then the solution to the problem might very simply look like a fence, 30 feet high, with razor wire, like the ever growing one in Calais.
In 1989, when the Berlin wall came down, there were 15 border walls or fences in the world. That moment was seen as a symbol of more than just the removal of the division of Berlin, and Germany. More than just the end of the Cold War. It was seen as a symbol of increasing tolerance and communication across the world. Today, there are more than 70 border fences in the world, with new ones being erected constantly, especially in South-east Europe.
The most infamous border wall of the moment however, is without doubt that between the US and Mexico. Many people are not aware that the ‘wall’ already exists, in places. About 1/3 of the just under 2,000 mile border already has some kind of fence, wall or other physical barrier – most of it has been there for 20 years, like the fence that slices across the desert of Sonora/New Mexico, heading East towards the city of Juárez, where it falls just short at the township of Anapra. Here, the fence is around 20 feet high, reinforced with metal panels in some sections.

The fence at Anapra, just west of Juárez, Mexico

It’s also listing badly towards the Mexican side, having been hastily erected in the mid 90s. Elsewhere, there are stronger, better kept sections of metal wall, such as between Tijuana and San Diego, with watch towers, drone coverage and so on, for added good measure. But elsewhere, the existing ‘wall’ is piles of junk cars, or metal fingers thrust into the sand, leading away into the ocean.
Let us for a moment conduct an experiment of the imagination, in which we construct Mr Trump’s wall for him. Let us concede that it will be as grand, as strong, as high and as migrant-proof as he could possibly claim. Never mind the cost, even though estimates are coming in from between $10-25 billion, figures vague enough to show that no one really knows the cost other than that it will be a lot. Never mind who will ultimately pay (in simple, monetary terms) for the building of the wall. And never mind who builds it; American industry or cheap Mexican labour. Let us concede that the thing is built. What then?
It might be an idea to consider how things have been for the last twenty years or so. Yes, migrants have been coming north to look for work in the States. (Ignore people who say that the ‘porous’ border allows terrorists into the country. Terrorists, such as the perpetrators of 9/11, come in through legal ports of entry with passports. Migrants who risk their lives crossing the desert come to pick fruit, or look for other basic work.)
The first thing to know is that since the last financial crash, of 2008, more Mexicans have been returning home than emigrating to the States. The second thing to know is that most migrants do not come from Mexico. They come from countries further south, places with worse problems and greater poverty than Mexico (which is a relatively wealthy country by some measures); places like Guatemala, El Salvador and so on.
Mexico is a very large country; it’s a long and dangerous journey to even get to the US border. For that reason, over recent years, the US government has been paying Mexico a lot of money to help prevent migrants from crossing its lands at all. Around $500 million a year in fact, given by the US to the Mexican government to help stop this flow of human traffic.
But now there’s our massive (largely imaginary for now) wall across that border; and what has it done? The first thing it did, before it was even finished, was ruin any last vestige of good relations between Mexico and the USA; two countries that are inexorably linked not just by geography, by also by trade. Sure, Mexico probably needs the US more than the other way round, but Mexico remains the third biggest trading partner for America. (Mexico was the United States’ 2nd largest goods export market in 2015. Mexico was the United States’ 3rd largest supplier of goods imports in 2015.)
Given that Mr Trump intends to pull the plug on trade deals between the two countries, the effect that will have on the Mexican economy will be at best uncertain, more likely disastrous, sending the country into worse economic straits.
Already (here and now in the real world), mere discussion of the wall has caused the Peso to tumble in value against the dollar. All the more reason then, in our imaginary experiment, for a migrant to opt to head north to earn American dollars instead.
And given the failed relations between the countries, and the increasing number of migrants heading north, why would Mexico do America’s policing for it any longer?
We might pause here to think of Calais and Dover. I wonder how many Brexit voters stopped to reflect about the way in which, as things currently stand, France does British border policing on French soil. Migrants are stopped in Calais, before they ever get to Britain. By severing ties with France, why should we expect France to undertake that activity any longer? More likely that France will help see migrants safely off their soil and onto British. The Brexit voter voted to make worse the very thing they were apparently afraid of: untrammelled migration.

Migrants on the autoroute at Calais, May 2015

It’s just as likely that rather than deter migrants from south of Mexico, the Mexican government would see it as a cheaper option to put migrants on trains to the border, rather than continue to wage expensive efforts to prevent them from travelling.
And when these migrants arrive at the magnificent wall, what then? (We’re not talking about drugs here – what many people fail to realise is that the vast majority of drugs entering the US do so through legal ports of entry. 70% of the cocaine entering the States comes through Juárez.)
Already, the existing sections of wall are porous. One cannot police 700 miles of fence continually. Holes, tunnels, ladders are one thing, and they are common. And the new wall will be three times as long, and cost an estimated $750 m a year to maintain. But never mind that, if the wall is now as good as Mr Trump says it will be, it’s impregnable, right?
(Let’s ignore the fact that to build that wall, out into the most inaccessible parts of the desert, huge new roads are going to have to be built, which will make getting to the border much easier than it otherwise have been.)
No wall is ever perfect. There is always a way around, or under, or through, when the pressure to do so is strong enough. And the pressure will be enormous, because it will have been increased by the wall itself, in the ways outlined above. It is walls themselves that not only create this pressure, they also create the violence that occurs around them.
Even if the wall did not let a single migrant through, the ‘problem’ (as this way of reasoning has it) will still exist. People will get in boats and sail up the coast. We already see this in the Mediterranean – we know it will happen in the waters of the US coastline. What then? Will he fence the entire coastline of the United States of America?

There are, of course, other ways of looking at the problem, because there are other ways of defining it. So what else could be the problem? Looked at in other ways, ways that sound crazy and outlandish and radical, we might consider that the problem has something to do with the way we have built the world. With the way countries, even neighbours, exploit each other. With the imbalance of wealth across borders; at the heart of which lies international trade policy, and the exploitation of cheap labour in poorer countries. With the resultant poverty and the consequent violence. But those ways of thinking are harder. They take understanding and they take subtlety. Above all, perhaps, they take the ability to ignore the prevailing depiction of the world, a depiction you have been sold since you were born, a depiction that enables these systems of imbalance to continue.
How much easier then, to build a wall.

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