Border Wall: Concrete Solution for an Imaginary Problem
The United States government has been temporarily reopened, marking the end of the longest shutdown in the country’s history. The shutdown began when President Trump and Congressional lawmakers failed to agree on a federal funding bill for this year, with Trump and many Republicans demanding funding for a border wall, one of Trump’s key campaign promises. In a meeting with Democratic leaders days before the shutdown, Trump claimed to be “proud to shut down the government for border security.”
“Border security” is a wonderfully ambiguous phrase for politicians; it can take on drastically different meanings depending on the person. It invokes a litany of potential otherly dangers, from immigrants stealing the jobs of hard-working Americans, to drugs corrupting our local communities, to terrorists and criminals endangering American lives. While these narratives have very little empirical truth, they resonate with Americans who have an “America first” mindset. The more that politicians repeat these narratives, the more people believe them to be true.
But would building the sort of wall that Trump ingrains in his supporters’ minds really improve border security, or has he enclosed himself in a corner of his own creation?
Israel, one of the U.S.’s closest allies, has one of the most effective borders in the world. After an increase in the number of suicide bombings during the “Second Intifada” at the start of the century, Israel undertook massive fencing projects. In addition to its international borders with Egypt and Lebanon, they built internal barriers to separate Palestinian areas such as the Gaza Strip and West Bank. These barriers are equipped with cameras, radar and motion detectors, as well as multiple layers of fencing and paved roadways. After the fence on the Egyptian border was built, illegal border crossings were reduced by 99 percent. The 150-mile long structure only cost about $450 million to complete, or $2.7 million per mile. This is significantly less than the $37 million per mile estimate for Trump’s border wall, the prototypes of which are significantly less sophisticated than Israel’s.
Why so expensive? Because the “big, beautiful wall” that Trump wants is not designed to be effective. It is intended to be spectacular and showy, to perform a sense of achievement to his voter base. People who live by the border know that a wall will not stop border crossings or any of the other issues politicians attribute to a lack of border security. However, the majority of voters live far from the border and would likely never see it in person. Building a high, seemingly impenetrable wall and publicizing it as such is a way of making outside dangers seem real to the public, especially Trump’s base.
Hypervisible borders are unique to countries that experience high migrant inflows, especially those where the migrants are of a different racial or ethnic background. Take for example the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla, exclaves on the northern coast of Africa. As the sole land borders between Europe and Africa, these two cities are heavily guarded and surveilled at all times, surrounded by 20-foot high multi-layer fences topped with barbed wire, which run through thick forest and mountain. The fortress-like defenses of these cities stand out like something from a post-apocalyptic movie, yet they serve only to keep out ordinary people while simultaneously cutting the cities off from the world around them.
Political rhetoric would have us believe that most borders look like Ceuta’s and Melilla’s: clearly demarcated and seemingly natural. However, there are actually very few places in the world where borders are as concrete as they appear on a map. Within Europe, there are open border crossings between the Schengen states, but even between non-Schengen countries like Ukraine and Croatia, the borders are minimal, with little more than a chain link fence. On the U.S.-Canada border, in some places there is no fence at all. Some towns and even some buildings exist on both sides of the border.
Considering that most unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. enter legally and overstay their visas, and that illegal border crossings from Mexico have been decreasing since the 1990s, there is no reason to build the sort of wall that Trump and Republicans have endorsed other than to grab cheap votes by stirring up nativist sentiments within Americans. Instead of allocating funds to receive and process migrants humanely, Trump and the Republican Party have obsessed over creating a solution to an imaginary problem.