Nearly 700 miles of walls now separate the United States and Mexico. Would-be migrants still find ways over, under, through and around them. As a tool for controlling immigration to the United States, the border fortifications have been remarkably ill suited to the task. And yet these barriers are having a significant and lasting effect nonetheless: they are harming communities on both sides of the border.
We should tear them down before the damage becomes irreparable.
After Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush instructed the Department of Homeland Security to prioritize the construction of fortifications along the Mexican border. The result has been an astonishing array of barriers across America’s southern frontier. The number of Border Patrol agents doubled in seven years to more than 21,000. And interior enforcement was expanded to identify, detain, prosecute and deport undocumented migrants.
From the numbers, it might seem as if such efforts have worked to stem illegal immigration. Today, Border Patrol apprehensions have fallen to levels seen in the mid-1970s.
But evidence suggests this decline has less to do with tightened enforcement than with economic factors: the reductions have been driven largely by weak job prospects in the United States and a resurgent economy in Mexico, which have kept more would-be migrants at home.
Even so, President Obama has continued most of Mr. Bush’s programs — and, in fact, increased deportations to nearly 410,000 in 2012, the highest number ever. The vast majority of these deportations were to Mexico. Two principal agencies, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, spent nearly $18 billion in 2012 — enforcing what Janet Napolitano, the secretary of Homeland Security, calls a no-nonsense approach to immigration. Such an effort is necessary, she said, in order for voters to support comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for some 11 million undocumented immigrants.
But rather than no-nonsense, America’s approach to building walls has been nonsensical.
Along the river boundary, the wide meanders of the Rio Grande made it impossible to build a continuous, straight-line fence. So the barriers were constructed north of the river — slicing off part of a nature reserve here, a few holes of a golf course there and cutting a university campus in two. United States citizens stranded on the “Mexican side” of the interior divide wonder if they now live in Mexico.
Barriers in Texas, moreover, are disproportionately located in poor and minority communities — a pattern that is so clear that it sometimes becomes farcical: plans for one fence, for instance, show it ending abruptly at the edge of a billionaire’s property.
Inside Arizona, checkpoints have been established on major freeways. Posted signs report the number of arrests made and kilos of narcotics seized, but many commuters are just plain irritated by the delays. Government agencies have arrived to enforce immigration law, and some Arizonans have taken to welcoming visitors to their “police state.”
Many locals lost patience with a pilot project to build nine surveillance towers north of the borderline, complaining that the cameras were pointed at them, not toward Mexico. Members of the Tohono O’odham Nation, whose territory is bisected by the international boundary, have felt especially aggrieved by what they view as a reoccupation of their land by federal agents.
In California, during the fence-building frenzy of 2009, I met a Border Patrol agent and project engineer at Smuggler’s Gulch — a deep canyon near the Pacific Ocean where the Department of Homeland Security had dumped in an estimated 2 million cubic yards of dirt and then fenced in the landfill to prevent access from Mexico. The canyon stream still flowed across the border, so engineers built a tunnel under the landfill to permit the water’s passage. The tunnel entrance and exit were gated, but the agent predicted that migrants would soon use the tunnel to cross. “Ninety percent of this is politics,” said the engineer.
Borderlanders have done their best to adjust to this increasingly bizarre world. Crossing times at the border first doubled, then tripled, from what they had been before the fences, but people learned to factor the holdups into their commute times. Television news programs even began reporting crossing delays along with the weather report.
Such adjustments, though, barely mitigate the outrage that many Americans feel toward the encroachment of hideous barriers into their once open land.
Nor do these daily adjustments change the fact that the border fence is harming an ancient human ecosystem. Mutual interdependence has always been a hallmark of cross-border lives. Residents on both sides of the line regard parts of Mexico and the United States as their home. For them, the border is a connective membrane, not a line of demarcation. Often describing themselves as “transborder citizens,” they have more in common with one another than with their host nations.
Besides sentiments of belonging and shared destiny, this “third nation,” as it is known, is bolstered by synergistic local economies. Border states are among the fastest-growing regions in both countries. Ciudad Juárez, once a city of 1.5 million, lost about a quarter-million inhabitants who fled from drug cartel-related violence to various destinations across Mexico. Yet the city’s industries continue to add jobs, fostering some $80 billion in trade between Juárez and neighboring El Paso in 2011, a $10 billion increase from the previous year. In El Paso, the arrival of 30,000 sanctuary seekers from Juárez created a boom in real estate and restaurant businesses.
Cross-border institutions also reinforce binational ties. For more than a century, the International Boundary and Water Commission, with representatives from the United States and Mexico, has overseen water issues along the border and supported joint development projects.
The border fence, however, undermines this cooperation and cohesion, as it splinters lives and scars landscapes. Likewise, to many who live here, the border patrols, with their ever watching drones, feel more like an occupying army.
Add to this the enormous expense of maintaining the fortifications — estimated to be $6.5 billion over the next 20 years — and it’s clear that the costs of these structures far outweigh any benefit they offer in deterring illegal immigration.
We can prevent further waste by just demolishing the Mexico-United States Barrier today.
Of course, whether we act boldly now or not, it will eventually come down, just as other barriers have fallen. The Berlin Wall was demolished virtually overnight, its fragments sold as souvenirs of a bygone cold war. When it is finally recognized for what it is — a manifestation of a failed immigration policy — our border fence will fall to angry residents, avid recyclers and souvenir hunters.
When that happens, someone ought to preserve a few sections for the Smithsonian, to mark the moment when America’s national identity is again defined by something more durable than a strip of steel.
Michael Dear, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author, most recently, of Why Walls Won’t Work: Repairing the U.S.-Mexico Divide.