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On Immigration: Understanding border walls

If border walls actually do not work, then what about...

So goes the argument that will be made against the previous post in this series on immigration myths, fallacies, and misconceptions. Are there not examples of border barriers that are actually effective in keeping out certain people or problems?

Not Mere Border Walls
In the U.S.-Mexico context, proponents of more border walls argue that they would indeed work. They point in particular to the Israeli-Palestinian border wall. The Israeli prime minister himself has offered it to the U.S. president as a model of what could be done with the country's southern neighbor. The actual name of that wall, however, is instructive. It is the “Israeli West Bank Barrier.” It is not a border wall; it is a heavily fortified and militarized obstruction over a relatively short distance that Israel controls with an iron fist. Parts of it have been ruled illegal according to international law. So proponents are right when they say that border walls work, if what they actually mean is that militarized zones work, and those only over short distances.

Consider another example: the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. The DMZ is anything but demilitarized. It requires significant, outrageously expensive commitment from both sides, as well as the international community (mainly the U.S.). And even the DMZ or the Israeli West Bank Barrier, though fairly effective at keeping people in or out, are not 100% effective. Furthermore, they could be illegal and they are certainly politically divisive and diplomatically disastrous.

Counting the cost
Returning to the North American context, what would be the effects of a U.S.-Mexico border wall? Or more to the point, since mere border walls have not worked and will not work: what would be the effects of a 2000-mile militarized zone between the U.S. and Mexico? Our answer must keep in mind that the two countries are hardly intractable adversaries like Israel and Palestine.

The answer is straightforward. A mere wall (not significantly militarized) would have almost no long-term effect on controlling drug trafficking or illegal immigration. It would do nothing to relieve the plight of those in Central America and Mexico who continue to be brutalized and impoverished. It would, however, significantly increase hostility with a friendly neighbor because it would be perceived as a very offensive insult (the suggestion of it already has been perceived as such). And of course a truly militarized zone would have even worse, almost unimaginable consequences for U.S. diplomatic and economic interests.

If I may end on a point of language, it is all about the definitions. When politicians in the U.S. or anywhere talk about border walls or fences, they are either equivocating (because they will later add that they meant heavily policed or militarized barriers) or displaying their ignorance (because border walls, quite simply, do not work).


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