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Hitting the Wall

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Hitting the Wall

President Trump and the Democrats remain irreconcilable on border security. January 9, 2019
Politics and law

It is no stretch to argue that without his vow to build a wall on our border with Mexico, Donald Trump would never have been elected president. And failure to build the wall, or at least to make a good start at it, will likely ensure that he serves only one term. This was the context—along with the ongoing federal government shutdown, over this issue—for the president’s announcement last night of a “crisis of the heart” at the nation’s southern border. It is unlikely that the president’s speech, or the Democrats’ response, will do much to resolve the standoff.

Trump did not use the occasion to declare a national emergency and instruct the Army Corps of Engineers to begin construction of the wall, as some had suggested he might. That idea was met with derision from Democrat leaders, who insist that he has no such authority, and that there is no emergency at the border. After all, they say, only 400,000 people crossed over illegally in 2018—down from more than 1 million in 2000—and only six people on the terrorist watch list were apprehended in the first half of last year. One terrorist per month sneaking into the country sounds like a serious matter, though, perhaps just short of an emergency. But it’s hard to understand how the existence of a porous national boundary, which thousands of dangerous criminals routinely cross, could not be classified as an emergency. Is it because we’ve grown used to this perverse disorder, this failure by our leaders to perform an elemental function of government—securing the borders—that we hesitate to call it the crisis that it obviously is?

Opposition to a border wall takes the form of exasperation and snark but little in the way of argumentation. One frequently heard argument is that illegal immigrants commit less crime than native-born Americans. At the very least, U.S. Sentencing Commission data raises serious questions about that claim. Another common response is to call sententiously for “building bridges, not walls,” as though real walls preclude the construction of metaphorical bridges. Senator Charles Schumer, in the Democratic response to the president, called the wall “ineffective and unnecessary.” Opponents of the idea of a physical structure impeding unwanted migration claim that they support border security wholeheartedly—it’s just that walls don’t work.  

But what evidence is there that walls—for millennia the most basic unit of construction and defense—are ineffective? A wall, or fence, runs along much of the border near population centers like San Diego and El Paso, and these barriers appear to work, to the extent that a partial wall can be said to work. A 440-mile wall separates Israel from the West Bank; it has dramatically reduced terrorism. Saudi Arabia has a wall on its border with Yemen and has begun construction of a wall on its Iraq border, too. Hungary, Russia, Lithuania, and Slovenia have built border walls. Belfast and Derry have “peace lines” (walls) separating Catholic from Protestant neighborhoods. The 1,800-mile, impermeable India-Pakistan border is visible at night from space because 150,000 floodlights light it. The United States maintains 25,000 soldiers in South Korea to preserve the integrity of the fence dividing the Korean peninsula.  

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that critics oppose a wall not because it wouldn’t work but because it would. Once you have conceded that border security is essential, as Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi supposedly do, how can you oppose a wall, when it’s clear that without one, the border will remain unsecured? The border-protection agents already have drones, sensors, and other “smart” technology that opponents suggest would be better than a physical structure. Saying “walls don’t work” is like saying “roofs don’t work.” A wall doesn’t have to block every person who tries to get through it. Just as bike locks are useful even though persistent thieves can foil them, walls that block or deter most efforts to climb them can be said to be effective.  

Many on the left seem clearly offended by the idea that nations have the right to determine who crosses their boundaries. Today’s sanctuary-cities lobby grew out of the 1980s crusade of “solidarity” with Central American revolutionary movements; it echoes those earlier movements’ conviction that northern migration from Latin America is righteous anti-colonialism, a revenge of history. It echoes, too, a sense, pervasive if often unstated, that Americans don’t deserve the country that their ancestors—including African slaves—built.

President Trump has given the Democrats a chance to make a deal. He appears serious about building the wall. If no progress is made toward an agreement, Trump will have two options: further temporizing of his position, up to and including concession of defeat; or attempt to exercise presidential authority—subject to legal review—to declare a national emergency and build the wall on his own.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

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