The budgetary stalemate that has partially shut down the government persists, prolonged by the tension between two equally preposterous ideas that pull at each other from distant poles.
The first is that the Democrats favor so-called open borders, across which immigrants, criminals, terrorists and drugs flow unimpeded. No rational Democrat defends this imaginary position. It was created by President Donald Trump for political purposes.
At the other pole is the equally fanciful border wall that Trump made a central feature of his bid for the presidency. The specifics varied considerably during the campaign, but the most extreme version reached 65 feet in height for the entire length of our 2000-mile southern border.
Cost estimates for Trump’s wall were as outrageous as its proposed height and source of funding. Mexico, of course, was never going to pay for it.
So here we are: Democrats are accused of holding a position—open borders—that no reasonable citizen would accept, and Trump is still committed to something that can be called a “wall,” even if it’s only the intermittent fencing that has been used along the border for decades.
Who knows how this will turn out? But it’s probably worth remembering why a wall that is anything close to the one that helped Donald Trump get elected is such a bad idea.
Critics of a border wall have pointed out its ineffectiveness. One calls it a 5th-century solution to a 21st-century problem. Others point out that a majority—as much as 66 percent, according to the Center for Migration Studies—of those who join the undocumented population each year overstay a valid visa and thus would be unaffected by a wall.
In addition to its enormous expense, the kind of wall that Trump ran on would have to be built in a more or less straight line on this side of a very crooked river, effectively relinquishing thousands of acres of American territory into a useless no man’s land. The impact on the animals that frequently cross the river would be significant. There are problems of right of way and the ongoing costs of maintenance. And so on.
But a wall’s impact on the border would be psychological and emotional as well as physical. A wall even half as formidable as the one that Trump imagines is a stark repudiation of more than 130 million Mexicans, nearly all of whom are not criminals, rapists or terrorists. Further, it would demonstrate contempt for the reliable trading partner and ally that Mexico has been for decades, as well as for the important role that Mexican labor—legal and illegal—plays in our economy.
This is what poet Robert Frost was talking about in “Mending Wall,” where he says that before building a wall, we should ask “to whom I was like to give offense.”
Mexico has its problems, but they are probably less permanent than the kind of wall that Trump has in mind. Trump will be president for somewhere between one and six more years. But the stark concrete barrier that so excited Trump’s base during the campaign will be incredibly permanent.
And the psychological and emotional offense that such a wall will commit against one of our most reliable allies will be just as permanent, enduring long after Trump is gone.
Should we care? My Tea Party neighbor down the street says that we should not care in the least what other nations think of us. I’m not so sure. Someday we may really need a friendly Mexico.
And in 20, 40 or 60 years, when Americans may change their minds about other countries, a near-permanent concrete wall—with all its psychological and emotional damage—may still stand between us and Mexico.
Bridges are easier to burn than to build. Walls are different. They’re hard enough to build, but they’re even harder to tear down.
Democrats should resist the pressure to placate Trump with $5 billion to construct even a part of a very bad idea.