National Security & Defense

Can We Stop Illegals?

The parallels are remarkable, Berlin-Mexico. They are nevertheless worth reciting in order to refamiliarize ourselves with what nations and human beings tend to do when pressed beyond what they believe is their capacity to absorb.

In the late 1950s, the awful consequences of life under East German/Soviet rule caused people to vote with their feet—to move from East Germany into West Germany. The movement, in the early stages of it, was thought tolerable. But by the end of the decade it had become intolerable. West Germany had difficulties in assimilating East Germans in the numbers in which they arrived. The problem, by the winter of 1960, had become insupportable. East German leader Walter Ulbricht reported to the Kremlin that at the rate doctors and engineers were leaving East Germany, in ten years if you needed a doctor you’d find none such left, let alone an engineer to build a bridge. We are going to close down Berlin, Ulbricht told Khrushchev, and the mighty Soviet army has to stand by us or the whole Soviet East European establishment is going to break down.

What happened was the Berlin Wall. If the border between Mexico and the U.S. were designed like the border between East and West Berlin, an effort could feasibly be made to block the apex into which the human traffic consolidated.

The idea of a 2,000-mile wall is not abandoned, because no escape from the current intolerable situation is officially abandoned. How long would it take? If we hired Israeli wall makers to go to work, or show us how to do it? Ex-Soviet wall builders could surely be found who are as young as 65 years old, and they certainly are looking for work.

The concept of a wall is disagreeable, but critical questions are now crystallizing. Can the U.S. govern its own borders? That is a very serious question because the answer to it is thought obvious: Yes—all nations control their own borders! But the question properly put becomes: Are we prepared to go to the lengths necessary to control our borders? To say yes is glibness—and glibness of a kind we are not practiced in, because maintaining the integrity of a wall requires anti-human fortifications. The Berliners began with barbed wire, which grew to high cement walls. In due course electricity was added, and finally dogs. You can’t of course do that over a stretch of 2,000 miles. But would we be willing to do that for any distance?

There is a yearning across the land to demonstrate that we are master of our own house.

What we have got is ad hoc minutemen volunteering for duty along the Arizona border. But these are “vigilantes,” in the thanks-but-no-thanks language of President Bush. They are not trained in the enforcement of justice or in the use of appropriate weapons. What they do is inject a little fright into the situation, with, almost certainly, here and there a dead Mexican, and possibly an international crisis.

The cure to East-to-West migration in Germany was simple: the granting of liberty to the East. But effective liberty required huge capital expenditures. When the wall came down, the West Germans faced the need for an investment in the East to make it a place Germans would consider living in. The cost was hundreds of billions of dollars. The flow of Mexicans to the north can be strategically contained either by improving the quality of Mexican economic life, or by suppressing opportunities in U.S. life. The former cannot be done, given cultural rigidities and impermeabilities. The latter can be attempted, but at great cost to U.S. business interests and ideals. Congress could pass a law imposing huge fines on any American enterprise that hires illegals. Collateral pressures could be applied, involving driving licenses, hospitals, schools. Are we willing to adopt such measures?

There is a yearning across the land to demonstrate that we are master of our own house. As things are going, we are not. The immigration wave appears uncontainable, and we cannot generate the sentiment required to do the kind of thing the East Germans did. All of which argues that effective reduction in illegal immigration is not going to happen.

 

— William F. Buckley Jr. was the founder and editor of National Review.

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