Politics & Policy

To Wall or Not to Wall

In search of an immigration policy.

I’m torn between two symbolic arguments about the future of this country.

Symbolism matters in politics, a lot. That’s why political leaders show their respects to certain creeds and faiths by showing up at churches, synagogues, mosques, ashrams, AIDS clinics, NASCAR races, bratwurst eating contests, and the like. We build monuments and memorials for symbolic reasons. The fight over the confederate flag is a symbolic fight.

In short, I get it. Symbolism is important. But it ain’t everything. If desecrating the America flag is the only way to stop a guy from setting off a bomb, then hasta la vista, Old Glory.

And since we’re speaking Spanish, I guess I should get to my point. On the one hand, I hate the symbolism of building a wall along our southern border. It would be both literally and figuratively ugly. It would change the narrative of this country in a significant way and send a terrible signal to the world of a fortress America. I don’t think that’s the only rational interpretation of such a wall, but few can dispute that’s how it would be received by the rest of the planet (and our own media).

On the other hand, I think the symbolic significance of what’s going on now is destructive and has the potential to poison our politics for a long time to come. Even grade-school textbooks make it clear that a country is defined by its borders. People instinctively understand that a nation that can’t control its borders is a nation that lacks the confidence and will to stand up for its principles. It creates a culture of lawlessness, breeds contempt for lawmakers, and activates some of the baser instincts of the public.

Critics charge that these base instincts–xenophobia, chauvinism, racism–are precisely what motivates people to call for a wall in the first place. I’m sure that’s true for some, but not for everybody. Personally, I have no problem with legal immigration, even very high levels of it.

But my preferred immigration policy is to have one. When you don’t enforce the laws, you are in fact saying that the laws don’t matter. If this country wants 10 million legal immigrants a year, fine. Let’s have 10 million. But not 10 million legals and 3 or 4 million illegals as well. No line jumpers. Period.

Working on the fairly reasonable–but not definite–assumption that a wall would actually work, one benefit would be that these emotional reactions would subside. But if every politician and movement in America that calls for taking illegal immigration seriously is reflexively denounced as “anti-immigration,” never mind racist, then you won’t get rid of those sentiments, you’ll feed them. In other words, if you don’t have a reasonable “anti” immigration movement, you will get an unreasonable one. That’s what’s happening in parts of Europe.

Opponents rightly say you don’t need a wall if you simply enforce the laws we have now. O.K. But there’s very little reason to believe that moment is just around the corner. They sound like the guys watching Noah load the ark, saying, “All that work will be unnecessary once the rain stops.” And, whenever politicians suggest actually doing that, many of the same critics object to that symbolism as well. Indeed, enforcing the laws by placing thousands of armed men–troops, in effect–along the U.S. border isn’t a great look, either. And, historically, troops on the border is a bigger provocation than concrete.

Meanwhile, the Republicans, caving to the business lobby, take the lead opposing a better solution: vigorous prosecution of businesses who hire illegals. If either party were serious about enforcing any of those laws, a wall would be unnecessary.

A wall would not in any sense be “unfair” to Mexicans any more than locks on your windows are unfair to people who want to break into your house and sleep on your couch. A wall would simply put Mexico–and the more than 100,000 “other than Mexicans” who cross our southern border–at the same “disadvantage” as would-be immigrants from Nigeria and New Zealand. They’d have to fill out a form and wait in line.

It feels unserious to say this is ultimately all about symbolism, but that’s where I come down. I think the economic arguments on both sides are usually unpersuasive. Paying busboys $10 an hour, one probable upshot of a complete halt to illegal immigration, isn’t major progress in my book. And its hard to take liberals seriously when they complain about the costs of a wall–estimates vary from $15 to $30 billion–when they regularly champion other grandiose public works projects. Clearly the cost isn’t their real objection.

So here I am torn between two bad symbols. Everyone likes to quote Robert Frost’s line that “good fences make good neighbors.” But they leave out the opening line from the same poem, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” That sums up my continental divide.

(c) 2005 Tribune Media Services


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