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Bad fences make bad neighbors


October 17, 2006

Something there is that doesn't love a wall ... -Robert Frost

Frost wasn't enthusiastic about walls, and neither are many of the columnists who have written about the 700-mile wall approved by Congress and the president to stand between Mexico and the United States. I like the take of Dale McFeatters, a Scripps Howard News Service colleague, who recalls famous walls of the past: the Great Wall of China, Hadrian's Wall, the Maginot Line, the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall. All of these monumental works had at least one thing in common: they failed miserably to accomplish what their visionary builders had in mind.

Environmentalists aren't crazy about this proposed wall along the Mexican border, either. A recent Associated Press story by Alicia Caldwell reports the concerns of Mary Lou Campbell, the chair of the Sierra Club's Lower Rio Grande Valley Group. Campbell says that the wall could destroy or disturb the habitats of numerous animals, like the already endangered ocelot and jaguarundi, which are accustomed to moving back and forth freely across the river. And Sue Sill, who directs the International Butterfly Park in Mission, Texas, says that construction of the wall will have a huge negative impact.

gif tough immigration policy

Tough Immigration Policy
Artist Mike Keefe, The Denver Post
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Cagle Cartoons, Inc.

Even some of the people who might enjoy immediate results from a wall along the border are against it. Some farmers and ranchers in far South Texas have actually built stairs over their pasture fences to keep illegal immigrants from knocking them down on their way through. But a recent article in the San Antonio Express-News reports that many of these farmers and ranchers are unhappy with the proposed project, calling it the "Berlin Wall." "It's a waste of money," says one. "They'll either go through it, over it or under it." And these are people who know a lot about illegal immigrants.

But the people who detest the proposed wall the most are probably the Mexicans. The Mexican government sent a diplomatic note criticizing the wall, and all eight parties in the Mexican Congress have joined to oppose it.

It's not hard to see why the Mexicans object to the wall. Mexico's dubious honor of sharing a border with us hasn't always worked to its advantage. In fact, our relationship with Mexico throughout much of the 19th century is characterized by exploitation of Mexican resources by U.S. companies. Eventually, however, Mexico's proximity to the United States began to pay off in a small way: much-needed Mexican labor was able to come north, sometimes legally, sometimes not. A mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship developed that functioned well in practical ways for many years. Now, suddenly, the United States is shocked - shocked! - that we have Mexicans living among us illegally.

The Mexicans know that a 700-mile fence is unlikely to have much impact on a 2,000-mile border. McFeatters calls this buying a 7-foot ladder to paint a 20-foot ceiling. Mexican officials know also that many of their countrymen who come north are energetic, determined and resilient; a 15-foot-high fence is unlikely to stop them. In fact, this is probably what makes them such dependable labor. Unfortunately, some will be forced to attempt more rugged, isolated routes, which will inevitably increase their mortality on the journey.

The Mexicans realize that this wall, like many walls, is symbolic, rather than practical, but that probably makes it sting more. I've traveled in Mexico enough to know that Mexicans are endowed with considerable pride and dignity, and it's inevitable that this wall will feel like an insult to them.

Perhaps those who oppose this wall need not worry too much; the decision to build it was so cynical that Congress didn't bother to appropriate sufficient funds. At present, $1.2 billion has been set aside for a wall that will cost much more. A similar wall near San Diego cost $9 million per mile, making the cost of this wall around $6.3 billion, an amount, incidentally, that would operate the college where I work for close to 90 years.

Maybe we'll forget about this pre-election sop to the conservatives after Nov. 7. In the meantime, it's healthy to remember that the first thing that contentious friends and squabbling married couples do when they've decided, consciously or unconsciously, to give up on resolving their differences is ... put up a wall.


John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Email: jcrisp(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps Howard News Service,

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Ketchikan, Alaska