Wall Mexico-US border San Diego Tijuana

Why the wall won’t work

Thomas Nail

Thomas Nail

Thomas Nail is an associate professor of philosophy at The University of Denver.

Studies show that borders do not stop people from moving, so why are we still trying?  Immigration and border enforcement are central topics of the 2020 election, but both sides of the border debate have made the faulty assumption that borders can stop human movement. We need to set this straight.
The U.S./Mexico border wall is perhaps the most extreme performative contradiction of global politics right now. President Trump vetoed legislation that attempted to overturn his use of emergency powers to divert $3.6 billion to pay for an “impenetrable” border wall. Meanwhile, a viral video is now circulating of an 8-year-old girl easily climbing a replica of the wall in just a few moments.

The border debate rages on, but both sides have failed to consider the deeply flawed assumption that walls can actually stop human movement in the first place. They can’t; here is why.

The U.S./Mexico border is 1,989 miles long and is crossed by more than 350 million people a year. At its thronged checkpoints, we find commuters waiting in long customs lines every day, seeking work and education across the border. There are continual ebbs and flows of immigrants moving back and forth. Semi-trucks circulate the vital flows of goods and global capital between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Now, we are even seeing rapidly increasing numbers of refugees from Central America who are fleeing political- and climate-related violence. And yet, despite the enormous social need for and long human history of mobility at the heart of every great society, we have built one of the most violent, destructive, and failed borders in history.

It has cost over $100 billion over the last fifteen years to construct and maintain barriers along this border, to disastrous effect. Obstacles at the U.S./Mexico border are blocking migration corridors, destroying vegetation, obstructing waterways, filling in estuaries, and increasing pollution and noise by forcing migrants and border patrol into more isolated wildlife habitats. More recently, the Trump administration has waived 41 environmental rules in order to allow for border wall construction.

The border wall is also killing people. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s own reports show that 7,216 people have died crossing the U.S./Mexico border between 1998 and 2017. Activists leaving food and water for migrants are being arrested and the food is being destroyed by border patrol. Inside the U.S., migrants and refugees are regularly dying and being abused in our detention centers. The wall, like most walls, is ineffective. The U.S. government’s own reports found that the wall has been breached 9,300 times between 2010 and 2015 and concluded that there was no way to determine whether the fence was helping to halt illegal immigration at all. Another study showed that the success rate of illegal migration, on the second or third try, was upwards of 95 percent.

Wall Mexico-US border San Diego Tijuana
A section of the barrier, made out of steel slats, ending in the Pacific Ocean in San Diego–Tijuana. © Tomas Castelazo / Wikimedia Commons

Why then do so many Americans support efforts to fortify and extend the wall? Why do so many continue to believe that immigrants are stealing our jobs, bringing violent crime, hurting the economy, draining our social services, and not paying taxes, when there is no evidence to support any of this? Why, when migration and human movement has so consistently been shown to improve economies, do Americans and officials in many other countries try to impede the flow of workers and new citizens that sustain them? Economic desperation, scapegoating, racism, nationalism, and ignorance certainly play a part, but there is something much deeper at the heart of the current border crisis.

The building and maintenance of the U.S./Mexico border wall is based on a widely shared assumption about what the world is and how it works. In this case, the idea is that borders are fixed barriers that can stop human movement. But this assumption of stasis does not describe our world and how it works in the 21st century. Borders are not static barriers and they cannot stop human movement. They are continually shifting, being skirted around, eroded, burrowed through and under, and rebuilt. The U.S./Mexico border can funnel people into the middle of the desert, trap them inside the U.S., drive them under it, above it, or through it, and can even kill them. However, it cannot stop them. How many times can an idea cause death, destruction, and failure before we change our minds and actions? How many exceptions to the rule have to emerge before it’s time to find a new idea that can make sense of it all?

The crisis at the U.S./Mexico border and its ongoing performative contradiction is not an isolated case of the breakdown of this older static worldview. It is only one part of a larger story that has yet to be told about our century-in-motion. Now, at the turn of the 21st century, we have crossed a critical threshold in which the old paradigm of stability punctuated by moments of crisis is giving way to a whole new paradigm of ongoing flux punctuated by moments of stability.


Thomas Nail


Received: 11.08.20, Ready: 26.08.20, Editors: Logan Chipkin, Alexander F. Brown

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