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2007-12-17

Border Wall Ruminations 2007

I have this suspicion, like Robert Frost, that a good fence doesn't really make a good neighbor.

Lots of people talk about the border but have little idea what it looks like, as can be expected in a nation of 300 million people in which no more than 15% of the population actually lives on the border.

Recently, I actually visited this section of border fence near Tecate, and I was surprised to discover how meager it looked. "It only exists to keep vehicles from coming across," I was told again and again by the agent who took me on a ride-along for an article earlier this year. Indeed, the fence is maybe nine or ten feet high, but it would be easy enough to scale with a ladder (because, as I was also gently reminded, "Mexico doesn't patrol their border").

Then there are the places where no fence is because it runs directly into the side of a boulder-strewn mountain, like the one this picture looks towards out west. We were out there on a Friday night and one of the scope-trucks reported to our vehicle that 60 people had amassed on the other side of the mountain in order to make the run across. Hearing this, the agents I saw nervously patrolled this dirt road waiting for night fall, when the action begins.

I have this suspicion, like Robert Frost, that a good fence doesn't really make a good neighbor. We hear this kind of rhetoric in the super-heated "immigration debate", for instance, where certain public figures charge that a border fence is all that's needed to keep immigrants from coming over the invisible line that runs somewhere under the fence in this picture. On the other hand, I was told, by the above-mentioned border patrol agent, that the costs of even building such a fence are entirely prohibitive when they can't even get a road through this mountainous terrain.

And then there are the economic angles and the supposed "war on drugs" may be an appropriate analog here: economics appears to trump both legality and the institutions put in place to enforce that legality. In simpler terms, immigrants come for work because there is work and because the American economy depends to a certain extent on cheap, unskilled labor. As long as that economic fact remains a fact, no suitable solution will emerge from the enforcement side.

A couple of people I met from an anti-immigration group told me "this is an invasion." They had planted a giant flag on the mountain I mentioned before that was the staging ground for the massive run on the border. It was hard for me to see it as an invasion, but the flag itself seemed like a piece of clumsy symbolism (when does it not, you might say?). To those anti-immigration guys that flag represented country and culture and history, but it also represented the establishment of these things as solid and unperturbed by aggression. In other words, they saw it in a kind of militaristic fashion: conquered and owned land wears a flag.

On the other side, it's easy to imagine how the freedom and pursuit of happiness symbolism of the flag that the anti-immigration guys payed obeisance to was communicated to other cultures. If I were looking for work and I saw that flag, it would be a great way to see just how many more steps I had left to go. I'd appreciate, perhaps, the reminder of what I was looking for.