Today we look at the border wall. A subject on all of America’s mind, the wall has been an entity of controversy on all sides. Two sides claim it’s flawed: for some the wall represents a militarization of otherness– an arbitrary divide in the sand which can mean life and death for those we have deemed less than us. For others the wall is a mis-managed guard rail– meant to keep out those who fundamentally don’t obey our law. This story of competing criticisms is one we know well: one cries for greater security to protect our country from those who wish to invade it, the following cries for leniency to those desperate enough to risk death for a better life.
This debate, however, is one of narrative. The sides disagree on the wall primarily because of its effects on people. And while this debate is vital to understanding the true costs of the wall, there is more to the story which lies in numbers. According to an article titled “Why Border Enforcement Backfired” by Douglass Massey and Jorge Durand, “From 1986 to 2008 the undocumented population of the United States grew from 3 million to 12 million persons, despite a fivefold increase in the number of U.S. Border Patrol officers, a fourfold increase in hours spent patrolling the border, and a twenty fold increase in nominal funding. Whether measured in terms personnel, patrol hours, or budget, studies indicate that the surge in border enforcement had little effect in reducing unauthorized migration to the United States.”
And why would this be? Because according to that same article more than 50% of the immigrants who came in to the country in 1970 left by 1979. In the decades previous most immigrants were cyclical migrants– meaning that they came to the US mainly for economic activities and then left back home. In many ways returning home is the dream of every Immigrant, it’s a place which they know well, have community, and can speak the language. Although there are, of course, some who were always isolated or discriminated against in their home, most immigrants face economic issues rather than systemic social ones, and when the border was lax they could come here to work and then go home to live. So here’s the truth: our militarization of boarder enforcement has not solved the immigrant “crisis”, but really created it.
So why build the wall? While this question is impossible to answer for sure, a article by Lee and Fiske in 2006 showed that constant media campaigns portraying immigrants as criminals and lazy leeches on welfare has put immigrants in the out group category which is both “non warm and non competent”. This means that they are distinguished from the mainstream by being both bad intentioned and incapable. This doubly demeaning portrayal is shown to generate feelings of disgust and dull empathy for a group now considered firmly as outsiders. And those beyond “us” have always been feared.
Fear thus being the main achievement of this campaign. Fear is a powerful political and social tool. Fear from outsiders are especially useful as it distracts from issues on the inside of the community. In America it seems as thought there has always been a group to fear– Natives, Negros, Communists, Terrorists, Immigrants. The group has shifted and so has their title, but the usefulness of the group to those in power have not. “We are necessary because we protect you from them”. A powerful message indeed. Today as we face another wave of dehumanizing messages and articles obviously aimed to promote the most fear possible, we need to ask ourselves: who benefits from this? The owners of military and detention center contracts? Politicians who want an easy win? And perhaps even more important: Who’s next?