Border walls: A simple fix?

By Tammy Alexander, Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office

There is general agreement that monitoring the flow of people and goods across the U.S.-Mexico border is a necessary government function. This is especially true when it comes to efforts to restrict the flow of illicit drugs and human trafficking. However, there are disagreements among both policymakers and the public about how best to accomplish this, particularly when it comes to the construction of border walls and fences.

Those disagreements are sometimes expressed with extreme language, when those who favor building walls are portrayed as racist and hating immigrants and those who oppose building walls are accused of throwing open borders to violent criminals. Such exaggerated rhetoric gets in the way of constructive discussion.

Perhaps a good place to start is to ask: Do border walls work? The Migration Policy Institute and the Cato Institute have studied the effectiveness of barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border and provide some useful food for thought. As walls have been built, crossings in newly-walled areas do decrease.

However, migration and smuggling simply shift to areas without barriers. Even if the entire 1,969-mile land border could be walled off, people would still climb over and tunnel under these structures. And walls do nothing to stop the estimated 85 percent of illicit drugs that come through ports of entry.

In considering whether building border walls is good policy, it is also important to study the damages they cause.

Officials in Mexico have repeatedly opposed barrier construction near the Rio Grande River as both fences and walls can cause catastrophic flooding. In 2008, border wall-induced flooding led to the deaths of two people in Nogales, Mexico. When a 2010 hurricane flooded a Texas wildlife refuge, many animals who could not fly or swim drowned after being trapped behind a newly constructed segment of wall.

Ana Hinojosa, immigration education coordinator for MCC Central States, walks toward an opening in a border wall in south Texas during a recent MCC learning tour. MCC photo/Saulo Padilla.

Ana Hinojosa, immigration education coordinator for MCC Central States, walks toward an opening in a border wall in south Texas during a recent MCC learning tour. MCC photo/Saulo Padilla.


A 2005 law allows the Department of Homeland Security to waive any and all federal and local laws to construct border barriers. As a result, the risks of flooding and the damage to property, local economies and wildlife are brushed aside. If not for the waiver, officials might choose to construct walls in some areas and use less invasive security measures in other areas.

One Texas family watched their home burn to the ground with their pets inside because local fire officials could not get through a section of border wall. Hundreds more landowners will be impacted by new wall construction starting this year, like Texas resident Fred Cavazos who could lose his livelihood and a ranch that has been in his family for 250 years.

Any honest discussion about the costs and benefits of walls should also acknowledge disagreements about whose safety and welfare is important to protect. Should the safety of migrants crossing the border, who are often fleeing violence and extreme poverty, matter as much as the safety of U.S. citizens? How should the welfare of those who live in the border region, or the welfare of wildlife, factor into decisions about wall construction?

Walls are a tempting fix. They are simple, tangible and promise quick results. But they avoid the difficult and necessary work of analyzing complex problems, engaging in dialogue and finding novel, long-term solutions.

As people of God, we are called to consider the impacts of our actions on all God’s children. As we consider whether building border walls is good policy—and a moral action—we must fully consider who will be harmed, whether less-damaging alternatives could be used, and whether such large sums of money would be better spent addressing the violence and poverty that cause so many to migrate.

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