John Buttrick: The unintended consequences of building walls

  • In this May 13, 2010, file photo, Tohono O'odham Nation Police Sgt. Vincent Garcia walks along the new border fence at the U.S.-Mexico border in San Miguel, Ariz. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 1/22/2019 12:15:12 AM

I have a friendship with a family of Mexican heritage. The father is a naturalized citizen of the United States. While sitting around the dinner table, they tell me they are reluctant to cross into Mexico to visit relatives because they fear the father may not be allowed to return to the U.S.

I’ve had meals with a Palestinian family, living in Azun, who describe how they are sometimes restricted from passing through an Israeli checkpoint to go to the nearest church in a neighboring village.

I’ve walked the migrant trail from Mexico to Tucson, Ariz. Along the way we passed near the Tohono O’odham reservation that straddles the U.S./Mexican border. The native Americans can no longer cross the border wherever they please on their land. They have to go through specific entry points. These experiences have introduced me to unintended consequences of barrier and border walls ostensibly built for security.

Since 2002 Israel has been building walls and barriers on occupied Palestinian territory in the name of security. Sometimes these walls stand around the edges of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. Others, also on Palestinian land, are built as much as 3 miles inside the green line established after the 1967 conflict. Often there are barriers between a Palestinian village and the farmland of the village.

Since the 2006 Secure Fence Act, the U.S. has been installing fence along the Rio Grande river in the county around Brownsville, Texas. A lot of it is half a mile or even a mile north of the river so it cuts right across private lands. A member of the Tohono O’odham nation reflects on the situation of the reservation that straddles the border between Mexico and Arizona, “We’ve never crossed the border; the border crossed us. ... We feel betrayed back for 160 years when this international boundary was created, without any consent or any discussion.”

I read a recent opinion that the United States should take a lesson from Israeli wall-building as a way to secure our nation. A letter to the editor in the Monitor on Jan. 8 suggested that walls have been built down through history as a solution to security. A letter to the editor in the Monitor on Jan. 16 pleads for the building of a barrier along the Mexican border to stop drugs from “invading New Hampshire and destroying our state.” Our president calls wall building “common sense.” However, this “common sense” advocacy for wall-building as a security measure does not recognize the ancillary consequences.

One of the most self-defeating results of wall building has been to isolate neighbors from one another. The elders in the Palestinian village of Jayyous, where I lived for three months in 2010, often lamented the loss of contact with Israeli neighbors in the villages where they had lived before 1948. Since the Palestinians had been forced out of these villages, it had become more and more difficult to maintain communications with their Israeli friends. There is no opportunity to learn and experience the struggles and joys of their respective daily lives. Opportunities for understanding and empathy are no longer possible.

While walking the migrant trail from Mexico to Tucson, I listened to a rancher who lives along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. He talked about how the life of his town has changed since the expansion of border barriers and security patrols. He harkens back to the time when the checkpoints were open 9 to 5 and the rest of the time people traveled unhindered back and forth for visits, shopping, entertainment and jobs. With increased barriers, neighbors across the border are no longer able to meet together. Fear and suspicion of “the other” is growing. Also, some of the private ranchland in the United States is now inaccessible because walls and barriers pass through it. Barriers block cattle’s access to the water of the river.

Today the Tohono O’odham people can no longer cross the border wherever they please. They have to go through specific entry points. New walls become “an obstacle in our path in life to go visit family, to go visit friends, to go to sacred sites in Mexico. ... To put a border wall here would be detrimental to our people. It would have a psychological effect. You would have an emotional effect. I think you wouldn’t like it if I dug a wall right through your home. This is our traditional homeland.”

As our president and congressional delegation haggle over the building of the wall between the United States and Mexico, these unintended consequences should be included in the debate. Consequences of magnified mistrust, fear, distorted rumors and fabricated enemies are moral issues. Economist Alex Tabarrock in an Atlanticessay in 2015 wrote, “What moral theory justifies using wire, wall and weapon to prevent people from moving to opportunity?” Rep. Nancy Pelosi got it right when she declared the building of the wall “immoral.”

Every conversation with a politician about the border is prefaced with, “I’m in favor of strong border security.” However, the ensuing conversation never seems to include our values and moral compass as guides and instruments to security. Considering ways to build friendships and allies rather than defining and excluding enemies could create more freedom as well as enhanced security. It could make it possible for my friend of Mexican heritage to travel with confidence to visit relatives across the border. It could free the people along our border to travel unhindered back and forth for visits, shopping, entertainment and jobs. It could reunite people of the Tohono O’odham nation and heal their anxiety. And it could increase our sensitivity to the oppression experienced with the wall and barrier building in Palestine/Israel.

It’s time for unintended consequences to prevail against obsolete wall building.

(The Rev. John Buttrick, United Church of Christ, lives in Concord.)

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