(Previously published July 31, 2010, in The Bristol Democrat)
Contrary to the statement by the Arizona governor July 31, 2010, on CNN, the border of a nation is not like the wall of a house. The walls of a house keep out the rain and wind. Having a country without a fence around its border is relatively common. Even in the age of castles and moats, only small town centers had actual walls, and with few exceptions nobody built a wall as a national border. To see what it might be like, however, we can look back to the early 1960’s at a nation that built a wall.

That wall began as a barbed wire fence in 1953 and progressed from that time through a series of reinforcements. The final version used almost 50,000 slabs of concrete and cost around 16,000,000 DM, around $42,500,000.00 in 2009 U.S. dollars. It was 96 miles long, had 302 manned watchtowers with armed guards, and incorporated 65 miles of trenches to prevent vehicles from approaching. It necessitated the tearing up of roads and the evacuation of buildings near the wall that could be used for illegal crossings. Churches near the wall were abandoned, and land near the wall, stripped of trees and vegetation, was plowed to prevent people from approaching the wall undetected. These stripped acres were plowed continuously so that recent tracks would be visible. In some places the base of the wall was lined with iron “fakir beds” of spikes, so that if a person were able to reach the wall and leap for a handhold on the top of it, he was likely to fall back into the spikes. Part of the wall was topped by a rolling cylinder held in iron loops to make holding on impossible. Underwater barriers were constructed where the wall crossed the small river, and to prevent swimmers from going under the barriers, scuba gear was contraband. In the years between 1961 and 1989, 171 people were killed or died in attempts to cross the wall, and another 200 were shot and injured.

Due to the need to maintain both sides of the wall, it was actually built inside the border and not “on the border.” The few feet of protected area on the “other side” of the wall permitted work crews to continually patrol the outside of the wall and paint over the graffiti that constantly appeared on it, adding to the expense of maintenance. In one escape attempt, an 18-year-old was shot as he scrambled over the wall. He landed inside the maintenance strip, inside the national boundary protected by the wall. He bled to death with emergency crews looking on, forbidden to step across the border to assist him.

The builders of the wall defended its building this way in 1962, when the fence was being replaced by concrete:

The wall is the state frontier of the German Democratic Republic. The state frontier of a sovereign state must be respected. That is so the world over. He who does not treat it with respect can not complain if he comes to harm. (From a 1962 East German (GDR) brochure titled “What You Should Know About the Wall” and written in English for foreign distribution, now in the German Propaganda Archive of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan)

If you haven’t recognized the Berlin Wall from this description, then your knowledge of recent history is slim, and that is why you might favor a fence along the US-Mexico border. If you know about the Berlin Wall and you still favor the fence, consider the geography, from, well, yes, Wikipedia:

The nearly 2,000-mile (3,138 km or 1,950 miles) international border follows the middle of the Rio Grande — according to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo between the two nations, “along the deepest channel” (also known as the thalweg) — from its mouth on the Gulf of Mexico a distance of 2,019 km (1,254 miles) to a point just upstream of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. It then follows an alignment westward overland and marked by monuments a distance of 858 km (533 miles) to the Colorado River, during which it reaches its highest elevation at the intersection with the Continental Divide. Thence it follows the middle of that river northward a distance of 38 km (24 miles), and then it again follows an alignment westward overland and marked by monuments a distance of 226 km (141 miles) to the Pacific Ocean.

The region along the boundary is characterized by deserts, rugged mountains, abundant sunshine, and two major rivers — the Colorado and the Rio Grande (Río Bravo del Norte) — which provide life-giving waters to the largely arid but fertile lands along the rivers in both countries.

A barrier for the U.S.-Mexico border would be over 20 times as long as the Berlin Wall. And while the Berlin Wall cut across roads and farmland and through the heart of a large city, the barrier for the U.S.-Mexico border would be in a large river for many miles, bisect a few blended towns, and run through deserts, mountains, and canyons.

There will be those who will object that a fence is not a wall, that a fence is less expensive, and that there is no comparison. If you are thinking along this line, please read the whole article, quoted here:

A 2,000 mile state-of-the-art border fence has been estimated to cost between four and eight billion dollars. Costs for a wall that would run the entire length of the border might be as low as $851 million for a standard 10-foot prison chain link fence topped by razor wire. For another $362 million, the fence could be electrified. A larger 12-foot tall, two-foot-thick concrete wall painted on both sides would run about $2 billion. Initially it was estimated that the San Diego fence would cost $14 million — about $1 million a mile. The first 11 miles of the fence eventually cost $42 million — $3.8 million per mile, and the last 3.5 miles may cost even more since they cover more difficult terrain. An additional $35 million to complete the final 3.5 miles was approved in 2005 by the Department of Homeland Security — $10 million per mile. (From GlobalSecurity.org, “US-Mexico Border Fence / Great Wall of Mexico Secure Fence”)

The East German brochure from 1962 that defended the building of the wall also stated:

But please consider where the actual wall runs in Germany, the wall which must be pulled down in your and our interest. It is the wall which was erected because of the fateful Bonn NATO policy. On the stones of this wall stand atomic armament, entry into NATO, revanchist demands, anti-communist incitement, non recognition of the GDR, rejection of negotiations, the front-line city of West Berlin.

So, make your contribution to the pulling down of this wall by advocating a reasonable policy of military neutrality, peaceful co-existence, normal relations between the two German states, the conclusion of a peace treaty with Germany, a demilitarized Free City of West Berlin. That is the only way to improve the situation in Berlin, to safeguard peace, a way which can, one day also lead to the reunification of Germany.

So the Berlin Wall was a choice between building a wall and negotiating differences. Follow the link and read the brochure, and you will see that people leaving the Soviet sector for jobs in the American, French, and British sectors of Berlin was also a major problem. And, as the pamphlet points out, the actual wall that needed to come down was not a physical wall. It was a wall of differences between people and cultures, differences that might have been negotiated.

History shows us repeatedly that when walls are built, they have to be maintained, they have to be scaled, and finally they have to be torn down. We need a national foreign workers program that serves worker and employer interests and a clear path to citizenship for those who wish it. We can create a foreign workers program and a path to citizenship out of realistic assessment of needs and some reasonable conversation. It will take time, it will be expensive, and it will take a lot of work. But unlike a fence, we can have it ready to roll in a year, it will not bankrupt our economy, and we won’t have to tear it down later.