On Feb. 24, 2017, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency posted a notice announcing that in a week it would solicit prototypes for a wall on the United States border with Mexico. This has been one of the few campaign points that President Trump has remained consistent on, along with his tacit endorsements of racism and spray tan.
Unfortunately, in promising his wall, Trump is not as much of an outlier as we might pretend. After decades of tearing down walls and barriers to travel following the fall of the the USSR in the late 1980s, we have reached a second age of the barricade. In the first, the barricade was a sign of the revolutionary, as in Les Miserables, where radical mobs blocked Paris streets with overturned horse carts and furniture. The modern barricade has been co-opted by governments to control movement and literally close off horizons of possibility.
At the end of World War II, there were only five border walls in the world. By 1990, there were 15. There are now 70 borders divided by some kind of barrier, and more walls are being planned every day. The Economist reported that Europe, despite the “borderless” Schengen experiment, “will soon have more physical barriers on its national borders than it did during the Cold War.”
The motives behind these walls are not as cut and dry as they may first appear. A wall is a demarcation. Its function is to divide and exclude. However, the Great Wall of China, the largest wall ever built, failed to prevent the Manchu invasions in the 17th century. Since then we have developed transcontinental jetliners, quarter-of-a-mile long container ships and a class of people known as “digital nomads.” It is more accurate to think of border walls not as a barrier but as a funnel: They don’t stop immigration, they channel it to one point that can be policed. Except if every nation funneled everything and everyone through a single entry point, the modern economy would grind to a halt. So what good is a wall when there are thousands of airports, seaports and border crossings?
The fact is that most walls currently under construction or recently built will not affect most immigrants, legal or illegal. In the case of the U.S., four million of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the country arrived with legal paperwork and then overstayed their visas, according to Pew Research Center. The walls have been built with a specific target in mind. Despite what politicians may say about security, most walls discriminate neither by creed nor ethnicity but by class.
Even if globalization is no longer the all-absorbing, Borg-like inevitability that it seemed even six months ago, it still has profoundly shaped the world and economy. Throughout history international migration has been the norm, not the anomaly. Similar to the abolition of capital controls that now leads nations to compete for foreign investment, nations now compete for “human capital” — immigrants that bring with them affluence, prestige and skills, like doctors, scientists and PhD candidates. Since 2000, immigrants have been responsible for roughly 40 percent (31 of 78) of the Nobel prizes won by Americans in chemistry, physics and medicine, 67 percent of the U.K.’s gold medals in track at the past two Olympics (go Mo Farah), and nearly 100 percent of the largest names on the past several French national soccer teams.
Those who do not have anything to immediately offer their new country — the tired, the poor, the huddled masses — are the ones being turned away by walls. Unable to rely on distance as a deterrent, many nations have learned from the proliferation of networks that access is the new limiting factor. Governments have been working to close networks that were previously open and thereby gain control. You cannot play gatekeeper if there is no gate. Studies bear this out. According to Hassner and Wittenberg, economics and not security is the major predictor of whether a barrier will be built between countries. Of the 25 walls and fences built in the past five years, none of the countries that built a barrier suffered a disproportionate amount of crime, terrorism or border incursions. But among country pairs that have a wall between them, the state building the wall is on average four times as wealthy per capita as the state being walled out. When using this lens, it becomes quite clear why the Mexico-U.S. border is slowly becoming a militarized zone while the Canada-U.S. border is more or less a nature preserve.
Many of these poorer migrants, such as Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorans and Syrians, never had any plan or desire to leave their home but were driven out by violence. To be clear, walls, fences and other barriers do not stop these people; all they do is force desperate people to take more dangerous routes. Which is scary since, according to Reece Jones, author of Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move, 40,000 people perished trying to cross international borders between 2005 and 2014, and a further 10,000 have died since 2015. All that border walls guarantee is that these numbers, and the profits of human traffickers, will be higher.
Finally, walls, while ineffective as security and immigration deterrents, are extremely effective as political messages. As globalization has intermingled national economies, politics and cultural identities to the point where it is hard to determine whether Chevrolet products are American-made or exactly what type of cuisine Momofuku serves, walls are symbolic efforts meant to reify state authority. Building a national identity out of increasingly heterogeneous populations may be difficult for states, but flattening these differences out into an “us vs. them” mentality is still a tried and true approach. While national borders are used to create order by clarifying the geographical limits of each state’s sovereignty, border walls have always been used to create an “other.” Think of Hadrian’s Wall where they officially designated northern England as the limit of civilization and Scotland as the land of barbarians, or the Berlin Wall dividing free and Communist Europe. Once these perceptions calcify, it’s hard to go back. By creating an “other” the state encourages further exclusionary thinking.
This suspicion of the outside world does not bode well for the global effort of tackling the large, multinational problems facing humanity today. Global warming, worker equity in the face of automation, the Anthropocene all require consistent, coordinated action on a global scale. Retreating into our fortresses and pursuing our own narrow interests exclusively creates competition and chaos. That is the entire reason we created the international system after World War II.
The one exception to the call to build ramparts is Belfast. During the Troubles, the city built “Peace Walls” to divide its populace into dozens of Protestant and Catholic hamlets, but now city is planning on tearing them all down by 2020. These walls, originally built to keep warring factions safely separated, have over time become demarcations of poverty, creating overcrowded and underutilized neighborhoods and stifling the city’s overall development. The one objection is that many Protestant neighborhoods fear losing their distinctive character as Catholics leave their enclaves. But Belfast has learned the lesson that walls do not solve inequality or insecurity. Instead they are monuments to the failure to deal with them.