By Michael Bryan
I recently read an interview with author Luis Alberto Urrea in the Tucson Weekly’s coverage of the upcoming Tucson Festival of Books and was struck by what Mr. Urrea said about the border wall in Nogales. It is applicable to the entire project of building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico:
“Q: With Scott Warren facing 20 years for conspiracy related to his border activism, do you have any comments on the current situation?”
“A: It’s just so idiotic, toxic and racist. The new wall of razor wire at Nogales, for example. I’ve been doing some stuff with a wonderful classical musician in San Diego. One of the things he did, which I wish I’d seen, was he set up a concerto on the border fence. He said: “You know what was really weird. I was on the U.S. side, and it was all barren. Watch towers, helicopters, trucks, dogs, men with guns. We went around to the Tijuana side, so I could talk to the musicians over there.” And he said it was painted. There were murals. There were art installations. There was partying. There were couples strolling along. There were paleteros selling ice cream. There were even musicians that weren’t in the orchestra and he said: “It hit me then. I was in Berlin during the Soviet era.” And he said, “You know, the side of a wall that is austere and covered in barbed wire with weapons is the side with the people in prison and the side that has murals and ice cream and lovers and David Bowie is the liberated side.” And he said, “I suddenly realized that the wall, the border fence is a prison for us.” And I knew as soon as he said it, it was true. It’s to keep us trapped.”
Leave it to a great author to point out an essential truth about the wall. The wall is pitched by its political architects as a means to keep more brown people from joining our polity, but the result is merely to imprison ourselves in fear of our own nation’s evolving demographics. The only purpose it really serves is to shackle the minds of the credible and racist to a vast symbol of scapegoat politics in which we can fantasize that our problems as a nation are caused merely by demographic change brought about by immigration from the south and not a vastly more complex set of causes.
This racist, xenophobic, self-imprisoning effect of the wall is one of best reasons to oppose any further wall-building, to tear down those areas of wall we already have, and to oppose any further security enhancements at the border.
Democratic politicians have for far too long triangulated against border security by conceding that more security is desirable and achievable at the border, but arguing that we can buy that security more cheaply and intelligently by embracing technology and adding more personnel to the Border Patrol and ICE. That thinking has built the walls we already have, and has increased expenditures on border operations and personnel many times over in the past 30 years. Now, the Border Patrol is by far the largest federal law enforcement agency, and still it is deemed insufficient by the minority who wish a wall.
We need to demand more of our Democratic leaders on this topic. No longer will triangulation, or cowardly capitulation of the argument suffice. Our Democratic leaders need to counter the argument that our southern border is a dangerous liability that must be contained and controlled, with premise-challenging arguments that our southern border is a source of strength, economic prosperity, diversity, and opportunity.
Increasing security measures on the border has always failed in the past to actually satisfy those who are afraid of the border, and always will. Brute security measures can never be perfect at an interface between people as vast and dynamic as our southern border. To buy in to their framing of the issue will ensure that liberal values will always lose the argument.
We must reject the model of security via guns, walls, and checkpoints, and embrace a model of security based on mutual respect, cooperative problem solving, and humanitarian metrics. What if we judged border security on how many people were saved from dying in the desert? By how many legitimate refugees from violence we have protected? By how strongly the border is contributing to national economic growth? By how often we celebrate our connections with our southern neighbors?
The majority of Americans would welcome such a political alternative to the self-imposed imprisonment of America behind a paranoid, racist, and deeply stupid wall across our Mexican border. Support for the wall is still a minority position, but that support is growing as Democrats continue to fail to put forward a positive and progressive vision of how to manage our southern border. More Americans believe that Trump’s wall is a poor use of resources, doesn’t make America safer, and isn’t a good way to manage the border, and is against American values. So why are Dems so afraid of making the case that the GOP’s border priorities are completely misguided? Why don’t we offer policies to make the American side of the border just as vibrant, humane, and life-affirming as what Urrea’s friend saw on the Mexican side of the border?
Democrats need to step up and argue for their values: openness, diversity, opportunity, simple human decency. Democrats need to oppose ANY increases in security on the Mexican border, as well as ANY administrative moves to further penalize those seeking asylum at our southern border. Democrats need to join the majority of Americans in rejecting the premises of the racists and jingoists who believe that everyone who approaches our border from the south should be treated as a suspect. One place to start is with a comprehensive immigration reform bill for all Democrats to run on in 2020. Only by doing so can we establish our own voice and priorities on this vital subject so that voters can decide which vision of America they support: a celebration of life on our border, or a sterile Berlin Wall with which we imprison only ourselves.