The Border Fence: A Big-Government Program Conservatives Happen to Love
“Just build the danged fence,” Tim Kowal urges, echoing Hugh Hewitt. I fear he’s fallen for a bit of political theater.
The foes of immigration love to imagine a fence. But the fence of the imagination will always be more appealing than any fence ever built on the ground, and the leaders of the fence movement must know this to be the case. Their followers, perhaps, do not.
A fence in theory is a thing of beauty: Long, straight, pristine, impermeable, bisecting the United States from Mexico with Euclidean precision. Keeping the other out, except when we want him in. Subjecting the whole messy process to comprehensive, rational — governmental — control.
A fence in practice will do none of these things. We can say for certain that it will however be an eyesore. Crooked in places, graffiti-covered, trash-catching, subject to property disputes, pockmarked with holes. A resting place for countless ladders. It will be 1,954 miles long, most of it through unpopulated areas. This means it must either be guarded round the clock — not cheap — or fall to rack and ruin.
No one in the leadership of the fence party can afford to let such images appear on TV. For them, the fence is best asked for and never received. Asking makes them look decisive. Asking — fiercely, defiantly — makes it look like they have a plan. Receiving would make them look feckless, because the brown people all around us wouldn’t go away, and because the fence would just be one more ugly, expensive, impractical slab of statist architecture — beloved of absolutely no one, a housing project where no one lives.
That’s why I’m all but certain that the leaders of the fence party pray quietly that the fence will never be completed. Their dupes pray loudly that it will. To which the leaders say: Whatever, as long as they vote.
Worse, the fence will hardly deliver a single thing of value. Not only will the fence be scant obstacle to clandestine off-road border-hoppers, but nearly half the people who are here illegally are not clandestine off-road border-hoppers. On the contrary, they have always come here in ways that a fence can’t stop.
Visas still exist, and overstaying them will always be easy. Ending visas would work untold destruction to the economies of both Mexico and the United States. This is a hole that a border fence can never stop.
Also, there are still, you know, roads. In the salad days of the drug war, when folks were young and innocent enough to think we could just make all that nasty marijuana somehow go away, Richard Nixon ordered that every car crossing the border from Mexico should be subject to a quick, three-minute search for contraband. Seems reasonable enough — it’s only three minutes, right?
“For all practical purposes,” writes Radley Balko in his new book, “the operation shut down the border. The resulting lines slowed trade to a crawl. It was an extreme, hostile policy, the sort normally implemented by countries in times of war. It proved so unpopular on both sides of the border that Nixon rolled it back two weeks after it began.”
And yet without such extreme follow-up measures, you might as well hang curtains as build a fence. “Security first, then regularization,” as Kowal urges, is a mirage.
Our borders aren’t valves to be opened or closed. The fiction that they are is of a piece with the fiction that the state can efficiently plan the economy, or that if we just want it badly enough, we can reform the governments of the Middle East from the comfort of our think-tank boardrooms. All are colossal acts of hubris, whose execution levies enormous human costs for little or no benefit at all.