It is about 2,000 miles from Washington, D.C., to the U.S. border with Mexico, about the same distance as the wall that the Trump administration and some in Congress want to build along that border. However, the divide is much wider between what many of our political leaders in the nation’s capital want and what border communities desire.
This reality was brought home during the recent debate over the fate of undocumented young adults known as Dreamers, in which the White House and Republicans demanded—and to which the Democrats too easily agreed—$25 billion for a border wall. Thankfully, the president and his staff overreached their stance and demanded cuts to legal immigration as well, ruining their chance to get their wall paid for by U.S. taxpayers.
Notwithstanding that using these young people as barter for a wall is cruel, this so-called compromise did not consider the interests, or views, of the more than seven million U.S. citizens who live along the border and would have had to deal with the political deal’s long-term ill effects. What some in Washington fail to understand is that what may seem painless to them has real consequences for residents along the border.
Walls tend to drive desperate migrants, led by smugglers, to more remote and dangerous parts of the border.
Instead of constructing further barriers, border residents have attempted to build bridges and peace among the peoples on both sides. An expanded wall would obstruct that process. This does not even consider the damage a wall would have on the environment and on property rights along the border. And lest we not forget, walls tend to drive desperate migrants, led by smugglers, to more remote and dangerous parts of the border. After the United States began constructing walls in urban areas along the border in the mid 1990s, the number of crossings in desert areas spiked, resulting in the deaths of at least 7,000 and perhaps more than 10,000. Blaming migrants for their own fates is easy for some, but residents along the border do care if their region is a death trap.
Building a wall also ignores the fact that immigrants crossing the border illegally has significantly decreased over the past 10 years. According to a study by the Center for Migration Studies, since 2008 net migration from Mexico is down 11 percent, with 1 million less undocumented Mexicans living in the United States. (In fact, the number of persons overstaying their visas now exceeds the number of border crossers each year, with two-thirds of the documented who have arrived since 2014 having entered the country legally.)
Despite these facts, a border wall seems to be the only aspect of immigration on which some politicians can focus. This is easier than trying to tackle the complexity and multi-layered reality of immigration. The mantra “secure the border” has become an excuse to not address other aspects of our broken immigration system and move reform forward.
As Pope Francis and the U.S. bishops have advocated, the best way to secure the border over the long term is not to militarize it but to address the reason migrants come in the first place: persecution and extreme poverty in their home countries.
If our elected officials in Washington truly want to reform U.S. immigration laws, they will abandon the politics of the wall and not fund it. Instead, they will focus upon real solutions, with the passage of a clean Dream Act a good first step. Senator John McCain’s bill, which gives Dreamers a path to citizenship and asks for a wide-ranging study of our border enforcement needs, is a good compromise.
If, instead, our elected officials keep knocking their heads against “the wall,” they will continue to give themselves, and the nation, a splitting headache.
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