I’m not the first, nor will I be the last to point out how Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,” critiques current conversations about building a wall on our southern border.
In the poem, Frost and his neighbor are doing their annual ritual of mending the wall that runs between their properties. All the while, however, Frost wonders aloud why they even have a wall.
It isn’t like one has livestock that will eat the other’s garden. All they have are trees, and they aren’t going anywhere.
In spite of all his musings, however, his neighbor simply repeats the now famous phrase, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
In light of our current national conversation, I think it’s helpful to focus in on one particular phrase from Frost’s poem: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out.”
I think that is a helpful question as we evaluate current debates and rhetoric around a wall on our southwestern border. What exactly are we trying to keep out?
Generally, three answers are given to that question: 1) Terrorists or other dangerous criminals, 2) “illegal” immigrants or 3) drugs.
So, let’s look at these three categories. Will a wall keep them out?
- Terrorists or dangerous criminals
Some have floated numbers claiming that thousands of dangerous individuals have been captured at the border, but it’s simply not true.
The numbers often cited have to deal with people who were refused entry into the United States at any point of entry. That means at airports, seaports and legal border crossings.
When you break that number down to their actual areas, the vast majority are stopped at airports. Only a very few were stopped at the southwestern border.
The fact is, most of those who are detained at the southern border and are said to have criminal records only have been charged with unlawful entry into the United States.
First offense of this is a misdemeanor. Most who are trying to cross the border are not dangerous individuals.
- “Illegal” immigrants
The next claim is that it isn’t just criminals coming across that is the problem, but all immigrants who come without documentation, what some pejoratively call “illegal.” Again, the facts do not support a wall.
The truth is that most undocumented immigrants do not cross the southwestern border in the middle of the Sonora Desert. They fly in on an airplane, have their visa stamped as they walk through the checkpoint and then fail to leave. They are what is called a “visa overstay.”
A wall will do absolutely nothing to slow the flow of this kind of undocumented migration.
Lastly, people claim that we are trying to keep out drugs. It is true we have a massive drug problem in this country.
In the last week, it has been reported that Americans are now more likely to die of an opioid overdose than on the road.
So, yes, we do have a problem and anything that will slow this crisis is worth looking into, but would a wall stop the flow of drugs? In short, no.
In the Drug Enforcement Agency’s 2015 report, it said, “Mexican TCOs [transnational criminal organizations] transport the bulk of their drugs over the Southwest Border through ports of entry using passenger vehicles or tractor trailers.”
Later it says, “Mexican TCOs also smuggle drugs across the Southwest Border using other methods. Marijuana is occasionally trafficked through subterranean tunnels … commercial cargo trains and on small boats. … Finally, Mexican TCOs have also transported drugs across the Southwest Border using ultralight aircraft.”
So, according to the DEA’s own analysis, the bulk of drugs comes through legal points of entry. The rest comes through tunnels, trains, boats and planes. None of these things will be stopped by a wall.
What are we really trying to keep out? The question still remains. If we’re going to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, what are we trying to keep out?
If it were really about the fear of a porous border, we should be walling off Canada, where large swaths of the border are simply marked with a line in the trees.
By contrast, the U.S. border with Mexico is one of the most sophisticated borders in the world, patrolled by record numbers of agents, drones, airships, video-surveillance and in places, walls.
All this leads me to fear that, even if in all honesty we think we’re keeping out danger and drugs, what we are really going to keep out are families fleeing violence and persecution, looking for safety and a place where they can live their lives in peace.
Those are the kinds of people who trek thousands of miles on foot, through dangerous terrain, through areas controlled by vicious and merciless gangs and cartels, seeking a new life in the United States.
Someone doesn’t start that journey lightly. They do so because it is their last hope, the only way they can see for their children to live lives free from oppression, free from violence.
My prayer is that the United States, instead of meeting them with taller and taller walls, will open its arms and show them loving hospitality.
Blake Hart is executive director of the Carolina Immigrant Alliance.