Something there is that doesn’t Love a Wall- Part 2

Berlin Wall, 2004

Walking along this wall, I am a ghost among ruins. It lacks a roof on the other side, to shelter a family or a friend. It is only one long wall, which doesn’t serve to protect those enclosed inside. Though it only continues a couple hundred yards, it is easy to imagine it going on forever, past light posts and stop signs, past bakeries and magic shops, past bookstores and groceries, past schools and prisons. How strange it is to come across a wall which does not contribute to a home.

Between East and West Berlin, the Wall ran 26 miles with 302 watchtowers and 20 bunkers. It was almost 12 feet high and made primarily of concrete. It was constructed by the Russian forces occupying Berlin after the end of World War II. More than 2.6 million people had fled Communist East Berlin in the 12 years leading up to 1961, a number which represented close to 15% of the total German population. Its purpose, then, was unlike almost any other walls. Its sole purpose was to keep its citizens locked in, rather than outsiders without. It was the walls of a prison more than a buffer of defense.

The 700-mile, 18-foot border wall currently mandated by the Secure Fence Act of 2006 would lock some 12 million extralegal residents inside our nation’s borders. Citizens like Selena, who came here at 15 as a house-maid but has also managed to graduate high-school, are trapped in the United States, without a legal means of advancement but also scared enough not to return to Guadalajara for her grandma’s funeral.

Typically viewed as a solution to our nation’s immigration issues, the wall has some damaging side-effects. Compounded on the environmental devastation and economic backlash of such a wall, the immigrants here in the U.S., both legal and illegal, will be adversely affected by such a wall. For legal residents, who successfully won what can be a ten-year lottery system or who fast-tracked in on a highly-skilled workers’ visa, the border wall is an affront to their homeland and a clear nativistic symbol. For extralegal residents, the border wall means that they are stuck here in a nation which does not afford them basic human rights and protections. As Douglas Massey wrote in the New York Times on April 4 this year,

America’s tougher line roughly tripled the average cost of getting across the border illegally; thus Mexicans who had run the gantlet at the border were more likely to hunker down and stay in the United States. My study has shown that in the early 1980’s, about half of all undocumented Mexicans returned home within 12 months of entry, but by 2000 the rate of return migration stood at just 25 percent.

Despite the fact that from 1980 to 2000 the chances of getting caught decreased from 33% to 10% because border-crossings were funneled through barren, under-patrolled areas, the wall is still touted as a way to cut down on the number of illegal entries while doing absolutely nothing positive for the assimilation of these immigrants or compassionate return of extralegal residents to their native countries.

192 people died, and over 200 were injured through this militarization of the border between these two Berlins. The wall separated families from families, neighbors from neighbors, fathers from children and wives from husbands. First erected overnight on August 13, 1961, some West Germans went out for a loaf of bread and didn’t return home for 30 years. Children sleeping over at a friend’s house were separated from their mothers for 3 decades, coming back to them with Rip Van Winkle beards and bass voices changed through the passing of life. The saddest thing about the Berlin Wall is that it obviously did not separate one people “group” from another. The inescapable network of mutuality, that interconnectedness of people that Dr. King referred to as the Beloved Community, was clearly there in the living, breathing city of Berlin.

To this day, countless Valley residents will say that the border crossed them. When Rio Grande replaced the Nueces River as the newest border between the Texas and Mexico, hundreds of families instantly became unwanted American citizens. Being land-rich but money-poor, many of them lost land to big ranchers, Texas Rangers, or mob persecution. The remaining Mexican-Americans were treated as subhuman for many years, with the first Mexican-American government official being sworn in almost 100 years after this change in nationality.

Watching boys and girls swim in the muddy Rio Grande, it is impossible to tell from which side of the river they leaped. Pesos and dollars are accepted on both sides. Spanish, English, and Spanglish are used interchangeably in stores, churches, city hall meetings, and television shows. Many of my students commute from Matamoros, Mexico, everyday, further blurring the lines between either side of la frontera. A wall would not only be a militarization of a border; it would be the rigid enforcement of a line that exists only on paper, not in hearts, culture, language, or souls. In his New York Times Op-Ed piece, Douglas Massey writes,

The number of Border Patrol officers increased from around 2,500 in the early 1980’s to around 12,000 today, and the agency’s annual budget rose to $1.6 billion from $200 million. The boundary between Mexico and the United States has become perhaps the most militarized frontier between two nations at peace anywhere in the world.

The “peace” introduced by a border wall would be a negative peace, an absence of tension in a few scattered square miles, whereas the Secure Fence would be replacing a positive peace where two cultures have been able to coexist and mutually benefit each other.

Digging in the summer grass, I look for a shard of evil. In the zealot’s fervor and the tourists’ hurry, I hope to find a forgotten piece of this long wall of shame. Berlin’s new motto – “Never Again” – is both a call to memory and a cry for forgiveness. When I finally clutch a broken piece of wall, no bigger than the palm of my hand, I hold it tight. It is cold. It is harmless. I can almost imagine it belongs to a home’s foundation rather than an internationally despised symbol of division. I fly it back across innumerable national borders, vowing “Never Again.”

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