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A public policy blog from AEI
President Donald Trump has announced plans to prioritize pursuing a border wall with Mexico, making good on his campaign rhetoric. Press Secretary Sean Spicer has suggested that the Trump administration will seek to force Mexico to pay for it with a 20 percent tariff on Mexican goods entering the United States. Putting aside the wisdom of that tariff — and the likelihood that Mexico would retaliate with a similar tariff — a basic question Trump’s embrace of the wall raises is whether it would work.
During and before the Obama administration, US policymakers concluded that a US-Mexico border wall would not be feasible. The border is, after all, 1,954 miles long. That is more than the driving distance between Washington, DC, and Denver, Colorado. And, while more than 700 miles of border fence exists (about the driving distance between Washington, DC, and Chicago), the fenced border remains porous with drug cartels and people smugglers constructing tunnels under the border, cutting holes through the fence, or simply climbing over it.
So, is it a foregone conclusion that a US-Mexico border wall would be a multi-billion dollar folly?
The answer to this is no. Walls do have a history of doing their job and, indeed, they are the tried-and-true go-to strategy almost everywhere that security or illegal migration is a concern. A border wall isn’t analogous to the Berlin Wall nor should it be seen in the same light. After all, there’s a huge difference between a system designed to keep people in — a lock on the door — and a system designed to keep people out — the door itself. So, let’s consider the precedent of walls and systems designed to maintain security and keep illegal immigrants and terrorists out while allowing legal immigrants and visitors in:
Consider first buildings like the White House, where a decorative fence predated the wrought iron fence installed by President Ulysses Grant to control New Year’s crowds. President Franklin Roosevelt began restricting access to White House grounds to appointment-holders only during World War II as a further security measure. But the White House is a building and different than a national border, even if the logic remains the same. Is there a precedent with border walls working along much longer distances?
Here, again, the answer is yes. Consider the following:
Jerusalem might have developed that technology for Israel’s own security, but it could just as easily be replicated to detect, interdict, and destroy tunnels under the US border.
Israel-West Bank: The border wall — actually much more a security fence — was constructed in the wake of the 2001-2002 terror campaign in Israel. Almost immediately, the number of successful terror attacks in the Jewish state dropped by 90 percent. Indeed, it is Israel to which the Trump administration and wall proponents might turn to resolve one of the main arguments about duplicating the system along the US-Mexican border. After all, Israel has developed anti-tunnel radar and other technology to stymie Hamas (and Hezbollah) terrorist who might try to tunnel. Jerusalem might have developed that technology for Israel’s own security, but it could just as easily be replicated to detect, interdict, and destroy tunnels under the US border.
Morocco-Algeria: Morocco fought a bloody insurgency and terrorist campaign sponsored by Algeria’s and Cuba’s Cold War proxy, the Polisario Front. The Polisario became ineffective, however, after Morocco built its famous 1,700-mile system of sand berms, fences, mine fields, and ditches.
Cyprus: It was the United Nations which built a wall dividing Cyprus between the northern Turkish portion and the remaining Greek section after Turkey invaded and occupied parts of the island nation in 1974. To cite international law as opposed to walls is, therefore, nonsense since the United Nations created the precedent.
India-Pakistan: India and Pakistan fought wars in 1947, 1965, 1971, and 1999, that collectively killed millions of people. The two sides have had a more than three decade-long standoff on the Siachen glacier and several skirmishes elsewhere along the disputed border. Because Pakistani terror groups regularly try to infiltrate and wreak havoc in India, India constructed a border fence and wall system to keep Pakistanis out. That’s a good thing, because nowhere else in the world could a simple border incident so quickly escalate into nuclear war.
Turkey-Syria: Throughout the 1990s, Turkey faced an escalating challenge from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group leading a Kurdish insurgency against the Turkish Army. Indeed, Syria only seriously cracked down on the PKK when Turkey credibly threatened war. Turkey subsequently reinforced the border with fences, mine fields, and no-man’s land, and it worked. The next 15 years was largely quiet. It was only when Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan removed many of the defenses and turned a blind eye to border security that the terrorism problem in Syria — and its subsequent blowback inside Turkey itself — grew so great.
There are other walls out there, of course: Saudi Arabia has just built a wall along its disputed border with Yemen to keep Yemeni-based terrorists out of the Saudi Kingdom. India has a long-standing border fence with Bangladesh to prevent illegal immigration. Hungary is building a fence to protect its borders. Greece maintains a heavily protected border with Turkey. Spain fortifies its enclaves in Africa.
Simply put, if the goal is to protect national security and curtail illegal immigration, the record is clear: walls work.
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