Modern states have to keep out non-citizens. They cannot do otherwise. A wall , a physical boundary, only makes that more visible, writes Eric Hendriks. Be honest about that.
Are you a fence or a wall person? If you consider that a strange question and think that a high fence and a wall serve pretty much the same purpose, then you should see the profound significance American politics is currently placing on this distinction. The conflict between fence and wall proponents has even led to a shutdown of all government agencies, with the exception of a few essential services, such as the police. The U.S. government can only reopen once a new budget has been approved, but this process is hung up due to Donald Trump’s wall. President Trump will not sign any budget that does not include funding for his wall along the Mexican border, while Senate Democrats want to defeat the project at any cost by refusing to provide funding for it. At most, the Democrats want to invest more money in improving the existing system, in which some parts of the heavily guarded U.S.-Mexico border are blocked off with high fences and other parts are guarded by technological means and patrols.
The government shutdown will hopefully come to an end soon, but the debate over the wall itself will persist. This is due to an ongoing philosophical struggle between “nationalism” and “cosmopolitanism.” Trump acts as though he is saving the country from southern hordes, while the Democrats, at least in their rhetoric, exalt a borderless world. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton stated that real Americans “build bridges, not walls.” In a speech he delivered in Berlin in 2017, Barack Obama argued that “we can’t hide behind a wall.”
That rhetoric is all well and good, but Obama deported 2.7 million foreign nationals during his two terms – more than any other American president. Counterintuitive fact: there are actually fewer people deported each year under Trump than there were under Obama.
And just ask your leftist American acquaintances. They say that they are strongly “for immigration” and “for open borders,” but if you press a little harder, they reluctantly admit that they are still against illegal immigration. Aha! So they are against a wall but in favor of a fence. They prefer not to say that out loud. Often they will then begin to talk about how they are in favor of a “smarter” approach. Not for physical barriers along the border but for a better screening process at airports and consulates. But this does not make for kinder and gentler borders. And how are inside and outside delineated at airports and consulates? Indeed, with fences and walls. “Yes,” they will mumble, “but Trump’s wall will convey a different message.” Well, I don’t think it really matters for an an immigrant from Mexico without documentation whether she runs into a wall, a fence or a border patrol agent. She is still not allowed to enter the country. And if she does manage to slip through, then she will be in the country illegally.
The wall versus fence debate is really about nothing. Just before Christmas, Trump tweeted a wall design that he strongly endorsed: towering steel slats with sharp points at the top. “Totally effective while at the same time beautiful,” Trump said. But still very fence-like for a “wall.” You could even say it is just a high fence.
Modern States Need Borders
No matter how you look at it, our modern world is one of borders. Territorial delineation is important for modern states because a modern state strives to treat all residents within its borders equally. It affords citizens equal rights and equal access to education and social welfare benefits. If a state provides a variety of expensive services, then it cannot afford to open its borders to anybody that wants to come. And if too many people slip into the country illegally, then that runs counter to the ideal of equality. After all, this creates a dichotomy between residents with and without civil rights and social protections.
Therefore, a modern state safeguards its physical territorial boundaries as well as the boundaries between citizens and foreigners. The irony is that the pursuit of equality among citizens within a country’s borders often also contributes to increasing the “external” inequalities among the inhabitants of various other countries. The economies and social welfare systems of various states are all at very different stages of development. Thus, their citizens are attached to a passport of a specific value. As a result, you have greater possibilities in your life if you’re born an American than if you’re born Mexican, for example.
Five hundred years ago, the difference in the average standard of living between countries was significantly smaller, and borders were less defined. Thus, you could just walk into the Habsburg Empire. Pre-modern kingdoms did not issue passports, and their territories could quickly change shape. In general, it was not terribly important to register or screen immigrants because the state would do very little for them anyway. Thus, immigrants could indeed enter, but they would not receive any social welfare benefits, education for their children or voting rights.
For liberal democracy, equal rights of citizens and the welfare state, however, you need strict borders. No alternative solution has yet been discovered. The creation of the European Union has also not fundamentally changed this. Inside the borders: equal rights for citizens. To the outside world: Fort Europe. It is true that the old borders between European countries have disappeared, but this was only possible because new borders along Europe’s outer perimeter were erected. And the EU’s outer borders are more impenetrably barricaded than the former borders within Europe; see, for example, the Spanish semi-enclave Melilla in North Africa, where Africans try to climb over high fences in order to enter the EU every day.
Honest about the Dark Side
Ultimately, there is indeed a fundamental difference between wall and fence supporters, but not because it makes much difference whether you build a wall or a tall fence on your border. No, the difference lies in their honesty. Wall proponents frankly acknowledge the dark side of the means by which modern states achieve equality among their citizens.
In contrast, hypocritical fence proponents offer no alternative, but rather try to conceal the exclusion of foreigners. They build their fences quietly while simultaneously espousing hypocritical rhetoric. They are allegedly for open borders. Yeah, those fences were just suddenly there on their own. And if someone manages to slip through a hole in it somewhere, then they will suddenly reveal their “humane” side. “How wonderful that you’re here!” they might say. “Hey, is that a scratch from the barbed wire I see? Let’s kiss it and make it better. ‘We can do it.’”* This selective compassion at the end of a series of obstacles gives others false hope. As a result, entire families are tempted to risk their lives illegally crossing the Mediterranean Sea or the Chihuahuan Desert.
Let’s just be wall supporters and be honest about how modern societies function. Now, I am no fan of Trump. He is a demagogue. But I am in favor of the construction of his “wall” if only because this sort of continuous, physical boundary across nearly 2,000 miles of empty desert reveals the true foundation of the modern world.
Eric C. Hendriks is a political sociologist at the University of Bonn.
*Editor’s note: “We can do it” is an apparent reference to what became a controversial phrase used by Angela Merkel in response to the migration crisis in Europe.
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