“Do you lock your house at night?” That was how Luke, a 19-year-old community college student I’d hired to work with me on a home improvement project, responded when he heard that I had written a book about the U.S.-Mexico border. His point was that a border without a wall is akin to an unlocked home.
Luke, a white Christian male from a rural area and likely the most polite young man I’ve ever met, had me pegged me as a liberal weak on security. I know the argument quite well. Luke’s question may just have summed up the entire debate.
But instead of taking the bait, I tried instead to explain my book, Border Odyssey, in simple and direct terms.
In 2010 I traveled the entire border, I said, not just to talk with those like me. I met migrants on both sides, and I talked with border patrol agents. I talked with mayors, ranchers and newspaper reporters. I conversed with whites and African Americans as well as Latinos. I visited the Tohono O’odham reservation. I attended detention hearings. I visited a former Japanese internment camp. I talked with a judge and a Mexican consul. I crossed at every official crossing and a few undesignated ones.
I concluded that walls don’t work. The 700 miles of border walls we already have are nothing like a locked door because the walls fail to stop drugs and violence. The walls are more a weapon that kills poor people and wild animals. I wrote the book in honor of the thousands of migrants who had died at the border. I said all this to Luke, and then we turned back to measuring, sawing, and nailing with the promise to talk more later.
I now realize that Luke’s challenge was a gift. It has caused me to think anew about how my thoughts about the border might play to people who applaud Donald Trump’s wall. It goes like this:
I realize that our door locks – which I do use – are merely brass mechanisms that keep out the nonprofessionals. But we’ve all seen on TV that it takes a few seconds to break down a door or window. Perhaps some crime has been stopped by guns stored in bedside tables, but more often guns are involved in children’s accidents and domestic violence.
What really helps me sleep are my good neighbors – Latinos, African Americans and whites – who help create a neighborhood built on positives. That starts by having a good school where families are involved and children learn to live with and respect one another. It starts with jobs. It starts with civil society organizations fighting for voting rights and mental health. It starts with an infrastructure that works. In the end our neighborhood is held together not by walls but by invisible commitments and streets that connect us.
We could try to build a wall around us to keep out riffraff, but I’m sure we’d trap in as much as we keep out. We would cut off dialogue, exchange and possibility with those different from us. A wall advertises that we are laying up treasures for ourselves that we don’t want others to have, encouraging thieves to break in and steal. As with bomb shelters in the 1950s, concrete walls give false assurances. We know that peace is our only real security. And where does peace begin? With justice, equality, liberty and collaboration.
Walling off a neighboring country might seem to be an easy solution, but finding common ground is more real, more lasting. Building alliances with a big country like Mexico is difficult, but we’ve seen where talk of walls has gotten us with our Mexican neighbors -- not just the governing leaders, but the people we see demonstrating in their streets.
As with my neighborhood, we should be helping Mexican people – more like us than different – build their democracy and participate in their own governance. A democratic Mexico would make us more secure than building any wall, just like my neighbors around me help me live more safely. I’ll continue to lock our doors every night, but our real security is built on an ideal to which a group of us commits. To build such a secure place requires our neighbors; all of them, not just those we choose.
Charles Thompson teaches cultural anthropology at Duke University. He is the author of Border Odyssey: Travels Along the US/Mexico Divide, for which he explored all 1,969 miles of the southern U.S. border.