Last week, the House of Representatives voted to establish a dictatorship in the United States and to prevent hopeless citizens from escaping it. That, at least, is what the casual listener might have concluded from the rhetoric mustered in opposition to the building of a better security fence on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Berlin Wall was the analogy of choice for opponents of the border-fence project, passed as part of an immigration-enforcement bill. Democrats invoked the analogy during the debate, and Mexico's Human Rights Commission denounced the "tendency to criminalize migration with a wall that calls to mind the Berlin Wall." We are a long way from Robert Frost and "good fences make good neighbors." Are the old East German secret police — the Stasi — about to be recommissioned to bring their skills at maintaining border obstacles to the Rio Grande?
Hardly. There is an elementary moral distinction between a wall built to keep people out and one designed to keep people in. If West Berliners had been desperate to scale the wall to escape tyranny and take advantage of East Berlin's labor market and freedoms, there might be something to the Berlin Wall analogy. Of course, it was the opposite.
This and other subtleties got lost. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D., Texas), accused Republicans of offering "the old Berlin Wall, again separating the north from the south." Does she think the wall kept South Berliners from escaping into North Berlin? She went on to rewrite the history of the wall in a manner only the Politburo could appreciate, "It kept people out, and it kept people in." As if there was ever any danger of a mass exodus from West to East to take advantage of the workers' paradise.
One columnist warned, recalling President Reagan's famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate, "The very possibility of a Mexican president someday standing at the Laredo Gate calling out 'Mr. President, tear down this wall,' should concern anyone with historical perspective." Reagan issued his challenge because he knew West Germany represented a better, more just form of government, one that people would vote in favor with their feet. A Mexican president would call for the elimination of a border fence knowing that his government is corrupt and incompetent, depending on the social and economic safety valve of migration to the north.
The fence, with two layers separated by road for border-control vehicles, would run for about 700 miles, at an estimated cost of $1.5 to $2 million-a-mile, in five strategic areas where crossings are particularly frequent. A fence has worked in the San Diego area where illegal-alien arrests have declined sharply since 1996, when construction began. Illegal crossings picked up elsewhere, which critics of the extended fence argue will happen again: A fence will only shift migration patterns.
It is true that a fence can't be the only tool of enforcement, and previous attempts to depict it as the easy answer to immigration lawlessness tended to be cynical. Last week, in contrast, the House passed provisions to make employers verify that their workers are legal, and to increase cooperation between federal, state and local governments. The same people who attack the fence as ineffectual also oppose these necessary measures to integrate it with better enforcement in the interior.
Whatever the fence's ultimate effectiveness, comparisons to the Berlin Wall are offensive. But a certain cast of mind fetishizes objects as such. During the Cold War, Soviet missiles and American missiles were considered equally immoral by arms-control advocates, no matter the differing nature and aims of the governments wielding them. A missile was a missile. Similarly, opponents of a border fence apparently consider any wall objectionable as a wall, whether it is an instrument of repression or a way for a nation of laws to see that those laws are obeyed.
Americans can reinforce and extend their border fence with a clean conscience.