To Wall or Not to Wall

Mikhail Baryshnikov said that “forty two years ago I left a country that built walls to come to a place without them.” Echoing this theme, President Obama, in his farewell address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, warned that “a nation ringed by walls would only imprison itself.”

When you’re in prison, you are indeed surrounded by walls. Oddly enough, though, when you’re at home in your living room, you are also surrounded by walls. And if you’re like most people, the walls of your house or your apartment feel very different from prison walls—but how come? If walls are walls, as the ballerino and the president appear to imply, then why don’t all walls imprison?

Obviously, different walls serve different functions. Prison walls prevent you from getting out. The walls in your home, by contrast, in conjunction with one or more doors for which you hold the keys, not only permit you to enter and exit at your discretion but also protect you from unbidden visitors by affording you control over who gets in and who doesn’t.

Setting aside the question of whether your desire to be in the position to regulate the influx of others into your home is wholesome and commonsensical or whether it betokens xenophobic proclivities on your part, the point is, lofty “bridges not walls” rhetoric notwithstanding, you’ll be hard put to find a person that doesn’t fancy him- or herself a sturdy set of walls to retreat behind on a regular basis for a variety of reasons, prime among them privacy and personal security.

If “a nation ringed by walls would only imprison itself,” then the same characterization must also apply to anyone that builds himself a house (which it would indeed if the inexperienced builder accidentally immured himself by forgetting to install doors), yet no one ever likens homes ringed by walls to prisons, and no one wants to be ringed by four bridges into their bedroom at night.

Although most people (including, presumably, Messrs Obama and Baryshnikov) favor homes with walls over homes without, when it comes to nations, many do recoil at the notion of erecting barriers (“walls”) designed to funnel all visitors toward designated points of entry (“doors” or “bridges”).

Designated points of entry without barriers in between, however, make about as much sense as do heavily guarded doors in a building without walls. And what is an international airport, for instance, but a heavily guarded door?

Anyone attempting to enter the U.S.—or any other country or union, for that matter—by air is subjected to rigorous screening. In spite of those august verses engraved inside the Statue of Liberty, a mere yearning to breathe free won’t do the huddled masses any good if they show up at JFK without valid travel documents, or if they lack any of the other criteria for admission into the country.

That being so, doesn’t the principle of equal protection under the law demand that everyone attempting to enter the U.S. be subjected to the same level of scrutiny?

It seems grossly unfair to screen and vet the bejesus out of anyone that comes in orderly through an international airport, or through any other designated point of entry, yet at the same time oppose the erection of barriers in between these points of entry on grounds that the U.S. has always been a “nation of immigrants.”

If being a nation of immigrants means that people ought to be able to enter the country without being forced through an airport-style admission rigmarole, then let’s do away with said rigmarole at airports, too. Screening-wise, either walking across the border into the U.S. should be like entering through an airport, or entering through an airport should be like walking across the border in the middle of nowhere. Either way, different modes of entry shouldn’t carry with it vastly disparate levels of screening.

Otherwise, in an age that frowns upon discrimination of any kind, how to justify the ongoing discrimination against immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Europe, by making it infinitely more difficult for them to enter the country on the sly than for immigrants from adjacent parts of America, who have—and, according to many, it seems, ought to have—the option of either coming in through an official door and undergoing all the screening that comes with it, or of sidestepping all screening by entering between doors? Are immigrants from overseas of a different kind that warrants greater scrutiny?

Why should it be so much easier for an immigrant from Mexico to get deported and return multiple times than it is for an immigrant from Indonesia, the latter having little choice but to try and sneak back in through a heavily guarded door, i.e., an airport? (Good luck with that!)

If, as President Obama has stated in reference to candidate Trump’s proposed border wall, “we don’t have to wall ourselves off from those who may not look like us right now or pray like we do or have a different last name, because being an American is something more than that,” then why doesn’t the president object to walling ourselves off—which he apparently defines as depriving foreigners of the option to steal into the country undetected—from those who may not look like us that fly in from overseas and hence won’t get in without showing valid passports, visas, and whatnot? Has he ever proposed, with like conviction, to abolition of passport checks at airports so as to level the playing field? (I don’t think he has.)

That said, the prospect of a brick-and-mortar monstrosity going up from Brownsville to San Diego raises a number of immigration-unrelated concerns, prime among them aesthetic (unless it were to rival the Great Wall of China in architectural splendor, which it probably wouldn’t) and environmental (e.g., disrupting extant ecosystems by preventing wildlife from crossing back and forth between countries) in nature.

On principle, however, as regards immigration, opposing impenetrable barriers (be they brick & mortar, electronic, military, or otherwise) in between designated points of entry squares poorly with countenancing the stringent admission procedures in place at those points of entry.

Unless you oppose both (in which case you would prefer unfettered and indiscriminate access for all comers) or neither (in which case you want all comers to be individually screened and cleared for entry), your stance on immigration seems a bit wobbly.

  • Cheri

    Have you ever considered going to law school? By the time I finished this piece, I was dizzy but in a court of law, that may be a good thing. How do you feel about border controls into Austria?

    • Cyberquill

      Only a dizzy reader is a good reader — isn’t that what it says in The Elements of Style? Or maybe I misunderstood something.

      How I feel about border controls into Austria is how I feel about border controls everywhere:

      If a country decides to have a border other than a symbolic line on a map, that country must take steps to control and secure that border along its entire length, not merely at the official points of entry.

      Alternatively, if a country decides to have open borders, fine, then it should simply scrap all vetting and let everybody in, no question asked and no documents required, as is the case when traveling back and forth between U.S. states.

      The free flow of people within E.U. borders, of course, is one of the pillars of the E.U. concept. But as long as the E.U. outer borders are poorly secured, countries increasingly take it upon themselves to secure their own. Can’t really blame them, Austria included.

      Because if no borders are secured (neither outer E.U. borders nor individual borders within the E.U.) except at the doors, it’s gonna be chaos all around what with God knows how many tens of millions of desperate people from hopelessly overcrowded, war-torn, and drought-ridden parts of Africa and the Middle East pushing into Europe over the coming years and decades.

      • Cheri

        I agree. Those people who have not traveled in Europe and have no real concept of how small the countries are, cannot fully appreciate the specter of extreme over-crowding.

        I’m not sure Europe can control the push from war-torn and ravaged countries. Unfortunately (IMHO), the refugees are Muslim and not apt to really assimilate…there is where the problem lies. Am I being simplistic? I know you will set me straight.

        Even here, where there are many wide-open spaces (granted, most without water sources), we have too many people. In three short years, most roads in California are now severely crowded.

        • Cyberquill

          Very true. What those who keep pounding the “nation of immigrants” narrative don’t seem to understand is that the U.S. population currently stands at an unprecedented 320 million and counting, much of the nation’s infrastructure is crumbling before everyone’s eyes, and some of the major aquifers are running dangerously low. Warming climate, less water, and more people doesn’t exactly sound like a winning combination.

          As to assimilation, us Westerners are probably just as (in)capable of assimilating into Muslim cultures as Muslims are of assimilating into ours, very generally speaking.

          Just yesterday, the very liberal and pro-refugee Austrian public broadcast news ran a report on how pro-jihadism (let alone pro-sharia) a disturbingly large percentage of young Muslim immigrants actually are. So the magnitude of this Trojan horse is slowly beginning to dawn even on the heretofore most welcoming of spirits. Hence more funding for integration classes. We shall see about their efficacy.