January 1, 2019

Getting Over the Wall


Men climb the US-Mexico border wall in Playas de Tijuana, northwestern Mexico, November 18, 2018 (Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images)

The current “Wall” debate – the one holding federal workers’ paychecks hostage – is an embarrassment.


By Darren E. Tromblay


The current “Wall” debate – the one holding federal workers’ paychecks hostage – is an embarrassment. Like the “Abolish ICE” movement, the debate has become a standoff between ideological absolutists, on both the Right and the Left, who are not even reaching real questions of policy or implementation. confusing the issues of policy development and policy implementation.

Construction of a Wall and the policy which governs how any Wall would function are two distinct, albeit related, issues. Reframing the debate to discuss what is really at stake – the implementation of policy – will help to unpack whether a Wall is actually a sound investment and hopefully encourage discourse to move beyond the populist pandering by politicians on both sides of the increasingly polarized partisan divide.

In terms of immigration policy, the Wall represents nothing new. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a component of the Department of Homeland Security, currently functions as a virtual Wall. CBP officers facilitate legitimate transportation and interdict illegal activities according to existing US policy. A Wall would do nothing more and – as an inanimate edifice, lacking judgment or empathy – much less than CBP.

The idea that a wall represents an improvement in national security is a canard. When an elected official proclaims with a straight face, “If we don’t have border security, we’ll shut down the government — this country needs border security,” they invite serious doubt about their judgment.

No Wall, regardless of how “beautiful,” warrants imperiling the livelihood of federal workers. Kneecapping the workforce responsible for guarding the border introduces myriad short and long term threats to national security. In the short term, the workforce which remains excepted (on the job without pay) is prone to demoralization and depression, conditions which are not conducive to vigilance. Longer-term impacts are equally troubling. Suggesting that a Wall is worth sacrificing the wellbeing of federal workers does not exactly make service to society an inviting long-term career option.

What’s more, the Wall is not the border security panacea that warrants the zero-sum brinksmanship that holds the federal workforce as a hostage. Threats, ranging from narcotics traffickers to terrorists, have found ways to tunnel under and fly over hardened borders. CBP, which knows whereof its speaks when it comes to border protection, has clearly stated that a continuous wall is not necessary.

Philosophically, the Wall is a troubling concept. It has become a stand-in for immigration policy and it is a dog whistle for both sides of the political spectrum. For some on the Right, support for the Wall is synonymous with an anti-immigrant stance (going beyond combating illegal immigration to xenophobia that demonizes anyone who is the “other,” whether they are in the United States legally or illegally). Similarly, some elements on the Left decry the Wall not because they’ve rolled up their sleeves on hard policy choices, but in order to signal their support for immigrants.

Bullying voices on both sides of the ideological divide miss the reality that the permeability of any Wall is not determined by the material out of which it is constructed but, rather, the policy which governs immigration.

So, the prevailing arguments for the Wall are, at best, misinformed and, from there, descend into willful ignorance and deceitful manipulation of public opinion. If we strip away the immigration and national security rhetoric, what remains for the Left and Right to debate about the “great” Wall?

Implications for civil service reform is one area which warrants discussion. The Wall’s purpose is the same as CBP’s – physically demarcating and regulating passage across an international border. Currently CBP is the United States’ largest federal law enforcement agency, consisting of approximately 60,000 employees,. If the United States does decide to build its Wall, any funding should be contingent upon identifying and reducing the CBP resources that a Wall would render redundant.

Reducing CBP would seem to be a topic on which the Right – which, last time I checked, paid lip-service to smaller government, and the Left – which has been quite critical of law enforcement, especially when it pertains to immigration, might find some common ground.

Another topic that warrants debate is the public works aspect of the Wall’s as a significant infrastructure project.  Don’t look now but the Right, whether it realizes it or not, has endorsed Keynsesian economics. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his New Deal, pursued a policy of pump priming through federal works projects. These included massive infrastructure developments such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Hoover Dam.

If there is a case to be made for the Wall, it’s not one of immigration policy but putting Americans to work on building it. The question is whether the cost (anywhere from $4 billion to $25 billion according to the Wall’s proponents and closer to $70 billion according to another report) would produce an economic stimulus sufficient to justify the investment.

Whether these proposals are too innovative or not, the basic point is that these are the sorts of discussions in the policy arena worth contemplating. We should be having an educated debate about policy implementation in the ways responsible political representatives are supposed to do. Absent the time pressures. Absent the brinkmanship and showmanship. And absent the hostage taking.

The merits of a modern-day Maginot Line on the Southwest Border are dubious at best. Unfortunately, the debate has stalemated prior to addressing the practical reasons why such a structure might, in reality, amount to nothing more than a vanity project. Instead, the Left and the Right are using the prospect of this physical edifice as a stand-in for the immigration debate. Developing a viable immigration policy is certainly necessary but using the Wall debate as a proxy for this discussion accomplishes nothing. A Wall, just like CBP, functions as an implement of policy. It’s time to get over the Wall – by parsing its costs and benefits through informed debate – and get the government back to work.


Originally published by the Just Security, 12.24.2018, New York University School of Law, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivs-NonCommercial license.

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