Naco, Ariz. — The steel-paneled border fence — rising 20 feet above ground, buried 6 feet below — that winds across the Arizona desert past this tiny border town triggers a disheartening sense of déjà vu.
The sight of it took me back to West Berlin on a June day in 1963. President John F. Kennedy made his historic “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech near the infamous Berlin Wall that day. I watched, on black-and-white television, from a restaurant on the outskirts of the city.
The wall, said Kennedy, was “an offense against humanity.” Having to fence in citizens to keep them from fleeing was proof of the failure of Communism, he added.
The next day our party crossed the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie. Festooned with barbed wire, bristling with weaponry and guard towers, the wall was suffused with the menace that haunts places where people die trying to escape to a better life. The Berlin Wall was the starkest of advertisements of political failure.
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” President Ronald Reagan pleaded on a visit to West Berlin in 1987. Two years later it was suddenly opened, then torn apart by joyful Germans.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, /That wants it down,” the poet Robert Frost wrote in his 1914 poem, “Mending Wall.” One hundred years on, his words still resonate.
What would Frost think if he could see what we have built along nearly 700 miles of our 2,000-mile border with Mexico? Not, of course, to keep people in but to keep them out.
And is this a distinction with enough difference to make the border fence palatable? Every nation has the right to secure its borders. But doing it by erecting a wall is not only an admission of political bankruptcy. Walling off this country strikes me as profoundly un-American. Perhaps it’s the repugnant symbolism of the thing — fear and failure forged into steel to loom darkly across the landscape.
Admittedly, my view is colored by the indelible memory of sailing as an immigrant into New York Harbor past that lady with her torch raised in welcome of the “wretched refuse” of broken societies. Can the Statue of Liberty and the border fence really belong in the same country? Hello?
I don’t mean to let Mexico off the hook here. Failure by no means lies on our side only. Mexico is blessed with all manner of resources, including an industrious and capable citizenry. But it persists in systemic squandering of its potential to become a first-class nation — like, say, our northern neighbor — by tolerating social injustice, rampant corruption and drug violence.
In response, Congress passed the 2006 Secure Fence Act. We have spent $2.4 billion to build 670 miles of fence, according to the bi-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO). The Border Patrol has not yet demonstrated that the fence is effective, adds the GAO, so we still await evidence of its efficacy in stemming drug smuggling.
While the number of illegal migrants dropped markedly when our economy soured, those still coming are dying in the deserts at a higher rate — four every five days, according to the advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America; the confirmable death toll since the 1990s is roughly 3,000.
In his poem, Frost is describing the annual spring ritual during which he and his neighbor rebuild the stone wall separating their properties; it falls down over the winter.
“There where it is we do not need the wall: He is all pine and I am apple orchard,” Frost says. “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/ What I was walling in or walling out, /And to whom I was like to give offense.” But his neighbor clings to the mantra: “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Is ours a “good neighbor” fence? Family lives and economies in border communities have been negatively affected, and the fence interferes with wildlife migrations, according to critics. But that’s hardly the worst of it.
This month we had a tiny glimpse of the worst of it. A 12-year-old girl from Ecuador, Noemi Alvarez Quillay, was sent for by her parents, illegal immigrants who live in New York. After a five-week, 4,000-mile journey, she and the “coyote” paid to deliver her were apprehended by Mexican authorities. Reportedly terrified and crying inconsolably after interrogation by a prosecutor, the child hung herself in the detention center’s shower.
The following week, 370 children, half of them unattended by parents but illegally heading to the United States, were apprehended in Mexico, the New York Times reported. For the year that will end Sept. 30, 2014, some 60,000 unaccompanied children are expected to have been apprehended by U.S. authorities on our side of the border while illegally crossing to join their families. That’s nine times more than three years ago, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Settlement.
The border fence is blind to the power of human misery. It ignores the reality that people can be so desperate for a decent life that they’ll risk death for themselves and their children to get it.
“I see him there/ Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top/ In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed,” Frost wrote of his wall-loving neighbor. “He moves in darkness, as it seems to me.”
And to me.
Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.