President Trump’s promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border was a defining and divisive talking point throughout the 2016 campaign, rallying his conservative base enough to help win him the election. In trying to fulfill one of his most popular campaign promises, President Trump has halted the U.S. government in the longest federal shutdown in the country’s history, demanding more than $5 billion in funding for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.
But experts point out to Rolling Stone that border walls have failed time and again throughout history — whether it’s the fall of the Berlin Wall or the penetration of France’s Maginot Line in World War II — and they’ve even failed at the United States’ southern border, where the Clinton administration began constructing barrier fences in the early 1990s.
So, why have governments continued to fall back on the idea of erecting such physical barriers? Some of the world’s leading border experts say the reasons range from a rise in nationalism in response to globalization, a dramatic increase in population, racism, and the looming threat of terrorism in a post-9/11 world. The common thread being fear.
Since the turn of the century, more walls have been put up around the globe than at any other time in modern history. “It’s clear most of the fortified border barriers built since the end of World War II have actually been built in just the past few decades,” says Peter Andreas, a border wall expert at Brown University. Rolling Stone spoke with Andreas and other border historians – including University of Quebec professor Elisabeth Vallet, Vassar College professor Joseph Nevins, University of Oklahoma history professor Janet Ward, University of Hawaii professor Reece Jones, and Eastern Connecticut State professor David Frye – through individual interviews about the growing number of border walls, how the purpose of these barriers have changed over time, and what we should know about the history of walls and how they fail.
The first border walls were used to thwart invasions. Are we still able to compare border walls of the past, like the Great Wall of China or even the Berlin Wall, to the wall being proposed at the U.S.-Mexico border?
Elisabeth Vallet: The comparison is interesting in one regard in that the Great Wall of China never served the purpose for which it was built. Neither did the Maginot Line, for instance. So, those walls obviously didn’t work because they didn’t prevent what they were supposed to prevent. If you look at more recent walls, actually, none of them have worked in the way that they were meant to, mainly if we speak about “anti” — anti-immigration, anti-smuggling, anti-terrorism walls. People go around or under, or [the wall] will be overwhelmed in one way or another, like the Maginot Line.
Can we look to recent history and how tensions on the Israel-Palestine border have escalated to predict reactions to Trump’s wall, if it’s built?
Joseph Nevins: With the Israel-Palestine border, there are differences and there are also real similarities. The underlying issues in Israel and Palestine are as palpable as ever. What the wall does, it allows people in Israel, especially, not to have to think about them. At the same time, it builds up pressure on the other side, that when it explodes, it explodes with unprecedented strength. In the case of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, a similar type of dynamic is unfolding. This is why we see the caravans and things of these sorts. The problems on the other side of the border, whether they’re in Honduras, Guatemala or Mexico are treated as if they belong there, as if they were created there, and as if they have nothing to do with us. These people are fleeing issues the U.S. has helped produce, and fleeing to the place that helped produce them. The wall helps us and prevents us from seeing that. At the same time, at least temporarily, the goal is to prevent the chickens coming home to roost.
Have border walls historically been a way for governments to ignore foreign policy issues?
Elisabeth Vallet: I think the government that began building the India-Bangladesh border said something like, “You know, a border fence is the best way of doing nothing while showing that you are doing something.” The wall is really addressing internal politics. It’s symbolic, political, electoral and populous, but it’s not what it says it is.
Have walls become more of a show of strength, then?
Reece Jones: We’re in a really different era of walls today. The purpose has changed dramatically from those past eras. The purpose of an old medieval wall was to protect from an attack on a city, but today walls are obsolete militarily. Missiles fly right over them, airplanes go right over a wall, a tank can smash through even the most firm wall in a short period of time. Walls don’t serve a military purpose anymore. The walls that we see going up today serve a different purpose. They’re often a symbol. They’re a performance of a set of ideas of who belongs on the inside and the outside of a particular country.
Is there any historical reason to believe Trump’s proposed border wall would be effective in managing migrant flow and stopping illegal trafficking, as he’s said?
Elisabeth Vallet: It’s interesting, in terms of public policy, that we’re using border policy to address an issue that lies, like, 500 kilometers away, south of the border. The real problem in that instance is in Central America. The public policy applied here — border policy — is not the right one. It should be a foreign policy. So the remedy is like if you were giving aspirin to a cancer patient. The patient thinks you’re curing him, but you’re not really curing the root problem.
Peter Andreas: Business has boomed for professional smugglers (since the 1990s). The whole border in a sense has become more militarized and more difficult to cross by any measure. But for smugglers who can avoid law enforcement, it’s been a booming business. Decades ago, if you wanted to cross the border, you would self-smuggle yourself. Hiring a professional smuggler was more optional. But with the tightening of the border over the last couple of decades, it’s become a necessity and prices have also surged.
How much has border security been historically rooted in racism?
Reece Jones: If you look at the history of immigration laws in the United States, it’s a history of racial exclusion. The U.S. didn’t have any national immigration laws at all until 1875 [the Page Act], then the first big immigration law is 1882, which is the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the entire purpose of that act was to prevent non-white people from being able to migrate to the United States. The first comprehensive national rules for immigration is the 1924 National Origins Act, which was justified at the time very much on racial terms about continuing to allow white northern, western Europeans to migrate to the U.S. while it completely bans Asian immigration and dramatically limits southern and eastern European migration. The border patrol was established two days after those National Origins quotas were put in place. The entire idea of patrolling the border and having restrictions on immigration in the United States is founded on racial exclusion.
Most experts believed they’d see a decline in border wall construction after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, not an increase like we’ve seen. What’s led to that?
David Frye: It’s a couple of things. One would be the rise of extremism that leads to terrorism, because an awful lot of these walls were specifically triggered by terrorism and intended to curtail terrorism. Don’t forget that whereas the Clinton fences were dealing with general security and migration and drugs and so forth, the Secure Fence Act of George W. Bush  was much more concerned with terrorism and the aftermath of 9/11. Terrorism has been one of the great triggers. The other has been the enormous rise in population. It’s left a lot of people looking to move to greener pastures. Sometimes it gets triggered by a big event, like the civil war in Syria, which put hundreds of thousands of people on the move. But in other cases, it’s just the general rise in population. It seems like there’s not enough prosperity to go around and people come seeking prosperity where they hope they can find it.
If walls are a product of fear, what have been their lasting effects?
Elisabeth Vallet: The thing is, the more you build walls, the more the other side becomes foreign and you fear it even more. Even if the walls disappear, they will leave stigmas and scars that will stay in the sociological environment over time. If you look at Germany with Eastern and Western Germany, even today, there’s a great differential, sociologically, culturally, politically speaking. It will stay over time. The scar will stay.
As we’ve seen walls fall throughout history, what can we predict about Trump’s plan to build as a solution for the issues at the U.S.-Mexico border?
Joseph Nevins: The wall will not last forever. That’s the one thing that we can be sure of. Walls always fall. When, how, and under what conditions? Those are totally different questions, but social orders built on violence and injustice are inherently unstable. They can last a long time, in terms of a human lifespan, but history is littered with examples of unjust societies that dissolve very quickly. This will too, unless we can rectify it in the meantime. And that’s the challenge that we have.