Security comes from strong communities, not border walls

Thursday, March 2, 2017
Charlie Thompson

“Do you lock your house at night?” That was how Luke, a 19-year-old community college student I’d hired to work with me on a home improvement project, responded when he heard that I wrote a book about the U.S.-Mexico border. His point was that a border without a wall is akin to an unlocked home.

Luke, a white Christian from a rural area and likely the most polite young man I’ve ever met, had me pegged me as a liberal weak on security. I know the argument well. Luke’s question may just have summed up the entire debate. Instead of taking the bait, I tried instead to explain my book, “Border Odyssey,” in simple and direct terms.

In 2010 I traveled the entire border, I said, not just to talk with those like me. I met migrants on both sides, and I talked with border patrol agents. I talked with mayors, ranchers and newspaper reporters. I conversed with whites and African Americans as well as Latinos. I visited the Tohono O’odham reservation. I attended detention hearings. I visited a former Japanese internment camp. I talked with a judge and a Mexican consul. I crossed at every official crossing and a few undesignated ones.

I concluded that walls don’t work. The 700 miles of border wall we already have is nothing like a locked door because it fails to stop drugs and violence. I wrote the book in honor of the thousands of migrants who died at the border. I said all this to Luke, then we turned back to measuring, sawing, and nailing with the promise to talk more later.

I now realize that Luke’s challenge was a gift. It has caused me to think anew about how my thoughts about the border might play to people who applaud Donald Trump’s wall. It goes like this:

I realize that our door locks — which I do use — are merely brass mechanisms that keep out the nonprofessionals. But we’ve all seen on TV that it takes a few seconds to break down a door or window.

What helps me sleep are my good neighbors — Latinos, African Americans and whites — who help create a neighborhood built on positives. That starts by having a good school where families are involved and children learn to live with and respect one another. It starts with jobs and civil society organizations fighting for voting rights and mental health. It starts with infrastructure that works. Our neighborhood is held together not by walls but by invisible commitments and streets that connect us.

We could try to build a wall around us to keep out riffraff, but I’m sure we’d trap in as much as we keep out. We would cut off dialogue, exchange and possibility with those different from us. A wall advertises we are laying up treasures for ourselves that we don’t want others to have, encouraging thieves to break in and steal.

As with bomb shelters, concrete walls give false assurances. We know that peace is our only real security. And where does peace begin? With justice, equality, liberty and collaboration.

Walling off a country might seem an easy solution, but finding common ground is more real, more lasting. Building alliances is difficult, but we’ve seen where talk of walls has gotten us with our Mexican neighbors — not just the governing leaders, but the people we see demonstrating in their streets.

We should be helping Mexican people build their democracy. A democratic Mexico would make us more secure than any wall. I’ll continue to lock our doors every night, but real security is built on an ideal to which a group commits. To build such a secure place requires our neighbors; all of them, not just those we choose.

Charles Thompson teaches cultural anthropology and documentary studies at Duke University. He is the author of “Border Odyssey: Travels Along the US/Mexico Divide,” for which he explored all 1,969 miles of the southern U.S. border.