The U.S. border with Mexico has been controversial for a long time. As the territory that is now Texas began to fill with pioneer settlers, they sought admission to the United States. Texas was admitted to the Union as a state in 1845. The government of Mexico believed that the area belonged to Mexico. That difference of opinion produced the Mexican-American War that ended in 1848 with Mexico ceding 500,000 square miles of land to the U.S. The acquisition included California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Arizona and New Mexico, and the U.S. retained Texas. There are 1,954 miles of border between Mexico and the U.S., and the border is legally crossed more than 350 million times each year.
Physical barriers have had mixed success. One of the oldest is the Great Wall of China, actually several walls built in segments beginning more than two thousand years ago. It was intended to keep northern raiders out of the settled agricultural areas of China. Sometimes it did. Ultimately, it failed. Parts of the wall still exist, but the purpose has reversed. It is now a major tourist attraction bringing people into China rather than keeping people out of China.
The ancient city of Constantinople, named for the Roman Emperor Constantine, and known today as Istanbul, Turkey, was once a center of trade, and it enjoyed a strategic location. The city was subjected to frequent attacks. A wall was constructed to protect the city, and it was a successful defense for several centuries. The Black Plague eventually depleted the population of Constantinople weakening its defensive capability. New technology in the form of a very large cannon was used in the final assault on the city. The cannon didn’t do much physical damage, but it did induce fear. The weakened defenders panicked when their leader was mortally wounded, and Constantinople became Istanbul.
The Roman Emperor Hadrian had a wall built in England during the second century AD. England was a Roman frontier territory. The wall was manned by Roman soldiers. Its exact purpose is not entirely clear, but probably, like the Chinese wall, was intended to keep the unruly northern tribes from raiding the rest of England. The wall had numerous crossing points, possibly to allow commerce which could be taxed. The wall was abandoned when the Roman Empire disintegrated in the fifth century AD.
Perhaps the most instructive barrier failure is the French Maginot line. The First World War destroyed a generation of young men in France and England. The French decided to construct an “impenetrable” military barrier on the border between France and Germany to prevent a future German invasion. The Maginot line was an elaborate defensive system that had gun positions protected by concrete bunkers, and the gun positions were backed by underground living quarters, communication lines, and stored supplies. When the Germans did invade in 1940, they did not penetrate the Maginot line; they went around it, taking the French surrender and driving the British into the sea at Dunkirk.
Berlin is another example of the use of barriers. At the close of World War Two, the Russians occupied “east” Germany and Americans and others occupied “west” Germany. The important city of Berlin was in the eastern sector controlled by Russia. A currency dispute caused the Russians to seal access to Berlin or attempt to do so. The United States and other western states resupplied Berlin with a massive airlift that delivered close to 9000 tons of supplies per day. The Russians, recognizing their failure, lifted the blockade.
The Russians were exhausted by the costly war, and their economy was not thriving. People who lived in the eastern section of Berlin began migrating to the western section of Berlin where the economy was rapidly improving. The Russians built the infamous Berlin Wall to stop the “brain drain.” The wall remined a barrier until the Soviet Union (USSR) began to unravel in 1989.
During the George W. Bush administration, the congress passed a law authorizing the U.S. agent charged with constructing a border wall to waive (ignore) any other law when constructing a barrier wall. That law, as written by congress, is not subject to court review. A federal court upheld the non-judicial review provision, and the U.S. Supreme Court indirectly upheld the non-judicial review provision by refusing to hear the case. That kind of thinking could ultimately be more dangerous to the U.S. than a porous border with Mexico.
Probably, the main reason that a complete barrier between Mexico and the U.S. has not been attempted is that U.S. employers needed Hispanic laborers. They have been especially needed for seasonal crop harvests. There are 57 million Hispanics living in the United States. Eighty percent of them have legal citizenship, and 1.2 million are veterans of U.S. military service.
A border barrier utilizing advanced surveillance systems might be effective. The consequences of an effective barrier are unknown.
Jack Stevenson is retired, served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, retired from military service, and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. He also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Currently, he reads history, follows issues important to Americans, and writes commentary for community newspapers.