Max Steinbaum: Will the border wall run through Berlin?

Thursday, February 7, 2019 - 5:09pm

On the morning of Aug. 13, 1961, the residents of Berlin awoke to discover that the Communist government of East Germany had ordered the construction of a wall to divide the eastern and western halves of the city. Designed to prevent civilian defections from Soviet Bloc East Germany to democratic West Germany, the wall stood for nearly three decades until the fall of communism in Europe in 1989. To the capitalist democracies of the West, the Berlin Wall was a concrete symbol of the existential struggle between Western freedom and Soviet tyranny. While the exact number is difficult to determine, one BBC study claims 262 East German civilians died at the wall while attempting to defect to West Germany. It’s no wonder the wall’s November 1989 dismantling was met with triumphant celebration by East and West Germans alike. Two million East Berliners poured into West Berlin during the weekend-long celebration that followed reunification. One British journalist described the festivities as  “the greatest street party in the history of the world.” A wave of optimism washed over Germany’s capital; Europe, they knew, was about to experience a new birth of freedom.

The section of the wall that divided East and West Berlin, a notorious symbol of communist oppression that it was, spanned only 27 miles. The U.S.-Mexico border is nearly 2,000 miles. With the border greater than the distance between Ann Arbor and Seattle, much of it rolls through the empty sands of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts. Near El Paso, Texas, that long line meets the lazy Rio Grande, a meandering river that forms the rest of the border until it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Since 1998, 7,216 migrants have died trying to cross this border — more than 27 times the number of people killed between the two Berlins.  

America’s southern border, of course, is no Berlin Wall. The Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart, as the East German government called it, was designed to prevent East Germans from escaping their totalitarian prison. Tragedies at the Rio Grande or in the Sonoran Desert, however upsetting, are the result of America protecting the integrity of its borders, which any country has the right to do. But a consideration of migrant push factors renders the geopolitics not entirely different. While some East Germans fled westward due to political considerations, many fled in pursuit of economic opportunity and better living conditions. Undocumented immigrants from Central America, of course, seek entry into the U.S. for the same reasons. Let me be clear: Laredo 2019 is no Berlin 1979. But they clearly bear some political similarities — and in terms of a humanitarian crisis, the human cost of America’s chronic border headache far surpasses Berlin’s.

While it has always been a staple of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, the border wall fiasco returned to the fore of national politics when the now resolved government shutdown began on Dec. 22. Demanding that Congress allocate $5.7 billion for the construction of a border wall, Trump refused to sign a budget plan without that critical provision. House Democrats, who control the lower chamber of Congress as of Jan. 3, wouldn’t budge. Without an agreed-upon federal budget, the war over the wall ballooned into a month-long government shutdown, costing the American economy $11 billion and forcing 800,000 federal employees to work for a month without pay.  

The government shutdown was an unforced error by the president. Trump, for whom border bombast has served as a perennial go-to, has been promising a border wall since he launched his campaign in 2015. Little progress has been made on that front, and Trump lunged at the opportunity to show some concrete commitment — even if it required a government shutdown. After a month, the shutdown ended with a temporary three-week reopening of the government, with the hope being that Congress could reach a long-term budget resolution in that time. No such deal has been struck yet, meaning another government shutdown looms on the horizon. But it doesn’t need to happen. If the president were as shrewd a political navigator as he frequently claims, he’d retreat from, rather than reinforce, all the border wall talk. Not only is it a bad solution for border security, it’s a losing fight that will only continue to reflect poorly on Trump.

First and foremost, a wall on America’s southern border won’t end illegal immigration. Most undocumented immigrants, in fact, enter the U.S. legally and then overstay their work visas. It also won’t stop illegal drugs from “pouring into our country,” as Trump has repeatedly claimed. The majority of cartel narcotics from Mexico are brought to the U.S. through legal ports of entry.

Plain and simple, a border wall is not the anti-migrant, anti-drug panacea Trump claims it would be. But that fact, along with the reality that Democrats will never entertain its funding, seems to be lost on our commander-in-chief. For a man who cares so deeply about his popularity, it would seem that if pragmatic politics isn’t a primary concern, perhaps it is poll numbers that are informing his behavior. But an explanation can’t be found there, either. Less than a third of Americans would support a second government shutdown to acquire border wall funding, and a majority would blame Trump if another shutdown occurs. What’s more, nearly 70 percent of Americans believe the wall shouldn’t be an immediate priority, and half say it shouldn’t be a priority at all.

Any way you look at it, a border wall is practically unreasonable, politically unattainable and publicly unpopular. But even so, Trump’s relentless push for building a “big, beautiful” border wall has always been more symbolic than practical — and its consequences would be symbolic as well. As The Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby writes, Trump’s long-sought barrier “would be ‘great’ only in its brutal ugliness and hideous symbolism. It would be an American version of the monstrous Berlin Wall.”

American pressure helped topple the Berlin Wall in the fall of 1989. When Ronald Reagan traveled to West Berlin in the summer of 1987, he delivered a speech in which he challenged the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy the infamous barrier dividing Berlin. “Mr. Gorbachev,” he pronounced, “Tear down this wall!” Two years later, the Berlin Wall was reduced to rubble. Now, three decades on, America must ask itself a question: Do we really want to pick up the wall’s pieces and rebuild it here?

Max Steinbaum can be reached at maxst@umich.edu.