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Conor Friedersdorf Headshot

In Favor of a Physical Wall

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The GOP divide on immigration is most inexplicable on the question of whether a wall along the southern border should be partly "virtual," as favored by President Bush, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, or a physical "bricks and mortar" wall as favored by Tom Tancredo, Duncan Hunter and most GOP primary voters.

The conventional wisdom is that a physical barrier is less friendly to immigrants and symbolically insulting to Mexico. My own instinct, however, is that unless we establish open borders that allow anyone to cross over at will, a physical wall is much better on humanitarian grounds and no worse on symbolic grounds than a "virtual" wall.

Here are the best arguments for a physical rather than a virtual wall:

1) In the 1990s physical barriers were erected across almost the entire California border and near other metropolitan border towns. As the Washington Post reported in 2006, "Instead of dashing across in urban areas, illegal immigrants turned to paths through the deserts of eastern California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. They began employing 'coyotes,' smugglers who demanded thousands of dollars, to lead them and often traveled under hot sun with little water. More than 2,500 have died attempting such crossings in the past decade."

A wall spanning the whole border would eliminate the incentive to travel across dangerous patches of desert to find a crossing spot without a physical barrier, hopefully reducing deaths to pre-1990s levels. It might also stop all but the most fit would be immigrants from trying to cross illegally, further reducing deaths.

2) It is no disrespect to border patrol agents to observe that a minority will inevitably succumb to corruption while others will make bad decisions about the use of force. That's why given the choice I'd rather a wall thwart illegal entry than a person. A wall cannot be corrupted with bribes by coyotes or drug smugglers, nor can a wall rough up a detainee, mistakenly think that someone is carrying a gun or steal someone's cash.

3) Although I once fretted about the symbolic effect of walling off our nation I ultimately concluded that a physical barrier is no less friendly an obstacle than the sensors, motion detectors and men responding with SUVs and guns that "virtual fence" proponents advocate.

Nor does a full border wall seem any more insulting than the partial wall erected today everyplace where a sizable population of Mexicans exists to see it.

4) If you don't trust the Bush Administration to hire and manage subcontractors - and you shouldn't -- consider that it's much easier to measure progress on a physical fence, and you don't run into problems like "Ground radar and cameras that were to identify illegal border crossers so that armed patrols could be dispatched to capture them have had trouble distinguishing people and vehicles from cows and bushes."

For all these reasons, my admittedly counterintuitive conclusion is that a physical border wall is better for illegal immigrants than a virtual wall, insofar as it is likely to reduce border deaths, border patrol corruption and excessive use of force without wastefully enriching Bush Administration subcontractors.