In July of 1964, I visited East Berlin and learned something about walls. They are ineffective to keep desperate people penned in, or kept out, without the certain use of lethal force against them. Despite strict border security in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, hundreds of thousands of East Germans fled to freedom in West Berlin. The Berlin Wall was built to stop the outward flow of refugees.
A U.S. Army corporal at Checkpoint Charlie told me the Berlin Wall would not have been effective without shoot-to-kill orders. The thuggish East German guards had such orders, along with numerous guard towers, vicious dogs, barbed wire, snares, machine guns, and a death strip that provided clear fields of fire. Even facing the risk of death, around 5,000 escapees made it over or under the wall in 28 years, although about 240 were killed in the process. But, the threat of death stopped the great outward migration.
After the invention of ladders and tunnels, walls became relatively ineffective to keep people out, especially those trying to escape violence, starvation and oppressive governments. We currently have people fleeing those scourges from Central American countries, although not nearly as many as in some previous years. I suspect that many of us, facing the same dangers, would opt to flee with our families to a place known for freedom and security.
I suppose one way to discourage those desperate people from seeking safe harbor in the U.S. would be to take a page from the East Germans and use lethal force. I hope nobody in our great country would propose to do anything like that. However, anything short of treating these desperate folks worse than the dangers they are fleeing from probably won’t work.
And, a wall just targets a symptom of the dangers these people face at home. Why not get to the root of the problem and work to eliminate the dangers in their home countries that are causing the migrations? The cost would be substantially less than building an ineffective wall across our southern border and it would be an effective solution.
On May 4 of last year, John Kelly, who was then the Homeland Security Secretary, correctly observed that economic development of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador was “the solution to a lot of things that plague them, that then cause them to leave their country, move north.” That observation was recently echoed by the administration’s border chief, Kevin McAleenan. On Dec. 30 he said we need to “invest in Central America.” McAleenan praised a State Department Dec. 18 announcement of a substantial increase in economic aid to Central America as “a tremendous step forward” that would “help improve the opportunities to stay home.”
Unfortunately, the administration has not been consistent in pursuing a fix to the problem that would actually work. Several days after Kelly’s May 2017 comments, the administration proposed a 42 percent cut in economic assistance to the Central American countries. On Oct. 24 of this year and again on Dec. 28, the president threatened to cut off all aid to the three countries. That would only drive more desperate people to our border.
We should double our efforts to support these countries in developing their economies, to help them establish food security through improved agricultural practices, and to encourage judicial reform, job creation and violence protection programs. It can work. Mexico has greatly improved its economy in recent years, which has actually resulted in more Mexican nationals returning to their country than coming to the U.S. Let’s forget the wall and do something that will actually fix the problem.