Good Neighbors Can Make Good Fences

But when it comes to Mexico, the United States isn't being very neighborly.


Good fences make good neighbors, or so Robert Frost reminds us in his annoyingly overused and frequently misquoted high school literature class staple. The poem that made the adage famous actually offers a more ambiguous take on the utility of border barriers than its signature line would suggest, with the speaker musing: "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offence."

The question of what exactly is being walled in or walled out by Donald Trump's barrier—he issued commands for the "immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border" in a January 25 executive order—is trickier to answer than it initially appears. The short answer, illegal immigrants, is an unsatisfactory one, in part because so many other goals tend to get lumped in once the policy rationalization process gets rolling, including drug interdiction, terrorism prevention, and tariff enforcement.

The question of who will be offended is easier. From Trump's unflattering remarks about Mexican immigrants while announcing his candidacy in June 2015 to his ongoing insistence that Mexico will pay for the wall, much offense has been given, and much taken.

During the campaign, Trump flew to visit Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. Upon returning home, the candidate claimed that they had discussed the wall but not who would pay for it—an assertion his counterpart denied. Shortly after his inauguration, tensions built around a planned visit by the Mexican president to the north. "If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall," Trump tweeted, "then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting." When Peña Nieto did just that, Trump made it clear that he would consider garnishing some of the $26 billion in annual remittances from the U.S. to Mexico.

The Associated Press also reported the following astonishing threat by Trump, gleaned from (disputed) transcripts of a phone conversation between the two men: "You have a bunch of bad hombres down there. You aren't doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn't, so I just might send them down to take care of it." Simultaneously on the table during that period: A 20 percent tax on goods at the Mexican border, though that idea was withdrawn almost as quickly as it was proposed.

When Trump addressed a joint session of Congress on February 28, he reiterated his intention: "We will soon begin the construction of a great, great wall along our southern border," he told the assembled lawmakers. This time, notably, he didn't say that Mexico would pay for it, reportedly as part of a deal he struck with Peña Nieto. The following day, however, his vice president reiterated that this was still the plan. "He didn't say Mexico is going to pay for it," said George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America. "Well, they are," Mike Pence quickly replied.

In Mexico City in late February, when I visited for a conference sponsored by Arizona State University, the chattering classes were waiting with bated breath to hear whether Trump's capricious treatment of their leader would be returned. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were cooling their heels before a planned meeting with the Mexican president. Would they be turned away? In the end, the three men spoke briefly before the American officials returned to U.S. soil.

While the intrigue was titillating, the general sense was that conversations with Cabinet members didn't much matter, because Donald Trump could and would do whatever he liked.

"The only thing that is certain is uncertainty," said El Universal columnist and journalism professor Ricardo Raphael. "Trump talks about renegotiating [the North American Free Trade Agreement] and figuring out Mexico's 'debt' for the wall later, but we have no way of knowing how he will extract what he imposed. Some ways will be worse than others."

That sort of uncertainty is a tax on human activity. It makes every decision more costly. It's expensive for the businessman who is trying to decide whether to move a factory to Mexico but isn't sure whether his goods will be taxed at 20 percent more than anticipated. It's expensive for the migrant worker, who must commit to work for another year without knowing whether she'll be able to remit her paycheck to her family or whether the money will be snagged at the border. It's expensive for drug traffickers, even, who must build ever more elaborate ways across the barrier, not knowing if or when they will be necessary. (For some, this last might be a selling point for Trump's adamant but nonspecific wall policy. It just looks like more deadweight loss in otherwise voluntary commercial transactions to me.)

Part of the uncertainty is how effective a wall will be in the first place. Gaps where "even two can pass abreast" appear in Frost's wall between forest and orchard, though "no one has seen them made or heard them made." They are caused by "the frozen-ground-swell under it," or "the work of hunters" who create places "where they have left not one stone on stone, / But they would have the rabbit out of hiding, / To please the yelping dogs."

Natural forces and people occupied with the business of living their lives will be no more daunted by a border wall than Frost's genteel poachers and apple thieves. As David Bier (page 20) and Theresa Cardinal Brown (page 32) chronicle in our cover stories, the wall will likely function far better as a symbol than as an actual deterrent.

Let's say, hypothetically, that Donald Trump actually manages to get his promised mileage built—opaque, concrete, and 35 feet tall—before the end of his presidency. (Spoiler alert: He almost certainly won't.) Even so, those walls will not be maintained in the gentle collegial spirit of Frost's neighborly builders, who meet each spring to restack stone in semi-mute camaraderie. Border controls executed as erratic, unilateral policy can never be more than expensive failures in the long run—but how long that run will be remains to be seen.

Ronald Reagan's weird postmodern biographer, Edmund Morris, lamented in his book Dutch that the 40th president didn't quote Frost when he visited Brandenburg Gate in 1987; he called the speech Reagan gave instead a "missed opportunity" to deploy the loopily poetic line, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall, / That wants it down!"

But Reagan's unadorned "Tear down this wall," spoken in defiance to a foreign leader anxious to restrain the free movement of people, was Reagan's most lasting legacy, his finest rhetorical hour. I heard an echo of that moment last year, not from a U.S. chief executive, alas, but in former Mexican President Vincente Fox's remarks about shared border infrastructure at the Cato Institute annual dinner: "We should build bridges, not walls. Bridges," he said, "we'll pay for."

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  1. Oh, isn’t this just precious: Elizabeth Nolan Brown and some of her friends in the Pink Pussies were protesting the Syria strike in the front of the White House yesterday! They all get to pretend that they’re really “anti-war” again now that another republican president has caved into the New World Order neoliberals and gotten his warboner on.

    You know they’re a bunch of disgusting fakers because none of them, especially our resident professional fake libertarian, ever once appeared in front of the White House with signs during the eight years that their heroes Block Yomomma, Hildog, Valerie Jarrett, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, etc. etc. etc. were droning and cruise missile striking all over the Middle East.

    1. Yep, I don’t recall even once in eight years that this site ever admonished Obama for unconstitutional actions.

      1. Mike M. didn’t make one reference to reason.com, creech.

    2. Why would someone deliberately embarrass himself by writing “Block Yomomma”?

      1. Now that is a separate issue. When Mike M. makes a good point here or there, he immediately takes a crowbar to the knee of his own credibility.

        Mike, DD, whatever you identify as: stop with the Block Yomamma already.

        No one ever thinks it’s funny, or clever, or catchy. You look like a left-wing plant every time you use it.

    3. The only consolation I have for the coming vicious Imperial America is that these imbeciles are going to look awfully goddamned good in Prison Orange.

  2. Te old grey comments just ain’t what they used to be


  3. I’m wondering: when Trump’s talk about a “great wall” is translated into Chinese, do they use the same words that are used for their own Great Wall?

  4. The problem is that Mexico is an awful neighbor. Mexico has been an awful neighbor for as long as I’ve been alive.

  5. Look, private property and national borders are just so…mean. Everyone, including failed-state welfare mooches from down south, should be allowed in, because reeeeeeeeeeasons.

    1. Private property and national borders are, like, opposites, man.

  6. It’s kind of ironic in the 10th paragraph you’re arguing things as bad that are actually good. Wed rather have new factories here not in Mexico, people that work in this country should pay taxes in this country, and making things more expensive and tedious for drug trafficers is a bonus too.

    Mexico deserves to be embarrassed, the illigeal immigrant problem exists not just because America provides great economic opportunity, but because Mexican government blows, is corrupt, and won’t fix its countries real issues. If anything the el chapo multiple escape saga just proved their incompetance on a world stage.

    And then you see the rural areas fighting their own wars against the cartels who are now extorting lime and avocado farmers since they’re losing money on weed now. With no help from the federales and certainly no help from their corrupted and bribed local leaders.

    It’s infuriating to even think about how spineless their government officials are. I’d love to see someones marines obliterate these cartel fucks, whether its mexicos or our own. Trump is certainly right that the Mexicans jumping our border have more balls than their leaders. Unless nieto mans up, I’d treat him as the joke he is too.

    1. Mexico deserves to be embarrassed, the illigeal immigrant problem exists not just because America provides great economic opportunity, but because Mexican government blows, is corrupt, and won’t fix its countries real issues.

      I agree with you here. I have always thought that the real problem at the border between developed and developing countries, is the other direction which no one pays attention to. People obsess over the migration of poor people to rich countries but that’s just a sideshow. The real problem is the poor countries’ restriction of their market from firms from the rich countries coming in. We have extremely well-specialized and efficient systems for exploiting resources a(including labor) and filling needs, but they insist on having home-grown monopolies and corrupt basket cases doing so instead. It’s pretty absurd how people get hysterical about Trump’s little part in enhancing misery of a tiny subset of their victims, while ignoring all that self-destruction.

    2. *We’d* rather no such thing.

      *We’d* like our products produced inexpensively, thank you very much. We like to keep our money in our pocket.

      Mexico’s government blows because the US has been doing its utmost to prop up the cartels and undercut the Mexican government. Get rid of the drug war, get rid of foreign payments for drug war support, you get rid of the cartels and then the governments of South America can pick up the pieces.

    3. I’m nominally pro-re-legalization when it comes to the War on Some Drugs but I agree that the cartels are bad hombres and there is a part of me that wishes we were going all Clear and Present Danger by targeting their villas with cruise missiles and smart bombs.

  7. Let’s say, hypothetically, that Donald Trump actually manages to get his promised mileage built […] before the end of his presidency. (Spoiler alert: He almost certainly won’t.)

    “But he has to! He promised all of us that he would! Those million upon millions of Mexican rapists are not going to be deterred by the mere talk of a wall!”


  8. This is exactly the same as the Berlin Wall.

    Oh wait. No it isn’t.

  9. Who gives a damn if we are being “neighborly” or not to Mexico? Protecting the borders from unlawful entrants is one of the core functions of a central government. You are not a sovereign country if you can’t do this. We really should just adopt the immigration rules and punishments for violating them that Mexico has.

  10. SInce when is it neighborly for Mexico to toss its trash over the border, violate US sovereignty, show disdain for our laws, and utter contempt and disrespect for American citizens?both born and immigrants who came here legally?

    Mexico is not our friendly neighbor on the southern border. With its corrupt government, violent drug cartels, and government encouraged migrant invasion, it should be viewed as an increasingly hostile nation?and treated accordingly.

  11. from the article: “The short answer, illegal immigrants, is an unsatisfactory one, in part because so many other goals tend to get lumped in once the policy rationalization process gets rolling, including drug interdiction, terrorism prevention, and tariff enforcement.”

    So, the problem is that there are too many good reasons for a wall instead of just one?

    That is an unusual criterion to declare something unsatisfactory.

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