When I was a boy, my parents moved our large family from a town to a farm. We went from a small house with a small yard to a house on eleven acres of fields and woods, with a small pond and a creek running through it. For my three brothers, my sister and me, the move was magical. Our first summer there was one of adventure and exploration. We spent our days clearing trails through the woods and building small wooden bridges over the creek. We also became acquainted with our neighbors, of which we had one.
Our new home shared a lane with one other house, inhabited by a young married couple with no children and a swimming pool. My siblings and I quickly decided to become fast friends with Roger and Eilene and their pool, visiting them several times each day. We were certain they would like us and utterly devastated when – a few weeks after we arrived – Roger built a tall privacy fence between their house and ours.
When we asked my father why Roger and Eilene had built the fence, he avoided the obvious answer that young married couples don’t usually fantasize about sharing their lives and their pool with five very noisy and nosey children. Instead, he said, “There are two kinds of people in this world – people who build walls and people who build bridges. Roger and Eilene are the wall building kind and we’re the bridge building kind.”
I’ve remembered my father’s words often throughout my life. Time and again, I’ve encountered people and situations where the dividing line has often been between wall building and bridge building. I’ve seen this in issues of politics, race, economics, gender, religion and sexuality. I’ve also realized that most of us are taught to be one or the other. Neither I nor any of my siblings have ever built a fence between our yards and those of our neighbors. We understood that what you build is a reflection of a deeper attitude toward life.
Ironically, in my formative adult years, I watched another conservative Republican president – Ronald Reagan – spend a lot of time talking about walls. Only his mantra was “Tear down that wall.” I vividly remember when the world celebrated the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and all that it represented. Conservatives and progressives alike recognized that any wall that keeps poor and oppressed people from freedom and opportunity is to be hated and opposed. Back then, it was the Communists who were chanting “Build that wall.”
I suppose that’s why I worry so much about our President’s desire to build a wall on our southern border. I fear our country is changing and not for the better, that what we want to build is a reflection of a deeper malaise, of a not so subtle shift from being a nation of bridge builders to being a nation of wall builders. Does this desire to build a wall represent a deeper inclination to build walls between people of different politics, race, economics, gender, religion and sexuality? This seems a fairly easy case to make.
Early estimates for the cost of building the border wall run anywhere from $15 to $25 billion dollars, with past performance by government construction projects suggesting we error on the higher number. Other projections suggest manning, monitoring and maintaining the wall could require an additional billion dollars each year. This would make the wall a $35 billion dollar investment for ten years of “protection” from poor and oppressed men, women and children seeking freedom and opportunity. More damning, this priority on wall building will mean the paltry $320 million dollars of foreign aid we have previously provided to Mexico will end. In the first quarter of the Trump presidency, we gave less than $1 million dollars in assistance to battling poverty in Mexico.
As a director of a community development organization – CoCoDA – which does work in Central America, I have to wonder what would happen if – instead of a wall – we invested $35 billion dollars in schools, clinics, roads and housing in Mexico and Central America. After all, another way to eliminate illegal immigration is to eliminate its necessity. I’d feel so much better about the use of my tax dollars if I knew they were going to building something that will enhance human lives. But then again, I’m bridge builder.
However, in the end, it is not the financial cost of the wall that most concerns me. We are a rich nation and can afford to build a wall. What I fear is the cost to our national psyche. What are we teaching our children about the world and our place in it? Will the walls we create to “protect” ourselves eventually become our prisons, keeping us from seeing, understanding and relating to the rest of the world?
When I was a boy, Roger and Eilene built a wall between their home and ours. It made it much harder for my siblings and me to visit them when they were swimming in their pool, but we persisted. A couple of years later, they sold their home and moved. While I don’t know how much we contributed to that decision, I suspect their wall didn’t accomplish what they hoped. That is my experience with walls. They seldom provide what we desire.