In 1914, the beloved American poet, Robert Frost, wrote a poem simply called “Mending Wall.” It begins with and repeats the phrase, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” As a country, we are now engaged in a great debate about a wall (or fence or security barrier) that could stretch 2,000 miles across our southern border from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. Debate over this wall has already resulted in the longest government shut down in our national history. Currently, we are experiencing a reprieve and federal workers are fortunately, again being paid. Alternatively, a National Emergency could be declared, and funds could be diverted from elsewhere in the federal budget, a dramatic move that is sure to stimulate more debate, lawsuits and a constitutional crisis about circumventing the legislative branch of government.
All of us are painfully aware of the details and political challenges of the Great Wall Debate raging in the United States. I want to add two insights, either of which are not reported adequately or not mentioned at all in the news. The first is of specific Jewish interest. Much is made in the American Wall debate about the use of security fences in Israel and their effectiveness. No surprise, but this is a complicated business. First, Israel has multiple fence systems not just one border wall. The best known and most controversial is the security barrier on the western border of the West Bank. Actually, it is a complex weave of fences and walls including controversial sections, which run to the east of Jerusalem. My sense is that this is the wall most referred to in the American press and also is the wall most praised for its effectiveness.
The West Bank Wall, however, is not a valid model for the American-Mexican border because of the massive deployment of Israeli security forces to the east of the Wall. A comparable American plan would require a US military presence at least twenty if not 100 miles deep into Mexico complete with road checkpoints. We would also have to consider destroying buildings in Mexico housing leaders of the caravans and others. In terms of security, Israel’s West Bank Wall is effective; it is also a major symbol of the Arab-Palestinian conflict and is mainly meant to control everyday traffic and not immigration.
Israel has a second wall system around Gaza. This is nearly a 360-degree enclosure (land, sea and air) with Egypt responsible for a tiny southern border crossing which is peppered with tunnels. The crossing points into Israel are well fortified. There is also a significant no man’s land to the east of the Gaza border in Israel, the sea is blockaded and the air space over Gaza is a no fly zone. Although there is no border fence with Syria, the area is an active military zone, which relies heavily on electronic surveillance. The same is true with the small Israel-Lebanon border. By contrast, Israel’s border with Jordan, it longest border, is protected by a minimal wire fence and dirt road system. There are only three official border crossings on the Jordanian border.
The border between Israel and Egypt is problematic but may be the most relevant to the American situation. Israel and Egypt have a peace treaty and mutual security interests in the Sinai. Recently, tens of thousands of African workers crossed the border illegally and settled in Israel. A particularly large community can be found today in Tel Aviv. Israel has adopted numerous laws limiting the economic activity of these workers and has sealed the border with Egypt. Offers of repatriation to Africa have largely failed.
Finally, I decided to look at Mexico’s southern border, mostly with Guatemala and Belize. The Guatemalan border, less than 600 miles wide, is the site of most border crossings, legal and illegal, from Central America while the Belize border is not highly active. To me, it is the Mexican-Guatemalan border, which we should be focusing on, perhaps even more than the US-Mexico border. Mexico formerly offered a “friendly visa” program on its southern border, that is, a temporary registration system of migrants including encouraging the immigrants to stay and work in Mexico, principally in agriculture. Those policies, combined with humanitarian aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador should dramatically help the situation on the American border. We also need to be clearer in delineating between illegal immigration and asylum seeking, categories purposefully blurred by the Trump administration. Legitimate asylum seeking is not an immigration crisis as much as it is a human rights crisis.
Most immigrants to America today are from East and South Asia. They arrive legally by planes, as do illegal drugs. Israel’s Egyptian border offer both answers and challenges for us. Meanwhile, the wellbeing of thousands of people including many children are at risk. We need to do better, protect our national interests and be a moral beacon to the world.
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.