Re­al­ity bites Trump’s wall

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - DAVID VON DREHLE david.von­[email protected]­post.com

Un­der the blaz­ing sun of the Sono­ran Desert, on a weird land­scape of rock dusted with an­cient cin­ders and pim­pled with blown vol­ca­noes, an un­known party of thirsty trav­el­ers paused to bury their dead. On the Camino del Di­ablo, the Devil’s High­way, death stalks way­far­ers at a dis­tance of one small mis­take. A bro­ken axle. A snakebite. An ill-timed bout of dysen­tery. Any de­layed ar­rival at the next farflung source of wa­ter in that un­for­giv­ing hell.

The year was 1871. There must have been a sur­vivor, for some­one marked the date in the dust with small black lava stones.

In 2008, I came upon those stones un­touched where they had been placed nearly 14 decades ear­lier. Along with renowned pho­to­jour­nal­ist An­thony Suau, I was on as­sign­ment for Time mag­a­zine, sent to ex­plore the new bor­der bar­ri­ers un­der con­struc­tion along hun­dreds of miles of the south­ern U.S. fron­tier.

That mes­sage from the dis­tant past, un­touched, un­moved, un­mo­lested since the days of Pres­i­dent Ulysses S. Grant, has come to rep­re­sent for me the im­ped­i­ments to a well-in­formed de­bate over bor­der se­cu­rity. It’s too re­mote. Most of the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der runs through empty, in­hos­pitable ter­rain. It crosses blank deserts, saw­tooth moun­tains and jagged canyons. In places, it ar­bi­trar­ily di­vides an­cient tribal home­lands and com­mu­ni­ties of trade of which out­siders know next to nothing.

Only a tiny frac­tion of Amer­i­cans have seen these places or know these sto­ries, so the bor­der is a topic ripe for ma­nip­u­la­tion and dem­a­goguery. The rhetoric at the heart of the gov­ern­ment shut­down bears lit­tle re­la­tion­ship to the com­pli­cated re­al­ity. Too harsh for golf or beauty pageants, the bor­der is nothing but ammo for Pres­i­dent Trump. As for the lurid writ­ings of Trump’s im­mi­gra­tion Sven­gali, Stephen Miller, they bear no hint of first­hand knowl­edge. Miller doesn’t seem the type to trek into the spiny glare or climb the rep­tiled rim­rock of the Amer­i­can Southwest. His is the care­less cer­tainty of malev­o­lent ig­no­rance.

Trump’s whipped-up rally chant — Build the Wall! Build the Wall! — was pure emo­tion, un­teth­ered to facts. There was never a sur­vey or en­gi­neer­ing plan to back it up. No con­struc­tion firm ever es­ti­mated the cost of a “beau­ti­ful,” “im­pen­e­tra­ble” (Trump’s own ad­jec­tives) con­crete struc­ture, an­chored six feet deep and ris­ing 30 feet sky­ward over ground ac­ces­si­ble only on foot.

One evening, Suau and I he­li­coptered into the rugged coun­try east of San Diego on pa­trol with an elite team of Cus­toms and Bor­der Pa­trol agents. We hap­pened on a small group of bor­der crossers climb­ing hand over foot up a nearly ver­ti­cal gully. Tak­ing the group into cus­tody re­quired that the agents de­scend the same gully, a painstak­ing and dan­ger­ous ma­neu­ver that con­sumed the bet­ter part of two hours. There can be no wall-build­ing there.

As soon as Trump blurted his reck­less fan­tasy of a Wall in 2015, I knew that he would wind up pars­ing and pet­ti­fog­ging in an ef­fort to back­track. Re­al­ity bites, af­ter all. Sure enough, we hear him now ex­plain­ing that the Wall was never re­ally a wall. It was a bar­rier. It was steel slats. It was a fence. It was a menu of se­cu­rity mea­sures. And when he said Mex­ico would pay for it, he meant U.S. tax­pay­ers would pay for it.

Trump’s Wall, in other words, was never more than a provo­ca­tion, a stink bomb lobbed into the pub­lic dis­course to rile up his sup­port­ers and his crit­ics alike. And ev­ery­one com­plied. What is it about Trump’s crude rhetoric that weaves such a spell? Now Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi add to the hy­per­bole, toss­ing the word “im­moral­ity” around — not to de­scribe the de­lib­er­ate po­lar­iza­tion of the pub­lic, which is im­moral in­deed, but to shut down the en­tire dis­cus­sion of an orderly, en­force­able bor­der.

Here’s what I learned by go­ing there: The United States had made real, bi­par­ti­san progress on bor­der se­cu­rity. The daily “ban­zai runs” in Yuma, Ariz., that used to send hun­dreds of young men dash­ing across the scarcely marked bor­der to over­whelm a few dozen U.S. agents were al­ready a thing of the past. A tall dou­ble fence put an end to them. Con­struc­tion of a dirt ser­vice road along hun­dreds of miles of bor­der al­lowed fre­quent pa­trols that not only re­duced cross­ings, but also saved the lives of mi­grants who might oth­er­wise get lost in the track­less wilder­ness.

To­day, ap­pre­hen­sions on the bor­der have fallen to lev­els not seen in al­most half a cen­tury.

But it’s not a sim­ple prob­lem. As long as per capita in­come in the United States is many times higher than in coun­tries south of the bor­der, and as long as Amer­i­cans will pay top dol­lar for im­ported nar­cotics, there will be pres­sure along the fron­tier.

In­stead of en­cour­ag­ing more co­op­er­a­tion, Trump and his Wall have poi­soned the well. And in the desert that passes for our na­tional dis­course, a mis­take like that can be tragic.

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