Ways of seeing: This is why we can’t negotiate with terrorists

Last week, a friend of mine called me on the phone. She was clearly upset. “I think we should just build a wall,” she said to me. My friend knows me very well. I am a border historian who writes about the history of fence construction at the U.S.-Mexico divide. I’ve been writing and thinking about that history since I was a student in the History Department at Middlebury College, which was a long time ago now.
The friend is an academic too, and she has read everything I have ever written and published, including this short article, so she knows that I am 100 percent against building a wall. This friend, who lives in Southern California, is politically progressive. She has a Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies and she is white but given that she has spent years reading about racial inequality (and listening to me complain), she understands viscerally the struggles that many people of color, including immigrants from Mexico and Central America face.
So why did she call me, of all people, to tell me that she thinks that we should build a wall along our southern border?
She called me because recent events in the borderlands broke her spirit so much that she was willing to negotiate (and she probably knew I would talk her out of it). “If it will stop this cruelty — the ripping away of children from their parents — then let’s just build it,” she said. She was so desperate to stop the violent terror happening along the border, she was ready to give Trump his wall.
But we can’t negotiate with terrorists. If we do, we enable the Trump Administration and his hateful followers to gain incremental power. They get that power by behaving so egregiously — by enacting and enforcing policies so unbelievably awful that earlier (inhumane) ideas that they had seem okay. But they aren’t.
For the past several decades, the U.S has been building bigger and longer fences at the border as a part of a policy called “prevention through deterrence.” The idea behind this longstanding policy is that if fences push immigrants to harsh, dangerous landscapes where they might die from heat exhaustion or dehydration, then the migrants might stop coming. If we build it, they won’t come, in a sense.
But people keep coming. Most of them come out of desperation and the nearly 700 miles of fences that are already on the border aren’t doing anything to stop them. All the structures do is divert people around existing fences into harsh landscapes, making a patchwork of “natural barriers” (deserts, mountain ranges, and rivers) and built ones. Those barriers are killing more and more people.
In 2006, Congress passed the Secure Fence Act, which, building on earlier prevention through deterrence policies stretching back to the 1940s, called for the construction of the nearly 700 miles of fences that exist today. In the decade following that Act, the death rate of people crossing the border has risen to five times the amount of what it was in the decade prior to the most recent phase of construction. If we build a wall along the entire length of the border, the number of deaths will increase even more. Parents and children won’t just be caged: they will die.
That is why we can’t negotiate with terrorists. We can’t stop one awful thing and then allow another, seemingly less awful thing to replace it. Trump should never get his wall, nor should he be allowed to continue his inhumane “zero tolerance” policy of caging human beings.
Mary E. Mendoza is an assistant professor of History at the University of Vermont and the David and Dana Dornsife Fellow for Historical Work in the American West at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. She lives in Weybridge.

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