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Le Devoir, Canada

Border Politics: A Wall between
Canada and the United States?

By Élisabeth Vallet and Charles-Philippe David

History — from the Great Wall of China to the Maginot and Siegfried lines, from the Roman Limes to the wall between Mexico and the United States, or even more so the fences of Ceuta and Melilla — shows that, in general, such walls are not impermeable.

Translated By Rachel Towers

4 October 2011

Edited by Drue Fergison

Canada - Le Devoir - Original Article (French)

Right now, it’s only an impact study intended to inform, and to collect reactions from, the American public living in border zones. The Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement however, made public two weeks ago by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, holds great importance for Canadian populations living north of the border area in question. In this reformulation of American border policy with regard to Canada, they have begun discussing the possibility of erecting barriers along the 49th parallel, similar in logic to the wall between Mexico and the U.S., but envisioned, as the economic crisis dictates, in a much more selective manner.

Debatable Motives

For the Department of Homeland Security — and, under its direction, Customs and Border Protection — “The Northern Border is the longest nonmilitarized open border in the world. … In general, the Northern Border is subjected to a significantly lower number of illegal incursions than the Southwest Border.” Indeed, the numbers support this: The Mexican border and the Canadian border are not comparable, neither in length nor geography, nor with regard to the number of people crossing them.

However, the report carries the faint scent of Bush’s America: “[K]nown terrorist affiliates and extremist groups have an undisputed presence along the Northern Border in both the United States and Canada.” This myth that Canada is harboring terrorists, reinforced by the Ahmed Ressam affair in 1999, is only barely made less offensive by the mention of their possible presence on United States soil, for the proposed policies don’t target the border zone (which would include neighboring communities in the United States) but aim instead to truly distinguish the demarcation between the two countries even more. Yet another impact of 9/11, this approach reflects the evolution of the perception that the Canadian-American border, formerly a place of exchange, has today become a threat, despite the establishment of cooperative structures and integration of border crossing procedures.

The erection of walls along the 6,400 kilometers of border (the analysis doesn’t include the Canadian border with Alaska), even if “selective,” would forever solidify the perception of a threat in this fortified border. Shown in virtual form in a 2007 report released by Homeland Security, erecting a wall, in the form of real barriers all along Canada, represents one of five scenarios currently being studied in the framework of the reformulation of northern border policy.

Weak Justifications

It’s a question of studying the environmental impact, based in part on the selective “borderization” of the Canadian-American border, and why, according to the border agency, the benefits (border crossing control) would greatly outweigh the environmental costs (“minor,” according to the report). “What we found was moderate or minor impacts regardless of the alternative," said Bruce Kaplan, senior planner for Mangi Environmental Group. "The impacts we did find were mostly construction-related." At this point, the border agency is making two huge mistakes that it could have avoided just by observing what is going on in the field — both in the United States, as well as along the border zones of the 50 or so similar existing walls in the world.

On one hand, these walls don’t keep people out. They are a statement of a country’s weakness in the face of (its fear) of danger (illegal aliens, traffickers and, of course, terrorists). History — from the Great Wall of China to the Maginot and Siegfried lines, from the Roman Limes to the wall between Mexico and the United States, or even more so the fences of Ceuta and Melilla — shows that, in general, such walls are not impermeable. What’s more, they generate faulty logic; they spur the economy and flows underground, thus making them even more difficult to control. They also multiply the negative effects. For example, in the United States, the permanent implantation and hiring of undocumented workers, who were otherwise seasonal, alter the demographic profile of the host country, resulting in the opposite effect of that desired.

Constructing walls stimulates a serious tunnel system, as their presence in the city of Nogales proves. A small town on the border of Arizona and Sonora, its foundation can be likened to Swiss cheese, causing many real security problems (in 2010, a bus sank into ground that had become loose, just across from the border crossing).

Unpleasant Impacts

Walls don’t stop flows, they divert them elsewhere. This naturally sparks the idea of selective “borderization” recommended in Canada’s case (which also was the first step in the wall with Mexico). The immediate effect is on migrants, who are more exposed to the mercy of smugglers and to the hazards of unfamiliar territory. What’s more, contrary to the border agency’s report calling them “minor,” the impact on the environment would be disastrous. They can isolate entire ecosystems to the point of permanently altering their environment — as a research team from Peking University reported in 2003, after identifying different genetic evolutions in the flora on both sides of the Great Wall of China. On top of that, they irrevocably affect animal migrations and put biodiversity in danger — as a 2011 study managed by the University of Texas at Austin and the University of California in San Diego attests.

Duly noted, the impacts are very concrete, like in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument where, last August, the wall on the Mexican border acted as a dam during a storm but, upon a second storm, collapsed — literally washing away a considerable area of the national park.

So, ten years after 9/11, is Homeland Security having such an identity crisis that it is trying to justify its existence by defending the validity of its fortification of the Canadian border? Or do we have to imagine that on the eve of the 2012 election cycle, security is still a key recipe for the current administration? For we put up walls much less for what they do than for what they are: reassurance. They represent, in a difficult economic context and for an anguished and morose America, a direct demonstration of concrete action, and reinforce the need to turn inward when faced with a foreigner who has become anxiety-producing. But this will not be enough either to restore Americans’ confidence or to stimulate the economy. Far from it.



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