One of the main attractions of a government job, the world over, has been the metronomic regularity of payment. Government pay is generally less than that in the private sector, but it arrives every month, or week, or whatever the interval set. This was the case even in the USA. But not so now, as the US government has shut down because President Donald Trump has refused to sign any spending bill that does not include funding for the wall he had promised across the USA’s southern border, the one with Mexico. This is not the first government shutdown, but it has become the longest.

There has got to be some irony in the fact that Trump wants to build a wall, even though it was a President of his party, Ronald Reagan, who famously said, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down that wall.” Reagan was referring to the Berlin Wall, whose fall illustrated the victory of the USA in the Cold War. Trump campaigned all through 2016 for the wall, but did not make it an issue when his party enjoyed a majority in both Houses of Congress, and has only driven the country to a shutdown when the Democrats have achieved control of the House of Representatives.

The shutdown has occurred because there is something dysfunctional in the US governance model. It cannot be the budget being voted upon, indeed passed through the legislature in the same way as legislation. No other democracy has the same problem. Therefore, it seems to be a specifically US problem.

Then there is the separation of the legislative function from the executive. In parliamentary systems, there is a melding, with whoever having legislative ability being given executive authority. The USA has given the two functions separation, so it is possible (as at present) for the person holding executive authority to lack ability to legislate. At present, as a matter of fact, the ability to legislate is denied to the Republican Party because it lacks a majority in one House. In parliamentary systems, passing the annual budget is the litmus test of both legislative ability, and right to exercise executive authority. In the USA, on the other hand, the President is not turfed out of office if he fails to pass the annual budget; the government just shuts down.

The shutdown is hard for the USA, because it is going to target precisely that aspect of government Trump is insisting on. The shutdown is serving to make the borders less safe, as federal border agents are laid off, and the proposed wall does not enhance US security.

The proposed wall is based on two types of experience. There is the direct experience of the walls that have already been erected on the US-Mexico border. Then there is the indirect experience of other walls in other countries. At present, the US-Mexico border is serviced by a number of crossings. Many Mexicans cross into the USA, work, and come back home. The analogy to the crossings between the Gaza Strip and Israel is unmistakable. Palestinians are needed by Israel as cheap labour as much as Mexicans are needed by Americans.

An earlier example is the Berlin Wall itself, which Trump’s predecessor, Reagan, referred to. It was not just a wall across a city, but the centrepiece of a fence splitting Germany in two. It also provided a frontier between the capitalist West and the communist East. More than anything else, it represented how the limines (or hearth) between civilisations, permeable and representing an area of control was transformed into a limites (or limit), which was policed and impermeable, and marked a limit beyond which one could not go without acceptable documentation.

The USA is famously a country of immigrants. All four of Trump’s own grandparents were migrants. However, the big difference between Trump’s grandparents and those migrants who might come over the US-Mexican border is that they were white Protestants, and even though not Anglo-Saxon, came from the same genetic stock, while those coming over the border are none of these, being brown Hispanic Catholics of Spanish or Native American stock. The wall is thus laden with racist overtones. An Islamophobic element has been added by the allegation that it was being used by terrorists. That echoes some of the Israeli rhetoric about its own wall keeping out Palestinians.

It also reflects the Indian allegation of Pakistani terrorism that it used to justify the building of its own wall on the Indo-Pak border and across the Line of Control. The big difference between the Indian fence and the one Trump hopes for, is that Trump does not accuse any state actors of being involved. Pakistan is involved in the other major wall project in the region, that of the proposed wall on the Pak-Afghan border. That is supposed to stop the crossing by Taliban fighters into Afghanistan.

Fences have always been attractive. There was the Great Wall of China, though in the end, it did not keep out the barbarian. Building from sea to sea was attractive in the UK, where first the Romans built Hadrian’s Wall to keep out the Picts and Scots, and Offa’s Dyke, built in the 8th century on the Welsh-Mercian border. Neither really worked, and it was only active conquest that enabled the English to overcome Scots and Welsh.

The experience from all of these walls suggests that the US-Mexican wall should not be built. The aims that Trump has stated will not be met by the wall, and the $8.4 billion in funding that Trump wants seems too much to send down the drain. Leave alone the racist and discriminatory overtones of the wall. It will not achieve the aims it is supposed to address.

It will not stop terrorists, for example, because terrorists do not use it to come into the USA anyhow. It will also not stop illegal immigrants, who will merely cross where the fence ends (even if there is a continuous wall, it has to end at the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans), even if they then have to go out to sea, and then come back in to land on a beach. It will also not stop children being sent across.

The presence of large numbers of children on the border helps show that the pressure on it has been caused by migrants from Central America trying to escape the gangs and gang warfare there. It should be recognised that this pressure did not exist before, but has now been generated because these areas are now producing and making cocaine, and smuggling it into the USA. The wall will not stop this, as the USA has an apparently insatiable demand. Anyway, most smuggling occurs at legal ports of entry and through tunnels, not carried across unfenced crossings. Even the development of the opioid epidemic has not caused any decline in cocaine demand. There is no sign of the Trump Administration attempting to tackle the demand end of the problem. Also, in a way a little embarrassing to wall supporters, few Central Americans try to enter illegally. They surrender to US agents when they find them, and then apply for asylum.

For the rest of the world, there are two considerations. First, only Central American countries contribute to the problem, not the rest of the world. There is no shortage of wannabe illegals, but they reject the Mexican border route because it is so difficult to get into Mexico. Second. Is the crisis at the US-Mexican border so bad it merits a shutdown? It should not be forgotten that this shutdown affects people and goods going into and coming from the USA. The bars of the cage are clanging down.


The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.