A 670-mile-long shrine to American insecurity

Last February, I found myself in the difficult position of explaining American insecurity to a group of Mexican undergraduates at a college in Matamoros, Mexico, just south of the border at Brownsville, Texas. I was taking questions after delivering a lecture on the long-term prospects of Mexican immigrants being accepted into U.S. society. A neatly dressed young man in the back stood up to ask a pointed question. “How,” he said politely in Spanish, “could such a rich and powerful country be so self-centered as to build a wall on its border to keep people out?”

For a moment, I figured I could give him a simple answer: A vocal constituency wants to keep border crossers out at all costs; they operate under the easy rubric of law enforcement and homeland security. But he was asking a deeper question than that.

First, I discussed the historical cycle of the U.S. embracing and then rejecting the outside world, how we can sometimes be both generous and selfish to newcomers. I outlined the ongoing strains of xenophobia and racism in U.S. society. I mentioned the profound ethnic demographic shift in the U.S. and asked him whether he thought Mexicans would be any less “self-centered” if faced with a similar situation. And then I got to the hard part: having to explain why citizens of arguably the richest and most powerful nation on Earth could feel so put upon by the world.


Last week, the Bush administration’s Department of Homeland Security announced that it would use its waiver authority to bypass more than 30 laws and regulations to finish building 670 miles of fence along our southern border by the end of the year. And if all that goes according to plan, I won’t be the only American having to explain what this new border wall says about us as a people and a country. For the last 120 years, Americans have been able to point to the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of our collective pride in our immigrant origins. But future generations are more likely to point to the wall on our southern border as an altogether different symbol.

The most vocal supporters of the border wall like to portray the United States as a hapless victim of illegal immigrants. They act as if these people show up out of nowhere, as if they are not part of a long-established pattern. There’s little recognition that the U.S. is just as responsible for creating the flows northward as is our eternally mismanaged southern neighbor.

We forget that as early as the late 19th century, we looked to Mexicans to build the railroads throughout the Southwest; that, in 1917, when Congress closed the door to European migration, it quietly made plans for Mexicans to fill our labor needs; that, beginning in World War II, we imported hundreds of thousands of Mexican guest workers who familiarized themselves with life in the U.S. and shared their experiences and networks with their families and friends back home.

Yes, there is a difference between legal and illegal immigration, but sometimes one begets the other. When Congress began to reduce the number of legal visas available to Mexicans from an unlimited supply in the mid-1960s to 20,000 per year in 1976 (not including family reunification), it not only didn’t stop the northward flow it had helped foster, it literally created illegal immigration.

My inquisitor in Matamoros, and others in the audience, seemed to acknowledge that the U.S. had no moral obligation to offer economic opportunity to the people of Mexico. But he did seem genuinely confused about why a nation so keen on seeing itself as a light for the world, and both admired and hated for its bluster and swagger, could cower behind a wall from a migration that it helped create. Mexicans -- and Canadians for that matter -- who live in our shadow and define themselves against casual displays of U.S. power can’t fathom our anxieties.

“The average American,” I said, “doesn’t feel as powerful and entitled as the national image would suggest. In fact, in many ways both our economic system and our diverse origins encourage a strong sense of social insecurity. As individuals and members of groups, Americans are constantly jockeying for position and legitimacy. On an everyday level, they’re not likely to feel as secure as you’d imagine.”

But nearly two months later, I realize that I didn’t fully answer the man’s question.

So here it is: Although there has always been a flip side to American confidence and bravado, by building the wall -- all three leading presidential candidates voted for it -- we Americans have chosen to enshrine and showcase our insecurity. And whether you agree with the decision to build it or not, you have to admit that such a defensive act is an odd thing to do for a nation so proud of its global power and largesse.