By Gary Paul Nabhan
Few walls last forever. Last winter, part of President Donald Trump’s new border wall wavered toward collapse under the force of strong winds whipping through the twin cities of Calexico and Mexicali. An 80-foot segment lurched into Mexican territory and it took cranes from the U.S. side to right the steel panels.
Most of the families I know that live close to the border have arrived at the same conclusion: The monstrous wall so close to them has further militarized our international boundary with Mexico. They say that a steel barrier with a yard-wide concrete footer — and lighting that never dims — permanently blocks the free flow of wildlife, seeds, pollen, water, religious pilgrims and essential workers across the U.S.-Mexico border. We have watched U.S. agencies rush to build a wall through the poorest communities in western North America without local consent.
Both supporters and opponents of this bigger wall speak fatalistically about the barrier. They seem to concede that more miles of wall are irreversible because the courts have upheld Trump’s legal waivers of 41 state and federal laws.
Meanwhile, the wall does damage wherever it’s built or expanded. Habitats for endangered species have been fragmented and human remains in sacred sites have been desecrated. The doom-and-gloomers say there is no going back.
But one needs to read only a bit of world history to realize that walls can come down as a quickly as they were put up.
Thirty years ago this last November, the Berlin Wall was demolished after 26 years of dividing Berlin and East Germany from West Germany. Its deconstruction cost far less than its original construction, thanks in part to eager people who pitched in to turn the concrete part of the wall back into rubble. The two sections of Berlin have now been reunited for a longer period of time than the construction of the wall in 1961 divided them.
Closer to home, the first barrier built on our southern border, dividing Nogales Arizona from Nogales Sonora, came tumbling down faster than the walls at the Battle of Jericho. This wall was erected a little over a century ago, during the time that Mexico was in the depths of a revolution.
American-made rifles were frequently smuggled into Sonora through Ambos Nogales. To slow the flow of firearms, Sonora’s Gov. Maytorena ordered the erection of an 11- strand barbwire fence to run down the middle of International Street, where the two countries met.
Yes. That’s right: The first border barrier along the boundary line was erected to keep U.S. citizens from illegally passing rifles into Mexico.
But that first border wall so enraged the community of Ambos Nogales that it was brought down within a mere four months of its being erected. As soon as Gen. Obregón defeated Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa in Nogales, Sonora, in 1915, he ordered the 11-strand fence torn down.
Regardless of your political stance about our current border policies, it is time that we recognize that a permanent border wall is not a fait accompli. The pandemic has reminded us what a true “national emergency” is, and a hyped-up emergency at the border does not justify such environmental and economic costs.
If we don’t want it, it can be legally de-authorized, once again allowing surface waters to flow. Dozens of species of wildlife now threatened by habitat fragmentation could once again migrate and seeds could tumble across the desert floor.
A debate is already underway about how the wall should be deconstructed, how its materials could be recycled, how sacred sites along its pathway would be reconsecrated and how damaged natural habitats could at last be restored.
I live just 14 miles as the crow flies from the Arizona-Sonora, Mexico, border, and though no one can predict when the times will dramatically change, it is never too early to consider the possibility that this foolish wall will fall.
It is already time to support a broad-based “Border Wall De-Commission,” one with United States, Mexican and tribal nation representatives. Let us now envision and restore a more just and humane future along our border with Mexico, and with transborder tribes.
Gary Paul Nabhan, a contributor to writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to lively discussion about the West, is a Franciscan Brother and desert ecologist who has lived and worked on both sides of the border for four decades.