A City Divided

October 28th, 2019

I went to Berlin once. That was back in 1982, and I was still in the Army. The Cold War was going strong, and the Wall still split Berlin into two halves. I only spent a couple days there. I stayed with a friend of a friend in West Berlin. I also managed to visit the Soviet sector. I went through Checkpoint Charlie. Needless to say, that was an interesting experience.

Last week I was with a group of Catholic migrant advocates in El Paso/Ciudad Juarez. We went across the border between the U.S. and Mexico four times during our visit. We saw the steel wall that divides the communities from each other. While I was there, I started thinking about Berlin, for the first time in a long time. I started to remember things.

El Paso and Juarez started out centuries ago as a single settlement, El Paso del Norte. Even now, after history and politics have separated the the population into two communities, El Paso and Juarez remain deeply connected. There is a constant movement of people and products across the international border. The economies and cultures of the two municipalities are intimately linked. El Paso and Juarez are still, in some respects, a single city, a home to 2.5 million people.

Chris took us to scenic lookout in the mountains on the northern edge of El Paso. From there we could view both El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. The Rio Grande snaked through the center of the urban sprawl. The wall was nearly invisible from our vantage point. To me it all looked like one big city. From a distance I could not see the separation, but I knew it was there.

We visited the Chamizal National Memorial in El Paso. The park is close to the Rio Grande and the Cordova Port of Entry. There is an international bridge that crosses the river. It is used for truck traffic. A line of semis stretched for miles from near the memorial all the way to the bridge. Truckers were waiting for hours to bring their goods into Mexico. The parade of vehicles was an obvious sign of the importance of trade between the U.S. and Mexico. Despite the wall and other barriers, the freight had to flow.

Other things flow across the border. Things like drugs and money. We were told that consumers of illegal drugs in the United States send $40 billion to Mexico annually. Drugs are produced in Mexico, or they flow through the country from other places. These drugs somehow find their way into the U.S. During our visit, our group spoke with members of the U.S. Border Patrol.

I asked one of them, “What percentage of the drug traffic do you think you stop?”

I did not get a straight answer. The officer told us that there was no way of accurately measuring the effectiveness of their interdiction efforts. In short, the Border Patrol has no idea how many drugs are entering the United States. They don’t know how much they are stopping. Apparently, they aren’t stopping enough drugs from coming north, if $40 billion are heading south every year. The money going into Mexico pays for many things: guns, bribes, all sorts of transportation. Walls don’t matter if you have plenty of cash.

So, what do the walls and all the other obstacles on the border between Juarez and El Paso actually stop? Trade, legal or otherwise, is seemingly not affected. Money and merchandise cross with only minor delays. However, people are prevented from coming into the U.S.. Migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are stopped at the border and denied entry. I’ve seen their tents in the park near one of the ports of entry. Migrants from southern Mexico who are fleeing the violence of the cartels are stuck at the border too.  Why are all these people trapped on one side of a political boundary? It is because they are poor. That’s the bottom line. They have no money, so they have no power, and that makes them unwelcome in our country.

When I was at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin all those years ago, I visited the museum there. All the exhibits in the place honored the courage and ingenuity of the East Germans who somehow found ways to flee to the West. No matter how much the East German regime tried to keep its citizens on their side of the Wall, a few people always found a path to a better life. I remember how, during the Cold War, we in the West celebrated the bravery of these migrants, and we mourned the those who died trying to cross the border.

For some reason we don’t feel the same way about the migrants trying to cross our border. A person who walks for two months from Guatemala, because he or she fears for their life, and then tries to find asylum in the U.S., is just as brave and motivated as a German fleeing Communist oppression. But we don’t see it that way. We think of the Germans that ran to the West as being heroes. We see the migrants huddled in Ciudad Juarez as being criminals.

Walls don’t work. There is no historical record of a wall halting the movement of people for a significant length of time. The Berlin Wall lasted less than thirty years. It did stop a lot of people, but not all of them. Desperate people can be very inventive and persistent. They will find a way to get to their destination, or they will die trying.

My wife is a German. She has a small piece of concrete sitting on our kitchen counter. It is a piece of the Berlin Wall. It is a souvenir of sorts. It is a physical reminder of the fate of all walls.

Someday, I want to have a chunk of the wall that divides El Paso from Juarez. I would that as a souvenir.



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