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By Nathan Smith : BIO| 08 Nov 2020
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The Ming dynasty emperors in China (1368-1644) were the biggest builders of the famous Great Wall. A native Chinese dynasty coming to power in the wake of a Mongol occupation, they wanted to strengthen their defenses against the nomadic peoples to the north. But a Manchu army crossed over it and conquered them anyway.

In the years after World War I, France, recognizing its weakness vis-à-vis Germany, built a supposedly invincible fortification along its frontier with Germany called the Maginot Line. Built very high, of concrete and steel, with forts at 10-mile intervals, the wall nonetheless failed to prevent Germany from conquering France with lightning speed in 1940.

In 1961 the Communist regime of East Germany found itself suffering from mass emigration to the freer and more prosperous West. To prevent this outflow they built the Berlin Wall. When the workers of East Germany tore down that wall, they brought down the East German regime with it.

The lesson of history? Walls are for losers.

America doesn't have a frontier with hostile barbarians who want to conquer us. Instead, we have a frontier with friendly Mexicans who want to work for and with us. Nonetheless, the historical pattern—walls are for losers—still applies. It plays itself out, not in battles or revolutions, but in elections.

From 1991 to 1999, Pete Wilson was governor of California, a state where Republicans had long been competitive. Indeed, California was the home state of Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Pete Wilson was a prominent supporter of Proposition 187, a harsh crackdown on illegal immigration (later overturned by the courts). Since then (at least until Arnold), the Republican Party's support in California has collapsed.

In 2005, Jerry Kilgore and Tim Kaine faced off in the race for governor of Virginia. Virginia is a Republican-leaning state which Bush won easily in 2004. But Kilgore ran as an anti-immigration candidate and lost.

Also in 2005, Republicans in the House of Representatives passed HR4437, a fiercely anti-immigrant bill which would have legally defined millions of peaceful, though undocumented workers, as felons. It criminalized those who assisted illegal immigrants as well, and could have led to the jailing of Catholic clergy who ministered to them. (Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles pointed out that the bill would oblige the Catholic Church to engage, not for the first time, in civil disobedience.)

That bill didn't get through the Senate, but another one did. This fall both the House and Senate passed the Secure Fence Act, authorizing a 700-mile fence along the southern border. President Bush signed the bill on October 26.

Republicans had held the House of Representatives for twelve years. After the fence bill was signed, they lasted just twelve days before the voters gave them the boot. Of course immigration wasn't the only, or the main, issue; Iraq was. Nonetheless, the "walls are for losers" pattern has claimed another scalp. Meanwhile, even the Republican Senate, which, before the fence bill, hardly anyone thought was even in play, looks at present writing like it may have fallen to the Democrats.

Why do politicians who take a stance against immigration keep losing—especially when more Americans want reduced immigration (40%) as opposed to the present level (37%) or increased (17%)?

For one thing, though Americans may prefer less immigration personally, they may understand that the government has, and should have, only limited say in immigration levels. The immigration decision should be in the hands of the immigrant. Americans hate high gas prices, too, but at least some of them understand that these are, and should be, a function of market forces.

But the main reason is probably simpler: the political spectrum. Swing voters are in the center. When Republicans crack down on immigration, they lose votes in the center, and gain none on the right, since they had those anyway. It's a guaranteed net loss. It should have been obvious that signing the fence bill on the eve of the election could only be troublesome for Republicans. Congressmen get reams of letters from angry types who want to close the borders. This time, they listened to the siren song.

Despite signing the fence bill, President Bush has long supported a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. As he said in January 2004:

"Many undocumented workers have walked mile after mile, through the heat of the day and the cold of the night. Some have risked their lives in dangerous desert border crossings, or entrusted their lives to the brutal rings of heartless human smugglers. Workers who seek only to earn a living end up in the shadows of American life -- fearful, often abused and exploited. When they are victimized by crime, they are afraid to call the police, or seek recourse in the legal system. They are cut off from their families far away, fearing if they leave our country to visit relatives back home, they might never be able to return to their jobs.

"The situation I described is wrong. It is not the American way."

Now, with the Democrats in charge of one or both Houses of Congress, President Bush—like another Texan president overseeing an unpopular war, Lyndon Johnson—may have his chance to improve his legacy by achieving a major civil rights advance.

Nathan Smith is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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