Families speak through the Tijuana side of the border fence on Mother’s Day 2016. / Photo by Brooke Binkowski

In his celebrated 1990 book, “City of Quartz,” native San Diego writer Mike Davis pointed to the emerging “carceral” landscapes of security-obsessed southern California. He lamented the rise of “fortress cities” — that were becoming defined by “the social perception of threat.”

Nearly three decades later, this condition looms over the nation again, from a White House that promotes a contentious 30-foot-high border wall along the nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico, to immigration enforcement policies that threaten our Latino neighborhoods.

Voice of San Diego Commentary

We in San Diego are feeling these reverberations only too well, with President Donald Trump’s visit to our region this week, to promote his border wall prototypes. Only a week ago, in a targeted operation, a Mexican woman was aggressively yanked from the streets of National City in front of her daughters and taken into custody by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

During Trump’s campaign for president in 2016, the battle cry of adoring crowds was, “Build that wall!” The “wall” is, in fact, a metaphor for shielding America from outside threats and uncertainty.

But metaphors are merely symbols. They do not constitute sound policy.

Speaking at MCAS Miramar on Tuesday, the president said Californians were “begging” for the federal government to build a border wall. That is not true.

Trump’s “mega-wall” may be a useful rhetorical flourish at rallies in Iowa or Michigan, but its actual construction doesn’t measure up to its stated purpose. The president claims the wall will keep criminals out of the U.S., but statistics clearly show that crime rates among Mexican immigrants in the U.S. are far lower than crime rates for American citizens.

Trump argues that the physical barrier will thwart smuggling. Not so. People and contraband have found ways to transcend the physical boundary line  for nearly a century here — smugglers employ boats or small aerial craft, or even send couriers across legally, in cars, trucks, or on foot. At the San Ysidro port of entry, for example, 25 million automobiles, 1 million trucks and over 7 million pedestrians cross north-bound each year.

Meanwhile, the construction of a physical wall would be an engineering nightmare, because for nearly one thousand miles, more than one half of its length, the boundary line is a meandering river with constantly shifting topography that renders a fixed fence, no less a massive wall, virtually impossible. And no matter how high you build a wall, it can be climbed over or tunneled under.

Spending upwards of $20 billion on a dubious border wall is even more troubling when one looks at the massive backlog of federal funds needed to pay for cross-border economic infrastructure, including highways, rail improvements and other upgrades to the major ports of entry that facilitate trade on the border. There is a $1 billion shortage of funds for ports of entry alone, plus more than $10 billion in unfunded highway linkages to the California border.

There is an alternative to walls and hardened spaces — and it means bringing neighbors together to construct more resilient communities. Despite the claims of some conservative pundits, urban crime in the U.S. has significantly decreased over the last three decades. An overlooked explanation is what might be termed the “Starbucks factor.”

Around the time Davis was writing about southern California, in 1990, there were 80 Starbucks in the U.S.; by 2010, there were over 10,000. This boom in “coffee house culture” hints at America’s yearning for better “third spaces,” or places for civic engagement and community-building. It coincided with a period in which Americans began “reurbanizing” metropolitan areas, moving back in and around downtowns. San Diego’s center city population was less than 10,000 in 1990; it is over 35,000 today and will approach 100,000 in the next two decades.

While this reurbanization faces new challenges today — gentrification, inflated housing costs, homelessness — the revitalization of downtowns across the nation reflects the collective desire of many citizens for an awakened civic spirit. Many prefer to re-engage with their fellow city-dwellers in the public realm, rather than retreat behind walls. Think Little Italy, the Embarcadero, Adams Avenue, the Prado in Balboa Park or Liberty Station.

Evidence of this civic awakening is everywhere: the proliferation of pedestrian-scale, smart communities, farmer’s markets, street fairs, art districts, waterfront redevelopment, riverfront renovation, revitalized small towns and upgraded historic districts.

This rejection of fear should be applied to our border with Mexico. The southwest borderland is a rich interconnected space that links vibrant cultures and the robust economies that surround it. The best foreign policy along our southern border is for the U.S. and Mexico to better broker the mutual advantages we already share.

Why build a wall across a space that facilitates a nearly $600 billion annual economy? Why cut off a border zone when both nations can enjoy the reciprocal economic benefits of tourism, specialized high-tech industrial sectors, energy development, innovative transport and trade?

Lawrence A. Herzog is the author of many books and essays on the U.S.-Mexico border and a speaker at the 2015 TEDx Monumento border event. He has taught urban planning in the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University for more than 25 years.

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