Lack of Clarity at the Center of the Wall Debate


The debate over “the wall” in U.S. politics is a striking example of unclear use of the English language. First, when President Trump has called for $5.7 billion of funding for “a wall” to keep illegal immigrants from entering the United States, it is assumed by many that the $5.7 billion would pay for a 2,000-mile wall.

Many experts say that a wall stretching across the 2,000 miles of border separating the United States and Mexico would cost approximately $25 billion. Thus $5.7 billion represents a portion of the wall, and certainly less than half of a wall — probably closer to a fifth.

Second, Mr. Trump himself said last week that instead of a concrete wall, a steel barrier could be constructed. His aim was to propose a less expensive form of a physical barrier. This is a recent point in the debate.

Third, there already exists close to 700 miles of metal fencing that was constructed in 2006 and 2011 with congressional authorization and funding, and Democratic support (including from Speaker Pelosi and Sen. Schumer). Therefore, the question arises as to whether the wall that is needed at this point is really a 1,300-mile steel barrier — namely, more high-octane fencing.

Fourth, many experts have brought forth data to show that regarding smuggling of illegal drugs into our country, 90 to 95 percent of this is done at legal ports of entry; therefore, a 1,300-mile new steel barrier would not address this issue.

Fifth, it has been pointed out that half of the illegal immigrants in our country today were legal immigrants whose visas ran out. Republicans who want the wall (steel barrier) need not be committed to the view that the wall would solve the entire problem of illegal immigration.

Indeed, it is logically impossible for a new structure to be capable of addressing the problem of illegal immigrants who are currently living in our country since the wall is designed to keep people from entering our country. But Mr. Trump often talks about the wall as though it were the solution to the entire problem of illegal immigration.

Freshman college English composition professors would have a field day if they had to mark the papers of members of Congress and the president as they discuss the wall. Philosophy professors would have a field week reading these papers.

Important questions do exist about what a 1,300-mile steel barrier would do. Mr. Trump has said that a wall or barrier can address problems of crime, including human trafficking. The statistics show that about 400,000 illegal immigrants enter the United States each year from Mexico. There are debates about how many of these illegal immigrants commit crimes in the United States.

Mr. Trump’s claims that terrorists are sneaking in have yet to be confirmed with any data; his argument about criminals sneaking in is on safer ground.

This is a real issue. Need Mr. Trump say that the wall alone will stop crime? Well, no. And he does not. In his speech to the nation he also talked about the value of drones, technology and more border guards.

A real question is: To what extent would a 1,300-mile steel barrier help reduce crime?

Moreover, how much of this problem will be addressed if, say, 500 miles of a steel barrier is put up with the $5.7 billion? These issues are a far cry from the question of whether the Democrats should give the President a 2,000-mile wall.

Finally, note that our government shutdown is a partial government shutdown. It affects about 25 percent of the federal government. It is not a full government shutdown or even one close to that. That said, the partial shutdown probably affects two million people directly, not just the 800,000 federal workers and contractors, if you include family members.

Almost every issue in this debate is distorted due to poor use of the English language. Admittedly, some of the problem is due to intentional exaggeration on both sides and motives they have related to 2020. But when you just look at the language itself it’s more evidence that Washington is polarized and dysfunctional.

We should demand that politicians be more precise in their use of the English language. Winston Churchill said that the United States and the United Kingdom are “two nations divided by a common language.” Federal politicians in our nation are also divided by a common language.

Dave Anderson has a Ph.D. in philosophy and has taught at the University of Cincinnati, Johns Hopkins University and George Washington University. He is a member of Adat Shalom Congregation in Bethesda.

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