Gary Paul Nabhan

Few walls last forever. Last winter, part of President 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 deauthorized, 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 trans-border tribes.

Gary Paul Nabhan, a contributor to, 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.

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(6) comments

Ted Paulk

Excellent article. The only ones supporting Trump's Phallic Symbol aka "the wall" are racists...And everyone knows this.

Charles Eby

Mr. Handy, I'm afraid you continue to mislead. Your list included "free housing", "and a long list of other benefits". Could you expound on that long list? And would you deny medical care to anyone in this country, here legally or otherwise, if they are in dire need?

Charles Eby

Seems like some of the misleading information is coming from Mr. Handy himself. Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for most federal assistance which includes housing, food stamps, and welfare checks. The only federal assistance they can receive is emergency medical care and public education for their children. They are not here for the "free stuff". They are here to make better lives for themselves and their families. Walls don't seem to deter them very much.

Jack Handy

Gee Mr. Eby, I said medical and education. How is that misleading when you parrot my talking points? That "free" stuff costs the taxpayers billions of dollars a year. You might be OK with that, most of us aren't. If you want to make a better life for yourself, why not do it legally?

I mean, I could go knock over a few banks to make a better life for myself, but that would be illegal. Guess I'll keep going to work instead.


Scot Koontz

You want them to do it legally but the administration has pretty much taken any chance to do that in a timely manner, because this administration feels a wall is better I guess. Lots of people come here seeking asylum, but instead of adding judges to make that situation better, the administration takes them away, makes it harder for people to do it legally. What if that was you, or your family, trying to get here via Ellis Island like my ancestry, or even the US Mexico border? What about corporations getting all their "free stuff"? That costs Americans way more than some people who may or may not be coming here illegally, no question. MOST of us ARE ok with helping out those who are less fortunate than ourselves, not what you said. The only ones that are that heartless are on the right and staunch supporters of a president on his way out. I know, Payson is full of them, that's ok, I get it, people believe him, whatever he says, I get it, but you've been lead down some wrong paths to make the statements you have written here.

Jack Handy

Nice article with misleading information right from the start. Yes, sections of the wall were tilted over, but those were not permanently installed sections, they were under construction and not fully anchored, nor tied into the other permanent sections that withstood the wind without any issue. Certainly the engineers doing the design for the wall have factored wind loads into the foundation design, which is why the rest stood as designed.

The wall won't stop essential workers as you claim, who come here legally. I don't see any issue having a secure border, nor do the majority of people who have a constant parade of coyotes leading illegals across their properties under the cover of darkness, often times having their "passengers" act as mules for the illegal drug trade.

A secure border is not a bad thing, especially when we have no idea of what all comes across our unsecured Southern one. Then again, sneak into the US and you get free housing, medical, education, and a long list of other benefits, all at the expense of those here and working legally. Funny that those legal immigrant workers disapprove of the illegals as well. It's also odd that you go to jail if you go into Mexico illegally. Why won't they welcome people with open arms and give them free stuff?


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