It was one of the most iconic moments of the last century – Germans who had been divided by political differences for decades, dismantling a wall that had been constructed to keep them apart. In a move that signalled the demise of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989 was a potent and important symbol of the possibility of reconciling differences and establishing a new way of thinking, and being, for a unified Germany. It’s such an important reminder that walls do no nothing but cement the differences between us, rather than construct connections.
Throughout history, walls have been created for two reasons – to keep people out and to keep people in. Hadrian built one to stop the Celts from invading the Roman parts of Britain, and the Great Wall of China was also constructed to prevent Nomadic peoples from coming into parts of the Chinese provinces. The Germans built walls to enclose ghettoes in World War Two as part of their plans to eradicate Jews, and the East Germans built the Berlin Wall in 1961 to prevent the flow of people between West and East Berlin.
“Policies have changed massively over the years to accomodate social and cultural changes, and it will evolve moving forward, as circumstances change.”
Now there are plans to build a wall on the border between the US and Mexico, and is difficult to escape the populist rationale behind it. Obviously nations spend large amounts of money on border security. New Zealand is no exception, we are committed to protect the integrity of our agricultural and horticultural industries and to control immigration. We are also signatures to international treaties regarding refugees, and we have immigration policies to attempt to ensure an equitable balance between allowing new migrants, and increasing the productivity of the country by introducing workers for sectors where skilled workers are scarce. It isn’t perfect and not everyone will agree on it but it works well. Policies have changed massively over the years to accomodate social and cultural changes, and it will evolve moving forward, as circumstances change.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
The US, on the other hand has, since its founding, cherished the notion of immigration. It is a nation of immigrants and there is no greater symbol of that than the Statue of Liberty in New York. The poem that adorns its base is of huge significance and has become an integral part of the US ethos of freedom and justice. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It is an open invitation.
For over a century new immigrants to the United States sailed into New York past the Statue of Liberty – motivated by the promise of a new life, with new possibilities. From all over the world immigrants entered the US escaping persecution, famine, and conflict to forge new existences. Today the US is made up of many different racial and ethnic groups – all merged together by their shared sense of what it is to be a US citizen.
“To New Zealanders, even the idea of the government being turned off sounds strange enough.”
The current US president appears hell bent on creating a new chapter of the American saga and has concocted a problem that only has one solution – a wall, or a fence, or a collection of barricades that will supposedly prevent certain “undesirable people” from entering the United States. Nobody is certain who will pay for such a wall and the US government is in lockdown with nearly a million federal workers, either prevented from working, or working without pay. To New Zealanders, even the idea of the government being turned off sounds strange enough.
“There is however, a huge difference between a thoughtful and thorough border security and the construction of a wall.”
The US spends billions of dollars on border security and has an extremely thorough regime – as anyone who has flown into the US will attest to. Immigration and customs, as well as security is vigilant and sometimes, invasive. In truth, most countries are the same – especially since the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in 2001.
There is however, a huge difference between a thoughtful and thorough border security and the construction of a wall. A wall is too huge a symbolic gesture to ignore and to put that in perspective two US presidents made visits to them – John F Kennedy to the Berlin Wall and Richard Nixon to the Great Wall of China. It is so sad that as a species we are so motivated by perceived differences, rather than fostering ways to become closer. There is far too much division and that only ever results in the same things – prejudice, hatred, violence, and long-lasting conflict. We need to build more bridges, not more walls.