Why Walls Won’t Work: Repairing the U.S.-Mexico Divide, by Michael Dear (Oxford; 288 pages; $29.95)

Reviewed by Robert Smith

Michael Dear, a professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley, is interested in problems of division, problems posed by the literal and metaphorical divides that determine the relationship between the United States and Mexico, problems that may hide solutions in plain sight along the borderline.

In Why Walls Won’t Work, Dear historicizes the U.S.-Mexico divide to demystify it. The plural “walls” of Dear’s title signal the several obstructions that thwart our apprehension of not simply a border but a “third nation” forged in what Dear suggests we should appreciate as the overlap between two contiguous nations. Appropriately beginning with the Treaty of Hidalgo, Dear elaborates how material demarcations succeeded abstract discursive ones, and both the treaty and subsequent fences are subject to Dear’s well-considered interpretations. Citing Andrés Reséndez, Dear reminds us that the border established by the Treaty of Hidalgo was once an invisible and completely permeable line that conscripted, for example, Mexicans into United States citizenship. Dear’s book documents the history of the efforts to make this border conspicuous and impenetrable, a condition that some American citizens translate as “secure.” But for the moment, for non-citizens the border and the politics surrounding it remain a decreasingly negotiable obstacle to better economic opportunity, family reunification, and U.S. citizenship.

When Dear turns his attention to the phenomenon of “twin cities,” such as El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, it is clear that these cities are children of separated parents. If El Paso and Juárez, Brownsville and Matamoros, San Diego and Tijuana are “twins” they certainly aren’t identical, for, as Dear demonstrates, the prosperity of one city often measurably impoverishes the other. Nevertheless, the border that divides city from city and nation from nation also, according to Dear, hybridizes one with the other. For Dear, it is not only individuals but specifically shared “sentiments” that breach the physical barriers between the two nations. Unfortunately, the financial and political interests that the United States has invested in maintaining divisive border security and immigration policies pose formidable challenges to what Dear identifies as the “hybridization of sentiments.” Dear claims that “walls always come down,” which may be literally true of physical walls. But, ultimately, Why Walls Won’t Work makes plain that entrenched attitudes about the U.S.-Mexico border are much harder to fell than physical fortifications.

Photograph at top: U.S. Mexico boundary line, Tijuana, circa 1925.

Posted by Boom California