Families separated by their immigration status – some of them for decades – were reunited yesterday. For just three minutes during the Hugs not Walls event, relatives clung to each other in a concrete canal between the border cities of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez. Mothers and children, husbands and wives, grandparents and newborn babies, all on the honor system and under the watchful eye of both Mexican and American authorities – those on the American side wore blue T-shirts and their relatives in Mexico wore white. For some of them, this was the first physical contact in over a decade – a beautiful moment that transcended the bitter divide on which they stood. Too soon, it was over, and they were separated again.
l always thought Robert Frost was very sensible to ask so plainly in a poem we had to memorize for school, why it is that good fences make good neighbors:
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.
If walls could talk, what stories would they tell? I never pondered this more than in 1978 when I traveled with the North East Ulster Schools Symphony Orchestra to Germany for our annual summer trip. Ordinarily, our summer trip was two weeks in Ballycastle that culminated with a concert for our parents on the final night, but this would be my first time away from Northern Ireland, from one bitterly divided place to another, the latter split in two by the Berlin Wall. At the time, I knew only a little about the wall that had been erected under the direction of Nikita Khruschev two years before I was born. By the time I was old enough to understand it, the wall was the definitive symbol of the “Iron Curtain” that had divided Eastern and Western Europe since 1945.
I remember the teenage bassoon player who urinated on the Berlin wall, offending, as he did, some passersby who did not appear to understand that the wall was infinitely more offensive with its barbed wire and watchtowers and armed guards with their shoot-to-kill orders. In retrospect, I wish there had been more like him – outraged and outspoken, but we were curious and circumspect, a little afraid, when we took a trip beyond the curtain and into East Berlin, where the young tour-guide assigned to us instructed us not to photograph bridges or buildings.
Although we were all from Northern Ireland – except the conductor and his son, both English – most of the Catholic kids among us had Irish passports whereas the Protestants carried British papers. This caused some delay and confusion at Checkpoint Charlie where I acquired the first stamp in my first passport, documenting forever the borders that bear down on us, closing in on us, constricting rather than expanding our vision of what our world could be like . . .
On the other side, I remember staring out the window of an old bus at an austere city, its sad grayness a stark contrast to the bright and bustling Kurfürstendamm Avenue – Ku’damm – on the West side, where fancy restaurants, bijou boutiques, and world-class museums made it too easy to be oblivious to the wanting on the other side of that wall. Although we knew her for only the shortest time, I remember crying for the young woman who had served as our tour guide, understanding in full that she would not be able to join us in West Berlin, to hear us perform Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor for a radio program. I don’t suppose a group of youngsters from Northern Ireland schools made much of an impact in 1978, but a decade later, Bruce Springsteen paid a visit to East Berlin, telling a crowd that had never experienced anything quite like him – a wrecking ball even then, that he was there to rage against the injustices built up in that wall:
I’m not here for or against any government. I’ve come to play rock ’n’ roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down.
I like to think it was Springsteen rather than Ronald Reagan who urged Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down that wall and that somewhere in that crowd, was the teenage bassoonist who had relieved himself against the Berlin Wall ten years earlier.
Watching on television as the wall came down was one of the greatest events of my personal history. As jubilant Germans clambered over bricks, I wondered if our young tour-guide had been reunited with family and friends in the West. Photographer Kai Wiedenhöfer documented it, believing that the fall of the Berlin Wall would end forever the notion that a wall is the answer to some of the most complex issues of our time. But since 1989, he has photographed what he describes as a “renaissance of walls” that includes the Peace Lines in my beloved Belfast, Northern Ireland, the West Bank fence that separates Israel and Palestine, the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, and the border between Mexico and the United States.
In fact, since the Berlin Wall came down, 28 new border walls have gone up all around the world. Ironically, these walls that are going up at such an alarming rate reflect not totalitarian regimes intent on keeping their people form seeking freedom and opportunities beyond their borders; rather, democracies such as these very United States, intent on keeping such people out. Wiedenhöfer’s Wall on Wall exhibition features 36 giant panoramas of modern man-made barriers glued on the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall. installation was to spark a conversation about why the walls between us today are taller, longer, and stronger than any we could have imagined on that jubilant November day in 1989 when echoes of Kennedy’s visit to Berlin in 1963 rang in our ears: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Why are we so afraid?
Since 1994, when the United States began beefing up border-enforcement, the Arizona Recovered Human Remains Project reports that the remains of more than 6,000 people have been recovered on the United States-Mexico border. Donald Trump’s core principal of immigration reform – a wall across the Southern border of these United States and the deportation of undocumented immigrants already here – would guarantee a continued loss of life. Think about those deported individuals who have lives here in America; wouldn’t they risk everything to return to their families? Wouldn’t you? Of course you would. Often, they must choose treacherous crossing routes to elude border patrol agents and hike high in the mountains or deep into desolate desert scrub where the temperatures soar above 120 degrees. Combined with lethal heat, the uncompromising desert terrain causes the most common form of death – dehydration. No More Deaths – No Más Muertes works tirelessly to bring an end to this humanitarian crisis, providing assistance to migrants, faithfully leaving water and food in remote and deadly parts of the Sonoran desert. The mission of the organization is noble and humane, reminding me again that the very best of humanity coexists with the very worst.
“ No Más Muertes aims to end death and suffering on the U.S./Mexico border through civil initiative: the conviction that people of conscience must work openly and in community to uphold fundamental human rights. Our work embraces the Faith-Based Principles for Immigration Reform and focuses on the following themes:
• Direct aid that extends the right to provide humanitarian assistance
• Witnessing and responding
• Consciousness raising
• Global movement building
• Encouraging humane immigration policy.”
But we are so very far away from humane immigration policy aren’t we? When there are those who are so enraged by the kindness in leaving water jugs for desperate, parched travelers, that they take it upon themselves to slash open those water containers and allow the water to pour out on the parched desert. It takes my breath away to consider the extent of the inhumanity. Yet, we continue to invest in more walls, and the Republican nominee for the highest office in the land has an ardent following hell bent on building a wall to barricade ourselves in and others out. I will never understand it.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, and wants it down.
Immigration policy should be generous; it should be fair; it should be flexible. With such a policy we can turn to the world, and to our own past, with clean hands and a clear conscience.
~John F. Kennedy 1958