How the Berlin Wall should inform our opinion of immigration

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FILE – In this June 17, 2018 file photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, people who’ve been taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the United States, sit in one of the cages at a facility in McAllen, Texas. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Rio Grande Valley Sector via AP, File)

If you’ve paid attention at all to politics over the last few years you know there’s been a lot of changes to immigration policy, from a travel ban centered around Muslim-majority countries to a proposed border wall to restrictions on who can apply for asylum. These policies are now front and center in the immigration debate, cheered by supporters who believe immigrants are harming the country and loathed by others who see it as symbolic of perceived racism towards mostly Latino and Muslim immigrants.

Several decades ago there was another wall constructed to deal with an immigration problem. However, this was not a wall to keep people out, but rather one to keep people in. Built by the Soviet Union in East Berlin in August of 1961, the Berlin Wall split a city in two for 28 years.

The Berlin Wall and the political arguments surrounding it are interesting to look at from a few perspectives. First and foremost, it is worth examining why the Soviet Union built it, and why those in the West found the wall abhorrent. After all, the Soviet Union was well within their rights to construct a border in their own territory, and they certainly didn’t want people with dangerous and different ideas (so-called western agents) coming into their country and upsetting the established order. And there was an economic justification as well; many of those who fled East Germany in previous years were younger and educated, critical components of the workforce.

That’s just my snotty way of saying that both the Soviet Union and Donald Trump have similar justifications for why a wall and other hardline policies are needed. The only difference being that pretty much everyone in America agrees the Berlin Wall was a bad thing while only a healthy majority say the same thing about the proposed wall along the southern border. Now there are reasons for this, among them hindsight and partisanship, but having a policy with similarities to an authoritarian government isn’t in and of itself justification for dismissal (although it does call for reflection).

The critical thing to contemplate is why, exactly, the Berlin Wall is considered terrible. The most obvious reason is that it restricted freedom of movement, people were prevented from having the choice to leave a nation with few economic opportunities and an oppressive regime. And, to be honest, many current immigration policies are having the same effect. Denying asylum protection to groups who are suffering from domestic or gang violence, as the Trump Administration has done, severely limits the options for people escaping a dangerous place.

Another horrible aspect of the Berlin Wall was that it had the effect of ripping families apart. The current administration has done this in many respects, most recently separating children from their parents when being detained at the border. Aside from this heinous policy, the so-called Muslim Ban has also had the effect of preventing relatives from seeing one another.

All-in-all, many of the policies implemented by the Trump Administration have pretty identical effects on the lives of individuals when compared to what the Soviet Union accomplished with the Berlin Wall. And sure we can try and justify our policies in the name of maintaining the borders of our country, but these justifications sound awfully hollow in the face of the consequences of our actions on individuals who are suffering.

Many in the US will claim that although they feel bad about less fortunate people exposed to these problems, they don’t come from our country so it’s not our problem to handle. I say that’s a load of crap, the wealthiest nation in the history of the world should be doing everything in its power to help those suffering from violence and oppression. We didn’t do anything to deserve the benefits of this country, we just had the dumb luck to be born here. One day when we are able to see everyone as human beings rather than just members of some nation this sentiment could translate to open borders. But for now, I’ll just settle for doing our best to protect the downtrodden of the world. Because we’re one of the few places that can.


Jacob Kowalski is opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at jacob.kowalski@uconn.edu.

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