Editor’s Note: Beth Simmons is a professor of law, political science and business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, where Michael Kenwick is a postdoctoral fellow. They lead the “Borders and Boundaries in World Politics” project. The views expressed here are theirs. View more opinion on CNN.
The United States is not the first country to obsess over its border security, and it will not be the last. Border security has been a central concern ever since the emergence of modern territorial states.
But in this age of globalization, robotics and biometrics, something feels strange about the fixation on physicality in the border policy debate we are having in the United States. Should we build a wall or a fence? Steel slats or chain link? From sea to shining sea, or at border crossings? Or is the border secured by better technology, communications and personnel?
Research we are conducting at the University of Pennsylvania can help to put the politicized hysteria of the moment into global and historical perspective. Our research group has begun collecting data on what we call “border orientation”: a country’s visible commitment to filter people and goods entering the nation. In particular, we are working to document the drive to place security architecture at international borders.
Our research thus far has yielded significant insights relevant to the border security debate. Among them:
Globally, a fortification orgy
We have systematically evaluated every place on earth where a major road crosses an international border. Using publicly available satellite images, our researchers have inspected these crossings for barriers, inspection lanes and official stations.
We are finding unmistakable evidence the world over, but especially in North America, the Middle East and the outer edge of the European passport-free zone, that border crossings are more physically guarded by state agents than ever before. Our research also confirms existing studies that have found an increasing number of border walls in the world.
What is behind this fortification orgy? Clearly, physical border structures are the prerogative of the rich. Gross domestic product per capita predicts which borders will be fortified, especially when one’s neighbor is relatively poor. For example, the United States has more border architecture on its southern border than it does to the north. Such is the political economy of border fortification, on average the world over.
But more concerning, our evidence shows that, even after accounting for wealth, border fortification is associated with more autocratic regimes. Free societies tend to favor more open borders. Democracies have historically been slow to wall and fence their international borders, at least in comparison with more repressive states such as those in Central Eurasia and the Middle East. Heightened demands for border security within the United States and Europe threaten to buck this trend, potentially reshaping the contours of democratic life.
Our own research uncovers another interesting finding: Investments in infrastructure at border crossings are particularly common in states where the military is politically influential. The challenge to civil-military norms through recent troop deployments at the US border therefore appears to be emblematic of a broader, potentially troubling trend.
How effective are border walls? Cautions from new research
New studies underway are beginning to enlighten debates about the effects of border barriers. Research on barriers on the southern US and Israeli border demonstrate unanticipated consequences for undocumented immigration flows and local crime rates. Whether miles of walls will solve problems such as the illicit drug trade has been questioned by the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s most recent National Drug Threat Assessment, which shows that drugs are primarily trafficked into the United States through legal ports of entry.
American policy must be informed first and foremost with US data. But there is value in looking at the experience of the rest of the world with border barriers. Our research group’s worldwide evidence shows that walls are not likely to produce the results President Donald Trump seeks.
Take human trafficking as an example. On December 27, Trump tweeted that “we desperately need Border Security and a Wall on the Southern Border. Need to stop Drugs, Human Trafficking, Gang Members & Criminals from coming into our Country.” In his first address from the Oval Office, the President again referred to a flood of human traffickers over the southern border of the United States as a justification for a border wall.
However, using global data coded from the US State Department’s own Trafficking in Persons Reports, we are finding no evidence that border walls or fences affect the probability of reports of transnational human trafficking around the world.
Rather, we are finding evidence that globally, reported trafficking ties between two countries are likely reduced when border crossings in destination countries have been strengthened with inspection capacity. Our research is ongoing and reflects correlations, not yet causal relationships, but so far it suggests that if we want to stop human trafficking, then border crossings, rather than long expanses of border, should be the primary focus of border security.
Takeaway: Walls symbolize repression, contribute little
What do these global findings mean for the border debate in America? The world is complex and we are only beginning to collect the kind of information that might inform a reasoned debate about border security, especially barrier construction. But we should be aware of what is (and is not) happening beyond as well as at our borders.
People on both sides of the issue appear aware of the tremendous symbolic significance border walls have. But worldwide, border barriers are more associated with autocratic regimes than free democracies. We should be aware of what kinds of signals we may be sending about who we are. The United States is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, and we should use this comparative advantage wisely. Walls and fences are expenses that have not delivered elsewhere.