History of Border Walls in the U.S. and Around the World

History of Border Walls in the U.S. and Around the World

Much of the 3,000-mile (4,828kilometer) Great Wall of China was constructed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) [see timeline of Chinese history] to prevent attacks from rival forces, although officials as early as the fifth century BCE also built sections of this and other walls.

The Roman Empire was protected by natural barriers, including rivers in Europe and the Sahara Desert in North Africa. However, when the Roman Emperor Hadrian (76-138CE) visited Britain in 122 CE, he ordered a stone wall built to protect this more vulnerable northern boundary. Hadrian's Wall stretched across England for over 73 miles (117 kilometers) and was as thick as 10 feet (3 meters). [See list of Roman emperors]

During World War II, the Nazis forced hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews into a small area of Warsaw and contained them with a wall. Within the walled territory, which was known as the Warsaw Ghetto, disease, starvation, and other pitiful conditions spread. The Warsaw Ghetto became a symbol of severe repression throughout the world during the mid-twentieth century.

The 96-mile (154-kilometer), nearly 12-foot (3.6-meter) high Berlin Wall built in 1961 by the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) divided East Berlin from West Berlin. The wall effectively prevented most citizens in the East from defecting to the West until 1989, when the Cold War ended and the wall was demolished.

In 1986, Congress passed, and President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), granting lawful permanent residence to 2.7 million people. Instead of ending the flow of illegal immigration, it actually caused a brief spike, as family members of the newly legal residents entered the country illegally. Within a decade, the number of illegal immigrants was back to more than five million.

In 1990, the United States constructed a 66-mile (106-kilometer) fence along the California coast from San Diego to the Pacific Ocean to deter illegal immigration. Arrests of illegal immigrants in the San Diego region declined sharply as a result of the fence, but increased nearly 600 percent in Arizona, where the number of accidental deaths also climbed as Mexicans attempted to traverse the harsh desert environment.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. The act increased fines for illegal aliens, provided additional funding for border patrol and surveillance, and also approved the installation of an additional 14-mile (22-kilometer) fence near San Diego. Some landowners in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas erected their own fences, often with the help of militia, but no permanent barrier had been constructed by the government in these areas until recently.

The Secure Fence Act, signed by President George W. Bush in 2006, promised 700 miles (1,126 kilometers) of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border; however, lawsuits and protests from citizen groups halted construction. The Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife filed a lawsuit challenging the ability of the Bush administration to waive important environmental regulations in order to build the wall on the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area in Arizona. These regulations include the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. In October 2007, a U.S. district court sided with the organizations and stopped construction.

Many members of the Tohono O'odham Nation in Arizona also protest a section of the barrier being built on their reservation, especially since they claim they were not first consulted by the Bush administration. The Tohono O'odham have members who live on each side of the border and consider both countries their home. They value the ability to cross the border unimpeded, but also express frustration at the problems that illegal immigrants bring to their reservation. Bodies are found almost daily, as people die from exposure to the harsh desert climate or are killed by smugglers.

A virtual wall may offer a compromise for some residents who live along the border; such a wall was among the requests put forth by Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), who introduced the Borderlands Conservation and Security Act (HR 2593) in 2007. The bill would mitigate some of problems cited by critics of the Secure Fence Act.

Virtual walls are not without controversy. Some Americans who live in areas in which high-tech surveillance is used complain of the invasion of privacy caused by cameras and other equipment, and safety issues related to using laser, radar, and biometric technology.


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