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Special Report II
Last Updated: 11/09/2007
Barbwire City Upon a Hill: Fencing in the American People, Fencing out Cooperation
Maggie Schwalbach

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken...we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God...We shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us til we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going. [1]                                      - John Winthrop, anno 1630


In 1630, John Winthrop delivered his sermon in an effort to convince newly-arrived Puritan disciples that it was their holy duty to found a model community in New England.

He envisioned that this new American “city upon a hill” should serve as a shining example to the whole world.

The great historical irony is that even though Winthrop called upon his followers to build a visionary model community, in reality, the society created by the Puritans was a rigid, structured republic based on order and punishment with harsh courts, uncompromising religious practices, and strict familial requirements. In name, the community may have been faultless. In practice, however, the supposedly magnificent “City upon a Hill” was inflexible, severe, and controlling.

Multiple US presidents have famously alluded to Winthrop and applied his prophecy of the United States as a model nation.[2] Focused exclusively on his idealized vision while ignoring the restrictive management strategies he put into practice, US leaders have fallen into the trap of rhetorically espousing liberation ideology – our people are free and our land is consecrate –  rather than working to implement policies that ensure a society based on principles of sustainable peace.

As I will show in this paper, draping oneself in the language of freedom and liberty is far different from acting to realize that vision. The United States today faces key challenges to building a community of peace. The focus of this academic inquiry will concentrate on the recent American debate over immigration policy and border security. Specifically, the essay will examine the ideological and socio-political implications of President Bush’s plan to construct a security fence along the Mexican-American border. 

On October 26, 2006, President George W. Bush passed a bill authorizing the construction of a fence along 700 miles of the 2,100-mile border between the United States and Mexico. The proposed plan is estimated to take years to construct and will cost approximately $49 billion dollars to complete. The president has already approved $4 billion dollars in emergency spending to secure the border.[3]

The bill came after a heated summer that witnessed demonstrations numbering in the millions. On one side, those favoring stricter immigration policies campaigned for tighter border control. On the other, those favoring immigration fought to decriminalize illegal aliens and promote legislature that would give undocumented workers guest-worker status.

The issue of immigration quickly became a significant point of contention. Every major media outlet focused massive attention on the conflict while key media commentators split in their views of how the issue should be handled. In Washington, debates raged in the House and Senate. Across the country, the public itself divided: a Rasmussen Report poll taken on August 18, 2007, reported that Americans favored building a fence by a margin of 56 percent in favor to 31 percent against.[4]

Each year, between 400,000 and 1 million undocumented migrants try to cross the US-Mexican border.[5] In December 2003, Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, estimated that the illegal alien population totaled 8 to 12 million.[6]  In 2005, over 1.2 million illegal immigrants were apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol.[7] In 2007, NPR cites the population of undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States totals 12 million, while Lou Dobbs of CNN regularly quotes 20 million.[8] Undoubtedly, the issue of immigration is a vivid reality for all Americans.

However, immigrants have been arriving across the United States’ southern border since the independence of the two nations over 200 years ago. Why, then, does the issue present such a conflict today? Why are Americans up in arms, literally, over illegal immigration? To understand the answers, a peacemaker must understand the underlying causes of the conflict and carefully examine the ideological underpinnings in the perceived divergence of parties’ interests.


The [Secure Fence Act] will help protect the American people. This bill will make our borders more secure. [9]           -President George W. Bush. October 26, 2006 

To address concerns over the mass influx of illegal immigration along the southern border of the United States, Bush outlined a strategy that prioritized armed intervention. According to Bush’s White House presidential address to the nation, since taking office, the president has more than doubled funding for border security – from $4.6 billion in 2001 to $10.4 billion this year. Additionally, the Bush administration has increased the number of Border Patrol agents from 9,000 to more than 12,000. By 2008, he plans to double the number of patrol agents along the Mexican-American border.[10]

Furthermore, Bush has deployed 6,000 National Guard members to assist the Border Patrol. Professor Timothy Dunn of Salisbury University argues that this tactic sets a dangerous tone. “We’ve never seen this scale of the use of the military before. The Border Patrol have acted more like the military, received military training and so on. So, the police acting like the military and the military getting involved in police matters, working together. And that's relatively rare in American history. But it's common in other settings where there are widespread human rights problems.”[11]

In addition to deploying more border control men on the ground, the President also outlined a series of targeted enforcement measures including the expansion of detention centers, the creation of an identification card system that would collect digitized fingerprints of undocumented workers, and the upgrade of technology infrastructure.[12]


We are still a nation at risk. Part of our strategy, of course, is to stay on the offense against terrorists who would do us harm. In other words, it is important to defeat them overseas so we never have to face them here. Nevertheless, we recognize that we've got to be fully prepared here at the homeland. [13]

- President George W. Bush
February 8, 2006

At the heart of the contentious debate over immigration and border control is the fundamental conceptual understanding of “security.” What makes an individual, community, or nation secure?

The actions taken by the United States government follow a traditionalist view of security in international relations. As Shlomi Dinar argues, traditionalists fundamentally favor military security as a primary goal.[14] In this light, alternative analytical framework units are ignored, such as Edward Azar’s “communal context” in which the identity group - racial, religious, ethnic, or cultural - is the most useful unit of analysis and pits the core of a conflict in the “disarticulation between the state and society as a hole.” [15]

Traditionalists view nation-states as their ultimate unit of analysis. States are seen to be driven by insecurity in a chaotic, inherently conflicting world. In this perceived inter-state battlefield, nations must fight for their own survival. As such, distrustful states wary of their adversary’s present and future intentions will focus on security in the short-term while ignoring long-term security needs.[16] In other words, states will constantly be on the offense because they perceive themselves at continual risk. 

The United States Secure Fence Act reflects this approach. The guiding principles of the Bush administration, as shown in statements like the one above, are based upon the traditionalist notion that nation-states must struggle to survive in a hostile world.

According to this rationalization, waging a war on terror and waging a war on illegal immigration are handled in much the same manner. Even though the two are different conflicts with vastly variant root causes, the US government’s security approach is the same: distrust the unknown, militarize, and employ short-term solutions.

Current policies are based on mistrust. By beefing up arms, sending border patrollers, and building a fence, Bush is convinced he can gain victory over a national security threat by waging battle against a perceived enemy. 



In the case of the Mexican-American border conflict, changes in attitudes threaten peace not only on an individual level, but also on a structural level involving group shifts toward hostile goals. Pruitt (1965) describes the consequences of the phenomenon: “As negative perceptions are publicly discussed, group goals of defeating the enemy develop and subgroups form to implement these goals. More militant leadership may emerge.”

A clear example of Pruitt’s research is illustrated in the rise of the American militant subgroup, The Minutemen Project. Founded by Jim Gilchrist, the Minutemen are armed chapters of voluntary conscripts who have taken it upon themselves to “protect” the United States by enforcing border security. Minutemen exemplify what Rambsbotham would refer to as a conflict group.[17] Their collectively hostile attitudes toward Mexican immigrants reinforce the group’s solidarity while at the same time group mobilization and recruitment tactics are fueled by the cohesiveness resulting from having an outside enemy.

In a rare statement from the Republican right, Governor Huckabee, Republican candidate for US President, admits that the underlying reasons for many Americans’ concerns over immigration may be motivated by antagonistic attitudes. In 2005, Huckabee said that legislation to oppose illegal immigration was “inflammatory and race-baiting.” He later observed, “If I were to say some of it is driven by sheer racism, I think I would be telling you the truth.”[18] 



We need to have something more comprehensive, because [immigration] is not an enforcement issue. This is more an economic issue, and at the end it's a human rights issue.                                       -Fernando Garcia. 16 May, 2006.

Fernando Garcia, Director of the Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso, Texas, explains his position that border security is wrongly represented as an enforcement issue. He goes on to describe the growing mistrust among members of his community in reaction to the militarization of the border. “We live in this extreme fear of living in this violent border… We have a massive presence of the Border Patrol in our streets. We have 44 agencies combined in our communities, and on top of that, we're going to have 6,000 troops. So, this doesn't make any sense for our communities.”[19]

Anxiety, mistrust and fear also run high among other border residents. Business owners fear that the influx of illegal immigrants will take away jobs and lead to lower wages for all workers. A solution to this concern, the proposal to introduce a guest-worker program that would grant Mexican immigrants temporary legal employment status, was vehemently rejected by many who equated guest-worker status to amnesty. "It is repulsive and insulting that our government would promote any form of amnesty for overtly illegal conduct," said Al Garza, executive director of the Minutemen Project.


It may be long before the law of love will be recognized in international affairs. The machineries of government stand between and hide the hearts of one people from those of another. [20]                                             - Mahatma Gandhi

A champion of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi would be disappointed by the actions undertaken by the current United States administration, specifically the Bush administration’s proposal to achieve security through militarization of the border.

Like Gandhi, the contemporary peacemaker’s objective is to obtain a Win-Win outcome in which contending parties recognize each other and share a collective truth.

The current conflict over illegal immigration can be resolved peacefully. The proposed $49 billion dollars earmarked for the Secure Fence Act should be used more wisely to fund projects that promote communication rather than perpetuate hostility and distrust.

Non-violent action can be taken to create a comprehensive immigration policy that will address both parties’ needs and ultimately transform the conflict by opening a space for mutual understanding. A structured series of proposed conflict resolution steps include:

  1. Implementing a legalization program allowing immigrants access to citizenship.
  2. Legalizing immigrant entry through the creation of an immigrant work program.
  3. Ensuring that immigration enforcement complements rather than undermines the enforcement of labor and employment laws.
  4. Protecting human and civil rights through a responsible and accountable immigration policy that does not treat immigrants as the enemy.
  5. Creating programs that integrate newcomers into the United States.
  6. Addressing the root causes of migration by focusing on inequities in wealth distribution.[21]


If the United States aspires to become a beacon of tolerance and justice, it must recognize its legacy as a nation of immigrants and welcome newcomers into the fabric of American society. Rather than construct new walls, we must begin to tear down the conceptual walls that divide us, transforming the nation into a model worthy of being lauded a “City upon a hill.”


[1]  Hanover Historical Texts Project. Scanned by Monica Banas, August,1996. Winthrop, John. A Model of Christian Charity. 1630. Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. (Boston, 1838), 3rd series 7:31-48.) .

[2] See . For a giggle (or sneer), pay attention to the lines “The Persian Gulf is no longer a war zone. The Soviets are leaving Afganistan.” This assurance was given in 1989.

[10] Ibid.

[11]Militarizing the Border: Bush Calls For 6,000 National Guard Troops to Deploy to U.S.-Mexican Border” May 16th, 2006.

[12] Ibid.

[14] Dinar, Shlomi. 2000. Water, Security, Conflict, and Cooperation, SAIS Review Vol. XXII(2):229-253.

[15] Azar, Edward. The Management of Protracted Social Conflict: Theory and Cases (1990) cited in Ramsbotham, Oliver; Woodhouse, Tom, and Miall, Hugh.  2005. Contemporary Conflict Resolution; Second Edition; Cambridge, UK; Chapter 2: Conflict Resolution: Origins, Foundations and Development of the Field, p. 86).

[16] Ramsbotham, Oliver; Woodhouse, Tom and Miall, Hugh. 2005. Contemporary Conflict Resolution; Second Edition; Cambridge, UK; Chapter 2: Conflict Resolution: Origins, Foundations and Development of the Field, p. 105).  

[17] Ibid. p. 113.

[18] Transcript from the Republican National Debate.

[20] Merton, Thomas, Editor. Gandhi on Non-violence: A Selection from the Writings of Mahatma Gandhi

[21] For further suggestions, see the complete report issued by The Border Community Alliance, the Fair Immigration Reform Movements (FIRM) and the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (NALACC) for the joint legislative and advocacy days March 14-15, 2007.

Maggie Schwalbach is a Masters degree candidate in the Media program at the UN madated Universtiy for Peace in Costa Rica.