Before devolving back into mudslinging and character assassination, the final presidential debate featured a brief yet refreshing discussion of actual policy matters. On the issue of illegal immigration, Donald Trump reaffirmed his commitment to the cornerstone of his immigration policy—building a wall on our southern border. Building this wall, and making Mexico pay for it, has been a centerpiece of his campaign since he first entered the race accusing Mexicans of “bringing drugs” and “bringing crime” into the US.

During the debate, Trump traced the idea for the wall back to a 2006 law that erected a series of discontinuous border fences, a law that Hillary Clinton voted for as a Senator. “Hillary Clinton fought for the wall in 2006 or thereabouts,” he said. “Now, she never gets anything done, so naturally the wall wasn’t built.” In response, Clinton acknowledged that “there are some limited places where that was appropriate,” but she placed more faith in “new technology” than what Trump’s campaign website claims will be “an impenetrable physical wall.”

Walls certainly are an old technology. In fact, the idea of a giant border wall goes back much further in American history than 2006.

Centuries before Trump, another porous border in America was the source of grave concern, this one along the Appalachian Mountains. In the years before the American Revolution, colonists were streaming across the natural barrier, taking land from the Indians and destabilizing their societies through attacks and liquor sales. One British official noted in 1767 that he had received “frequent Accounts… of the Violences committed upon the Indians and usurpations of their Lands by the Frontier People.” A few years later, an Indian chief complained about the “Many Unruly Bad White People” plying them with “great Quantities of Rum.”

In her 1805 History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, Mercy Otis Warren reflected on “the licentiousness and barbarity” of the settlers. A prominent political writer, Warren lamented the senseless bloodshed in the Indian war on the northwestern frontier that followed the Revolution from 1785 to 1795. She contended that if “a Chinese wall had been stretched along the Appalachian ridges, that might have kept the nations within the boundaries of nature.”

This Great Wall, she claimed, “would have prevented the incalculable loss of life and property, and have checked the lust of territory, wealth, and th[e] ambition” of the settlers, which she felt had been responsible for the fighting. (While Warren recognized that the Indians “certainly have a prior right to the inheritance” of those lands, she was mostly upset about the loss of American lives and did not hold enlightened views towards Indians, whom she labeled “fierce uncultivated natives” and “savages.”)

By the time of Warren’s writing, it was already too late to confine American settlement to the Eastern Seaboard. But the British government had tried to rein in westward expansion before the American Revolution. After the hostilities of the French and Indian War (1754–1763) and the start of an Indian uprising led by Pontiac in 1763, King George III decided to issue a proclamation prohibiting settlement in regions beyond the Appalachian Mountains, except when approved by both the Indians and the Crown.

While this edict only created a line in the sand, it was supposed to be enforced by British troops stationed in America. Colonists decried new taxes imposed in part to cover the costs of this border patrol. In other words, the British tried to make them pay for it, and they refused. Colonists believed the policy was against their interests, and futile anyway. As a contributor to the Virginia Gazette asserted in 1773, “Not even a second Chinese wall, unless guarded by a million of soldiers, could prevent the settlement of the lands on [the] Ohio [River] and its dependencies.” So much for Warren’s big idea.

The Proclamation of 1763 was poorly enforced and unsuccessful. Not only did it fail to stem the flow of illegal emigrants into indigenous territories, but it also engendered deep resentment among the colonists. The same Virginian cautioned that if the Crown persisted in its emigration policies, “a cruel, expensive, and unprofitable war should become necessary.” Two years later, the war began.

The Proclamation was not solely intended to discourage new settlement; the decree included measures to encourage the colonization of Canada and Florida. Still, George Washington was right when he wrote in 1767, “I can never look upon that Proclamation in any other light… than as a temporary expedient to quiet the Minds of the Indians.” The fertile western lands were all but irresistible to the increasingly crowded, predominantly agrarian colonies. “If our people remain confined within the mountains,” Benjamin Franklin warned in 1760, they would soon have “a country whose inhabitants surpass the number that can subsist by the husbandry of it.” Manufacturing would be the logical alternative to agriculture, as “manufactures … must subsist the bulk of the people in a full country, or they must be subsisted by charity, or perish.” Unfortunately, longstanding fears about commercial competition had led Parliament to institute a set of restrictions on manufacturing in the colonies. If the British had promoted colonial manufacturing instead of hampering it, perhaps the colonists’ land hunger wouldn’t have been so insatiable.

As the saying goes, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” There are remarkable echoes of the past in today’s border situation, but the circumstances are essentially reversed. The American people are now in charge of their own affairs and are standing on the other side of a potential wall.

Assuming Mexico’s president adheres to his vow that “Mexico will not pay for the wall,” the American taxpayers have to decide if they want to foot the bill. It could be higher than $25 billion, according to the Washington Post, which doesn’t include monitoring and maintenance costs. Yet even if the wall could stop some people from entering illicitly, it is hardly a long-term solution. These immigrants are desperate to come to the U.S. because they are fleeing countries wracked by drug violence, corruption, and poverty. Rather than rush to a simplistic fix, we should direct our money to approaches that address the underlying causes of our border problems. Over the last few years, such efforts by the U.S. in Honduras have begun to stabilize the country and have drastically reduced the number of its unaccompanied minors trying to reach the U.S. There is still much to be done there, as well as in other countries in the region, to make people feel they have a future at home.

Clinton has said, “We need to build bridges, not walls.” In keeping with that sentiment, she should advance a clear plan to strengthen our neighbors to the south. The Democratic platform already includes a pledge to aid “those fleeing violence in Central America and work with our regional partners to address the root causes of violence.” If the past is any guide, this should be our focus, rather than sinking money into a wall whose efficacy is far from certain. Instead of mending the problem, building a wall may at best put a Band-Aid on the wound and at worst rub salt in it.

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