The Idea of a Mexican Border Wall is Off-the-Wall – posted 2/6/2016 and published in the Concord Monitor 2/10/2016
This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on February 10, 2016 under the title “Off the Wall”.
Central to the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump is the idea that, if elected, he is going to build an impenetrable wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out illegal Mexican migrants. Not only that, he says he is going to make Mexico pay for it.
Among the Republican presidential candidates, Trump is not alone on the wall idea. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, and John Kasich have all supported building a wall on our Southern border.
It is surprising how little critical scrutiny the Mexican wall idea has received. Not only has the wall been assumed a needed and good idea, the assumptions behind the wall have largely remained unexamined.
I think the wall would be a colossal white elephant. It would also be an extravagant public spending boondoggle. The journalist Jorge Ramos of Univision correctly called it “a waste of time and money”. As Ramos points out, 40% of those deemed illegal immigrants are people who come to the United States by plane and who overstay their visas. The wall does not address that large group.
Our southern border runs 1954 miles. At present there is fencing along 670 miles. That leaves 1284 miles unfenced. The New York Times has estimated the cost of building such a barrier as $16 million per mile, adding up to a project of around $20 billion.
That is a huge cost for a project of dubious efficacy. Every wall can be circumvented, either under or over.
Trump has said that building such a wall is “easy” and it can be done inexpensively. That is not a view that is widely shared by federal officials and other experts.
Richard Stana, now retired, who worked in the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and who wrote reports on border security has said, “It is extremely challenging to put a bricks-and-mortar wall along the Southwest border for any number of reasons.”
The reasons are pretty obvious: the wall has to be built in extremely remote and difficult topographical areas. Desert in Arizona, mountains in New Mexico and rivers for almost two-thirds of the length. We are talking places that lack roads or infrastructure.
Providing food, water, shelter, bathroom facilities, transport and medical supplies to the wall workers in remote locations would be no small challenge. Much of the wall would be located in different forms of wilderness, removed from civilizational niceties.
There are other hurdles as well. Not all land around the border is federal property. Private land owned by ranchers and farmers would need to be purchased. In Texas, in places where fencing went up already, ranchers and farmers were upset that fencing would cut off access to the Rio Grande, the only regional source of fresh water. Local business groups were also opposed to the fencing because it slowed cross-border traffic that helped the local economy.
There are also issues with Native American tribal rights. Acquiring the land and using eminent domain could involve significant additional cost and possible legal challenge.
Trump’s assurances that such a project would be “easy” are about as persuasive as his idea that he is going to make Mexico pay for the wall. When asked, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto absolutely denied Mexico would pay. Eduardo Sanchez, the spokesperson for the Mexican president said this about Trump’s assertion:
“It reflects an enormous ignorance for what Mexico represents and also the irresponsibility of the candidate who’s saying it.”
The idea that Mexico would be made to pay for the wall is simply macho bluster. It is campaign braggadocio. There is no credible reason to believe that Mexico could be made to pay for a wall built to benefit the United States. Bullying about the wall is a strange way to treat a country that has been our strong ally. While political allies can certainly have disagreements, the wall is tactless, is diplomatically offensive and it actually would harm local economies that depend on border crossing.
The wall idea rests on racist stereotypes about an ongoing invasion of undocumented Mexicans crossing into the United States. While certainly we live in an era of mass global migration with desperate people dying to escape dire war zones, the stereotype about Mexicans is false.
As of 2014, there are 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States. That population has essentially remained stable for five years. According to Pew Research, Mexicans make up about half of all unauthorized immigrants (49%) and their numbers have actually declined over the last few years.
That reality is at odds with the fearmongering propaganda we have seen from the more extreme Republican candidates. Truth is the first casualty. In his TV ads Trump was actually using pictures of people in Morocco scaling a fence. The ad was designed to create the impression that it was our Southern border. The appeal of such ads go directly to our emotions. Vague plausibility speaks to our unconscious fears.
The world is a scary place. In an unthought-out way, the wall speaks to our fears about terrorism and drug trafficking. It also addresses economic insecurities. Those problems are real but the wall is a non-solution. By the same logic, why would we not need a wall on our Canadien border? The wall idea is a fundamentally irrational response to a complicated series of problems.
The wall idea also reflects an utter lack of understanding of the history of immigration on our southern border. In her book, Undocumented, Aviva Chomsky explains how for much of U.S. history the border between Mexico and the U.S. was virtually unpoliced and migration flowed freely. U.S. business interests, especially agribusiness, relied on cheap, migrant Mexican labor to pick crops. Agribusiness still relies on these seasonal workers.
Our Mexican immigration policy has been largely dictated by the needs of American business which wanted the economic development of the Southwest. Categorizing Mexican immigrants as “illegal” did not begin until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 when, for the first time, numerical limits were placed on Mexican migration. Even for 20 years after that immigration rules were relatively slack. Ironically, it was not until the middle 1980’s, that the number of undocumented immigrants precipitously rose after the U.S. began to try to seal the border. As Chomsky points out, this was in large part due to the fact that migrants felt compelled to stay after a season of work since they realized returning would now be more difficult.
Before 1965, the earlier waves of deportation directed against Mexicans in the 1930’s and 1950’s had nothing to do with their being undocumented. Entry then was restricted on the grounds of indigence and concerns that Mexicans would become public charges.
Since the 1990’s, the Latino threat narrative has been manipulated and promoted by right wing politicians. They hope to channel national anxieties about economic inequality, job loss, and a worsening economic future away from their real causes.
I see two political purposes behind the current Mexican wall idea. First , it is an effort to rabble rouse the most angry, racist, and xenophobic Americans, especially those with the least informed understanding of immigration matters. Second, it is an effort at blame-shifting. Migrants from Latin America who leave terrible situations to try and make a better life for themselves in another country did not shift good jobs out of the United States. It is the billionaire class in America which sold out American workers by shipping jobs out of the country in an effort to find cheap labor elsewhere.
For those who are looking to blame someone, our American plutocrats are a good place to begin. There is something sinister about billionaires, ensconced in a life of luxury, using their hired and paid for right wing politicians to point the finger of blame at some of the poorest people on the planet.
The Mexican border wall would cost a fortune, would predictably not work, would damage wilderness, and would act to poison relations with one of our closest neighbors and trading partners. The contention that such a wall would contribute to making America great again is laughable.