When Donald Trump descended the gilded escalator in Trump Tower and declared his candidacy for President in 2015, he had a single central theme: he would build a wall. This wall, along the border between the United States and Mexico, would serve to prevent undocumented immigrants from entering the US, and Mexico would pay for it. It quickly won him the support of the anti-immigrant nativist wing of the Republican Party, and “Build The Wall” was chanted at his rallies as he made his way to an unlikely victory as President of the United States.
By Wayne DeLuca
Now that Trump is President, he expects to build his wall, but his plans have quickly run into several hitches. The first is that Mexico, obviously, has no intention of paying for any wall. The second is that Republicans in Congress are deeply skeptical of Trump’s ability to pay for a wall. And the third, which will be encountered sooner or later, is stark reality.
The border between the United States and Mexico is 1,900 miles. Much of the border is marked by a river (called the Rio Grande in the US and the Rio Bravo in Mexico). 700 miles of the border had fencing constructed after the Secure Fence Act of 2006, focusing on most of the high-traffic areas where immigration was centered. Much of the remaining border is in areas that are not densely populated, where a wall could very well be scaled. The wall is largely a symbol of the broken nature of the US immigration system.
Why Does Undocumented Immigration Happen?
The mainstream immigration debate in the US leaves a fundamental question unasked: why is there undocumented immigration into the Southwestern United States?
At least part of the answer is trade. NAFTA had a particularly harsh effect on Mexico’s agricultural economy; Mexican farmers growing corn found themselves completely devastated as they were forced to compete with the heavily subsidized US corn industry. The overall impact of US trade on Mexico has been to drive millions into poverty and desperation, such that fleeing over the border to promises of potential work becomes a preferred option.
It cannot be emphasized enough that there is work for the eleven million undocumented immigrants in the United States, often arranged before they enter. David Bacon’s 2009 book Illegal People documents the dynamic of how, in many cases, migrants from specific towns in Mexico or Central America are specifically targeted for work in the US.
The border between the US and Mexico was relatively open until the 1950s when “Operation Wetback” sent thousands of immigrants (and hundreds of US citizens caught in the dragnet and deported without due process) from the US back to Mexico. Migrant farmworkers were treated as second-class workers under the auspices of the “Bracero” program from World War II until the 1960s, when it was removed without any replacement. Since then, legal immigration from Mexico has been treated – ludicrously – in the quota system, like immigration from any other country.
Once in the United States, undocumented immigrants face awful conditions. Their undocumented status stands over them as a perpetual threat, and for years has been used to coerce migrants to work for substandard wages with little workplace safety. Latinx workers, many of them undocumented, are concentrated in the most dangerous types of work – construction, agriculture, and manufacturing – and suffer a fatality and serious injury rate well above their representation in the workforce. This system is quietly encouraged by employers who hire the undocumented and prefer it this way. (Undocumented immigrants are counted in the census and as such often unintentionally give extra representation to the land owners who hire them.)
The 2006 “fence” has created a unique wrinkle in this situation. Many immigrants who entered the US around the 2003 peak of immigration from Mexico have been effectively “locked in” within the country, unable to return to Mexico for fear that they would be cut off from jobs, home, family and social groups in the US. Most of the job-seeking migrants slowed and stopped during the 2008 recession.
The dynamic of immigration across the border has fundamentally shifted, as many of those crossing are women who are deliberately seeking asylum from Central America – Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. They are fleeing political instability, gang violence, or economic insecurity. It is not yet clear how the Trump administration will respond to asylum seekers (although given its track record thus far the prognosis is not good) but his election sparked a panicked wave of Central Americans crossing the border.
The Obama administration, unable to make any progress on immigration reform, focused on enforcement to a degree unprecedented even by Republican regimes. Numbers are still not completely clear, but in his term Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported over 2.5 million undocumented immigrants, a record number. Trump has vowed to outdo this, which will require an even more draconian enforcement regime.
Walling Himself Off
When asked how Trump would make Mexico pay for a border wall, his plan was basically an extortion scheme – to demand payments or threaten to withhold remittances sent by Mexicans living in the US to families in Mexico. The Mexican government has never taken this seriously, and the idea that it could happen was never realistic.
In its place the Trump administration has floated the idea of a tariff on Mexican goods. But this would impact far more than avocados and tequila; Mexico is a prime location for building vehicles and appliances as well as industrial machinery that would immediately jump in price. And Mexico is the United States’s second-largest export market; sparking a trade war would be disastrous for an economy that has been sluggish at best. And Americans would pay for it.
Some Republicans have spoken publicly about concern that Trump would not offset the billions of dollars that his wall would cost, and increase the national debt. Sen. John Cornyn also noted that a physical barrier would not actually secure a border on its own; walls need continual monitoring. This reflects a deeper ideological divide among Republicans, who are split between free trade and protectionism, and have never had a consensus on immigration.
None of this is to mention the other logistical hurdles of the wall, such as the Tohono O’odham nation, which has a reservation that spans 75 miles of the border in Arizona, and has vowed that it would not relinquish its land for the wallhas vowed that it would not relinquish its land for the wall.
The wall has become a trap for Trump; he cannot finance it other than on the backs of the American people, and his own party is notoriously allergic to tax increases. It is far from clear that he has the capacity to force Republicans to approve a new wall even with tariffs or funding offsets. But his base, and his notoriously fragile ego, are deeply connected to the pledge that he would build a wall. It particularly draws support from white nationalists who see “brown” immigration as an existential threat to a majority-white country. This makes resistance all the more important, as stopping Trump’s wall would be an important symbolic defeat for his presidency and his fascist followers.
Fuel to the Fire
Trump has had talks with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, in which a leaked transcript had the President suggest sending US troops if Mexico did not deal with unspecified “bad hombres”. Both the US and Mexican governments have tried to downplay this exchange, but it is quite clear that tensions between the countries are strained. Trump’s promise to “renegotiate” NAFTA is only adding to this pressure.
At home, Peña Nieto is faced with Mexico’s own massive protest movement. The 20% gasoline tax hike, known to Mexicans as the Gasolinazo, along with savage cuts to social spending have prompted intense action in Mexico’s streets. The protests have included unprecedented mobilization across the country and the temporary seizure of a customs house at the US-Mexico border. Mexicans living in California have gone back across the border in many cases to help organize the protests.
This is clearly a situation upon which a wall, or even talk of one, would only throw fuel on a raging fire. Trump and Peña Nieto do not rule comfortably in isolation, and both are quite vulnerable to further mobilizations.
No Deportations, No Wall! Legalization for All!
For the movement that is growing up in opposition to Trump, the wall presents a clear opportunity to frustrate the new regime’s plans. Mass opposition can bolster the case against the wall in Congress, where Republican Senators particularly will have to consider whether they want to join the President’s foolish endeavor. It can embolden the sanctuary cities across the country that refuse to make their police departments into de facto extensions of ICE, and keep their resistance strong despite Trump’s fulminations and threats.
It is important to support the undocumented where they are in the United States now. A movement offering genuine sanctuary and responding to deportation moves can extend the ability of the undocumented to live in the United States. We should also encourage cross-border solidarity with those fighting against the Gasolinazo in Mexico.
Beyond this, we need a completely different vision of immigration. Capital is free to move from country to country; likewise there should be no limits on the ability of workers to live and work where they want. We cannot forget that Obama was the deporter-in-chief for eight years and both capitalist parties enforce the same racist border laws, even if one is more vicious about it. We are against all deportations and border measures, and for legal status for all workers in the US today. As Karl Marx explained, the working class has no country, and the socialist movement in the United States particularly must be built on international solidarity.