The Ominous Implications of Trump's Border Plan
In his presidential campaign announcement, Donald Trump declared his plan to curb Mexican immigration, explaining: “I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, and I’ll build it inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.” While Trump’s plan is bold, it is politically unrealistic, as suggested by a blunt comment from former Mexico president Vicente Fox on Fusion: “We’re not going to pay for that f#@%ing wall.” Despite this pivot to reality, Trump responded predictably: “The wall just got 10 feet taller, believe me.”
While the rhetoric surrounding Trump’s immigration plan has sparked interest and controversy, few have fully interrogated the implications of building a wall along the entire southern border. Those who have sought to address the specifics of Trump’s plan, such as John Oliver, have shown that aside from being politically infeasible, building a wall would neither stem immigration nor address the root of the immigrant flow from Mexico. Instead, such a move would amplify years of failed, expensive immigration policies between the US and Mexico, perpetuating a harmful framework for understanding immigration.
Undocumented immigration from Mexico to the US has not always been considered problematic; it was only after passage of the 1965 Immigration Act that the idea of an “illegal” Mexican immigrant came to be. Prior to 1965, Mexicans were exempt from immigration quotas, as they were seen as temporary workers who would stay in the US for a short time and then return home.
For most of the twentieth century, migration from Mexico was largely circular, as male migrants moved back and forth across the border to find work and earn money to spend and invest at home. Unlike other immigrant groups, Mexicans were not expected to carry a passport until 1919—and that was largely to prevent the smuggling of alcohol into the US during the Prohibition Era. Under the Literacy Act, Mexicans did not have to take a literacy test like other immigrants if they worked in the mining, agriculture, or railroad industries. The US government even partnered with Mexico to create a large-scale guest worker program called the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexicans to legally live and work seasonally in the US from 1942 through 1964.
It was not until the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act—which placed numerical limits on Mexican immigration—that Mexican immigration began to be more strictly regulated, and that Mexican migrants coming to the US without proper paperwork started to be called “illegal immigrants.”
Trump’s immigration plan fails to take into account the long-term historic patterns of immigration between the US and Mexico; it also ignores the enduring reliance many US industries have had on Mexican labor. Instead, the plan perpetuates the misguided practice of militarizing the border to prevent immigration. In 1986, President Reagan passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, justifying such militarization by exploiting Cold War fears that communists would “would feed on the anger and frustration of Central and South Americans” and send “terrorists” and “subversives” over the border. Using a similar logic today, Trump justifies his wall-building plans by claiming that immigrants crossing the border are dangerous, and that “…they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists…” While preying on fears has proven useful as a political tool, it does not make for practical immigration policy.
Policies like Trump's that aim to build walls and increase the presence of border patrol have historically been ineffective. In fact, such policies have often yielded the opposite outcome of their intended effects, causing immigrants to stay in the US longer and increasing the power of drug cartels. Making the border more difficult to cross does not stop migration; it only changes how migration occurs. Increasing the difficulty of crossing the border in 1986 only slowed an otherwise circular flow of migration. It did not stop migration, but increased the cost of entry into the US, causing immigrants to stay and work in the country for longer periods, out of fear that they would not be able to cross the border again. Consequently, many workers also brought their families to the US, increasing the number of undocumented immigrants in the country.
Rather than decreasing the influence and power of criminal organizations along the border, building walls makes smuggling a more profitable business. With border patrol and barriers blocking many ports of entry on the border, smugglers can increase the prices they charge for immigrants to cross the border. The average cost of crossing the border has risen from $600 in 1986 to $4,500 dollars today, and as smuggling becomes more profitable, there is more incentive for organized crime groups to get involved. As Marc Rosenblum of the Migration Policy Institute has commented: "The conventional wisdom is that smuggling networks have become more professionalized, moving from mom-and-pop organizations to more serious criminal enterprises that have increasingly become more entangled with drug smugglers." Thus, if Trump's border plan were to be implemented, it would not be Mexico causing more criminals to cross the border, but the US.
Aside from being ineffective, Trump’s immigration policy is also extremely expensive. The federal government already spends an astronomical amount on border security: $3.7 billion per year to keep over 21,000 border patrol agents in the field, and another $3.2 billion on 23,000 inspectors at ports of entry along the border—despite the fact that a third of the border is already fenced or walled off.
Trump is not the first president to propose building barriers on the border. For example, President Bush passed the Secure Fence Act in 2006, calling for 700 miles of border fencing. The plan cost $2.4 billion and the promised fence has not been completed. Trump's plan is far more ambitious and would involve building a wall over harsh deserts and rugged mountains, making it even more expensive. By some estimates, the cost of building a wall could range from $15 to $25 billion—and that estimate does not include additional maintenance and surveillance equipment costs.
Concerns over Trump’s immigration policy are not just monetary; they are humanitarian as well. As border security measures have increased, so too has the number of immigrant deaths along the US-Mexico border. A 2006 GAO study found that border crossing deaths doubled after the US ramped up border security in the mid-1990s, even though there was not a significant uptick in immigration at that time. Since 1986, an estimated 7,000 migrants have died along the border. Perceptions of a human rights crisis have prompted groups like No Mas Muertes to offer humanitarian aid in the form of jugs of water to migrants attempting to cross deserts and mountain peaks. The fact that immigrants are willing to face such harsh conditions, risking death to cross the border, shows how unlikely it is that any wall will stop migration. It is not a lack of security that causes immigration; rather, it is human need, as fueled by the demand for low-wage labor in the US.
While rhetorically powerful, Trump’s immigration plan is ultimately ineffective and expensive, with dire humanitarian consequences. Building a wall is a simple answer to a more complex issue facing the US. Rather than asking how we can stop waves of "illegal" immigrants from entering the country, we should ask how we can improve the conditions that lead Mexicans to come to US in the first place.