The Great Wall of Trump

Trump’s not fucking about, is he? We’re not even a week into his Presidency and he’s issuing orders left and right with the purpose of delivering on his campaign promises. I suppose this is what happens when you don’t elect a career politician, they actually do what they say they’re going to do. Contrast this with the UK and its procrastination over leaving the EU. Had Trump been in charge instead of Cameron the Channel Tunnel would have been dynamited by the end of June last year.

The wall along the border with Mexico is an interesting one. I will hold my hand up and say I didn’t think he would actually do it, but it’s looking as though he was serious about it. Unsurprisingly the usual suspects are outraged but, again unsurprisingly, the reasons as to why are somewhat vague. Some seem to be confusing a physical barrier with a metaphorical one: Mexico’s President has said “Mexico doesn’t believe in walls” which certainly explains a lot about their building standards. Symbolism is important and a giant wall between two nations doesn’t look good on the face of it, but this hasn’t come out of a clear blue sky.

Countries tore down their physical borders and stopped shooting people who crossed them illegally on the understanding that the authorities on both sides would put in place a process of crossing it legally and each would make at least some effort to ensure this was adhered to. For years it has been the policy of the Mexican government to completely ignore this, and even to actively encourage Mexicans to illegally enter the USA. It’s not as if the Mexican government has been particularly pleasant or friendly towards the United States either, this is not Canada we’re talking about. A cornerstone of Mexican domestic policy is to rail against their neighbour to the north and lay all their troubles at the feet of America. Now they might have a point if they base their criticism on the carnage that America’s ludicrous War on Drugs is causing in Mexico, but if this is their concern then they should come out and say it instead of whipping crowds into a frenzy with chants of Yankee Imperialism if somebody suggests they should reform their oil and gas sector, for example. The wall, if it ever gets built, will be simply be the product of decades of incompetent and dishonest Mexican politicians and the refusal of their American counterparts to address the issue of illegal immigration. When the Mexican president says  his country offers “its friendship to the American people and its willingness to reach accords with their government”, US citizens are entitled to ask why this has not extended to policing the border properly and discouraging its citizens from crossing it illegally.

They might also be forgiven for asking why having an impermeable border is an impediment to diplomatic relations. Why is the Mexican government so upset that illegal border crossings are about to be made more difficult? Could it be that Mexico sees the remittances its diaspora sends back home to be an important source of income without which they might have to start running their country a bit better?

There are a couple of similarities with the wall built by the Israelis along their border with the West Bank between 2000 and 2003 when they were faced with seemingly endless suicide attacks. There is no doubt that the wall has made the lives of Palestinians a misery and that the routing has hived off some land which probably doesn’t belong to Israel, but its opponents mainly concentrated on the symbology and the seemingly outrageous idea that Israel might effectively control who enters its territory. I got the impression at the time that for a lot of people, especially the idiots in the West, their real complaint was that it would work, and Israelis would be less prone to being murdered in cafes by suicide bombers. Many called it an “apartheid wall”. Thankfully the barrier did drastically reduce the number of suicide attacks, which are now quite rare in Israel proper.

The other similarity is the argument over whether the Israeli security barrier was a wall or a fence. Those calling it an apartheid wall used to post pictures such as this:

Whereas a lot of the barrier looks like this:

There are already articles on the practicalities of Trump’s wall. It’s hard to see how it will be completely concrete with no sections that are just fencing. What will be interesting to see is whether those who emphasise the wall part of the Israeli barrier to criticise Israel will emphasise the fencing sections of the US-Mexico barrier in order to claim that Trump has failed. The BBC will be worth watching in this regard, as will others.

It certainly won’t be pretty, and it’s going to be expensive. Trump has said Mexico will pay for it, the Mexicans have said they won’t, and proposals have been made to pay for it using the proceeds from tariffs on goods coming into the US from Mexico. This is a stupid idea: Americans will end up paying more for their goods and Mexicans will be poorer and thus more likely to try to come to the United States to find work. I think what Trump is trying to do is make it clear to his Mexican counterpart that the reason this wall is needed is partly due to the policies of his government and his predecessors, and that their attitude towards the US border needs to change. Hitting the Mexicans financially is one way of getting this point across, but I still don’t think tariffs are the way to go. I’d prefer to see the Americans cough up for it themselves and be done with it. They could always scrap a few dozen useless government bureaucracies if money is the real issue here.

In principle I don’t have any problem with a wall across a border, particularly if not having a wall has meant the border might as well not exist. I find myself in agreement with this statement:

“A nation without borders is not a nation,” Mr Trump said. “Beginning today the United States gets back control of its borders.”

However, I think the wall will ultimately fail. A wall in itself is not enough to prevent people illegally entering the USA: as the Soviets learned in Berlin, the physical barrier must also be accompanied by the means and willingness to dispense lethal force against those who try to cross it. The Israelis do this to some degree, which is why they call it a security barrier and not a border marker. Whatever people say about Trump and his supporters we are not about to see machinegun nests and minefields sprouting up along the US-Mexican border and the bodies of men, women, and children rotting on the barbed wire as a warning to others. Even if the wall somehow presents an impenetrable barrier, the migration will shift to the sea and America’s long and often remote coastlines. If America wants to keep illegal immigrants out then they need to make life so damned tough for them once they are inside that few will want to come. Then you’d not even need a wall but a simple fence, rather like the one they already have. The problem is that Americans don’t want to do this: either they find the cheap labour too attractive or they lack the political will to see illegal immigrants treated harshly, or both.

That said, the willingness to build a wall and attempt to secure the border is a sign of hardening attitudes. When this option fails, we can expect to see them harden further still at some point in the future. This doesn’t just apply to the US: if we carry on along this trajectory it will eventually become permissible to discuss using lethal force along the borders of European countries to keep undesirables out. The recent scenes of thousands of grown men charging the fences in Hungary and Slovenia while European politicians say nothing is going to shift the Overton window towards bigger fences, walls, and eventually minefields, machineguns, and pogroms.

Trump’s wall is a symbol of the utter farce that has been immigration policy in the West for the past decade or more, and of the failure of what passes for politicians in those countries. But it is merely a sign of the direction we are travelling in, and those same politicians seem unwilling to acknowledge that and do something about it. There may come a time when Trump’s divisive, controversial, and much-criticised wall is seen as a reminder of how benign and peaceful things used to be.

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16 thoughts on “The Great Wall of Trump

  1. A wall in itself is not enough to prevent people illegally entering the USA

    Precisely, and this is my problem with it. The wall is a symbolic gesture, but whether its purpose is to signal Trump’s intent or merely to fob off the anti-immigrant base will remain to be seen.

    The real test is whether he goes through with the deportations: it’s not like the US gov’t doesn’t know, for the most part, who’s an illegal immigrant and who’s not. (Matter of fact I think the amount of illegal entries has declined significantly in recent years, so it’s those resident illegally who are the actual problem.) If they wanted to, they could mostly do away with border patrols and simply regularly deport those who aren’t supposed to be there (perhaps confiscating their wealth to discourage a return trip).

  2. I’d be interested to see the figures, but I have a feeling that more illegal immigration comes from people entering the country legally but overstaying their visas than from crossing the border illegally. Aside from the problem you mentioned of creating an American version of the humanitarian tragedy playing out on the Med, the wall will do nothing about overstaying.

    (As I understand it, a lot of the border-crossers are actually Central American rather than Mexican.)

  3. I’d be interested to see the figures, but I have a feeling that more illegal immigration comes from people entering the country legally but overstaying their visas than from crossing the border illegally.

    Exactly, the US needs to enforce its own laws but doesn’t want to. The wall won’t help with that.

  4. To an outsider the idea of “sanctuary cities” – and some of the speeches in support of them by senior political leaders – is frankly mindboggling. Whether you think immigration laws should be stricter or more lenient, it can’t be healthy for the rule of law if layers of government below the federal one explicitly declare they will take steps to prevent the application of the law.

  5. Of course that might just be a typical Brit misunderstanding of the nuances of a federal system of government. But it strikes me as weird, ineffective and ultimately a dangerous road to head down.

  6. MyBurningEars,

    Indeed, I do find the idea of sanctuary cities to be ludicrous. Almost as much as the SNP trying to engage in foreign policy.

  7. To those who object to the wall I say; the UK has a pretty big moat; who are we to point fingers? OR, would you like a land border with Romania (I might say Pakistan but that would be a bit of an exaggeration.)

    The benefit of having a strong secure border is that it reduces the requirement for control inside of the border. A bit like a private club. If you allow admittance on the basis of character, there isn’t much need to police behaviour. So I don’t quite agree with the point about how reducing the ‘pull factor’ is more important that a secure border.

  8. I’m going to have to admit I thought the wall talk was just posturing for a stronger negotiating position down the road. Even now, I’m not convinved the wall can happen because it is such a wasteful use of resources.

    As you say, reducing illegal immigration largely requires making America seem less hospitable, so it is possible that merely having Trump make a bunch of noise about this issue is sufficient to reduce it. That play seems to be working with sanctuary cities which seem unlikely to survive now that they are receiving broader attention.

    I find it very hard to rate Trump’s performance since the media is so hellbent on presenting every action he makes in the most negative way possible. The stock market seems to really like him though.

  9. @Ryan – I find it very hard to rate Trump’s performance since the media is so hellbent on presenting every action he makes in the most negative way possible.

    Well, given the distrust of the media in the American public, the media’s animus toward Trump may actually help him. A Rasmussen Reports survey on Thursday puts his job approval rating at 59 percent.

    @MyBurningEars: don’t sell yourself short. Your reaction as a typical Brit is not a misunderstanding, it is a common sense reaction to a situation that is indeed destructive of the rule of law. The only link with Federalism is that the Federal government cannot tell local police forces how to assign priorities, meaning for example that the Federal government cannot ask a municipality to devote time from its police to find illegal immigrants. What sanctuary cities are doing, however, is actively flouting the law that says that when a criminal is apprehended and the local police has reason to believe that he is an illegal alien they need to inform the Feds so that they can take it from there.

  10. I have to disagree on the sanctuary cities point. I find it healthy – indeed even for the rule of law – that one authority can ignore that of another. A bit like jurors can, in principle, find a defendant innocent on the grounds that the law is unconstitutional. If that was the case then it is the Feds that are acting outside of their competency; not the city in question. On this particular issue of immigration law I am not in agreement with the policy of the sanctuary cities, but the principle stands. If, say, LA or some other place said that they would not enforce federal drug laws, or say, anti-soda laws, then I would be all in favour of that.

  11. Ryan,

    “Even now, I’m not convinved the wall can happen because it is such a wasteful use of resources.”

    You think this has ever been an issue for any US Govt?

  12. @LPT: I certainly would agree with you on anti-soda laws, but then I don’t think the the Federal government (or any other – take that, Bloomberg!) should make rules on that to begin with. Immigration, however, is a federal responsibility which the states have agreed to provide to the Federal government, so the idea that they then refuse to go along with the duly enacted federal laws is preposterous.

  13. Hedgehog, “Well, given the distrust of the media in the American public, the media’s animus toward Trump may actually help him.”

    This! Trump could never have been president without the media in its current form. I would have said this was his greatest advantage in getting there.

  14. Just on the wall, everything with Trump is a negotiation. He starts everything with big bluster, then slowly winds back, taking his stakeholders with him.

    The wall will not be a towering concrete structure every km of the boarder, but will be enough to be The Wall(TM). Mexico won’t pay for it, but will pay enough in some way to be seen to have paid for something.

    The underlying problem is, as others have noted, Mexico’s inability to develop into any kind of decent place to live for most of it’s people. Exporting it’s people north has provided a safety valve to allow that.

  15. I have doubts that a wall will work in the way that illegal entry to the States is stopped, but one has to try and define something like a border. After all, there are numerous government buildings in the US that have walls and fences, though I suppose the argument the left prefers is that the greatest danger comes from your own people, not peace-loving foreigners.

    What is of far more interest to me is that the law of many western nations is a person cannot enter a country without permission, yet several western governments openly allow if not encourage illegal immigration. The question is then why bother having a law if ones lawmakers blatantly ignore it? I can’t fathom why it is so important to a government that they can pretend no immigration laws exist.

    Are we going then to have the same approach to speeding, burglary or even tax evasion?

  16. Without a grappling hook, it would take me more than 30 seconds to get over this wall.

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