“I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively, I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.” On 16th June 2015, [ shortly after Mr. Donald J. Trump officially announced he would be running as a candidate for the US presidency, the immigration thematic was immediately brought on the table. According to him, a physical and strong border with Mexico is the top priority of the next Administration to prevent illegal migrants to enter the country: “When Mexico sends its people, they are not sending their best […] they are sending people who have lots of problems and they are bringing their problems to us”. This way, Current President Trump qualifies the USA as a “dumping ground for everybody else’s problems”. The idea of the wall has been highly criticized among Trump’s opponents at the time and still nowadays. Indeed, more than two years since he first announced this plan, the USA just got out of one month and three days of Governmental Shutdown, or the longest one in the US history. The reason? Democrats and Republicans cannot find a common ground: while the Republican President requested $5.7bn to fund the wall, top Democrats have strongly been opposed to the project. This idea of a wall to prevent “mass illegal immigration” is neither new, neither US exclusive: Viktor Orban’s fence between Hungary and Serbia may be the most famous one, but Bulgaria, Greece, and Spain have also taken this initiative. But is a wall an effective and realistic alternative to the mass immigration Europe and mainly the US are allegedly subject to? What are the current results of the “Great Wall of America” and can we learn from it?[
Is it a wall, a fence, just a project?
With 350 Million people crossing it every year, the 3145km (almost 2000 miles) border separating the USA from Mexico is the most legally frequented in the world. According to Oscar Martinez there are various types of borders around the world according to the relations, the countries, and their populations sharing them, hold with each other. In this template, the USA-Mexico border is what he calls an “Interdependent Borderlands”, where cross-border interactions are increased by economic and social complementarity. It is not very surprising to know that as many as 350 Million people cross it every year legally, therefore, many social and professional relationships are established across the boundary, making the two countries interdependent with each other. However, even though the relationship between the two sides of the border is actually very strong, we still cannot qualify it as the very last Martinez’s model which is the “integrated borderlands”, where the states share a functionally merged economy and where the movement of the people and the goods is unrestricted, which is not the case between the USA and Mexico.
Moreover, the border is not defined only as a line strictly separating the two countries; in 1983, the La Paz Agreement defines an area as the land within 100 km[ on either side of the border to be protected, conserved and improved.
This area counts[ a population of as much as 14.94 Million people, which is planned to increase up to 20M by 2020. Another important aspect is that half of the US-border population is Hispanic, primarily of Mexican ancestry. Many important cities have also thrived in the area in both countries. Indeed Mexico counts 84% of its borderland population in three main cities: Tijuana, Juarez and Mexicali which have each developed alongside their US counterparts: San Digeo (richest American city of the US borderland), El Paso and Calexico.
Being located at the border between such different countries such as the US and Mexico gives a big economic advantage, since the USA is a powerful economic partner and Mexico owns cheap labor costs. This kind of dynamics has a big consequence on the economic health of the two countries which organize a lot of their resources towards the border. The Mexican border states present a higher Gross domestic product (GDP) than the non-border ones, while the US has decreased the taxes in the area, lower than in the rest of the country, and represents up to 80% of Mexican exports which is therefore one of its most needed client.
In that respect, it is fundamental to ask ourselves
how a wall, planned by Pr. Trump, could be organized in order to protect the
economic, social and cultural interests of the borderland population.
According to Deeds and Whiteford, the immigration issue is not one for two main reasons. First of all, Pr. Trump is not the first one to have talked about regulation of the immigration. Bill Clinton was the precursor of a strong security presence in the cities of El Paso and San Diego, Georges W. Bush even made the immigration criteria’s tougher following the 9/11 attacks, and Barack Obama deported 2.5M of illegals, more than any President before. Furthermore, blocking the current flow at the border would be of a major harm for both economies: Mexico sees the US as a pressure valve release of manpower which cannot locally access to enough professional position and as a massive income by migrants who send a lot of money back home. On the other side, the US sees the Mexican Labor force as an active participant of the economy who pays taxes and contribute to programs they will never benefit from, such as Social Security for instance. Also, Pr. Trump and his supporters know that 700 miles of the border are already cover by fences which have cost $2.3bn in construction and $500M in maintenance, per year. If Pr. Trump insists on the fact that the totality of the 2000 miles border must be covered, its cost and its funding have not been clearly determined yet. A first estimation of $12bn has been corrected by Reuters evaluating it to $21bn. On one hand, Pr. Trump has always insisted on the fact that the government of Mexico would pay for it (thing it has always denied). On the other hand, he has changed his mind by emitting the idea of taxing Mexicans import products up to 20% and even taxing migrants’ remittances.
A wall, what for?
There are several reasons this wall is so popular. First, many of its supporters live in the Rust Belt and have paid a heavy price due to the recession of the area caused by the Globalization and the worldwide free trade agreements. In that respect, Professor Yang thinks that, in a place where college education and twenty-first century knowledge are not the most developed, it is understandable that the foreigners, in this case the Mexicans in particular, are seen as taking the economic opportunities of the USA since they cost less. Furthermore, the English language is considered as threatened by a growing Spanish speaking community, American values are vanishing for illegal immigrants and other non-Christian culture. Seen this way, the Wall, let it be comprehensive or just a symbol, is seen as the clean separation between the insider, protector of the American values, of the economic opportunities and democracy, and the outsider: enemy who disrupts the American way of life and takes the local job opportunities from the indigenous people.
An important aspect to keep in mind however is that the population of Mexican migrants has decreased in recent years. If the US remains the top destination for Mexican migrants, we have noticed that several factors such as the law enforcement at the border (as seen previously) or the decrease of the Mexican birth rate, have shrunk the Mexican population in the US, going from approximately 11,7M in 2010 to 11,3M in 2017. If we go even further, there has been a bigger return of Mexicans back to Mexico than new arrivals of them into the US.
The image below shows the evolution of the Mexican
population in the US since 1980 until 2017, with a continuous increasing which
seems to have stopped and to be reversed in-between 2010 and 2017.
Plus, according to Dudley L. Poston, sociology and demography professor at Texas A&M University in College Station, a wall and a reinforced border will not decrease the illegal immigration for a simple reason: among the 10.7M undocumented immigrants in the US, almost half have arrived legally (4.5M). Usually, these migrants find legal ways to enter the country. They land in American airports, but they overstay their visa or violate the terms of their staying, like by finding a job e.g. It is also needed to mention that emigration is not something everyone can afford, especially in very poor countries like Central America: only the wealthiest, the most talented and determined people manage to get into the US. A wall will only make the crossing more dangerous and will not stop them from entering. On the contrary, it will probably force them to settle in the USA instead of going back, which has been the trend of Mexican citizens during the last few years as we have previously seen.
The other main reason the planification of the wall is so praised by Trump and his supporters is a matter of Security. If illegal immigrants seem to represent a direct threat to the American workers and society in general, the other concern aims to stop the Mexican cartels from delivering their “merchandise” (usually drugs and illegal immigrants) into the US. However, according to Forbes, the result of a tighter border control would have precisely the effect Pr. Trump wants to stop; as seen above, the population on the border of both countries are used to crossing the frontier very often for various reasons. If the inflow has greatly decreased during the last years, a physical and hard border would only mean that more citizens will need the help of criminal organizations to enter the US, leading to huge economic profits for these cartels and a major increase of the danger taken by their clients.
Zero Tolerance policy and its current application
One of the main problems with a “Zero Tolerance” policy against illegal immigration is the treatment endured by the migrants at the border. During 2018 and early 2019, lots of scandals have burst declaring that families were torn apart during the investigations, with children kept in camps without their parents locked up in jail. This new policy had never been applied by a President before, even former Presidents Obama and Bush, who took severe measures at the borders and deporting a lot of illegals, had never crossed this line according to De Volkskrant.
The debate reached its peak when a young seven-year-old girl from Guatemala who had crossed the border illegally with her father, died of dehydration and exhaustion. This scandal divided even more the Republicans and Democrats as they blamed each other for the cause of this tragic event, Republicans asking Democrats to join them in a Zero Tolerance Policy to discourage immigrants to enter the country. Democrats have always refused funding of the wall and feared the situation would degenerate to the point it would lead to a general shutdown, which happened on the 22nd December 2018 and lasted more than three months. However, it also sparked outrage among the Republican party itself, indeed on 19th June 2018, the Senator of Utah Orrin Hatch signed a paper, along with 11 colleagues from the GOP, to the attention of Jeff Session, General Procurer of the United States, to stop the splitting of families at the border. He also qualified this policy as being “un-American”.
In conclusion, working on migration policies is not an
easy task, especially for a country as big as the United States, neighboring a
country presenting a huge economic gap. The wall, being a good or a bad answer
to the current issues (if there is one) the US are currently facing, is mainly
representing a symbol of division among the very American society and not only
on a Political Scale: how would the American citizens at the border, living
from the easy access to Mexico, cope with the construction of a hard border?
How would the local American population, composed by many Hispanic speakers,
feel socially in this new America?
These are not easy questions, and we, as Europeans,
are also concerned with this issue at a time where Brexit is supposed to take
effect. What will happen to the relations between the United Kingdom and the EU
if no deal is found? Would the population of the Irish island accept to see a
hard border splitting the European Republic of Ireland from the British
territory of Northern Ireland? Would building fences and walls around Europe be
a solution to our many problems or would it on the contrary just reaffirm a
political isolation wanted by many Eurosceptical parties? Starting from the case
we’ve briefly studied here above, we can safely say that walls do not seem to
bring a definitive answer and will create more instability than benefits, and
solutions need to be found to respect everyone’s belief and opinion.
 Border People: Life and Society in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. Oscar J. Martinez. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1994.
 Deeds, C., & Whiteford, S. The Social and Economic Costs of Trump’s Wall’, Voice of Mexico: http://www.revistascisan.unam.mx/Voices/pdfs/10207.pdf
 Mimi Yang, « The Trump Wall: A Cultural Wall and a Cultural War, » Lateral 6.2 (2017): http://csalateral.org/issue/6-2/trump-wall-cultural-war-yang/
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