Immigration

Trump's Wall Is About Rage, Not Immigration

His political formula is to stoke white fear of nonwhites.

What's next?

Photographer: Gustavo Graf/Bloomberg

Just to be clear on President Donald Trump's agenda, he is currently jeopardizing relations with the U.S.'s third-largest trading partner, a neighbor with whom we share a roughly 2,000-mile border along with a vast array of law-enforcement and foreign-policy priorities, in order to show American voters that he is tough.

To recap: After signing an executive order this week that directed (but did not fund) the construction of a wall across the southern border, Trump reiterated his demand that Mexico pay for the construction. That, in turn, led Mexican President Pena Nieto to cancel a scheduled meeting with Trump.

Mexican politician Margarita Zavala, wife of former President Felipe Calderon, called Trump's provocation a "humiliation," and, in a tweet, included a hashtag with an implied, and wholly unsurprising, threat of future hostilities: #MexicoFirst.

In a December survey of the largely Republican Texas congressional delegation, the Texas Tribune reported that none of the delegation's 38 members "offered full-throated support of a complete border wall." Republican Will Hurd, who represents a swing district along the border, this week called a wall "the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border." 

In a Senate hearing, Trump's own Homeland Security secretary, John Kelly, said, "A physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job." He also said the U.S. needs partnerships in Latin America, where Trump is currently alienating our closest neighbor, to combat trafficking in drugs and migrants.

So why is Trump so insistent on an expensive boondoggle that knowledgeable people deride and that the local congressional delegation doesn't want -- despite promised billions in in-state spending?

"There is no practical reason for a border wall, of course, since illegal migration has been zero or negative for nearly nine years," said Princeton University professor Douglas Massey, an expert on Mexican migration. "The number of border apprehensions is at its lowest level since 1971 and increasingly those apprehended are unaccompanied minors or members of family groups from Central America. The illegal migration of Mexicans is decidedly negative."

Obviously, if Trump's aggressive posture toward Mexico on trade causes the Mexican economy to suffer, incentives for illegal immigration into the U.S. will increase. The militarization of the border has not shut down trafficking, but it has professionalized it. The harder it is to cross, the more migrants rely on organized crime. If a future wall must be circumvented, the U.S. has 95,000 miles of shoreline and thousands of airports. And the cartels are innovative tunnel builders.

Incremental improvements in border security can be achieved through better technology -- surveillance drones, seismic sensors, lookout towers. (When I asked a few Border Patrol agents in Texas what they most wanted, they said "paved roads.")

But Trump wants a wall. His political formula is partly dependent on white resentment and fear of nonwhites. That's why Trump dwells on the "carnage" of American cities and dramatically and repeatedly overstates the rate of violent crime in the U.S. That's why he overtly links crime to blacks. That's why he announced this week that his administration would track and publicize crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, even though immigrants are less prone to commit crime than native-born citizens.

Trump began his presidential campaign by labeling Mexicans "rapists." The wall construction provides endless opportunities both to exaggerate the threat posed by Mexicans, and to supply a remedy voters can see with their own eyes. If you're not assaulted by a Mexican in 2020, you'll presumably know whom to thank.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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