Shahid M Amin
BUILDING a wall to protect the US border with Mexico is a big issue in President Trump’s presidency. He has long pledged to erect a wall to prevent large-scale illegal immigration taking place from Mexico. This border is 1,954 miles long and crosses deserts and mountains as well as rivers. About 654 miles already has some kind of fencing. Trump’s logic is that illegal immigration was causing irreparable harm to USA in several areas: it took away American jobs; it enabled terrorists to enter USA; it increased smuggling of drugs; and it had caused a rise in crimes. All of these concerns struck a chord with Trump’s hard-core supporters, mainly whites from low-income groups. Apart from foregoing reasons, the idea appealed to them even more for an unstated reason: keep USA as a white country by shutting the door to Mexicans, Latinos, browns and blacks from various countries. Racial and religious prejudice was the emotive appeal behind the wall’s demand, though the ostensible reasons were economic and internal security.
Illegal immigration is no doubt a big problem in USA. With the improvement in communications in the past few decades, millions from under-developed countries have sought to enter USA, looking for better jobs and higher standard of living. This has caused socio-economic problems. But what Trump and his white supremacist supporters ignore is that immigrants have also provided cheap labour, which is beneficial to American businesses, and immigrants have brought all kinds of skills to USA. Moreover, experts have advanced specific facts to disprove the arguments for building the wall. Firstly, the main reason for illegal immigration is overstay by those who enter the US under valid visas. Secondly, cartels find weak spots at checkpoints for illegal entry rather than scatter resources across open expanses of desert that the wall would cover. Thirdly, drug traffic in USA takes place mostly through recognised points of entry, through concealment in baggage. Fourthly, the record shows that immigrants commit fewer violent crimes than native-born Americans. Fifthly, since the early 2000s, border crossings have decreased. Sixthly, a wall is supposed to prevent people from crossing into the US undetected. But the pattern is that illegal immigrants do not enter USA undetected but rather turn themselves to the nearest border agent on the US side and seek asylum. Under the US law, their cases are referred to the judiciary where decisions can take years to decide. Lastly, there is no known case of terrorists having crossed into USA through the Mexican border. The main terrorist threat to USA comes from homegrown extremists. A border wall will not do anything to address that threat.
But Trump being Trump, logic and facts do not make much impact on him. He is like the boss saying “my mind is made up: do not confuse me with facts.” He has low credibility and is accused of prevarication. He has certainly exaggerated the threat posed by illegal immigration. He paints a picture of murderers and criminals pouring over the Mexican border. He has called it a crisis and implemented policies that limit refugees, accelerated the deportation of migrants, and left more than 1,000 migrant children separated from their parents. He keeps shifting his position on what the wall would be like. On the election campaign trail, he meant a 50-foot concrete wall along the border. Since then, the ‘’wall” has become “see-through”, or consisting of steel slats, or even an electronic wall. He says he doesn’t care what Democrats call the physical barrier: to him it’s all a wall. Homeland Security experts say there are smarter investments in sensor and in drone technology that can provide far better national security.
Trump has rejected all bipartisan immigration proposals as not being hard-lining enough. His own solutions have not been able to pass Congress. Since January 2019, things have become much more difficult for him, with the control of lower house of Congress by the Democrats. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has emerged as a formidable opponent of Trump. She has said there will be no wall — not now, not ever — and she means it. Pelosi sees the wall as a symbol of Trump’s politics, defined by a relentless race-baiting campaign that tainted brown people as murderous criminals. Democrats are not opposed to funding physical barriers on the southern border and have supported such measures since 2007. But they oppose Trump for shutting down government for several weeks to secure $5.7 billion in funding for the border wall.
Clearly, the way forward is a bipartisan piece of legislation like the Uniting and Securing America Act of 2018 that built more ports of entry and increased the number of judges to decide immigration cases. The issue is what is the most cost-effective way to protect the border? As one Democrat leader said: “The wall is more of a symbol instead of a structure. It is a symbol of racism.” The Democrats are refusing to give Trump the political win as a reward for shutting down the government. They believe that a wall cannot be an effective enforcement tool. Hermetically sealing a nation against the outside world is neither possible nor desirable. For the time being, Trump has backed away from a threat to impose a national emergency in order to bypass Congress and build a wall. But the deadlock remains and his threat to shut down government has not been abandoned.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.