Five days into his presidency, Donald Trump signed an executive order on “the immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border,” a line that stretches almost 2,000 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean and is rated the most frequently crossed frontier in the world.
Caution: Take the executive order with a pinch of salt. Construction won’t start immediately and “wall” means “fence” along vast stretches of the border – a far cry from the “big beautiful wall” that was a key feature of Trump’s campaign. “Who will pay for the wall?” he would ask, prompting full-throated chants from adoring crowds: “Mexico! Mexico! Mexico!”
That looks like wishful thinking now.
Long before President Trump put pen to executive order, there were doubts over the wisdom and viability of a project whose scale would be second only to the Great Wall of China. Some of the sharpest criticism came from Rick Perry, then a campaign rival, now Trump’s nominee for secretary of energy. “Political theater,” he said of the call for a wall, voicing doubts over its efficacy.
Perry based his skepticism on 14 years of experience as governor of Texas, the U.S. state that has a 1,250-mile border, by far the longest of the border states. After Trump ordered the construction, another Texas Republican, Congressman Will Hurd, dismissed the wall as “the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border.” Such views are shared by many living along the border in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
Even John Kelly, the retired Marine general Trump picked to lead the Department of Homeland Security, does not share his boss’s enthusiasm for a big, beautiful wall. “A physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job (of keeping out illegal border crossers and drugs),” he told his Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 10. What would do the job? A “layered approach,” he said, one that mixes patrols by agents, drones, sensors, cameras plus close cooperation with Latin American countries that are sources of drugs and immigrants.
Several national opinion polls show that most Americans (59 percent according to a CBS survey) are against the wall.
The idea of a physical barrier to keep out illegal immigrants, drugs or terrorists predates Trump. Under a 2006 law, the Secure Fence Act signed by President George W. Bush, the government put up wire fences and corrugated metal barriers along 652 miles of particularly porous stretches of the border. Trump has often said he wants more: “A wall is better than fencing and it’s more powerful.”
Wall skeptics on both sides of America’s political divide have raised questions that include cost, the amount of concrete that would be needed, the timeline of the project and its impact on economic and political relations between the United States and its third-biggest trading partner (after China and Canada).
Relations between the two neighbors have deteriorated steadily since Trump opened his election campaign, on June 16, 2015, with a stinging attack on Mexico and illegal immigrants from there. He implied that the Mexican government was somehow selecting undesirables to cross the border. “When Mexico sends its people … they are sending people that have lots of problems. They are bringing drugs. They are bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
Relations soured further when Trump insisted that he would make Mexico pay for the wall, an idea roundly and repeatedly rejected by the Mexican government. That resulted in Trump saying the project would initially be funded with a spending bill approved by Congress – in other words the American taxpayer — that would be reimbursed later by Mexico.
How? Ideas voiced by the Trump team included a 20 percent border tax on imports from Mexico. Economists pointed out that such a tax would saddle the American consumer with higher prices rather than finance the wall. Lindsay Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, adopted Trump’s style to issue a tweet mocking the tax: “Simply put, any proposal which drives up costs of Corona, tequila or margaritas is a big-time bad idea. Mucho Sad.”
While the Trump administration has given no timeline on the construction, other than that it should begin “immediately,” one estimate by the Department of Homeland Security envisages that work might be finished by the end of 2020, provided Congress allots funds in the second quarter of this year. The estimate comes from an internal DHS study reported by the Reuters news agency.
And the cost? Up to $21.6 billion, a figure that dwarfs the $8 billion often mentioned by Trump. But it would not be for the solid Berlin-style concrete wall his rhetoric has suggested. Instead, the executive order says, “‘Wall’ shall mean a contiguous, physical wall or other similarly secure, contiguous and impassable physical barrier.”
If history can be a guide, an “impassable” barrier will remain an aspiration rather than reality. Case in point: The Iron Curtain, the lethal system of walls, fences, minefields, watchtowers and guards with shoot-to-kill orders that sliced 2,500 miles through Europe, dividing countries under Communist rule from the West. Determined people still managed to cross. The Great Wall of China, at 13,000 miles the longest border barrier ever built, did not prove impassable either.
South of the border, Trump’s wall plans and his incendiary language on immigrants have stoked deep nationalist anger and boosted the political prospects of left-wing populists. The politician who gained most from popular disgust both with Trump and the Mexican establishment led by President Enrique Peña Nieto was Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a nationalist firebrand who narrowly lost presidential elections in 2006 and 2012.
On Feb. 12, the heated political climate in Mexico was brought into focus by thousands of demonstrators chanting slogans against Peña Nieto and his alleged weakness in standing up to Trump and against the American president for offending Mexico.
It is a safe bet that whoever wins next year’s Mexican presidential elections will be more antagonistic toward the United States than the presidents who for decades sought closer relations with Uncle Sam. Clearly, the old adage that good fences make good neighbors does not apply these days.