The president, once again, has created his own reality, manufactured a crisis, invented an invasion, criminalized immigrants, made up facts and, in a nationally televised speech on Jan. 8, argued for a new wall at the United States-Mexico border. “How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?” he asked from the White House.
Trump is not the first president to ask for money for a wall. George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush built fences and walls along the southern border. Barack Obama maintained the resulting system of roughly 700 miles of physical barriers. So why don’t we want Trump to build his wall? What is different?
The difference is that Trump’s wall is a symbol of hate and racism, it would be completely useless, and it does not address any national emergency.
The $5.7 billion requested by the Trump administration to build 234 more miles of walls and fences would be an enormous waste of time and money. Beginning with the first, 14-mile stretch of border fencing, built between San Diego and Tijuana in the early 1990s, undocumented immigrants have shown they can adapt very fast and move to areas with no border barriers. Deserts in Arizona and open areas along the Rio Grande in Texas are now a favorite point of entry. The same thing would happen with a new Trump wall.
We also know that almost half of all undocumented immigrants arrive by plane or with a visa. They come legally as tourists or visitors and simply overstay their visas. The tallest fence cannot stop that.
Nor would a new wall prevent the flow of illegal drugs entering the country, as Trump claimed in his speech. Most drug seizures happen at ports of entry. And as long as we have more than 28 million Americans regularly using illegal drugs, we will have drug dealers in Mexico and the rest of Latin America moving their products to the most profitable market in the world.
The White House claims that 4,000 suspected terrorists were arrested along the southern border last year. That is simply wrong: A vast majority were detained at airports. Just six were actually caught crossing illegally by foot.
I have recently traveled to the border in California and Texas, and I can report that contrary to what the president said in his speech, there is no invasion. The undocumented population has not grown in a decade; in fact it has fallen to 10.7 million. And despite the presence of violent drug cartels on the Mexican side, the American border towns are among the safest in the country.
What is undeniable is the humanitarian crisis in Tijuana. But it is a crisis created in part by Trump. Record numbers of desperate families, fleeing violence, corruption and extreme poverty, have been arriving in caravans to our southern border. Instead of their asylum requests being promptly processed, as established by international and United States laws, only a few are allowed in every day. This policy of cruelty by design has unjustly affected children and the most vulnerable people in our hemisphere. These refugees certainly do not pose a danger to our national security.
There is no need for a new wall — except, of course, in Trump’s mind. The closest he got to building his wall was in January 2018, when Democratic senators negotiated a compromise for a wall in exchange for legislation on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Then the White House unexpectedly walked away from the deal.
Would the Democrats revisit the offer? Luis Gutierrez, who recently retired from the House of Representatives after 26 years, once explained to me that it was like paying a ransom for a kidnapping. If the White House brings up the deal this time, it will put the Democrats in a moral dilemma: Protect the “Dreamers” — maybe including siblings and families — and, in the process, open the government. But the wall would be an essential element of any new deal.
It won’t be easy. It is no longer 2018. Things have changed dramatically. Democrats control the House and the wall has become toxic. And then, there is the racist thing.
The wall has become a metaphor to Trump and his millions of supporters. It represents a divide between “us” and “them,” a physical demarcation for those who refuse to accept that in just a few decades, a majority of the country will be people of color.
This is about more than just a wall. Trump promised it in 2015, in the same speech in which he announced his candidacy, the same speech in which he called Mexican immigrants rapists, criminals and drug traffickers. His goal was to exploit the anxiety and resentment of voters in an increasingly multicultural, multiethnic society. Trump’s wall is a symbol for those who want to make America white again.
The chant “Build that wall, build that wall” became his hymn — and an insult not just to Latinos but also to all people who do not share his xenophobic ideals. The wall went from a campaign promise to a monument built on bigoted ideas. That is why most Americans cannot say yes to it. Every country has a right to protect its borders. But not to a wall that represents hate, discrimination and fear.
No, Mexico will not pay for the wall. And it seems Congress won’t either. But the concept of America as an unwelcoming country to immigrants and uncomfortable for minorities is already here.
In a way, Trump already got what he wanted. He is the wall.
(This article was originally published in The New York Times opinion pages.)