On Friday, President Donald Trump’s administration took its first tangible step towards building a “great, great wall” along the United States’ 3,200 kilometer long border with Mexico. According to a notice put out on The Department of Homeland Security’s website the ‘concept design’ for the wall will be finalized in March this year. The border wall is one of the President’s chief campaign promises and a key part of his political agenda. The intention is to keep what he calls “criminals, drug dealers, [and]rapists” out of the country; basically, “we’re getting the bad ones out”. And the best way to do that according to Trump is by building a wall across the Southern border.
This border wall is not going to be the first of its kind. Several other countries in the past have also chosen to fence their borders to keep illegal migrants, terrorists, and criminals out, even when these walls have time and time again failed to achieve their set purpose.
Why then are some governments still motivated to do so?
Border fences are symbols of an extreme form of nationalism that nurtures both chauvinism and xenophobia. Fences represent blatant intolerance, distrust and exclusion of another population.
And Trump is aware of the image.
Trump has made a paranoid, devious and false vision of immigrant America the basis of US government policy, whether it is in building the Mexico wall or crafting the Muslim ban. When Americans start digging a foundation for the wall its true foundations will have already been laid in Trump’s highly dramatized public speeches, fake statistics and inflammatory rants.
Walls make a government look tough and daring, like it is not afraid to opt for extreme measure to protect its citizens from ‘outsiders’. At the same time walls also increase the fear of the ‘other’—eventually turning ordinary citizens into bullies as they see in the ‘other’ a threat that needs to be removed with unprecedented urgency. Since Trump’s election win, we’ve witnessed a colossal change in attitudes. We’ve seen several ordinary American citizens embrace their inner bullies almost overnight; middle-school kids yelling “build a wall” at Latino students in Michigan, anti-immigrant vigilantes harassing day laborers in Los Angeles. As in the case of Trump, several American citizens are discovering a fleeting sense of power and entitlement in the idea that they might be superior to darker-skinned Americans.
The wall, when and if built, will be little more than a multibillion-dollar insult, an icon of crudely limiting measures visibly at odds with America’s long-championed democratic traditions—a jibe at the Mexican and Latino residents of America.
This is policy fed by antagonism and prejudice, not reason.
Take the border fence between India and Bangladesh, for example. The decision was made in the 1980s after a powerful mass agitation and armed insurgency in the northeast Indian state of Assam drew attention to the issue of Bangladeshi migration. While the India-Bangladesh border fence itself is a fairly intimidating structure, it has largely been ineffective in serving its purpose of keeping migrants and criminals out.
Fences alter population movement patterns but do not stop movement itself. Bangladeshi migrants anxious to cross into India in search of livelihood security or to see relatives do make the journey, with full knowledge of the dangers involved. Smugglers, drug couriers, human traffickers, and cattle rustlers from both sides of the border oft-times cross the border with the support of Indian and Bangladeshi border guards. In fact, the fence has also increased instances of violence at the border as people attempting to make their way through are brutally gunned down by border guards.
What fences successfully do is make the lives of migrants more precarious. Those that are settled inside the fence are in constant fear of their security and if they happen to be temporary labor migrants, for instance, they end up staying in for longer periods of time—turning otherwise temporary labor migrants into permanent undocumented residents. Hence, the entire exercise becomes redundant and counter-productive. On top of being ineffective, the construction and management of these structures are extremely expensive.
Trump would benefit from the experience of countries that have built fences in the past.
America is at its strongest when it is acting as a champion of universal norms and values and not as a solitary, self-serving, nation-state. At its best, it has been seen in the region as a dependable partner and a force of peace, stability, and justice. The fence however goes against the essence and substance of any effort towards greater regional cooperation.
The stakes are high but Trump is seemingly indifferent.
The Trump administration has gained little traction in convincing the Mexican government to fund the wall. It can be said that Trump saying he will force Mexico to pay for the wall borders on extortion: as it is, in fact, obtaining money through force. This is a dark time in American foreign policy. The back and forth between the leaders of Mexico and the US has significantly strained US-Mexico relations, such that Mexican President Peña Nieto abruptly cancelled a scheduled visit to Washington after Trump reiterated that he will make Mexico pay for his promised border wall. This foreign policy move has implications that will stretch far beyond Mexico. It shows that the US is no longer interested in playing fair.
The Trump phenomenon is empty of any compassion. With the United States President demanding $12 billion to $15 billion from Mexico to pay for his border wall, many fear this is a shakedown. Unlikely to increase security, the only thing that can be said with some certainty is that a border wall will successfully fuel more terror and violence.