WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has taken its first concrete step toward constructing “the wall” — the much-touted physical barrier which Donald Trump has long promised to erect along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The new administration, in just its second month in office, is soliciting fence prototypes from contractors. The lucrative contracts are slated to be awarded by mid-April, marking an aggressive timeline for a government project. On Friday, Trump alluded to the administration’s push to “secure the border” when he told those gathered at the Conservative Political Action Conference that the construction of the wall “is going to start soon. Way ahead of schedule, way ahead of schedule.
The border wall was a hallmark of Trump’s campaign, and now it will an emblematic piece of his presidency. While the project enjoys broad support from Trump’s largely Republican base, those who oppose Trump have generally viewed the wall as symbolic of the president’s “xenophobic” tendencies. These same divisions can be seen among Trump’s other controversial policies such as the travel ban targeting people from seven Muslim-majority nations and a crackdown on undocumented immigrants living within the United States.
However, despite Trump’s strong association with the border wall, the proposed project’s history dates back decades, long before Trump arrived on the political scene. Since the 1990s, Democrats and Republicans alike have been responsible for militarizing the country’s southern border in a bipartisan effort that has seen billions spent and thousands of lives lost while failing to make the southern border any less porous.
However, Democrats are eager to cast themselves as innocent in the decades-long border wall saga, capitalizing on Trump’s blatant pro-wall stance as an opportunity to rebrand the party as more progressive and free from racism targeting Latinos. Trump’s pledge to build the border wall is only the latest iteration of U.S. politicians attempting to criminalize the very mass migration they helped create more than 25 years ago.
Operation Gatekeeper: The deadly consequences of border militarization
Immigration was a major political issue in the early 1990s, particularly during the congressional and gubernatorial elections of 1994. This was especially evident in California, where Republican gubernatorial candidate Pete Wilson was able to dramatically boost his popular support by promising to combat undocumented immigration via a series of targeted ad campaigns. That same year, Californians voted in favor of Proposition 187, which denied most public benefits to the state’s undocumented residents. However, these sentiments were not just limited to California — 60 percent of Americans viewed levels of immigration at the time as decidedly negative in 1993.
Eager to make inroads with this significant portion of the electorate, the Clinton administration decided to crack down on the influx of undocumented immigrants. “We must not — we will not — surrender our borders to those who wish to exploit our history of compassion and justice,” President Bill Clinton told Congress prior to announcing a $172.5 million proposal intended to secure the southern border, a measure that would soon become known as “Operation Gatekeeper.”
The timing of Operation Gatekeeper was by no means accidental. Though it conveniently capitalized on the popular anti-immigrant sentiments felt by many U.S. citizens at the time, the most obvious reason for the initiative was the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement that same year. NAFTA, a massive giveaway to corporate profiteering, would soon have disastrous economic consequences for Mexico as well as the United States.
The agricultural sector of the Mexican economy was rocked by NAFTA’s passage. U.S. “Big Ag” flooded Mexico with cheap food, with agricultural imports jumping from $4.6 to $9.8 billion annually. Corn, the keystone of Mexican agriculture, poured in from the United States, with imports rising from 2 million tons to 10 million tons from 1992 to 2008.
The pain was also felt among meat producers. Alejandro Ramírez, general director of the Confederation of Mexican Pork Producers, told journalist David Bacon: “We lost 4,000 pigs farms. Each 100 animals produce 5 jobs, so we lost 20,000 farm jobs directly from imports. Counting the 5 indirect jobs dependent on each direct job, we lost over 120,000 jobs total.”
Rufino Domínguez, the former coordinator of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, who now heads the Oaxacan Institute for Attention to Migrants, told Bacon that NAFTA had drastically reduced employment opportunities in Mexico’s agricultural industries. He said:
“There are no jobs, and NAFTA forced the price of corn so low that it’s not economically possible to plant a crop anymore. We come to the U.S. to work because we can’t get a price for our product at home. There’s no alternative.”
With work in the domestic agricultural sector quickly shrinking, agricultural workers in Mexico were left with little choice but to venture elsewhere in search of gainful employment.
Noted philosopher and social critic Noam Chomsky echoed Dominguez’s analysis in a 2009 lecture:
“The timing of Operation Gatekeeper was surely not accidental. It was anticipated by rational analysts that opening Mexico to a flood of highly-subsidized US agribusiness exports would sooner or later undermine Mexican farming, and that Mexican businesses would not be able to withstand competition from huge state-supported corporations that must be allowed to operate freely in Mexico under the treaty. One likely consequence would be flight to the United States, joined by those fleeing the countries of Central America, ravaged by Reaganite terror. Militarization of the border was a natural remedy.”
Indeed, what followed the implementation of Operation Gatekeeper was one of the most pivotal points in the militarization of the United States’ southern border. The underlying strategy of the measure — “control through deterrence” — led to the construction of fences, a doubling of the budget for border law enforcement, and the deployment of high-tech deterrents such as night vision scopes and seismic sensors. Such measures were focused primarily along the San Diego-Tijuana border — the busiest land crossing in the world prior to the launch of Operation Gatekeeper.
Instead of decreasing the number of undocumented immigrants entering the United States, the measure pushed those intent on migrating to seek alternative routes through treacherous terrain. Bill Ong Hing, a professor of law at the University of San Francisco, wrote in 2015: “The number of entries and apprehensions did not decrease, and the number of deaths due to dehydration and sunstroke in the summer or freezing in the winter surged dramatically.”
Hing noted that fewer than 30 people died along the border in 1994. That number jumped to 263 by 1998 and reached even greater heights by 2005, with 492 deaths recorded for that year. Overall, 5,600 people are estimated to have died while attempting to cross the border since Operation Gatekeeper launched over 20 years ago.
Repeating the Failures of the Past: The Secure Fence Act of 2006
Despite millions spent on “securing” the border under Operation Gatekeeper, it ultimately proved remarkably ineffective at halting the influx of undocumented immigration into the United States. Migrant resourcefulness has been a major factor, with everything from ladders and tunnels to drones and catapults being used to launch illicit substances and people over the border. However, according to the DEA, “the bulk” of drug-cartel shipments pass through the border via legitimate entry points.
In addition, Operation Gatekeeper was accused of being a massive fraud. Two years after the measure was enacted, the congressional testimony of border patrol agents along with the testimony of officials of the union representing border patrol agents alleged that supervisors had falsified arrest reports in order to make the program look like a success. Specifically, these supervisors stood accused forcing border patrol agents to under-report the number of undocumented immigrants apprehended to create the appearance that Operation Gatekeeper had lessened the number of illegal border crossings.
However, the clear proof of the ineffectiveness of border militarization realized by Operation Gatekeeper did little to deter future bipartisan efforts to build more physical barriers and increase the use of deterrents along the border. In 2006, the Secure Fence Act was passed with broad bipartisan support. The bill set to further extend the border militarization first initiated by Operation Gatekeeper by authorizing the construction of additional fencing as well as the expansion of advanced technology to police the border, including drones, cameras, and satellites.
Many key Democrats in the Senate — including several who now publicly oppose Trump’s efforts — voted in favor of the measure, including Hillary Clinton, Dianne Feinstein, Chuck Schumer, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama. On the floor of the Senate prior to voting, then-Sen. Obama remarked, “The bill before us will certainly do some good.” He added that the act, if passed, would provide “better fences and better security along our borders” and help to “stem some of the tide of illegal immigration in this country.”
The resulting fence cost more than $15 million per mile in some places, at a total cost of around $6 billion just for the fence’s construction. When accounting for fence maintenance, the total cost balloons to $50 billion over a 25-year period.
Ironically, the Secure Fence Act of 2006 was cited in the first paragraph of Trump’s recent executive order as rationale for his executive authority to order the wall’s construction. Essentially, Clinton, Obama, and other key Democrats enabled Trump’s wall they know oppose to become reality.
Evaluating the validity of current border control efforts
The United States’ political efforts and subsequent failures to secure the southern border by militaristic means begs the question: Can the southern border ever actually be “secured” in the conventional sense? In his 2002 book “Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the ‘Illegal Alien’ and the Remaking of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary,” Joseph Nevins argues that any law-enforcement-based approach regarding undocumented immigration along the southern border is doomed to fail. To support his theory, he cites the strength of U.S.-Mexico ties, the resourcefulness and creativity of migrants, and American resistance to new policing measures.
Many residents, local police, and border patrol agents working and living along the U.S.-Mexico border agree with Nevins’ assessment that the border wall is destined to fail. Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio told Vice News that the wall is “a waste of money, period. […] It’s not going to work. I don’t care what [Trump] is saying.” Patricia Taylor, whose property is criss-crossed by the existing border fence, also told Vice that if “Trump is talking about building a bigger wall […] Then we’re going to have bigger ladders,” referring to common accounts of undocumented immigrants scaling the fences already in place regardless of its height or width.
In addition, others point to geopolitics and historical factors as major contributors to the southern border’s porous nature, noting that it is more of a cultural zone than a line that can be demarcated by a fence. Indeed, what is now the southern border resides upon land taken entirely from Mexico. Since the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, large swaths of what is now the American Southwest have been defined by the rich, long-standing interchange of people and goods, as the lands seized by the United States after the war left nearly 75,000 Mexicans living in the newly-conquered territory.
This area, as journalist Oliver Ortega noted on Feb. 17, has long been defined by a thriving transborder culture that cannot be easily divided by a physical barrier.
Underlying the evidence that the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border is both ineffective and costly is the fact that it is largely used a symbolic tactic on the part of the U.S. political establishment — part of a ploy to take responsibility for the economic havoc wrought by NAFTA and other policies by criminalizing those most adversely affected. As philosopher Costica Bradatan noted in a 2011 piece for The New York Times, “What a wall satisfies is not so much a material need as a mental one. Walls protect people not from barbarians, but from anxieties and fears which can often be more terrible than the worst vandals.”
Douglas Massey, a professor of Sociology at Princeton University, has made similar observations, writing in 2013:
“The Mexico-US border has become an outsized symbolic barrier separating Americans from all manners of external threats. Indeed, calling for more border enforcement has become the principal trope deployed by politicians to reassure nervous white citizens whenever a new threat appears in the media.”
Indeed, this has been a common, recurring theme in right-wing American politics for some time. In the 1980s, amid a push for a $100 million aid package for the guerrillas fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, Ronald Reagan warned Americans that “terrorists and subversives [are] just two days driving time from Harlingen, Texas” and that communist agents were eager “to feed on the anger and frustration of recent Central and South American immigrants who will not realize their own version of the American dream.”
More recently, Republican candidates in the 2014 gubernatorial and congressional elections espoused much of the same. That year, Texas Gov. Rick Perry told the public that “individuals from ISIS or other terrorist states could be” using the porous U.S.-Mexico border to their advantage. “I think it’s a very real possibility that they may have already used [the border for entry],” Perry added. In October of that year, Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis stated that his opponent, Sen. Kay Hagan, “has failed the people of North Carolina and the nation by not securing our border.”
He continued: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got an Ebola outbreak, we have bad actors that can come across the border. We need to seal the border and secure it.” Tillis went on to win the Senate seat.
As Massey asks, how many more people have to die and how much more money must be wasted before the political theater of border enforcement ends its run on the national stage?
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