The entire conversation around immigration in this country, specifically immigration from Mexico and Central America, is broken, but the entire rhetoric around the Trump’s border wall is incredibly stupid, as Casey Walker points out.
It is a political moment that compels me to relate this history. There is currently a candidate for president — an unserious person, but a serious contender — whose opening campaign gesture, and most common applause line, is a broadside against Mexico and Mexicans that ends with a vision of a border wall. Donald Trump promises he will build an enormous border fence, spanning the entirety of the 2,000-mile boundary-line between the United States and Mexico. And he asserts that Mexico will pay for it.
As Trump regales his followers with this dream, he does not appear to recognize how much wall already exists. He seems not to know, or not to care, that in San Diego a border wall already extends beyond where the land ends, hundreds of feet into the Pacific Ocean. In many of the most populous cities along the border, there are in fact two walls, patrolled day and night, with a no-man’s-land in between. There are concrete-filled steel beams a dozen or more feet high. There are deceptively stubby panels of rusty siding that belie the electronic eyes all around and the Border Patrol vehicles perched on nearby hillsides.
And I can tell you that across those lands where no wall exists, there is the desert where I grew up, where daytime summer temperatures regularly top 125 degrees Fahrenheit, where the sand feels like it might at any moment turn to glass. Should a migrant become lost, should his hired guide abandon him, the cost in crossing these deserts is death. It is worth reading the accounts of the first boundary commission surveyors, who were given the unenviable task of marking the material line agreed to on paper in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War. The surveyors found the land they traveled through inhospitable, treacherous, confusing, and nearly unmappable. “Much of this country, that by those residing at a distance is imagined to be a perfect paradise, is a sterile waste,” they wrote, “utterly worthless for any purpose than to constitute a barrier or natural line of demarcation between two neighboring nations.” I will be the first to defend the stark beauty of the desert, to dispute the notion that it is only a sterile waste. There are ocotillos and Joshua Trees, bighorn sheep in the rocky hills, and tortoises so hardy that one has to imagine they possess a stoic wisdom. But that the Mexican-American borderland is brutal to the disoriented and unwanted and alone — that is beyond dispute.
To be precise, then, it is not a wall that Trump wants, but additional walls, walls that would extend through landscapes where crossing the lines demarcated in the official paperwork already kills people. Every serious analysis of Trump’s proposal has concluded that the additions he describes would be prohibitively expensive to build. They would be impossible to maintain. And his wall would almost certainly be ineffective as a deterrent to the immigration he wishes to prevent — many people who desire American citizenship settle here initially simply by overstaying a temporary visa. All of these facts are so obvious they feel tedious to recount. And yet here we are, in a political moment where the transparent unworkability of Trump’s border vision is not enough to disqualify it, or its speaker, from mainstream political discussion. The social and political reforms the United States must undertake with respect to immigration have complex dimensions — but these are not the questions that Trump addresses. Trump’s border wall can be refuted on a bumper sticker: It is a lie.
Of course it’s a lie. But white people LOVE this lie. And not white people in Arizona and Texas either. It’s white people in Nebraska, in Iowa, in Mississippi, who love this lie because even if they don’t know any Mexicans, the mere existence of the Spanish speaking option being stated to them when they call the pharmacy is an unthinkable outrage against their racial privilege. When I lived in Albuquerque, there was a profile in the paper of one of the yahoos who had decided to become a Minutemen. He was from Alabama and he was motivated to protect his nation from the evils of Mexico when–and I swear this is what he said–he was at his favorite buffet in Birmingham and heard people speaking Spanish.
That is who this border wall would be for.