President Trump, the story goes, happened upon a politically powerful, though not thought-through idea during his campaign. The key to unlawful immigration would be a wall from sea to sea on our southern border, its cost borne by Mexico. Once pronounced to diehard, screaming fans, the fact that a wall was a questionable solution, based on no analysis, and relying on the decision of a separate country were of no concern to him. He has since altered some of that wall’s characteristics, but “The Wall” came to be the term used by both Trump’s admiring supporters and his adversaries. As a non-expert, I’d like to add a few comments about The Wall.
Mexican citizens’ incursion into the United States has been an issue for decades. Illegal immigration was primarily for finding work, often on a temporary basis. Of course, finding work was paired with finding workers. In other words, American employers offered jobs to persons for whom the low pay was enough to attract them to take the chances inherent in crossing a national border numerous times. Prohibiting such employment was an obvious solution, but was opposed by employers who wanted to keep their source of cheap labor. Republican and Democratic Administrations failed not so much because of porous borders the political cost of opposing employers. Meanwhile, American rhetoric was mounted against temporary migrants half-heartedly, so that we could threaten workers and employers without having to confront employers by prohibiting their lucrative practice.
Poor parenting often reveals itself in threats never fulfilled. “If you don’t stop [hitting your brother] [running through the house] [hogging the toy], I’m going to [turn off the TV] [give you no dessert] [return your new $200 running shoes]. As a psychologist, I learned that threats made but not fulfilled convey to the child that the parent really doesn’t mean those threats, no matter how much he or she argues they’re truly meant. That is what we’ve done to Mexicans at our southern border. We’ve said for decades border crossing is against the law . . . with a wink and a nod. At some point we might start meaning what we said and come down hard on the offenders; after all they knew the rules. But they didn’t. The verbalized rule had been there, while all along our behavior—that wink and nod—said we didn’t mean it after all.
Some Mexican men brought their families, then more did, slowly increasing the size of the undocumented population in the U.S. From time to time Americans got upset over this uncontrolled immigration. Our consternation was intermittent though, due to occasional distraction over other issues or the fact that Mexican workers became increasingly useful in the American employment market. We needed them even more than in the earlier, limited employment. Then and now individual American citizens used Mexican labor for their lawn care, carpentry, horse farms, and in other facets of their growing integration into American society. Minimal action to deport significant numbers of undocumented Mexicans continued, but we were caught in an embarrassment of our own making more comfortable to disregard than to confront.
At various times, public sentiment in its intermittent way, grew then subsided. Trump in running for the presidency capitalized on the recent realization that about 13,000,000 persons live in the U. S. without benefit of legal legitimacy, most of them thought to be of Mexican descent. These undocumented immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than legal immigrants and American citizens by birth. Also, they do not contribute to an increase in drug overdoses, DUI deaths, murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. In other words, with the exception of having entered the country illegally, undocumented immigrants are more peaceful and law-abiding than “real” Americans.
Still, with his pathological disregard for the niceties of facts and truth, Trump continually proclaimed there to be grave danger from these illegal immigrants, particularly from Mexicans crossing America’s southern border. He publicized their law-breaking, especially in acts of physical damage to legal residents and citizens. When he became president he set up a committee to gather all cases of reprehensible crime by undocumented persons. These actions convinced Trump and his supporters, most of whose understanding of statistical inquiry is at best minimal, that the country was being overrun by alien criminals. For example, hearing of this or that actual instance of crime is taken as a useful indication of the criminality of the group. It is not. Whether the president is simply ignorant of that or just embellishes lies by collecting a string of individual instances is not my concern here, but untruths they definitely are.)
What they decidedly are not, however, is a national emergency. Federal employees, their families, the persons they purchase from, and the small contractors who depend on their government contract are greatly damaged by a shut-down. (The same people are now vulnerable to Trump’s choice to do it again.) I don’t know how many persons were cruelly damaged by this president who thinks that failing to get his way by argument and persuasion justifies his harsh treatment of millions who played no role in issues pertaining to the decision.
A legally defined National Emergency is available to Trump if he declares it. Most of both political parties hope that does not occur, even those Republicans who will not stand up to the president’s unscrupulous hostage-taking. The president’s once and (possibly) future government shut-down is accompanied by his bullying lie that the Congress was and will be responsible for his dishonorable behavior—though he normally blames Democrats alone. As to a National Emergency about a nonexistent emergency, massive new authority would be thereby transferred to the Executive Branch. Trump has shown himself to be untrustworthy without that infusion of extra power, so to contemplate what he would be like if supercharged is terrifying. Stoking fears in the populace which only the president can resolve is alarmingly like the beginnings of history’s previous despots. That we would take even a slim chance of that is reckless in the extreme.
A feature of communication among individuals is language. The importance of accuracy in language is even more critical when large numbers of persons are involved. Perhaps you have noticed that we speak of The Wall and also of border security as if they are interchangeable. They are not. The Wall is one possible component of border security; border security would have numerous components, one part of which—possibly a critical part of which—might well be a physical barrier of some sort. Trump demanded The Wall with no more than an excited amateur’s amount of study. Democrats have resisted this rush to a single component without first studying the entire border security situation. Trump, somehow missing that point, then accused Democrats of not being for border security, therefore they are guilty of loosing horrid criminals upon Americans. Later, Trump adds some components to his demand, but at best he’d arrived at the whole by beginning at a single part. Trump and Democrats themselves then started using border security and The Wall as interchangeable terms, wondering why they are not connecting!
Non-citizens in the United States who hold no documentation permitting their presence here is almost universally denounced by citizens. Virtually all Americans support lawful control over who enters the country. One of Trump’s lies to excite his base is that Democrats want open borders and would permit criminal entry. (While there may be some Americans who disdain any borders anywhere, the number is vanishingly small.) Thus, no matter how otherwise law-abiding, peacefully behaving, or needy, non-citizens are, they must still respect the border. Almost without exception, Americans of all political views want it that way. By international agreement, there’s a right to enter a country in order to apply for refugee status. However, as the Democratic spokesperson, Stacey Abrams, put it this week after Trump’s State of the Union address, strict border control does not excuse inhumane border control.
So where does that leave The Wall? Trump has now told us he no longer means a concrete wall, an iron wall, or necessarily any man-made barrier at all in certain places. In fact, a number of physical barrier compositions, lengths, and heights stated since The Wall has been in our national conversation. I possess no special information, competence, or sources with which to comment on the probable effectiveness of any given barrier. But neither does anyone else, including border control officials, the U.S. Congress, or Trump and his administration. I can say that with confidence because wall characteristics are not the only issue in deciding—if there is to be a wall at all—its characteristics, placement, and size.
Problem solving should begin at the broadest level of the matter or issue being examined. It is folly to begin at a miniscule level when the largest level is undecided. For example, no subsidiary issues should be solved when America’s philosophical position on immigration is unclear. Do we want immigration? Certain kinds of immigration? Certain immigrant skills? In what amounts? There are many more matters of public policy, “neighborhood“ effects, technology issues and dozens of further decisions of what immigration should produce over coming decades.
Where do current immigrants come from? By what routes and through what portals? Are there points that produce particularly dangerous entries? Are there different types of immigration sources (e.g., walkers across the desert, boats from Cuba? overstayed visas? snow skiing Canadians?) that call for varieties of control devices? Does any one source yield a substantially larger number of persons desiring to enter? Are third-level entries (such as from Central America but through Mexico) involved? None of these issues make sense if we have left unclarified what level and type of new residents or citizens are desired or what will be the extent and type of our humanitarian intent.
At some point going step by step down a sequence of describing what we really want, we may get to specifics of physical barriers along the border of northern Mexico. Easy? No, but neither were sending astronauts to the moon, space probes completely out of the solar system, and the first nuclear submarine, along with an unending list of scientific discoveries and conquests of human achievement. But it makes sense . . . far more sense than being incidentally enthralled with a shiny decoration pretending to be the, the, solution to questions for which we, like children, have not done the work of unambiguous conceptualization at the broadest level.