Building Walls, Closing the Border: Not the Answer

By Ernesto Castañeda with Maura Fennelly*

U.S. Border Patrol stands watch during border fence reinforcement / U.S. Customs and Border Protection / https://www.flickr.com/photos/cbpphotos/44997385775/in/photostream/

U.S. Border Patrol stands watch during border fence reinforcement / U.S. Customs and Border Protection / https://www.flickr.com/photos/cbpphotos/44997385775/in/photostream/

Trump is widely thought to have originated the call for a wall to keep out migrants, but animosity toward Latin Americans has deep roots in U.S. history and political discourse – and the tough task of reversing it is long overdue. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush criminalized migration and secured funds to build fences and militarize the border. President Obama also oversaw the deportation of over 2 million migrants, some of whom ended up in camps on military bases.

Immigration remains one of the most debated issues, and immigration policies have a profound impact on families and communities with foreign-born members. Many long-time residents and some politicians see immigration as a cultural threat and are opposed to it. In Building Walls: Excluding Latin People in the United States, we trace the building of symbolic and physical walls between white Americans and Latin people. Boundary formation occurs at three levels:

  • Categorical thinking. The modern nation-state rests on the assumption that exclusion is necessary to protect the welfare of citizens. Migrants can be viewed as a threat to the autonomy of the nation. Immigrants can be “naturalized” and offered full citizen rights, but this assumes that they must change to fit in. One of the main narratives driving strict border surveillance is that migrants will negatively affect the economy, despite research continuing to show that long-term employment rates of American citizens’ are not harmed by immigration. Low-skilled wages are barely affected by immigrants entering the American workforce.
  • Anti-immigrant speech. Minority populations, including immigrants, have been subject to an increase in hate crimes since the 2016 election. White Nationalist groups use social media and the public sphere to disseminate anti-immigrant views. Members of a splinter militia group – the Minutemen American Defense – killed nine-year-old Brisenia Flores and her father in 2009 (and were convicted in 2011). The Minutemen, while declining in membership, have inspired the creation of smaller border patrol groups.
  • Immigration as an experience. Despite some political leaders’ claims of insecurity at the border, U.S. cities right next to Mexico are safe. Research shows that most border-area residents enjoy being next to Mexico. Across the nation, moreover, a vast majority – about 75 percent – believe that immigration is good for the United States. Nonetheless, Latin American migrants still struggle to find a home and a sense of belonging. In interviews, we find that many experience “social invisibility” – a feeling of existing in significant numbers while being unrecognized as full members. Interviews with undocumented migrants we conducted in El Paso reveal that over 75 percent reported that employers, landlords, and neighbors threatened to use their undocumented status against them. These experiences affect migrants’ well-being and mental health.

While the United States maintains durable inequalities between white Americans, Latin people, and other marginalized groups, the historical and social forces shaping our immigration narrative can be changed so that we empathize with, and no longer demonize, people who are looking for a home. Trump’s efforts to expand existing walls and build new ones are central to his strategy. He led the longest government shutdown in U.S. history and declared a national emergency because Congress would not fund it as he wished. However, his threats to close the border, impose tariffs, and other drastic actions show ignorance of the major impact these actions would have on the United States’ access to inexpensive agricultural, industrial, and technological products from Mexico. A border closure would not be sustainable beyond a few days. While polls show that 41 percent of people in the United States support the construction of Trump’s border wall, a majority of Americans know that more walls would not work.

  • The United States does not need a border wall with Mexico. The misleading and inaccurate claims made by politicians about Latin immigrants only further divide the nation – and obscure the positive contribution of Latin Americans, their experiences, identities, and cultures.

July 2, 2019

Ernesto Castañeda teaches sociology at American University and is the author of Building Walls: Excluding Latin People in the United States. Maura Fennelly is a graduate from American University and works with a housing assistance organization in Chicago.

U.S. Immigration: Call for Wall Ignores Changing Migrant Profile

by Dennis Stinchcomb

Graph of southwest border apprehensions, FY 2012-2019

Southwest border apprehensions, FY 2012-2019 / Note: FY 2019 data is through November 2018. Figures may not total 100% due to rounding. / Data source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

As a record number of Central American families and unaccompanied children flock to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Trump administration’s demand for a $5.7 billion wall ignores changing migrant demographics and leaves largely unaddressed an asylum system buckling under unprecedented strain.  While undocumented immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border remains at historic lows, over 48,000 individuals comprising family units (parents traveling with children) were apprehended at the U.S. southwest border between October and November 2018 – a 308 percent increase over the same two months in 2017.  Such a staggering rise comes on the heels of what was already a record-setting year.  Between October 2017 and September 2018, border officials tallied the highest level of family crossings on record; the over 107,000 individuals detained by border officials dwarfed the roughly 40,000 apprehensions of unaccompanied children that prompted the Obama administration to declare a “crisis” in summer 2014.

A closer look at recent immigration trends underscores changing realities at the border:

  • Central American families and children represent an ever-growing share of migrants. Because overall undocumented immigration at the border has dropped and families and children have surged, the latter now account for 40 percent of all unauthorized migrants apprehended, up from 10 percent in 2012.  (Prior to 2012, family apprehensions were not publicly reported.)
  • Guatemalans now account for over half of all Central American family and child migrants. Though Guatemala is more populous than neighboring El Salvador and Honduras, proportional disparities in migrant flows from the three Northern Triangle countries have widened in recent years.  Guatemalan families apprehended at the border doubled between 2017 and 2018, and the number of unaccompanied Guatemalan minors increased by over 50 percent.  An increasing share of these migrants are coming from indigenous communities where poverty and malnutrition are rampant, so border officials face compounding challenges including linguistic barriers and health needs – factors that may have contributed to the recent deaths of two Guatemalan children while in Border Patrol custody.
  • Family and child migration from El Salvador has plummeted to its lowest level since 2013. The abrupt decline in Salvadoran migration to the United States has led many experts to point to the chilling effects of the Trump administration’s decision to terminate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans currently residing in the U.S.  The “Trump effect” following his early 2017 executive orders, however, was short-lived, and other events, such as possible controversy over elections next month, could renew migratory pressures and further exacerbate conditions at the border.
  • The dramatic increase in migrant flows from Central America has fueled an historic surge in asylum claims. At the border, credible-fear claims – the preliminary step in soliciting asylum – continue to climb precipitously, up from 9,000 in 2010 to 79,000 in 2017.

The U.S. Government’s proposed solutions to the burgeoning humanitarian crisis do not reflect the evolving profile of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.  President Trump’s border wall – a hallmark promise of his 2016 campaign – appears aimed at the familiar Mexican adult migrant of the early 2000s or the mythical “bad hombre” spawned by his own nativist tendencies.  His Administration’s recent attempts to deter migrants or bar their access to asylum, either by separating families or rolling back protections for victims of domestic violence, have not stemmed the flood of arrivals.  A new “caravan” of migrants is set to depart Honduras this week.  Nor will a wall extinguish migrants’ legal right to request asylum.  The President’s most recent budget request for modest funds for hiring immigration judges and providing border infrastructure to support “vulnerable populations” is being held up by the political impasse in Washington over his greatly disproportionate spending on a wall, Border Patrol agents, and detention facilities.  Compromise between the President and Congressional Democrats remains elusive three weeks into a confrontation that has shut down much of the U.S. Government.  While Democrats have expressed willingness to beef up border security in exchange for a significant immigration win, such as legalization of the Dreamers or renewal of TPS, anything short of meaningful reform to the U.S. asylum system will do little to resolve the backup at the border.

Jan 15, 2019

U.S.-Mexico Tensions: Harbinger for Latin America?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

1024px-us-mexico_border_at_tijuana

The U.S.-Mexico border near Tijuana and San Diego. / Tomas Castelazo / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

U.S. President Donald Trump’s unilateral actions on Mexico last week have precipitated the most serious crisis in bilateral relations in decades and threaten to further undermine U.S. image and interests throughout Latin America.  During last year’s campaign, in the face of Trump’s characterization of Mexicans as rapists and drug-traffickers and repeated pledges that he’d make Mexico “pay for the Great Wall,” President Enrique Peña Nieto adopted a strategy of patience and positive engagement.  He paid dearly in political terms for meeting with Trump in August – a misjudgment that worsened his already declining popular approval – but he continued to try to stay on the high road after the election.

  • Peña Nieto resurrected former Finance Minister Luis Videgaray, the architect of the Trump meeting last August, as Foreign Minister, and he replaced his ambassador in Washington with one having deep experience with NAFTA and a reputation for calm negotiation, in response to Trump’s repeated demand for a renegotiation of the 1994 accord. As opponents across the political spectrum egged him on to reciprocate Trump’s belligerent tone and strident U.S. nationalism, Peña Nieto – like all Mexican presidents for the past 25 years – tried hard to suppress the anti-Americanism that has lingered beneath the surface of Mexican politics even while the two neighbors have become increasingly integrated economically, demographically, and in governance.  Even after Trump’s first barbs following inauguration on January 20, Peña Nieto emphasized his preference for calm dialogue – “neither confrontation, nor submission.”  He declared that Mexico doesn’t want walls but bridges, and accepted the American’s demand to renegotiate NAFTA, although with a “constructive vision” that enables both sides to “win,” with “creativity and new, pragmatic solutions.”

Preparations for the summit meeting, scheduled for this week, crashed when Trump – without coordinating with his Mexican counterpart or the appropriate U.S. government agencies – issued executive orders putatively aimed at tightening control of the border.  One directed an immediate increase in efforts to deport undocumented Mexicans, and the other launched the “immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border.”  Trump initially abided by an informal agreement with the Mexicans not to repeat his harangue that he was going to make Mexico pay for the wall, but on January 26 he tweeted that “If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.”  His press spokesman followed up with a suggestion that Washington could impose a 20 percent tariff on imports from Mexico to cover the costs of construction, after which Peña Nieto, facing a firestorm at home, postponed the meeting.  The two presidents talked on the phone for an hour the following day and reportedly agreed to let things calm down, although the two sides presented different versions of the chat.

The speed of the trainwreck – in Trump’s first week in office – and the depth of the damage his unilateralism has done to bilateral relations have alarmed many in Mexico and the United States, including Republicans who worked hard to build the relationship.  (Only the Administration’s stunning decrees regarding immigration from other parts of the world have overshadowed the mess.)  Mexico is, of course, not without leverage and, as Trump stirs up long-repressed Mexican nationalism, Peña Nieto – whose popular support was recently in the garbage bin – is going to have to talk tough (at least) and could have to retaliate.  He could impose tariffs on the billions of dollars of Mexican exports that Americans have grown accustomed to having at low prices.  Mexico could also opt to diminish cooperation in counternarcotics and other law enforcement efforts, or to cease blocking Central American migrants seeking to reach the U.S. border – interests that the impulsive Trump policy team doesn’t seem to have considered.

Coming on the heels of Trump’s executive order totally withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the new president is presenting the image of a U.S. leader whose harsh policies and arrogant style serve neither the United States nor Latin America’s interests.  Having appointed as White House National Security Council Senior Director for Latin America a political scientist whose writings draw bizarrely on analytic approaches that have been rejected in the discipline for more than 30 years, and whose recent articles lament the Obama administration’s abandonment of the Monroe Doctrine, the region’s leaders will rightly conclude that Washington is voluntarily abdicating any plausible case for leading multilateral cooperation around common interests.  The United States and Latin America are inextricably linked, however, and a policy based on stale assumptions of big power unilateralism ultimately will run into insurmountable obstacles: however ignorant Trump and his team are proving themselves to be, we live in the real world of the 21st century, in which imperialist, mercantilist fantasy will be treated with the disdain that it deserves.

January 31, 2017