After the election: Trump’s wall


Dr Lise Nelson

Associate Professor at Penn State University,in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and the Department of Geography. Her research investigates shifting labor markets and social relations in new destination immigrant communities in the United States.


US2016 - Section 3

Section 3: Policy

Last week citizens of the United States elected as President someone who is openly racist, misogynist, and xenophobic. We elected someone who chose a vice presidential running mate who as governor of Indiana sought to enact homophobic and openly discriminatory state policies. Additionally, our incoming President has claimed he will retreat from a host of international agreements and relationships, from NAFTA and NATO to climate mitigatwion treaties. He does not believe in science, at least when it offers inconvenient truths.

Fear, disbelief, and horror are rippling through part of the American public (here I include citizens as well as legal and unauthorized residents), while another part of this public is jubilant and feeling entitled to express more openly prejudice and hate. The Southern Poverty Law Center received 400 incidents of hateful harassment between November 9th and November 14th—including 136 anti-immigrant, 89 anti-black, 43 anti-LGBTQ and 26 anti-woman incidents. As this wave of white nationalism and hate ripple across the country, many wonder what the incoming President will actually do on a range of fronts. Policy details do not fit into 140-character limits.

My commentary here focuses on one specific policy Donald Trump has repeated over and over: his promise to build a wall between Mexico and the United States, which he couples with massive deportation of undocumented residents. A Pew Research survey shows his supporters are united by, perhaps more than any other issue, anti-immigrant sentiment. While this extends to Muslim immigrants, a key group in the line of fire are undocumented Mexican and Latin American immigrants.

The intuitive appeal of a wall on the southern border stems in part from the idea that the ‘cause’ of this labor migration lies outside of the United States. Build it high enough and the flow will stop. The appeal of the wall also lies in racist language that frames all Latino immigrants as invading “criminals” who represent a dire threat to the nation.

The wall as a solution presumes the origins of cross-border labor flows lie outside the United States rather than within it, ignoring the fundamental dynamics of low-wage labor markets in the United States, which have recruited low-wage workers to cross the border. My researchlike that of others, sheds light on the day-to-day incentives employers have for recruiting undocumented workers. The cumulative effect of these recruitment practices, which occur in nearly every geographic region of the country, is to invite large-scale migration across the US-Mexico border. From this perspective, the origins of the current situation, in which 6.4 percent of our workforce lacks documentation, lie north of the border as much as south of it.

The economic power of this process is resistant to border control and physical barriers installed over the last two decades – precursors to the fantasy of an impenetrable wall. It is telling that the steady growth of the undocumented workforce between the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s happened despite a nearly constant growth of spending on border patrol, new barriers and surveillance. Only in the wake of the 2008 economic crash, which dramatically slowed recruitment processes, did the unauthorized Mexican workforce in the United State start to decline.

While there is a clear economic logic to the presence of millions of undocumented workers in the United States, a logic that I believe we misunderstand at our peril, the current system does not provide justice nor a decent life for low-wage immigrant or non-immigrant workers. The demand for the undocumented is rooted squarely in their undocumented status. Living in fear of deportation on a daily basis inspire many to tie themselves closely to their employer—becoming compliant workaholics who become the ‘ideal worker’ from the employer’s perspective.

It seems likely that the dream one week ago of comprehensive immigration reform has been lost to the nightmare of a deportation nation surrounded by a very expensive even if easily breached wall. Comprehensive immigration reform held out the potential for undocumented workers to legalize, a place from which they could demand better wages and working conditions. Their improved situation would actually have helped level the playing field for non-immigrant workers, perhaps easing some of the economic anxieties that contributed to the rise of Trump.

This week the future looks bleak—for economic growth, for social peace and justice.