Six days into his presidency, President Trump ordered construction of the border wall that he so often referenced during his campaign. His stated purpose was to “ensure the safety and territorial integrity of the United States.” While no one would argue that safety and border security aren’t among the President’s most important priorities, the wall strategy comes with tremendous liabilities and it deserves our scrutiny.
To begin, we must recognize that, in a world of complex systems, a wall is something that’s easy to visualize and grasp and thus, an attractive political device. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it an effective policy solution. Indeed, what started as a campaign slogan has become, over time, a caustic metaphor that has produced division, angst, and fear. Emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric, anti-immigrant sentiment has reached a fever pitch, immigrant families are scared in their own homes, and Latinx children feel threatened at school. Beyond the $12-15 billion (or more) the wall will cost to build, we must consider the cost of this marginalization—the cost to our national character, our unity, and our agency as a free and open country.
Mexico and her people are more than just allies; they are our neighbors and many of our citizens have family, friends, and roots there. To diminish and insult Mexico is to diminish and insult ourselves.
Some may argue that there are dangerous people in Mexico, and yes, that is true of every nation, including our own. And yes, dangerous people may try to enter the US via Mexico (or, for that matter, Canada). When it comes to stopping them, however, a wall is far less powerful than information and cooperation. A wall cannot stop tunnels or ultralight aircraft (both of which have been used to successfully breach the border). Perhaps more importantly, a wall cannot stop greed or the will to do evil either. But, as we have seen, a wall—along with assertions that Mexico should pay for it—can certainly poison diplomatic relationships and jeopardize Mexico’s willingness to share critical information with our law enforcement agencies.
Strained diplomatic relations with Mexico not only reduce our capacity to deal with drug trafficking and organized crime, they undermine our ability to address perhaps the most significant root cause of these problems—a painful lack of economic opportunity. According to Mexico’s National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (Coneval), the poverty rate in Mexico is a staggering 45.5 percent. What’s more, Mexico’s economic prospects are not likely to improve with dueling tariffs and reduced trust between our countries. Instead of pursuing a policy of isolation, we need to commit to the hard, complicated work of engaging with Mexico and Central American countries to find solutions.
In short, Trump’s wall is an unsophisticated (and likely counterproductive) “answer” to problems that require diplomacy, coordination, and cooperation. By its construction, we choose alienation over friendship, adversary over ally, and symbolic appeasement over meaningful action. Ultimately, Trump’s border wall will likely generate much more in the way of indignity and distraction than security.
Adam Svolto is the Deputy Director of Policy and Engagement at the North Carolina Justice Center and previously served in the US Air Force. Michael Rafetto is a third year law student at Campbell University and a veteran of the US Navy.