The signature pledge of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was to build a wall on our southern border. A wall that Mexico would pay to erect.
Reality is setting in, though. Lawmakers are still negotiating on the spending, but the latest rumblings from the Capitol indicate that no money is being set aside for a physical wall, and Republican lawmakers are not even pretending that there is any existing plan that involves Mexico paying for it.
Despite tough talk from the administration regarding the upcoming funding bill, Trump seems to be coming to grips with both of these facts, publicly lowering expectations about something he boasted about endlessly on the campaign trail. He still holds that Mexico will pay, but with the caveat that it will happen “eventually” and “in some form.” And he seems open to the idea of the “wall” as more of a metaphor for ramped-up border security. Department of Homeland Security secretary John Kelly even said recently, “It is unlikely that we will build a wall, a physical barrier, from sea to shining sea.”
All of this suggests that the wall – at least anything a reasonable person would call a “wall” – probably will never be built. And Mexico isn’t going to pay – at least not in a way a reasonable person would recognize as “payment.” Which is as it should be. The wall plays well at rallies (especially in places nowhere near the southern border), but is an incredibly unwise idea. A physical wall from the Atlantic to the Pacific would cost billions of dollars to build, hundreds of millions of dollars annually to maintain, would face significant, and in places, insurmountable topographical challenges for long stretches of the border, would impede on private lands in many places, and isn’t even something the border patrol wants.
As for making Mexico pay, even if it were a real idea, it would be a foolish one. If it’s in our national interest to keep undocumented immigrants out, then we should say that, and spend more money to do it. Either it’s worth doing or it isn’t. Trying to make another country pay for a problem we are complicit in is just shirking responsibility.
The wall is a brutish, ugly expression of a brutish, ugly ideology. Beyond being unfeasible, inefficient, and ineffective, it’s a physical representation to the kind of paranoid nativism Trump exploited during the campaign. Trump and his allies view foreigners as an imminent threat to our national identity and character. They think immigrants bring crime, economic turmoil, and liberalism. The wall is a way of signalling that they are committed to tackling the supposed problems of immigration. It’s an unserious solution, but it would send a serious message, the same message as a Muslim ban – even a partial an ultimately doomed Muslim ban – sends.
The wall, were it ever built, would serve more as a monument than a barrier. It would signal to people everywhere something profound about who we had decided to become. It would tell the world that America had traded its global ambition and pioneering spirit for fear and insularity, inclinations that have lurked just beneath the national bluster all along.