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Political Theater at the Border

Trump's border wall is a distraction, another act in the long play of immigration enforcement theater.

The Tijuana-San Diego border in March 2010. Kordian / Flickr

Within the first week of his presidency, Donald Trump signed an order to build a wall along the US-Mexico border — part of a raft of new policies on immigration, terrorism, crime, and voting that grabbed the public’s attention and sparked widespread condemnation. Around the country, protesters flooded airports and marched in city streets, proclaiming “No Ban, No Wall.”

But while shocking to some — and undoubtedly repugnant — a border wall is entirely in keeping with the style and substance of US immigration policy.


The legal framework enabling Trump to make good on his border wall campaign promise exists thanks to legislation signed by Bill Clinton. His 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act authorized the construction of triple-layered fence along the US-Mexico border. (One section also empowers the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to waive all legal requirements in order to expedite construction.)

Ten years after Clinton’s law, George W. Bush approved the Secure Fence Act with the support of nineteen Democratic senators, including future president Barack Obama, future Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, future senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, and future vice president Joe Biden.

At the time, Obama called the bill “an election-year, political solution, great for sound bites and ad campaigns” — assuming that the acquisition of private land and the presence of endangered animal species would mire the law in legal battles and halt its enactment.

But by 2015, with the help of private contractors like Boeing, 650 miles of fencing stretched along the US-Mexico border. At an average cost of $3 million per mile, it was a very expensive prop in the ongoing charade of American immigration policy.


Trump’s “great wall” would keep the show going. While more extreme and xenophobic, his rhetoric of border protection and the rule of law echoes that of politicians in both parties.

And his “post-truth” presidency isn’t much of departure from the immigration policy norm either.

As Peter Andreas explains in Border Games, the debates over the US-Mexico border are marked by the “art of impression management,” where the perception of the domestic audience matters more than the actual number of unauthorized border crossers.

More than half of the undocumented immigrants in the US entered the country legally, then overstayed their visas. And because of perpetually escalating border controls and restrictive immigration laws, undocumented workers often stay in the country indefinitely instead of traveling seasonally based on work.

Yet much of the public debate still focuses on the physical two-thousand-mile border, and the supposedly unmitigated flow of immigrants across it. Politicians still stress the need for border control, even though net migration has dropped below zero.

State action on immigration follows an observable pattern: first politicians trumpet the importance of secure borders, assuring voters that Mexicans will stay in Mexico. Then they further militarize the border, using physical barriers, new technology, and more border patrol agents.

The numbers game makes this especially easy to pull off, since arrest or apprehension statistics can be manipulated to reflect the agents’ activities rather than actual deterrence, and performance measures remain unreliable.


At an estimated cost of $20 billion, Trump’s wall would be an enormous waste of public money, even on its own terms. Research shows that fencing and physical barriers simply reroute border crossers, substantially reducing the number of apprehensions at one location while driving them up elsewhere. If Trump were actually interested in halting illegal immigration, he’d focus instead on deploying increased resources along the border and requiring employers to check the immigration status of their employees through E-Verify (although technically in use, sanctions against employers are rare).

His border wall, however, is nothing more than a distraction, another act in the long play of immigration enforcement theater. The wall’s proposed funding source is itself part of the show. Trump has repeatedly claimed that Mexico — not the American public — will pay for the wall, adding a touch of drama and using people’s negative reactions to garner more attention. Former Mexican president Vicente Fox tweeted in early January 2017, “TRUMP, when will you understand that I am not paying for than fucken wall. Be clear with US taxpayers. They will pay for it.”

Meanwhile, politicians continue to block reforms that would actually address the problems with the current immigration system. True immigration reform would end the extreme exploitation that undocumented workers face, from deplorable working conditions to stolen wages to substandard pay. True immigration reform would allow undocumented workers to band together and organize with fellow workers.

But genuine reform would also jeopardize the pool of cheap labor that ruling elites and business leaders are so keen on maintaining. So expect more blustering about a border wall instead.


The desire of some Trump supporters for a border wall springs from a genuine frustration about the loss of economic security and stable employment. They worry that their kids will be even worse off financially than they are, that economic precarity will be with them for the rest of their lives. But no wall will reverse the income inequality that continues to devastate the American working class.

Private corporations, on the other hand, stand to make enormous profits from Trump’s wall. Shares of private prison corporations jumped as soon as Trump was elected. The national security apparatus largely runs on private contracts, and it has grown exponentially since 9/11, under both parties. It’s delivered nothing to ordinary workers in return.

In the political theater at the border, it’s ruling elites, private businesses, and for-profit contractors who take center stage as the leading actors — and the only winners.