Every country has the right to delimit, regulate and protect its border. Even when the US Southern border was simply a “Line in the Sand”, as brilliantly reconstructed by Rachel St. John, in a book which anyone interested in understanding the deep history of US-Mexico relations should read, the complex interplay of enforcement regulation, local economic interests, the national politics of fear and cultural identity all play out in that contentious physical space. Few places in the world exhibit such sharp discontinuity in the way societies organize themselves as the US-Mexico border. An astounding 6 minute voyage, over thousands of kilometers, courtesy of Josh Begley and the Field of Vision team (Best of Luck With the Wall) stitches together 200,000 Google images, showing the beautiful and daunting visual landscape of what this misunderstood territorial space actually looks like. Every American should watch it.
President Donald Trump has moved past his nativist harangue from the campaign to issuing last week an executive order that calls for “improvements” in border security and immigration enforcement. His proposed actions will improve nothing for Mexicans or US Americans living on either side of the nefarious wall he wants to build. For starters, there are already 650 miles of fencing of various types, constructed under the authority of the Secure Fence Act of 2006. Those fences had one palpable consequence over the course of the years after 2011: they have killed thousands of immigrants from dehydration and exposure, as the migratory routes have shifted towards less populated and more dangerous locations in the Arizona desert.
John Chamblee has mapped those deaths for Humane Borders / Fronteras Compasivas, an organization based around a simple premise: we all have a humanitarian imperative to prevent those horrible deaths. Like other volunteer organizations in border (for example, Border Angels in the San Diego/Tijuana region), volunteers supply water in stations throughout the desert, place warning posters at known crossing locations, and help families identify their deceased loved ones.
Deceased migrants 2001–2010 Humane Borders migrant mortality database
The 650 miles of fences built between 2006 and 2011 did not prevent Mexican drug traffickers from feeding the voracious demand for illegal drugs coming from American consumers, nor the flow of illegal arms and ammunition from American gun shows and shops lining the border, feeding the bloody carnage (this is the correct word in this context, not in the inauguration speech) that has cost Mexico more han 80,000 deaths in its efforts to collaborate with the United States in the war on drugs. Americans bear the responsibility for their drug consumption and their love affair with firearms.
Meanwhile undocumented migration is down, and so are apprehensions by the Border Patrol, because the underlying causes of international migration have nothing to do with the presence of absence of a wall. The Executive Order issued by President Trump actually lies in its justification of the purpose of the order when it states that there is a “recent surge” in illegal immigration and that border agents are “overwhelmed”. Border enforcement agents have less work and more resources than at any time over the past ten years, and although there has been an increase in Central American migration and unaccompanied minors, the net flow of Mexican nationals in the border is actually negative.
Moving into real facts, the most important thing to know is that a wall between Mexico and the United States already exists. This is not a continuous barrier across the 1954 miles that divide the two countries, but it involves hundreds of miles of vehicle barriers, and a combination of 13 and 18 feet high chain link, steel post and mesh fences. There are also a few miles of double layered fortifications, specifically in the San Diego — Tijuana region. From El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico the Rio Grande / Bravo constitutes a natural barrier dividing both countries, although even in that stretch of the border there are some fences running for miles in urban areas and at border crossings.
Much of the impetus for the construction of the existing wall was H.R. 6061 Act of 2006, called the “Secure Fence Act”. The goal of this piece of legislation was to secure operational control over the entire borders of the US, understood as the prevention of unlawful entries by “terrorists, unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics and other contraband”. Substantial investment was made to construct 353 miles of “pedestrian fencing” to prevent crossing by foot and 299 miles of “vehicle fencing” to impede vehicles from smuggling persons or goods.
That project had infamous cost overruns. The OBM estimated that the cost of the fence was 5 million per mile in the case of pedestrian sections and 1.7 per mile of vehicle fencing. If roughly 700 miles have already been covered this would mean that, with costs of 2007 and without adjusting for the far greater expense involved in constructing fencing in the river or the mountainous regions, the project involves at least 6.5 billion dollars (To put the figure in perspective, such project would represent 2.2 percent of the Mexican Federal budget, or around one fourth of the value of all remittances in 2013). I am sure no Executive Order can allow a President to spend that kind of money without Congressional approval.
President Trump will have to lie to his followers if he claims to have built a wall that already exists. If he builds more miles, constitutional lawyers should challenge his use of the Executive Action. HR 6061 clearly specifies which areas of the border should be fenced, and explicitly excludes building in areas with more than 10% grades (construction companies will probably love the engineering challenge and the cost overruns associated with such white elephant). The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA Public Law 104 208 Div. C) only provides for the construction of fencing in “areas of high illegal entry”. Hence, legal challenges should be mounted on the grounds that President Trump is exceeding the legislative intent in his Executive Order that specifies that establishes a policy of constructing a physical wall. It is worth quoting verbatim from the Executive Order what is meant by a wall, a poorly proofread, probably unvetted line that sounds like a Trump tweet rather than a legal definition:
“Wall” shall mean a contiguous, physical wall or other similar structure, contiguous (sic), and impassable barrier.
The environmental consequences of walling the Rio Grande / Bravo sections of the international border will be disastrous. Legal challenges on the grounds of environmental legislation will probably not be granted because the Department of Homeland Security can use IIRIRA Section 102 to waive complying with all other legislations. It is the responsibility of legislators to place some limits on what DHS is allowed to do encroaching on tribal lands, destroying the fragile environment on the Rio Bravo / Grande or the ecosystems of the deserts in the border.
Regardless of where the battles in the courts or the legislature might lead in order to curb President Trump’s anti migrant instincts, the fundamental consideration is about morality. A wall is wrong not on the basis of the rights or jurisdictions of nation states emerging from the Westphalian world order, but from a moral imperative of standing for our common humanity.