If his first week in office is any way to judge him, Donald Trump might, after all, be the kind of president who keeps his promises. Unfortunately, some of what he vowed will be harmful—to everyone.
Trump became a real candidate the moment he began complaining about immigrants in 2015. Rhetoric suggesting that Mexicans are rapists and that Muslim immigrants are inherently a threat benefited Trump immensely. His plans for a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, propelled him—bafflingly—to the White House. People like it. In my own experience covering Trump rallies during the campaign, the crowds were most happy to cheer and chant when Trump’s magic word “wall” came up.
A fear of immigrants is an easy thing to stoke, especially in a country where manufacturing jobs have left (logically, thanks to changing times and high taxes and regulations). Combine that with the real, but intensely overblown fear of terrorism, and the idea of a big, militarized wall across the Southern border starts to sound like a terrific idea.
A border wall is a colossal waste of time, money and resources. It will “bring jobs” in the same way that massive, government works such as FDR’s “fixes” for the Great Depression brought work back. That is, it diverted people and time into clunky, government-planned pursuits, instead of letting a market solution to the crisis happen. If the right wants to go full progressive, and say that they support grand projects like this now, that’s their prerogative. But they should admit it, and understand what they’re advocating.
The cost of building more than two thousand miles of border, of housing workers, and carting building supplies to the Southwest, then building on rough, rural terrain, much of which is privately owned, would be extreme. The latest news is that the wall may be funded by a 20 percent tariff on Mexican goods imported to the US. It shouldn’t have to be said that this is miles away from a free market solution to this imagined problem.
And again, if the right has decided to give up on even paying lip service to free market trade, they should have the decency to admit that they’re just progressives now.
Trump’s plan to take federal funds from so-called sanctuary cities also sounds good to certain people, or at least sounds like a mean lesson to Democrats about the perils of government purse strings turning to a cudgel. However, the job of the small government advocate is not to gloat when the other side turns frantic, or hypocritical. Being on the side of right is more important, and the brave federalism demonstrated by the mayors who say that their cops are not to be made Border Patrol officers, and their immigrant residences are not to be removed, should be applauded.
Perhaps more to the point, a fully militarized border would exacerbate an already dangerous situation for Americans and their Fourth Amendment rights. As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) handily explains, since 1953, the Border Patrol has been given a certain amount of jurisdiction over an area 100 miles from any border. That encompasses a staggering amount of geography and population, and within that area, searches can be performed with reasonable suspicion of immigration violation.
Naturally, in practice this has resulted in harassment of American citizens who are darker-skinned and Spanish speaking. But it’s not just them, and it’s not just about immigration. Government power, naturally, props up government power. The ability to inquire about immigration status helps the search for “too much” money being carried by motorists, or for drugs in someone’s rectum. The Fourth Amendment is supposed to guard against all these kinds of searches, but court rulings and law enforcement leeway have said otherwise. Drugs, terrorism, illicit money, smuggling, immigrants, how many bogeymen will we add, each one at the cost of our privacy and freedom of movement?
Advocates for a border with a full wall—more drones, 5000 more Border Patrol agents—will argue that it’s just on the border, so it’s not something everyone should worry about. The internal immigration checkpoints, the horror stories of searches for drugs, criminalizing helping immigrants, or even giving them a ride somewhere, as Alabama decided to do—when will it be enough? When will America be safe enough from terrorists, and from poor, migrant workers alike?
Building a few hundred miles of border wall, just sent immigrants across more dangerous patches of desert, and emboldened people smugglers. A full wall may stop them all initially, but maybe then they’ll come by boat like Cubans or Haitians. There is a market for cheap labor, and a willing workforce fighting like hell to get to it.
A wall will punish both Americans and peaceful immigrants in the meantime, yet never changing the basic truth that if people want to move, they will.