One of Republican nominee Donald Trump’s more audacious claims during the 2016 presidential campaign was that he would not only build a wall along America’s southern border, but also force Mexico to pay for it! Many scoffed at the idea that, if Trump were ever elected president, he would try to actually build a physical border wall. But, in a series of executive orders, Trump has set out to make good on his campaign promises. The president wants to build a wall, and he still wants Mexico to pay for it.
The growing political brouhaha between Washington and Mexico City has grown heated, with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto canceling next week’s planned visit to Washington, D.C. Nieto has steadfastly insisted that Mexico will not pay for any border wall, leading President Trump to suggest that the visit be canceled. Trump’s rationale for the border wall is a “60 billion dollar trade deficit with Mexico,” though critics point out that a border wall and departure from NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) would kill many jobs inside the U.S. that depend on trade with Mexico and Canada.
Increasing tensions between the U.S. and Mexico are complex and multifaceted. Conservatives have long voiced concern that illegal immigration from Latin America, most of it coming across the border with Mexico, is draining U.S. resources and sowing cultural disunity. Trump played to these fears during his primary campaign, opining that many immigrants from Latin America were criminals and disparaging the use of Spanish rather than English within the United States. While the media widely condemned Trump for these controversial claims, the real estate tycoon had some support on both sides of the political aisle for criticizing NAFTA.
Both conservative and liberal populists have long complained that NAFTA has been a bust for the United States, with American companies relocating factories to Mexico in order to take advantage of lax labor and environmental laws. Liberal voters struggle between the desire to treat immigrants from Latin America with compassion and the desire to protect the wages of existing American workers from newcomers who will accept lower pay. Both the left and right have struggled with the issue of our southern border for decades, arguing various policies on humanitarian, economic, and security grounds.
There are no easy answers when it comes to U.S.-Mexico relations, and powerful stakeholders in America have vastly different desires when it comes to immigration policy. Producers want cheap labor, consumers want cheap goods, and workers want secure, high-paying jobs. Citizens want to be compassionate and generous toward immigrants, yet also want to protect against an influx of drugs and crime. Tightening the border will help achieve some of these goals, but could hurt families of immigrants and those with cross-border ties. Relaxing the border would receive accolades from humanitarians, but could lead to economic and security woes.
With the situation so nuanced, it should be clear that a knee-jerk reaction of “building a wall” will likely cause more harm than good. While such a move might indeed limit immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border, the opportunity costs must be weighed. Our relationship with most nations in Latin America will worsen, the cost of building and maintaining a wall that spans thousands of miles will be enormous, and Hispanics within the United States will feel further disenfranchised.
Pitting the Trump administration against Mexico, and indeed most of Latin America could backfire by inflaming passions against the United States. A typical conservative fear of Hispanic immigrants refusing to assimilate will only be exacerbated as Trump’s unorthodox maneuvers lead to protests within the pro-immigrant community. By vocally disparaging Mexico, Donald Trump and his supporters only increase resistance to the very idea of assimilation upon which they insist.
Maintaining goodwill with Mexico’s government is also at risk, and President Trump must carefully weigh whether or not he can cut ties with Nieto’s administration and still hope to fight the War on Drugs and guard against terrorist threats crossing the southern border. By insisting that Mexico pay for an insulting border wall, Trump runs the risk of losing Mexican support to fight the cartels and keep Washington informed of any threats budding south of the Rio Grande.
The additional security provided by an expensive border wall could be entirely neutralized by Mexico’s government deciding to take a laissez-faire approach to aiding its northern neighbor on security issues. Deciding to save its money and energy, Mexico could take a hands-off approach to cartel operations in its northern states, letting them seek innovative ways to go under, over, or around the border wall. A wall is only minimally effective if those you seek to keep out can spend as much time as they please analyzing the outside of your wall for weaknesses.
Trade must also be considered as a security issue. While abandoning NAFTA and erecting a border wall might indeed bring some factory jobs home, what would be the cost to the United States if economic woes eventually turn Mexico into a failed state? Just like Washington bailed out failing corporations during the Great Recession, it may be compelled to bail out Mexico. Taking a tough stance on the border might save some American jobs today, but it must be weighed against the risk of having to spend a tremendous amount of money and blood in a decade or two to wrest Mexico away from the cartels or a corrupt new dictator-figure.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump’s brash actions imply that he has not done this mental calculus and will leave the U.S. flat-footed if things go awry.