President Trump’s characterisation of asylum seekers from Mexico as illegal criminals and rapists threatening American citizens is a cynical distortion of reality. Drug runners and criminals both from Mexico into the United States and vice versa represent a tiny fraction of the flow of one million people who legally cross between the two countries every day to work, shop or visit relatives. A much larger proportion of criminals, from many origins, enter the United States by air.
Trump’s demand for a wall ignores not only human but economic realities. More commercial traffic crosses the border between the United States and Mexico than any other border on the world. The adjacent border cities of Brownsville and Matamoros, Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, El Paso and Juarez, Nogales in Sonora and Nogales in Arizona, or San Diego and Tijuana, enjoy a high measure of mutually-beneficial economic integration. US-Mexican border trade provides opportunities for big profit for investors, as well as steady employment for Mexicans who prefer to work in maquiladora assembly plants on the Mexican side of the border than seek employment in the north.
Why Trump’s sudden panic? Other presidents have recognised the need to curb the flow of criminals from south of the border. Under previous administrations, six hundred miles of fencing was constructed, and today at least six federal agencies regularly patrol this and the remainder of the border. They include Customs and Border Protection, the National Guard, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams. Their detention of refugees and asylum-seekers used to be bureaucratic, predictable and routine – confiscation of refugees’ belongings before incarceration, then the slow process of deciding whether they should stay or go back to where they came from.
Now Trump has introduced crueller procedures including, until popular outcry forced him to retract, the separation of children from their parents. One of many depressing anecdotes concerned a little girl of four named America. With no idea where her parents were, bewildered and frightened at being surrounded by uniforms, America sang a song from a popular telenovela ‘Fiesta, fiesta, la vida es fiesta’. She then burst into tears. The media do not relate whether she was re-united with her parents.
In his review of Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border (NYRB 27 September 2018), Ed Vulliamy quotes a tribal activist scathingly observing that ‘these guards come from Texas or South Carolina, and they don’t know jack shit about this land. They act the tough guy, but if you put ’em out on the land under the sun without their toys, they’d be dead in two days’. As are many of the refugees who evade capture.
If the problem of refugees and occasional criminals was contained under preceding administrations, why the panic now? It seems to be a pure and cynical effort by Trump to gain popular support from his legions of American supporters at a time when he is challenged by a democrat majority in the House of Representatives and to hell with the practical consequences. This is what many expected would be Trump’s response to domestic reverses – divert Americans’ attention to external ‘threats’.
Meanwhile, what are the practical consequences? How can he build a wall from San Diego in California to Brownsville in Texas without seriously impeding legitimate trade and human movement? Will there adequate gates for entry? How will customs procedures be accommodated? How far out to sea will it stretch? What will it cost and who is going to pay for it?
In his haste to label legitimate refugees as rapists and murderers Trump fails to mention two much more sinister flows across the border – the northward river of drug money for laundering in the United States, and the southward movement of firearms shipped from their American manufacturers to drug cartels and corrupt law enforcement agencies in the south.
And it seems to be beyond his mental processes for President Trump to critically analyse why refugees and asylum seekers are coming from Central America through Mexico in the first place. Neither he nor his predecessors ever reflected on the historical part United States policies have played in the creation of corrupt and repressive regimes by applying the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, gun-boat diplomacy, land grabbing by large US fruit and oil companies, and supporting military coups and the suppression of dissent.
Finally, it seems beyond President Trump to sympathetically understand Mexico’s problem with the flow of refugees from the very Central American states the US has repeatedly destabilised. Mexico can ill afford to divert resources to such unwelcome guests, but it seems to be treating them with some compassion. Trump’s insistence that Mexico pay for the wall has been received with a blunt refusal by Mexico’s new leftist President Andre Manuel Lopez Obrador. Trump has now shifted the burden to the American tax payer by demanding a Congressional loan of $5 billion. One can only hope that the Democrats’ refusal remains firm, and that Trump stops holding federal public servants ( and the wider American public who rely on their services) to ransom for a problem entirely of his own making.
Richard Broinowski was Australian Ambassador to Mexico, the Central American Republics and Cuba from 1994 to 1997.