• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Why Donald Trump is so wrong about the Mexican border

A work by French artist JR on the US-Mexico border in California in 2017. Photo/Getty Images

US-Mexican border-crossing apprehensions hit a 46-year low in 2017, but US President Donald Trump is using his emergency powers to divert funds for his border wall project.

What sort of democracy gifts its already powerful leader emergency powers without defining what constitutes an emergency?

But that’s what the United States did with the 1976 National Emergencies Act, which gives the president the power to declare an emergency at the drop of a hat without defining the term or setting out criteria that have to be met for that power to be invoked.

A classic example of the law of unintended consequences, the Act was conceived as a means of reining in a president’s authoritarian impulses. As the Watergate scandal unfolded in 1973-74, there were concerns that President Richard Nixon might resort to arbitrary measures as investigators zeroed in on him and his inner circle.

RelatedArticlesModule - Donald Trump Mexico border

The “Saturday Night Massacre” – the name given to a series of events on October 20, 1973, that came about after Nixon ordered the sacking of special prosecutor Archibald Cox, thereby triggering the resignations of the Attorney-General and his deputy – showed such concerns were well founded.

In practice, the Act had the effect of formalising the president’s power to declare an emergency, but the lack of definition means an emergency is any situation the president chooses to label as such.

The legislators probably figured that just about everyone knows what an emergency is and, for those who don’t or are a bit hazy, there’s always the dictionary. The Collins English Dictionary defines an emergency as “an unexpected and difficult or dangerous situation, especially an accident, which happens suddenly and which requires quick action to deal with it”.

President Donald Trump: has given up even pretending Mexico is going to pay for the wall. Photo/Getty Images

The same panacea

Trump can hardly claim the situation on the US-Mexico border is unexpected or happened suddenly, given that in June 2015, he launched his campaign for the presidency with a rant on the subject that many people assumed would put him on the fast track to political oblivion. He said, “Mexico are sending people that have lots of problems and they are bringing those problems to us. They are bringing drugs and they are bringing crime and their rapists.” His solution was to build “a great wall … and I will make Mexico pay for that wall”.

Three and a half years on, he’s stoking the same fears, demonising the same foreigners and offering the same panacea. “It’s all going to happen where we’re going to build a beautiful, big, strong wall that’s not going to let criminals and traffickers and drug dealers and drugs into our country. It’s very simple.” What has changed is that he has given up even pretending Mexico is going to pay for it. And seeing Congress has baulked at stumping up the required amount, he’s going to use his emergency powers to divert funding that the legislature had allocated to various government departments for specific projects, such as military housing.

Despite the scaremongering over an imminent invasion by caravans of criminal scum and Middle Eastern terrorists, who have cunningly swapped their keffiyehs for sombreros, illegal immigration via the southern border is at its lowest level for years. The Department of Homeland Security estimates undetected illegal border crossings dropped by more than 90% between 2006 and 2016. According to US Customs/Border Protection figures, border-crossing apprehensions hit a 46-year low in 2017. When Trump’s national security team provided Congress with a threat-assessment update recently, the barbarians at the gate didn’t rate a mention.

Yes, drugs flood into the US, but, as Nixon launched the War on Drugs in 1971, that’s hardly a sudden or unexpected development. More to the point, the notion that a wall will keep out the drugs is beyond fatuous. As those with the thankless task of trying to stem the flow must be getting tired of pointing out, most drugs entering the US come in via existing ports of entry.

Former senior Drug Enforcement Administration official Jack Riley says, “It is far too risky and expensive for any of the cartels to move high-volume drugs through those desolate, really unwalled areas. I’m a little confused as to why our guy in the White House really doesn’t understand that … We know that nearly 80% of all the drugs we’re dealing with – coke, heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl and marijuana – come through existing ports of entry.”

President Richard Nixon. Photo/Getty Images

Voracious market

The cartels worked out a long time ago that the cheapest, most practical and most efficient way of getting drugs into the US was in cars driven through ports of entry, since fewer than a third of such vehicles are thoroughly searched.

And America’s drug problem certainly isn’t an accident. It’s basic supply and demand. The drug cartels are in the happy position of having the world’s biggest and most voracious market for illegal drugs on their doorstep and a vast but largely ineffective interdiction effort that places a black-market premium on their products. As the shadowy CIA operative (Josh Brolin) tells the naive FBI agent (Emily Blunt) in the bleak but compelling 2015 drug movie Sicario: “Until someone finds a way to stop 20% of America putting this shit up their nose, order is the best we can hope for.”

According to Trump, “the big drug loads don’t go through ports of entry. They can’t go through ports of entry.”

It’s quite possible that he’s stupid and/or ill-informed enough to believe that. More than likely, though, he doesn’t give a damn. The wall is politics, pure and simple. It’s about keeping his base on side and thereby keeping the Republican Party in line; it’s about getting re-elected.

One thing Trump is very good at is sloganeering. “Make America Great Again” is a call to arms rather than an action plan and it’s difficult to measure, so Trump can and does continually declare mission accomplished. “Lock her up” has served its purpose. “Build the wall” shoehorns the Trump base’s vast reservoir of resentment and paranoia into three monosyllables, but it’s also an unequivocal promise of something visible, tangible and concrete.

If there’s nothing remotely resembling a great, big, beautiful wall on the southern border in 2020, Trump may be forced to run as Gulliver in Lilliput, a hapless giant thwarted by pygmies. But Trump supporters didn’t vote for a victim; they voted for a saviour.

This article was first published in the March 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.