Symbols, Racial Fear and a Conservative Critique of the Border Wall

Aerial Border Photo Nadin Abbott

April 9, 2018 (Analysis) The Wall on the Mexican border is partly a nightmare, partly a symbol of the fevered dreams of many Americans. It represents fear, and tribalistic thinking. However, we need to understand a few things. The first is that it is not going to be built. However deep the fear of cultural and ethnic changes is, it is far more of a wedge than a reality. It is far more useful as a project, than finished wall.

There are multiple reasons for this. The first is the cost, and the second, is that it is not needed. It was not included in the Omnibus spending bill, by either de majority Republicans, or the minority Democrats. Even the most afraid, but responsible, law maker in Washington can understand data. Illegal crossings at the southern border are the lowest since 1971. So when Republicans did not include even the barest of funds, one has to point this out. Moreover, while Democrats got the blame from the president, in reality they do not control Congress, so they had no power to turn it down.

to be truthful, some fiscal conservatives may say one thing to their voters. But when it came to approving the money for it, they did not. They acted responsibly. So what are the facts here? What is it that Congress is looking at, that the rest of us should?

Forbes has the highlights of the relevant Border Patrol report. It is as follows:

  • “CBP recorded 310,531 apprehensions by U.S. Border Patrol agents and 216,370 inadmissible cases by CBP officers in FY17, a 23.7% decline over the previous year.” (Emphasis added.)
  • Between FY 2000 and FY 2017, the number of Border Patrol apprehensions along the Southwest border plummeted by approximately 80%, from a high of over 1.6 million in FY 2000 to around 300,000 in FY 2017.
  • “Nationwide, U.S. Border Patrol apprehensions averaged over 1 million per year between 1980 and 2016,” according to the CBP.
  • The percentage of Southwest border apprehensions involving Mexicans has continued to decline. “In FY17, approximately 58% of U.S. Border Patrol apprehensions were individuals from countries other than Mexico.” Of the 303,916 apprehensions along the Southwest border, “162,891 were from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Another 127,938 were from Mexico,” reported Customs and Border Protection.
  • A large percentage of those apprehended are fleeing violence in Central America, particularly families and young people. “By the end of the year, family-unit apprehensions and inadmissible cases reached 104,997 along the Southwest border,” reports CBP. “Another 48,681 unaccompanied children were apprehended or determined to be inadmissible.”

This data tells any objective person that there is no crisis at the border. President Donald Trump could have declared victory last year with his base. He could have told his base, “we won. The invasion of the southern border is over. We no longer need that wall.” Granted, it would have been hyperbole, and a white lie. However, if he wanted to frame it that way, he could have easily gotten away with it. His base, with few exceptions, would have sung hosannahs. It would have been a very real “win” for a man desperate for one. iIt would have saved billions of dollars, which even in the current budget, is real money. This could have been redirected to the military. This president would not have used it to build actually badly infrastructure, or strengthen the safety net, or education. But defense, sure, we can easily see him sending the Pentagon more money.

Instead he is fixated on a project that is not needed, and is creating real problems on both sides of the border.


This is about fear, and American demographics. However, we are going to hardly see millions moving north from Mexico again. Population growth in Mexico tells us that the population curve is slowly becoming older, like it has in the United States. Therefore, we do not expect to see a population growth with an excess of unskilled labor, that tended to go north. That was 30 years ago. Some Mexican-Americans are also going home, since the United States is increasingly perceived as a dangerous country for their children. This is not just anecdotal information from people I personally know in Mexico City.

Moreover, the United States will become a majority-minority country within a couple generations, at most. This is one of the many news stories on this.

Still, the number of minority and mixed-race children in the U.S are only expected to rise. “More than half of the nation’s children are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group,” by 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau reports, referring to all kids under the age of 18.

The minority population is expected to rise to 56 percent of the total population in 2060, compared with 38 percent last year. When that happens, “no group will have a majority share of the total and the United States will become a ‘plurality’ [nation] of racial and ethnic groups,” the U.S. Census states. The minority-majority trend reflected among 5-year-olds is the beginning of that shift.

Many of these children are hispanic, or of hispanic origin. They are American citizens, in some cases they hail from families that have been in this country for generations, however some whites who are anxious still tell them to go back to their country. This is home. Many whites are suffering from a tribal like anxiety because soon they will no longer be the majority. The wall is a symbol. It is an attempt, as flawed as it is, to stop what is happening. Think of the Dutch child with his finger inside the hole in the dike, trying to hold back the ocean. The image is accurate in this case.

Trump tapped into this tribal anxiety. Why sending the National Guard to the border is a response to a non-existent emergency. So what is this caravan? What is this fear? Yearly there is A Via Crucis,, that crosses Mexico to the United States. It is partly a pilgrimage, with religious connotations, and partly people fleeing violence and extreme poverty. When they start it is over three thousand people, when it reaches the US Border, it will have at most two hundred. They started in 2010 and the vast majority will remain in Mexico as Central American political refugees. Some will go home.

What we are talking about is 4,000 National Guard, to deal with 200 mostly women and children. This the invasion Trump has touted as an absolute threat to the United States. It speaks of racial fears that are deep, that he is exploiting. This is the fear of miscegenation, which is as old as the country itself.

When both President George W Bush and Barack Obama sent the National Guard to the border, you could argue that there was a real emergency. This time they will be chasing ghosts and fears. I am not addressing whether you agree with the deployments or not. The fact is that there was a surge of both drugs and people, so you could argue the Guard could help, and they did support the Border Patrol and local law enforcement. They were not there for direct operations. Legally they can’t. The Military and this includes the Guard, cannot engage in law enforcement activities, due to Posse Comitatus. The Guard could, during a disaster, under order from the state governor. This deployment does not meet those standards. There troops are deployed under Article 32, meaning state governors retain control, while the Department of Defense pays for all costs.

This time around we have no surge of people, and drugs are mostly not coming through the mythical non-guarded border anymore. Or to be more precise, drugs are coming though in massive amounts though passport control, and established border crossings. They are coming because there is a very real demand in middle America. This is part of the opioid crisis, which is a man-made disaster. This connection to the drug trade is rarely talked about.

So the wall is going to do nothing, beyond making some fearful people feel better. It is already creating very real problems with Mexico, and also with endangered species. As a symbol though it is powerful. To people who do not like the other it means keeping the other, the stranger, the brown skinned, the Catholic, out. In a country where a strong evangelical minority believes this is a white christian nation, changing demographics are a clear and present danger. This is also why for many evangelicals Trump’s past is not that serious, He is seen as a vessel of God’s will.

When looking at immigration policy and the wall, this is part of it. This is not what many want to openly talk about. But this language about the other, and an invasion is speaking to deep fears. And to boot, the president believes this too. He has for over three decades and betrays his biases and yes, racism.

The Conservative Argument Against the Wall and the National Guard

The president ordered troops to the border. Truth be told, there is no plan, there is no budget, there are no rules of engagement. In other worlds, this is an impulse deployment, and it is unprecedented. Why? Partly this is coming from Fox and Friends. This is all but fiscally sensible. The Guard will be chasing ghosts and fears. But we have no actual cost, or budget. Then there is the wall and what it is expected to cost.

Look, if a Democrat deployed the National Guard this way, or tried building a not needed major infrastructure project to please a narrow political base, fiscal conservatives would be screaming. I will add, rightfully so. I am waiting for that crowd to say something, anything, about this. for your consideration this is the economic cost of the wall according to Brookings:

Although during the election campaign candidate Trump claimed that the wall would cost only $12 billion, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) internal report in February put the cost at $21.6 billion, but that may be a major underestimate.

When you see a project that has a cost that is well above estimates, it is not rare. It is almost normal practice. Initially projects tend to be budgeted well under, with more money authorized later in its life. Contractors like it this way, becuase these projects become medium term cash flows. So $30 billion total cost is not that unlikely or crazy, assuming it would ever be built. While the Congress made quite the statement by not approving funds, they need to do more than just not approve funds. Members of Congress need to be honest with their voters. There is no need for this wall. They are not coming by the millions through the border in a peaceful invasion. As much as this is a wedge issue, that helps to keep them in office, this is crazy.

It is not like they would pay a heavy price either. Honestly may help them stay in office. The wall has deep opposition along the border, where it is seen as a waste of money. It could also see the confiscation of land though imminent domain, which many also oppose.

Then there are other costs. None of this project will require an environmental report. We know it will affect migratory species, not just humans. Some of these species are already in danger of going extinct. This is a very real cost to the natural world in the age of mass extinction. Conservatives seek to conserve, that is the root of the term. This goes well beyond a glorious past. Teddy Roosevelt was a conservative, who wanted to conserve the wealth that nature has. The wall is far from conservative in this sense.

Then there is the increasing political and economic isolation of the United States. Mexico is already moving away from trade with the United States. They would prefer to keep the North American Free Trade Agreement in place, since it benefits the whole region. But Mexico is willing to trade with other regions, and for example buy grain from Brazil instead of Ohio. The United States, under Trump, continues to withdraw from the world stage. This is not the conservative thing to do either. Leaving the global stage and becoming hermits will affect Americans in very real ways. The wall is just a symbol, the 5 million jobs that directly depend on trade with Mexico, for example, are not symbolic. Losing them could mean a recession.

There are many reasons conservatives should be speaking against the wall, as well as deploying the Guard for a non emergency. However, this argument is now in the hands of those who get history, and economics. It is no longer the Republican Party. Voting alone is not enough. Republicans have to put the country before narrow political interests from a man who cares not about them either. It is all about Trump.



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Nadin Brzezinski

Nadin Brzezinski

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.