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The Meaning of Trump’s Wall

Though Donald Trump failed to get his wall funded when Congress passed a recent $1.1 trillion federal spending package, he did succeed in creating a wall of sorts.  Fashioned partly out of words and partly out of existing physical structures and technologies, Trump’s wall has effectively cast a shadow of fear over the 11.1 million people living in the U.S. without the requisite papers signifying citizenship or legal residence.  This shadow accompanies them wherever they go in their daily lives.  But this metaphoric wall not only serves to incite fear; it also helps to exacerbate inequality.

Trump initially began shaping his discursive wall when, as a candidate, he embarked on a racialized course of scapegoating last year.  After his inauguration, the discourse took on a new form as a dehumanizing bureaucratic language, casting people without papers as “illegal aliens” who “present a significant threat to national security and public safety” (Trump’s January 25 executive order on “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements”).  In this executive order and in various Homeland Security memos, the Trump administration set aside a previous emphasis on targeting violent offenders and instead cast a wide net of enforcement, subjecting anyone to arrest and deportation who resides in the country without acceptable documentation.

Trump’s discursive wall has inspired fear because his administration hasn’t hesitated to carry out its threats.  In its first three months, the Trump administration arrested 38 percent more people than the Obama administration arrested in a comparable period last year (i.e. 41,318 versus 30,028).  Half the people apprehended this year had committed no crime other than living here without documentation. And the results have been predictable, as an eroding trust in law enforcement caused crime reporting to decline in immigrant communities across the country.  It’s not surprising that Trump’s wall of fear has undermined public safety, as many local law enforcement officials have attested.

But the wall’s role in furthering inequality must also be accounted for.  When candidate Trump vaunted his success in helping negotiate a deal with Carrier Corporation to keep an Indianapolis based furnace plant (about 800 jobs) from moving to Mexico, it was not surprising to learn that the company was still going ahead with plans to move another Indiana facility, in rural Huntington, to Monterrey, Mexico, terminating jobs for about 700 American workers.  The move was unsurprising in that it was consonant with the free flow of investment, manufacturing, and jobs moving across our borders for decades.   This flow was abetted and facilitated by American corporate leaders seeking to maximize profit and minimize labor costs while stretching supply chains around the globe.

Capital, and the elites who manage it, have been free to cross boundaries for years, while workers have been increasingly restricted at the border.  This asymmetry has made migrant workers highly vulnerable to exploitation as their attempts to resist wage theft, poor working conditions, and other abuses have often been met with threatened exposure and deportation. Meanwhile, it is no coincidence that, over the past decades, the growing inequality in wealth and political power has taken place while the border has become increasingly militarized and while discussions of immigration policy have been frequently linked to the war on terror.  All of this has predated Trump.

But this president and his billionaires’ cabinet plan to take inequality to new heights by giving massive tax cuts to the wealthy and by deregulating the financial industry.  There is a kind of desperate contradiction between candidate Trump’s populist promises and President Trump’s goal of delivering to the one percent.  It is difficult to maintain this contradiction without drowning out criticism in the noisy drumbeat of race baiting, scapegoating, and xenophobia.

Certainly the sanctuary movement has helped to counter the rhetoric of dehumanization by keeping in focus the narratives of people struggling to make a living, struggling to keep their families together in the face of threatened detention and deportation.  The movement has also kept in focus pathways to citizenship as a necessary piece of any immigration policy reform.  But even this isn’t enough.  Working people across borders must find new ways of building solidarity and of resisting the forces that keep expanding inequalities of wealth, opportunity, and mobility.  And they must call out Trump’s wall for what it really is:  the ultimate symbol of an ultimate con.

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