By Emmanuel Awosika
When Donald J. Trump, then a presidential contestant for the United States highest office, declared in 2015 that he would build “a great, impenetrable and beautiful wall” on the US-Mexico border and “have Mexico pay for it” many, including myself, did not believe him and some even scoffed at this statement.
The popular belief at the time was that Donald Trump could not defeat Hillary Clinton who was seen as the favourite to clinch the office of the POTUS. However, Donald Trump got the last laugh as he successfully built his “Build the Wall” rhetoric into a veritable tool that exploited the worst of mainstream America’s xenophobic instincts and handed him a shocking victory at the U.S Presidential polls.
True to his word, Trump as soon as he got sworn in as the 45th POTUS, signed Executive Order 13767 authorizing the commencement of construction on the border wall. The plan to build the wall started to look as though it would succeed and the Democrats who had sworn to oppose the wall were willing to compromise with the Trump-led government. The Democrats (who were the minority in both Chambers of Congress) reasoned that it was better to negotiate with Trump and get small concessions on the wall than to oppose him and lose all control over how the wall would be built. This, and many more, led everyone to believe that Trump’s Wall – once seen as an impossible dream – was going to be built after all. Trump even came out to announce that he would be delivering on his signature campaign pledge “ahead of schedule”.
All this happened around 2016. Fast-forward to 2019 and the bitter truth facing Trump (and many of his supporters, I presume) is that the Great Wall (as I tend to call it) is yet to be built, though piecemeal construction has begun/is set to begin on some sections of the wall. There’s even an increasing likelihood that this Great Wall of the U.S may never see the light of the day—thanks in no small part to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her bunch of rebellious Democrats.
But then, these were the same Democrats who seemed to approve of the wall back in 2016. So what changed between 2016 and now that caused the Dems to make a U-turn on the issue of the wall? The answer to that lies in a careful x-ray of the power balance between the Democrats and the Republicans: as at 2016/2017 when Trump started making plans to build the wall, the Democrats were the minority in both Chambers, and Trump’s Republicans controlled some 60% of seats in both chambers. This meant Trump was in a good position to get his bill for the wall passed.
However, the Democrats were not willing to roll over and play dead. Like the proverbial hen who grew teeth during the night and rebelled against its master in the morning, the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in the aftermath of the November 2018 mid-term elections and proceeded on a mission to pour sand in Trump’s garri whenever they had the chance to. This they did in late 2018 by opposing the inclusion of the $5.7 billion requested by Trump for his wall in the proposed budget for the new fiscal year. Trump, in tit-for-tat manner, refused to sign budget legislation presented to him for assent by Congress and the ensuing impasse sparked a crisis of sorts in government and led to a partial shutdown of government due to lack of funding (for the meaning of “government shutdown”, check appendix).
A Nigerian proverb says “when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”. The grasses (which in this case were the federal employees) indeed suffered as about 800,000 federal employees were either forced to work without pay or forced on unpaid leave (called a “furlough”). With virtually no funds in government, many sectors were increasingly being forced to reduce activities or worse, suspend operations—parks/recreation centres were closed, courts could not hear cases, government contractors lost millions and many others were left angry and frustrated.
Sensing the damage the unpopularity of the shutdown could do to his ratings, President Trump cut a deal with Congressional Democrats to reopen government for three weeks, starting from January 18 (the shutdown had started on Dec. 22 and by the time it ended had become the longest shutdown in U.S history). This agreement was reached with the proviso that if Congress did not come to an agreement concerning the border wall, another shutdown would happen.
The shutdown did not happen and Trump did not get one cent in funding for the border wall. Trump was derided by the media with many describing him as a “toothless bulldog” while many saw this as a symbolic victory for Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats. Trump faced criticism from his own conservatives too, with many expressing displeasure at Trump’s surrender to the Democrats. Once more, the Great Trump Wall was seen as a pipe-dream which would never be achieved.
Unknown to all, the battle was not over and in a Game of Thrones-like move, Trump decided to use his last ace – as the POTUS, he could circumvent Congress by declaring a national emergency which allowed him to divert military funds to build the wall. At first, many reasoned that Trump could not resort to this tactic considering the legal battles that would follow. However, Trump against all expectations declared the emergency. Even though the Democrat-controlled House of Reps declared the move illegal and unconstitutional, the Senate (which had a sizeable number of Republicans in it) supported the move and the funds were released for the wall.
Trump got the first tranche of the money in form of 1.2 billion dollars which is slated to be used to build some newer portions of the wall and do some additional renovation on old parts of the wall.
There you have it, folks: all the current gist on the status of the wall. However, yours truly will do one better and try to analyse issues surrounding the border wall, from the Wall’s origins in Trump’s campaign rallies to its present position as the most divisive issue in American politics today. What are the issues at heart of the fight for the Wall? Why is Trump bent on building it and why are Democrats against it? What is the current situation at the US-Mexico border and is a border wall necessary? What are the implications for Trump if the wall is/is not built? What is the cost of building the wall and what are the potential effects of a border wall on residents of the borderland? These are all questions I will carefully dissect in this article.
First note, though, that Trump’s wall has evolved randomly over time which is not surprising concerning Trump’s world-famous unpredictability and impulsiveness. From the first time he announced his intention to build the wall in 2015 to the present, Trump’s position on the wall has changed considerably (even though he denies this). Details of the wall such as its length, cost, constitutive materials as well as the entity footing the bill have been changed or altered on impulses.
At first, the wall was supposed to cover the entire length of the border (about 2,000 miles) but Trump later declared it would run for 1,000 miles instead with natural obstacles such as mountains and rivers taking care of the rest. The wall was previously touted as an impenetrable concrete and metal wall (which meant no one could see who or what was coming); this also changed as Trump declared he preferred “artistically designed steel slats” which would allow border agents see through them. Trump also said Mexico was going to pay for the wall but with the Mexicans kicking against such an idea, I believe that part too has changed.
Even the height of the wall has changed dramatically over time with Trump announcing at a particular moment that “the wall has just gone up 10 feet higher!” in response to the Mexican President’s announcement that Mexico would not pay for the wall. We are not even sure how much the wall would cost as numbers have been changing rapidly—Trump had earlier said he could do it for $10 billion but that number has risen to about $20 billion in subsequent interviews (the best estimate of the wall’s cost is $31.2 billion as given by engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology).
Do all these mean Trump’s official position on the wall has changed or is there a slight possibility he will abandon the entire idea of a wall? “Hell no!” Trump says. In fact, when Chief of Staff, John F. Kelly told certain congressmen that Trump’s earlier position on the wall had been “uninformed” and that he was willing to change certain details concerning the wall, Trump tweeted a stringent rebuttal which reads in part: “The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it.”
In making the case for the Wall, Trump has regularly sold his wall as the ultimate panacea for the scourge of drugs, crime and illegal immigration in the U.S. More importantly, however, the wall is believed by critics to serve a bigger role by being a symbol of America’s growing aggressive nationalist tendencies. It tells the world that America is no longer going to serve as a place where any Tom, Dick and Harry can come and live in. The wall may yet serve as the exclamation point for Trump’s “America First” rhetoric which has seen the U.S adopt an increasingly isolationist behaviour, especially in dealing with its neighbours and allies. Trump’s Wall is his perceived magnum opus, the one project that could ultimately seal his legacy as the President who cut off the U.S from the rest of the world.
Trump’s Wall, however, faces many challenges, with the biggest of these coming in the form of a hostile group of Democrats led by Nancy Pelosi. The Dems are hell-bent on denying Trump the funds he needs for his project, claiming it is a waste of taxpayer money and instead want the existing border security apparatus improved. Increasing the number of border agents, installing advanced monitoring equipment such as drone surveillance and motion sensors are viable alternatives to a border wall, they have said.
While the Democrats’ misgivings about the wall are certainly worthy of consideration, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that pure politics is at the heart of the refusal to support the wall. A political pundit once explained it thus: “The Democrats, who have their sights on recapturing the Presidency in 2020, know that if they deny Trump the funding he needs, he won’t be able to deliver on what is arguably his biggest campaign promise.
“This will likely alienate his supporters and if the supporters turn against Trump, the road will be clear for a Democratic victory at the 2020 Presidential polls.”
While this tactic may seem a bit Machiavellian, the age-old maxim, “all is fair in love and war” comes to mind and since politics is nothing but war, all actions whether honourable or not, are deemed acceptable.
Asides his Democrats-sized obstacle though, Trump faces opposition to the wall from another set of individuals. This time, entities who own much of the border land i.e. states, private landowners, independent Native Indian tribes and others. These people claim a hard wall will only cause significant environmental damage and disrupt their lives. Some, such as the Tohono O’Odham Indian Nation, have said they have land on both sides of the border and a hard wall will divide their community in two. With these people owning an estimated two-thirds of borderland, Trump has a potential crisis as they may decide not to give up their land for the sake of the border wall.
Although the Federal government has in the past tried to take lands forcefully, the huge number of lawsuits launched in the aftermath of such actions may prevent the Trump administration from recourse to such bully tactics.
Many have also raised concerns about the wall’s cost and its efficacy in achieving all the goals Trump has outlined. With estimates ranging between $10 billion to $60 billion, Congress (especially the Democrats) is wary of funding a project that is a potential white elephant. Concerning the wall’s effectiveness, some, such as Republican Will Hurd (Texas), have cast doubts on President Trump’s claim that the wall will reduce illegal immigration in the United States, pointing out that the number of illegal immigrants apprehended at the border has seen a steady drop since 2000. Using government records as evidence, they claim that the highest numbers of illegal immigrants in the country are those who “overstayed” their visas and not those who cross the border into the U.S. The wall, they believe, is not needed and will be nothing more than a “speed bump in the desert” if constructed –border crossers will simply look for new and more dangerous ways to circumvent the wall e.g. using ladders to scale the wall or digging tunnels under the wall and will render the wall useless.
So, what are the chances Trump’s wall will be built? If I was a gambler, I wouldn’t put my money on the wall’s chances of being built—at least, not if the Democrats continue with their dogged opposition to the construction of a border wall. Moreover, several entities have filed lawsuits calling for a halt on the building of the wall and pending the time when the lawsuits are resolved, construction has to be halted. Even if the U.S. government won all the lawsuits, the delays might mean the wall won’t be completed before Trump’s term expires. If this happens and Trump loses the next election, the Democrats, with their well-documented opposition to the wall, will not hesitate in cutting off all funds for the building of the wall.
But after all is said and done, what are the implications for Trump if the wall is/is not built? I’ll put it this way: If he gives into pressure from the Democrats and abandons the idea of building the wall, he will be forced to renege on a promise that served as the cornerstone of his campaign and possibly alienate much of his conservative support base. With prominent right-wing campaigner, Ann Coulter, recently deriding him as “the biggest wimp to serve as President since George H.W. Bush,” Trump’s second-term ambition may yet be in serious jeopardy. On the flipside of the coin, however, lies another set of problems—if Trump somehow manages to navigate the legal and political obstacles facing the construction of his wall, and builds the Great Trump Wall, he’ll likely strain relations with the Democrats, the Mexican government and about 60% of the American population who, as captured in recent opinion polls, do not believe the wall is necessary.
Will Trump successfully build the wall or will that famous catchphrase he often tweets, “Build the Wall and crime will fall” become “Build the Wall and Trump will fall”? Dear readers, only time will answer these questions.
1. Government shutdown: A government shutdown is when Congress doesn’t approve a federal budget for the upcoming fiscal year and nonessential functions of the U.S. government closes until lawmakers can agree on a budget.
2. Furlough: In the United States, a furlough is a temporary leave of employees due to special needs of a company or employer, which may be due to economic conditions at the specific employer or in the economy as a whole. These involuntary furloughs may be short or long term, and many of those affected may seek other temporary employment during that time. Simply put, a furlough is a period of unpaid leave.
3. Tohono O’Odham Indian Nation: The Tohono Oʼodham are a Native American people of the Sonoran Desert, residing primarily in the U.S. state of Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora. Tohono Oʼodham means “Desert People”. As a tribe recognised by US Federal Government, they have the right to make their own laws (irrespective of the national laws). In essence, they are a sovereign entity within a sovereign country.
4. US-Mexico Border Wall: The United States Mexico–Border Wall is a series of vertical barriers along the Mexico-United States Border intended to reduce illegal immigration to the US from Mexico.
5. Democrats/Republicans: The Democratic Party (The Democrats) is one of the two major contemporary political parties in the United States, along with the Republican Party (The Republicans). It is more like APC/PDP major power tussle in the Nigeria of today.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the position of The Press Club, University of Lagos.