“Wall” trumps policy in Republican race

The border fence separating Mexico and the United States reaching out into the Pacific Ocean. (Tony Webster/Wikimedia Commons)

By Aryn Braun and Meggie Morris

Despite frequent jokes about Donald Trump’s proposed wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, immigration lawyers and experts warn political rhetoric has perilously consumed the national debate surrounding border control, immigration and national security.

“The border, in my mind, has turned into a political campaign commercial,” said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. “We’ve lost control of it as a legitimate discussion about what does real border security look like.”

Immigration and border security have been dominant political themes since 9/11, said Benjamin Johnson, executive director of American Immigration Lawyers. Ongoing focus on these issues, highlighted particularly over the past year by aspiring and established politicians, reveals much more of a political crisis than any actual border crisis, he added.

Moreover, the political response to immigration has been complicated by issues including the recent Syrian refugee crisis, the porous nature of the U.S.-Mexico border, and the influx of unaccompanied minors to the United States from Central America, Johnson said. Politicians have exploited public confusion, Johnson said, with Donald Trump presenting a giant wall and mass deportations as potential solutions, and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz  trumpeting their immigration bonafides as Cubans.  Yet both have advocated an unworkable rehaul of the U.S. immigration system.

Though public interest in recent Republican presidential primary contests has been high, resulting in record voter turnout in states like Nevada and South Carolina, Republican presidential candidates, in particular, haven’t offered specific immigration reform strategies, the experts said during the “Immigration Conundrum” symposium at Northwestern’s Prtizker School of Law on Friday.

Thursday’s Republican debate, for example, paid more attention to the size of Trump’s appendages than substantial policy solutions. The GOP is fractured to the extent that conservative party members have threatened a kind of convention coup with former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney or House Speaker Paul Ryan heading the Republican ticket instead.

Trump’s infamous wall idea, however, is an extension of political strategy in place since the Clinton administration, Alden said. Clinton’s Operation Gatekeeper, launched in 1994, doubled the amount of existing fencing around San Diego. Plus, 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border is already fenced, Alden said.

“I’ve come effectively from Mexico City, so I’m lucky to be in Chicago before the wall begins to go up along the Mexican border,” Gustavo Mohar, a former Secretary General at the Center for Investigation and National Security in Mexico, said half-jokingly. In noting that people in Mexico are closely watching Trump’s campaign, he added, “As you can imagine we started being amused with it, then we passed to surprise, then to being annoyed and offended, and now we’re very concerned.”

Earlier this month, Trump appointed Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) to head his national security advisory committee. Sessions is well-known for his vehement opposition to amnesty proposals for undocumented immigrants already residing in the United States. Cruz had coveted the senator’s endorsement because of his connection to evangelical voters.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, also a Republican presidential challenger, said in a CNN Town Hall in February that the United States has a right to build a wall, but Trump’s desire to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants was “ludicrous.”

Trump’s wall isn’t the only Republican immigration policy experts find troubling.

All remaining Republican candidates have moved to the right from their original positions on immigration. Rubio has tried repeatedly to distance himself from the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” immigration legislation he helped push through the Senate in 2013. The bill, which provides undocumented immigrants with a possible path to citizenship contingent upon certain security measures, has been termed an amnesty proposal in disguise by Cruz. In last week’s GOP debate, Cruz accused Trump of giving money to multiple Gang of Eight senators, including Illinois’ Dick Durbin in 2007, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Making it harder to cross borders is a deliberate strategy by the U.S. government to raise the cost of crossing illegally, Alden said. Hardline strategies, including physical barriers, deportation, raids, and fear-mongering advertising campaigns force dangerous migration attempts, said Maria Woltjen, executive director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights.

The potential effectiveness of these deterrence strategies are made redundant by the conditions of migrants’ home countries, Woltjen said. For example, Central American nations lack resources to deal with issues like sexual violence, crime and gang activity. Deterrents aren’t enough to discourage people fleeing intolerable circumstances, she added.

In the recent past, such deterrents have pushed migrants to take more perilous routes across the border. For example, increased enforcement in areas surrounding El Paso and San Diego from the mid-1990s onward forced migrants through the Arizona desert.

“You want to understand why Arizona became ground zero in the debate in this country over illegal immigration?” Alden asked. “Because our border enforcement started in California and Texas and squeezing the balloon, the water didn’t stop flowing, it went elsewhere.”

Nearly 400 people die in the desert each year trying to make it across the border, said Alden. “There are real humanitarian consequences to this sort of strategy,” he added.

James Morsch, a member of the Leadership Board of the National Immigrant Justice Center, explained the surge in support for the Republican’s “tough on immigration” discourse: If the message gets out that immigration is an uncontrolled crisis then the public’s generosity disappears.

Photo at top: The border fence separating Mexico and the United States reaching out into the Pacific Ocean. (Tony Webster/Wikimedia Commons)