Trump's wall is a symbol of America's sacred sovereignty

Trump's wall is a symbol of America's sacred sovereignty
© Getty Images

President Trump’s termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last month showed callous disregard for innocents caught in the broken U.S. immigration system. On Sunday, he doubled down. The president turned those same “dreamers” into bargaining chips, by conditioning any legislative deal on their fate to Democratic agreement to a set of hard line proposals. These include constructing his long promised border wall, hiring 10,000 more immigration agents, and cracking down on “sanctuary cities.”

The president clearly believes his tough stance is a political winner and with good reason. Trump’s most consistent applause line as an insurgent candidate was his pledge to bring order to America’s southern border. The message resonated with the defensive worldview of his populist base, which sees American sovereignty imperiled by global forces that threaten U.S. security, endanger the U.S. economy, and undermine U.S. national identity. Trump’s “beautiful” wall was a symbolic gesture of reassurance. It played on misplaced nostalgia for an era of “perfect” border security, tinged with nativist unease that a white dominated America was receding into history.

If there is a consistent theme in Trump’s chaotic presidency, it is determination to defend the United States from the perceived depredations of rapacious global markets, meddling international organizations, and both legal and illegal uncontrolled immigration. This sovereigntist outlook pits “nationalist” patriots against “globalist” sellouts. It underpins White House antagonism toward NAFTA and the World Trade Organization, skepticism of NATO and other entangling alliances, antipathy toward the United Nations and international treaties, and rejection of even informal agreements like the Paris climate accord.

Sovereignty is sacred in the United States, akin to motherhood and apple pie. It implies that the United States must safeguard its constitutional independence, retain complete freedom of action, and shape its own destiny. As a talisman, it is easily exploited by political opportunists who exaggerate its vulnerability and propose outlandish schemes to protect it, while deflecting more sober deliberations about how best to advance U.S. interests.

Trump’s border wall fits squarely in this category. It also has intuitive, popular appeal. What could be more central to sovereignty than controlling who crosses your borders? What higher duty does a government have than defending its citizens from illegal immigrants who steal their jobs, commit violent crimes, and erode the nation’s social fabric? Trump’s wall is also political catnip for Republicans, nearly three quarters of whom support it.

The president claims that his wall will restore complete border security. That thesis confronts several inconvenient truths, however. First, the United States has never enjoyed full border control. Until 1875, the U.S. government made no effort whatsoever to control entry into the country. Since then, U.S. immigration policies have oscillated. But even during restrictive periods, the southern border saw large scale inflows.

Second, Trump’s assertions notwithstanding, the U.S. border was hardly “out of control” before he assumed office. Indeed, President Obama tightened border crossings and presided over historic deportations. Between 2007 and 2016, the number of undocumented migrants in the United States dropped by a million. Third, a border wall would do little to deter illegal arrivals. History teaches that determined people will evade, penetrate, surmount, and tunnel under even the most imposing structures. Trump’s fixation on a physical barrier is the modern equivalent of the Maginot Line, the allegedly impregnable fortifications France constructed to safeguard itself from German invasion before 1940.

Instead, any scheme to reduce illegal immigration must address underlying economic incentives. For instance, the U.S. agricultural and service sectors have a voracious demand for low wage workers to perform jobs Americans will not. One possible solution is an updated, humanized version of the Bracero Program, which permitted temporary entry by Mexican guest workers for seasonal work. Its termination during the Johnson administration had the perverse effect of increasing undocumented aliens, as Mexicans that snuck into the country to work did not leave. To restore the circular flow, the United States should negotiate a new guest worker program with Mexico, while regularizing the status of aliens already in the country, as well as extending DACA.

Finally, a farsighted U.S. president would concede that America’s demographic composition is changing, while asking the nation to rededicate itself to its constitutional ideals. The United States was the first modern republic to be based on popular sovereignty, that is, on the consent of the governed. Unlike most other countries, which assign citizenship based on links to blood and soil, America has always been an “idea” rather than “people” nation. That is, it is a community open at least in theory to all who accept its founding principles.

The United States has often fallen far short of these ideals, most egregiously in its original sin of slavery and continued discrimination against African Americans. It has also succumbed to bouts of racial, ethnic and religious nativism. Targets of abuse have shifted, from Germans to Irish, later to Chinese and Japanese, then to southern and eastern Europeans, Jews and more recently, Mexicans, South Asians, Arabs and Muslims. But the goal has consistently been to preserve existing social hierarchies and privileges.

Trump, never one to appeal to the better angels of our nature, has done the same. He has repeatedly exploited and reinforced popular anxiety about Mexican immigrants. His border wall is an apt metaphor for his mental map of America and its place in the world. It reminds one of what commentators said about Germany after the Berlin Wall came down: The nation might be reunited, but its inhabitants retained “a wall in the head.” Today, a similar mental barrier prevents Trump and his followers from accepting the reality of a more diverse America.

Stewart Patrick is the James Binger senior fellow in global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling American with the World.”