At the center of the newly reignited national dialogue over Donald Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, you’ll find three major questions:
Is Trump going to keep his promise and build some sort of barrier on a border that spans roughly the full 2,000 miles? Will it be a real “wall” made of brick, stone, and mortar, or the much cheaper alternative of fencing? And will Mexico really pay for it?
These questions are fueled by more than idle curiosity. If Trump doesn’t keep the promise to build the wall, or builds something that appears to be more “fence” than “wall,” or cannot get Mexico to pay either directly or indirectly for whatever he builds, then the new president will have failed at what seems to be the major component of his immigration agenda.
Trump had the chance to answer all three queries on the wall at last week’s news conference in response to a single question from a reporter that went like this: “With the border fence, it now appears clear U.S. taxpayers will have to pay for it up front. What is your plan to get Mexico to pay for it?”
That’s a fair question. After all, according to House Republican officials, members of Trump’s transition team have told Republicans in Congress that the president-elect wants to pay for the border wall upfront through the appropriations process and then later seek reimbursement from Mexico.
This would mean that the more than 73 million people who voted for Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein or the multitude of names written in by mischievous or disgusted voters would have to pay for a border monstrosity they never supported or wanted. That would be a tough pill to swallow, and so we can expect pushback from the states and even a lawsuit or two.
Although I have to say, the whole idea of paying for something you oppose should give liberals a new appreciation for the complaints of conservatives who have to fund organizations whose mission they disagree with, such as Planned Parenthood. Elections have consequences, folks.
It was back in October that Trump first floated the idea that the United States would foot the bill for the wall and then recoup its investment from our neighbor in one form or another.
Trump began his answer by making clear that he intends to build some barrier, and describing what it would look like.
“On the fence—it’s not a fence,” he said. “It’s a wall. You just misreported it. We’re going to build a wall.”
Trump argues that it’s just faster and more efficient for the United States to pay the costs of the wall. “I could wait about a year-and-a-half until we finish our negotiations with Mexico, which will start immediately after we get to office,” he said. “But I don’t want to wait… We’re going to start building.”
Then Trump repeated his vow to stick Mexico with the tab.
“Mexico in some form, and there are many different forms, will reimburse us and they will reimburse us for the cost of the wall,” he said. “That will happen, whether it’s a tax or whether it’s a payment—probably less likely that it’s a payment. But it will happen.”
As far as some Trump voters are concerned, it had better happen. The president-elect acknowledged that the idea of forcing Mexico to pay for the wall was a real crowd-pleaser during the election. His supporters loved hearing this line, and not just because they’re probably not so eager to pay the cost of the structure itself — which Trump estimates could be $12 billion, and an independent study by The Washington Post found could run as much as $25 billion.
It’s about more than that. For many of them, making Mexico pay for the wall is a matter of fairness. The current arrangement is a sweetheart deal for our neighbor, which gets rid of uneducated low-skilled workers that its economy has no room for anyway and then makes a profit in the form of remittances that start off in private hands but quickly circulate through the Mexican economy. Mexico should have to pony up something in return, the argument goes.
Finally, as he tends to do after delivering a kick in the shins, Trump heaped on some flattery.
“And by the way, Mexico has been so nice, so nice,” he said. “I respect the government of Mexico. I respect the people of Mexico. I love the people of Mexico. I have many people from Mexico working for me. They’re phenomenal people.”
But with Trump, flattery often comes with a side of insult or a dash of provocation. So he ended the answer like this.
“The government of Mexico is terrific,” he said. “I don’t blame them for what’s happened. I don’t blame them for taking advantage of the United States.”
But who is taking advantage of whom? In conversations about the wall, or stopping illegal immigration, Americans somehow never acknowledge how much illegal immigrants contribute to the bottom line and increase profits for U.S. industries like agriculture, hotels, restaurants, construction, and others. Nor will they admit how having a supply of cheap and available immigrant labor benefits the U.S. economy.
Meanwhile, some in the media characterized Trump’s pivot on the funding issue as a flip-flop and a broken promise. The president-elect responded in a tweet: “The dishonest media does not report that any money spent on building the Great Wall (for sake of speed), will be paid back by Mexico later!”
As House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) told the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” last week, the United States has options when it comes to squeezing cash out of Mexico after the fact. As McCaul noted, the United States could increase the fee for visa applications, charge a hefty toll for the thousands of people who cross the border each day from Mexico to work or shop in this country, or levy taxes on the estimated $25 billion worth of remittances sent into Mexico annually from expatriates on this side of the border.
McCaul also brought up NAFTA. The North American Free Trade Agreement — which was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, and intended to spur trade between Canada, Mexico, and the United States — is likely to be renegotiated during the Trump presidency. This will happen with Mexico’s blessing given that the Mexicans are also unhappy with aspects of the agreement, including provisions that Mexicans blame for decimating its corn industry. Those trade talks could give the United States leverage to get Mexico to pay for the wall, McCaul said.
So it would seem, at least from last week’s news conference, the major questions about the proposed border wall have been asked and answered. But that isn’t so. The skeptics and opponents of the project are just getting started. And here’s the one question that no one ever seems to ask Trump about his beloved, “big, beautiful wall”:
Without changing the behavior — namely the hiring practices — of those on this side of the border, will it do any good?