What everyone gets wrong about Trump's wall

Trump's big, beautiful wall is nothing but a big, beautiful distraction

The U.S. Mexican border in Nogales, Arizona.
(Image credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

With the exception of "Make America Great Again," it is difficult to think of a phrase more associated with President Trump's political rise than "Build the wall."

Trump was very aware of the effect it had on his crowds along the campaign trail. "You know, if it gets a little boring, if I see people starting to sort of, maybe thinking about leaving, I can sort of tell the audience, I just say, 'We will build the wall!' and they go nuts," he told The New York Times in 2016.

As president, Trump usually says Congress must fund the wall while during the campaign he generally insisted Mexico was going to pay for it. But regardless, he is adamant that it remains part of any negotiated immigration solution, including a bill that would codify deportation protections for young illegal immigrants his administration set for expiration in March.

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"It's got to include the wall," Trump said recently of a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals bill. "We need the wall for security. We need the wall for safety. We need the wall for stopping the drugs from pouring in."

Months ago, Democratic leaders left a White House meeting with Trump convinced they had gotten him to agree to making the wall and DACA separate issues. But on Tuesday, at a bipartisan meeting with congressional leaders, he seemed almost oblivious to it being a sticking point, concluding a litany of border-security requests including the wall with the observation, "I think everybody in the room would agree to that."

Well, many Democrats would not agree to it. To them, "Build the wall" ranks closer to the vulgar phrase Trump used about grabbing women in the Access Hollywood tape than anything about American greatness. It's instead a dark reminder to liberals of who is in the White House.

Indeed, to Trump's opponents, the wall symbolizes racism, exclusion, and an unforgiving attitude toward immigrants that shuts out the world. Some have even compared it to the Berlin Wall, constructed by communists to keep people in.

But for the president's supporters, the wall means that the United States is finally going to get serious about securing its border and ending selective immigration law enforcement. "I'm going to wait to see what the final DACA proposal looks like, but if it does not include a wall — a real wall, not a see-through wall — expect a political revolt from the base," Laura Ingraham said on Fox News on Wednesday night.

Both sides are wrong. The truth is, the wall has become a shiny object that distracts partisans from what they claim to want in the immigration debate. It is clear that in exchange for something he can plausibly describe as a victory on the wall, Trump would be willing to give Democrats a much more liberal bill, maybe one closer to the 2017 version of the DREAM Act, than he would otherwise. It is possible Trump would jettison his requirements about "chain migration" and the diversity visa lottery, things that interest serious immigration restrictionists more, if he could boast of progress toward building the "big, beautiful wall." It at least seems worth a try, but it is a win Democrats and much of their base can't stand to give him.

Equally true is that immigration hawks can accomplish more of their long-term goals by admitting a smaller number of immigrants each year but ensuring that they have higher skills, emphasizing compatibility with the American labor market over extended family reunification. And if Trump could get an amnesty for far fewer people than the Gang of Eight bill would have legalized (immigration hawks' unprecedented amnesty flexibility concerned DACA has been little noted) while gaining tougher enforcement measures than that deal contained, that would be a bigger win than ever seemed possible under George W. Bush or Barack Obama.

But it might not be recognized by grassroots immigration hardliners as much of a win if it does not include enough of a wall. Trump ran on pouring concrete to secure the southwest border. He didn't lead chants about mandatory E-verify and other things that might do more to curtail illegal immigration.

The parties have moved further apart on immigration, with the Republicans' restrictionist wing growing at the same time progressives push the Democrats leftward on the issue. The late Bush administration/early Obama administration consensus that a certain level of border enforcement was necessary to gain credibility for "comprehensive immigration reform" has broken down.

Many conservatives never believed the promises of enforcement after the failure of the 1986 amnesty, signed into law by their own Ronald Reagan. Many liberals found the enforcement against poor people of color immoral and urged Obama to abdicate as "deporter-in-chief" — precisely the conditions that led to the creation of DACA in the first place.

That leaves us with a seemingly impenetrable wall in the middle of the immigration debate, with a shrinking number of people who can see over the other side.

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