The Trump administration completed more than 450 miles of 18- to 30-foot steel-bollard fencing topped with anti-climbing plates along different stretches of the international boundary. Almost 50 miles of these structures were erected along sections where no border barriers previously existed. Over 350 miles replaced less-effective barriers. The rest comprises a second layer of fencing in urban areas.
Trump’s wall was an amplified and more xenophobic iteration of a border enforcement strategy begun about 30 years ago. In the 1990s and 2000s, that strategy unintentionally altered both migration patterns and immigration policy debates, setting the stage for a nationwide nativist backlash that helps explain the roots of the Trump era. While Biden has taken steps to disinvest in the physical wall, he has signaled that enforcing the border using technology and personnel remains a priority. As his administration considers its next moves, it should recognize that a border policy divorced from historical context is deeply harmful and counterproductive.
Unauthorized immigration across the Southern border became a potent political issue for reasons related to well-intentioned liberal policy changes dating back to the 1960s. In 1964, the United States ended its two-decades-old Mexican guest-worker program amid criticism of labor exploitation. The following year, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 eliminated the racist national-origins quotas established in the 1920s and set an annual limit on immigration from the Western Hemisphere for the first time. Amendments in the 1970s capped visas for every country at 20,000 a year and set a worldwide annual ceiling of 290,000.
But in the decades ahead, U.S. demand for low-wage farmworkers remained high and well-paying jobs in Mexico remained scarce. With limited opportunities for legal migration, Mexican workers increasingly entered the United States without permission.
In response, some pundits, lawmakers and Beltway lobbyists demanded greater border enforcement. But before the 1990s, anti-Mexican nativism among ordinary Americans was generally concentrated in the Southwest. And although nationwide polls in the 1980s showed that Americans, when presented with the question, generally supported measures to prevent unsanctioned immigration, the issue was not a high priority for voters in most states.
By the late 1980s, hundreds of migrants were entering the United States on foot each night across the international boundary at Tijuana, evading U.S. Border Patrol agents in the dark. Migrant day laborers were forming squatter settlements in canyons near middle-class suburbs around Southern California. Meanwhile, the crack epidemic and street crime were plaguing cities, and many Californians wrongly believed that these phenomena were driven by undocumented immigration.
In this environment, in November 1989, a San Diego group began staging monthly “Light Up the Border” demonstrations, shining car headlights on areas along the Tijuana border where unauthorized migrants were known to enter the United States. Led by 59-year-old Muriel Watson, whose late husband was a Border Patrol pilot, the group called for enhanced barriers, lighting and electronic surveillance to help police the line. Within months, the rallies grew from 23 cars to more than 400, with 1,000 participants, mostly White, from around Southern California. They wanted, they said, to draw lawmakers’ attention to what they perceived as an “illegal alien invasion” across the Southern border. Some complained that undocumented immigrants took American jobs and strained social services. Others expressed public health concerns. All, in effect, implied that the nation’s majority-White identity was being threatened.
Responding to this public campaign, the George H.W. Bush administration constructed a 10-foot-high corrugated steel wall along 14 miles of the Tijuana border to stop vehicles trafficking narcotics or migrants, it said. The Clinton administration extended this project to other U.S.-Mexico border cities and, with funding from the 1996 immigration act, added a second layer of 15-foot-high concrete-bollard and steel-mesh structures in Tijuana to stop pedestrians.
The largest border-barrier construction campaign came under George W. Bush, whose 2006 Secure Fence Act brought about hundreds of miles of taller steel-bollard anti-pedestrian fencing in urban areas and shorter anti-vehicle structures in unpopulated zones. Barack Obama’s administration completed these projects, and by the end of his first term, 653 miles in total — about one-third of the U.S.-Mexico line — were barricaded with steel and concrete.
Thus, before Donald Trump ever declared his candidacy, or promised to build a wall, the United States’ southern border was already among the world’s most fortified international boundaries.
The barriers were part of the Border Patrol’s “Prevention through Deterrence” strategy, which also increased manpower, lighting and high-tech surveillance. The aim was to redirect unauthorized border crossers into less-populated areas, giving agents the advantage they lacked in cities, where migrants disappeared into crowds. This policy originally rested on hopes that people wouldn’t risk their lives crossing deserts to enter the country unlawfully.
But walls never stopped American employers from hiring undocumented workers to reduce labor costs. With this invitation, people skirted the barriers and took their chances in the backcountry. From 1992 to 2004, Border Patrol apprehensions declined by 76 percent in the agency’s heavily militarized San Diego sector but increased nearly sixfold in the less-guarded deserts outside of Yuma, Ariz.
Migrant smugglers charged increasingly higher fees to lead unauthorized border crossers on foot for longer distances through hazardous terrain. The average price climbed from $550 in the 1980s to $2,700 in 2010. As enforcement measures increased, so did the costs people bear to cross.
Of course, smugglers’ services guaranteed no safe arrival. Lost and dehydrated, many migrants perished on their journeys. The Border Patrol has counted about 8,000 deaths since 1998 — not including the more than 3,500 people who have gone missing. Migrant fatalities are surely undercounted.
Ultimately, fortifying the Southwest border did more to keep undocumented immigrants in the United States than to prevent their entry. Before the 1990s, most Mexican migration consisted of seasonal farmworkers who returned to Mexico between harvests. With U.S. reentry increasingly difficult, dangerous and expensive, however, more workers began putting down roots north of the border, and families from Mexico joined them. As a result, the number of unauthorized Mexican immigrants more than tripled between 1990, when protesters were lighting up the Tijuana border, and 2007, when numbers peaked at 6.9 million, before the Great Recession.
Many found year-round work beyond agriculture in cities across the United States. Before 1990, about 80 percent of Mexican immigrants went to California and Texas. By the mid-2000s, less than half were going to these states. A growing number found destinations that historically had no significant Mexican populations.
People lived their lives and had U.S.-born children. In 2000, there were an estimated 20.9 million U.S. residents of Mexican descent, 41.5 percent of whom were foreign born. By 2015, when Trump declared that Mexico was “not sending their best,” the number of residents of Mexican descent had increased to 35.8 million — only 32 percent foreign born.
In other words, border militarization efforts ironically created a permanent, deeply rooted and more widely dispersed Mexican American population. They also helped fuel anti-Mexican nativism nationally — aided by cable news and talk radio warnings of migrant “invasions.” In 1990, the “Light Up the Border” demonstrators were Southern Californians. In 2005, when civilian “Minutemen” groups — some armed — began scouting sections of the U.S.-Mexico boundary from Texas to California, volunteers came from across the country. Trump rode this nativism into the White House.
Of course, Trump’s movement is not simply one of nativism. But the “build-that-wall” message at the core of his campaign helps explain how a billionaire living in a lavishly gilded Manhattan penthouse appealed to millions of blue collar White Americans trying to comprehend the country’s rapid demographic and cultural changes during an age of global economic restructuring.
So, what lies ahead? The Biden administration has been studying border enforcement possibilities involving less steel and concrete and more electronic surveillance. Meanwhile, environmentalists are pushing to dismantle sections of Trump’s wall in remote areas to allow the movement of wildlife. But removing the new barriers entirely would be expensive, and a future Republican administration might only rebuild them.
The wall will therefore likely be an enduring legacy of Trump’s presidency, symbolizing the recurring folly of border policy disconnected from the historical realities of the border and migration.