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Mexico: Caught Between a Wall and a Hard Place

Image credit: US Customs and Border Protection (Wikimedia: Creative Commons)

One of the most controversial campaign promises that President Donald Trump made in 2016 was his intention to build a “big, beautiful wall” on the US-Mexico border. Throughout the election campaign, Trump tried to sell this unprecedented policy idea by arguing that a wall would be the most effective way of protecting the United States from the constant flow of illegal Mexican migrants crossing the border. After two years of heated speculation and debates about its potential budgeting and design requirements, a border wall is finally beginning to take shape. But what has emerged is a wall that nobody was expecting.

In April 2018, President Donald Trump signed an executive order calling on the Pentagon and Homeland Security to deploy between 2,000 - 4,000 National Guard troops to assist and support border patrol agencies at the border. A caravan of Central American migrants intending to cross the US-Mexico border triggered this impromptu decision. The news of this caravan led to a tweetstorm that laid the foundation for the impending executive order. Trump announced that the deployment of the military would be a temporary solution to the issue of illegal immigration until the US “can have a wall and proper security”.

This sudden and unexpected border policy decision is a desperate attempt by President Trump to soften the anger of conservatives who are disappointed with Trump’s signing of a $1.3 trillion budget in March 2018, in which only $1.6 billion was allocated for the construction of his promised border wall. This figure is well below the $25 billion that Trump was anticipating, and will only be able to cover repairs of existing border fencing and barriers. As Trump has shown, spreading the military out across the border like a human wall is a much cheaper and more flexible strategy that gives him time to gain support for the expensive and permanent version of the wall that he promised his supporters during the campaign.

Under a different administration, the deployment of the military to the US-Mexico border would not have been particularly controversial. Presidents W.Bush and Obama both sent troops to the border in response to spikes in drug violence rates and urgent pleas for help from struggling state governors. In 2006, 6,000 troops were stationed at the border in a program that lasted for two years. These troops assisted in the building of border fences and maintenance of surveillance equipment.

But there are two reasons why President Trump’s decision to send the military to patrol the border is unprecedented. The first is that no specific explanation has been given by the administration for why the military is needed on the border. No state governors have appealed for federal support and the length and financial costs of the deployment has not yet been determined. Trump himself admits that such a flexible and unexpected plan is “a big step” and one that the US has “not done before”. The second reason for the public backlash to this policy decision is that even if the deployment is an act of self-defence on the part of the United States, Trump’s heated rhetoric directed towards Mexico in recent years makes the sudden presence of the military on the border a much more threatening sight.

While the Mexican government and public were less than thrilled about Trump’s proposed border wall during the US presidential campaign, they were at least expecting it to gradually take shape in the coming years. But the temporary wall that has suddenly appeared in the form of armed military personnel is perhaps the one thing that is capable of making the impending permanent border wall look friendly.

Meghna Srinivas is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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