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Wall or nothing: a one-dimensional immigration strategy

Image credit: Donald J Trump (Creative Commons: Twitter)

As 2019 approaches, the US federal government is in the midst of its longest partial shutdown in history. The cause? A budgetary impasse between President Donald Trump and an unwilling Congress over funding for a wall on the US-Mexico border.

This wall is the cornerstone of Trump’s vision for curbing unauthorised immigration from Latin America, an issue on which he has fixated since announcing his presidential candidacy.

The Scope of the Issue

The 2017 fiscal year saw 310,000 would-be unauthorised immigrants apprehended at the US-Mexico border. Of these individuals, 95 per cent hailed from just four Latin American countries: 42 per cent from Mexico, and 53 per cent from the so-called ‘Northern Triangle’—El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Whilst annual arrivals, Mexican arrivals and the total number of unauthorised immigrants residing in the US are all declining, arrivals are increasing from these three Central American states.

This last factor is pertinent to a major flaw in Trump’s immigration strategy: its near-exclusive focus on securing the border, and disregard for how the US can help remedy underlying drivers of unauthorised immigration from Central America.

A one-dimensional strategy

Although the Trump administration experimented with deterrence in its infamous family separation policy, its policies vis-à-vis Latin American immigration have focused on inhibiting entry to the US.

These policies include expanding law enforcement presence on the US-Mexico border. In one of his first acts in office Trump ordered the recruitment of 5,000 new Customs and Border Patrol agents, an order for which Congress has repeatedly rejected funding. Coinciding with the November midterm elections Trump also directed more than 5,000 troops to the border, ostensibly to prepare for the arrival of a migrant caravan constituted mostly by Central American women and children.

The president campaigned on the promise of building a physical wall on the border. However, the protracted government shutdown has led the president to say this means only a ‘physical barrier’ in the places it is needed. In his quest to secure funding for the wall, Trump has now even offered concessions on the status of an estimated 700,000 immigrants currently protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. But as these concessions are temporary, and in line with their resolve not to negotiate until the government is opened, Democrats have not budged.

Construction on the wall – in whichever sense it is framed - has yet to begin. So too does its price tag. Whilst the Department of Homeland Security projects a cost of around US$21 billion—almost double the President’s own claims—some estimates are far higher.

The wall’s likely effectiveness is also at the very least debateable. Despite the President’s insistence that ‘we have to have a wall as part of border security’, existing physical barriers have had mixed results in reducing unauthorised immigration.

Even more problematic than the wall’s high cost and doubtful effectiveness though, are the President’s simultaneous attempts to cut US foreign assistance to Central America.

The US strategy for engagement in Central America

In 2014, the US experienced a surge in migration of unaccompanied minors from the Northern Triangle. In response, the Obama administration launched the US Strategy for Engagement in Central America.

Expanding upon existing, security-focused US initiatives in the region, this aid scheme promoted diverse objectives such as educational access, energy and food security, police and civil service professionalisation, and justice sector reforms. An overarching aim of these efforts was to mitigate drivers of migration from Central America, such as rampant crime and violence, institutional corruption, and poverty.

In 2016, Congress approved US$750 million for this Strategy, including $294 million for El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and $350 million for a region-wide security initiative. In 2017—Obama’s last budget—funding was $700 million.

A Worthwhile Investment?

Poverty, gang violence, corruption and other forced migration drivers remain endemic across the Northern Triangle. Yet some programs of the sort funded under the Strategy for Engagement have produced positive community level effects, including reduced homicide and crime rates and increased trust in police.

Moreover, it seems likely that insecurity and instability in the Northern Triangle would be worse without ongoing aid—even if historical US aid and interventions in the region inadvertently helped cultivate these very conditions.

Problematically, President Trump is determined to slash aid to Central America.


In the 2018 budget, the Trump administration requested just US$460 million to fund the Strategy for Engagement—a $240 million reduction from 2017, entailing foreign assistance cuts of 29 per cent to Honduras, 36 per cent to El Salvador and 43 per cent to Guatemala. Citing these countries’ inability ‘to do the job of stopping people from leaving their country’, Trump has since threatened to cut off aid completely.

The President has yet to execute this threat, and Congress has otherwise largely disregarded his intentions. In 2018 Congress allocated $615 million in aid to Central America, and in the 2019 budget seems likely to once again approve an amount far exceeding Trump’s $436 million request.

Moreover, in December 2018 the State Department announced that the US would contribute US$5.8 billion to a joint US-Mexican aid and investment package for Central America, broadly aimed at stemming unauthorised migration. A mix of private investment and reallocated public funds, this pledge seemed to indicate that at least some within the Trump administration recognise that unauthorised immigration can’t solely be addressed at the border.

But barely a week later Trump once again threatened to cut off aid to the Northern Triangle, accusing the three countries of ‘doing nothing for the United States but taking our money’.

This punitive impulse is counterproductive.

Whilst foreign aid programs aren’t effective by default, the best response that the US can offer to unauthorised immigration at the southern border—and to challenges such as drug and human trafficking—balances sensible border security measures, and efforts to mitigate root causes of forced migration from Central America.

In this latter regard, there is no better tool at the President’s disposal than foreign aid.

Andrew Herrmann is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs


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