Donald Trump’s most notable immigration reform idea is the building of his “big, beautiful wall.” As I’ve been reporting, the wall and border security infrastructure along the US-Mexico border has been the number one factor in a massive death toll that continues to this day. Trump’s wall would extend the existing border walls and fencing from 700 miles to nearly 2,000, and he wants to reinforce the existing infrastructure. Democratic staff on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee believe that this could cost up $66.9 billion, with an annual maintenance fee upward of $150 million.
Even if Trump were to get congressional approval to build the promised wall—and the budget, which is still his biggest hurdle—the logistics are nearly impossible. The terrain along the border is some of the harshest in the country. Years of construction would be necessary just to get ready to build a wall. Mountains and deserts pose construction and maintenance nightmares, and just gaining access to the region is difficult enough. Most of the US border with Mexico sits on hundreds of miles far from any city, and there are often no roads. Those would need to go in first, as well as roads for patrolling and maintaining the structure.
Then there is the business of acquiring land. Texas, for example, is divided from Mexico by the Rio Grande River, a natural border. To build a wall in Texas along the Rio Grande, about 500 feet of US land would have to be ceded to the other side of the fence. Since the state of Texas allows private citizens to own land right up to the banks of the Rio Grande, the United States would have to purchase almost 5,000 parcels of it before it could build anything. Although the Secure Fence Act of 2006 allowed the Bush administration to build more border barriers in strategic regions along the Rio Grande, it had a hard time acquiring the private land. Over 300 lawsuits were filed against the government’s encroachment. In fact, as of 2019, 13 years later, more than 80 of the original lawsuits are still in litigation.
So far, there has been no viable plan to build the wall—at least any plan available to the public—nor is there enough political will to move Trump’s signature border security idea forward, especially as Democrats control the House as of 2019. In December 2018, Trump threatened to shut down the government if he did not receive at least $5 billion to begin construction of his border wall. He made good on his promise, refusing to sign a measure to keep the government open unless it included his $5 billion for border wall construction. What resulted was the longest government shutdown in US history—35 days and just a little over a billion dollars in appropriations to strengthen the current border wall and add a few more miles to it. Four companies won bids to build prototypes, but the administration has not yet chosen one.
Trump’s grand idea has also changed over time. Initially, he said that the entire border needed to be walled off, then maybe 1,000 miles of it, and now maybe only 700 more miles is sufficient. It appears that Trump’s border wall has little basis in reality. His original idea of building a “big, beautiful wall” has given way to more recent admissions that parts of the border may never be walled off. Congress has no bill to vote on for a border wall, there are no known plans of what the wall would look like border-wide, and certainly, no money is coming from Mexico to build it. It appears that Trump just needs to keep his wall idea alive to feed his political base. At campaign rallies, every time he brings up the wall, his audience cheers wildly at it despite the idea being locked in limbo.
Even without the wall, Trump’s policies and executive orders since January 2017 have made crossing the border deadlier, and life in the United States for undocumented immigrants is even more precarious. None of this has altered the flow of migration, though it has trended down steadily since 2000 and is at its lowest in four decades. Yet the number of migrants who have died in the American Southwest deserts and in detention centers is on the rise. It is difficult to make any hard determination about border security efficacy from federal statistics, but one point seems to be evident: there have been fewer apprehensions, suggesting that fewer people are crossing the border illegally—at least, that is how the government sees it. If this is true, then the increase in the number of migrant bodies suggests that the death rate continues to climb. For example, in 2017, migrant deaths were up as much as 55 percent in some regions of Arizona while overall apprehensions were at a record low. Most likely, crossing the border has become increasingly dangerous.
Still, none of Trump’s border policies will dissuade migrants from coming.
Telma, a single mother, came to the US-Mexico border from Suchitepequez in Guatemala because she had no other choice. Local gangs had threatened her 12-year-old daughter, pressuring her to become a gang banger. If she had joined, the young girl would probably have been raped as a form of initiation, and she would have been tattooed with gang insignia. She would have been forced to do drugs like the rest of the young gang members and then probably to commit some form of petty theft to prove that she had what it took. If she refused any of this, she would most likely have been bullied every day on her way to school and back. If she could resist the taunts, she would most likely have been beaten. If she still resisted, she would likely have been killed.
Telma’s daughter’s story is not uncommon for youth in Central America. The gangs recruit the young and push them into a world of drugs and crime before they even know what they are doing. Telma was aware that her daughter could fall victim to gang indoctrination any day, and she needed to protect her from it. The gangs had killed her husband the year before because he had refused to pay extortion money. As a woman alone in Guatemala, it was tough enough to try to make ends meet, let alone protect her daughter from the growing influence of the gangs. She had heard that the United States would accept requests for asylum from gang violence, so she knew she had to make the journey northward. She had never been to the United States and had no relatives there. The only thing on her mind was the need to protect her daughter, so she packed up what little she had and made her way.
Telma and her daughter rode a few buses for more than a thousand miles to the port of entry in Nogales, Mexico—just south of the border from Nogales, Arizona. She had heard that migrants could ask a US border official for asylum at any port of entry. She was aware that her chances having it granted were slim. In fact, during the Obama administration, over 80 percent of asylum claims had been rejected. Still, a slim chance was better than staying in Guatemala.
By the time Telma and her daughter arrived in Nogales, they had been on the road for two weeks. They had no money for hotels or food, so they had stopped at a few migrant shelters along the way. They also could not pay full fare to the border, so they borrowed money wherever they could. When they arrived at the port of entry, Telma thought, We each made it in one piece. Maybe now there was reason for hope. Maybe now her daughter could be safe. What she hadn’t expected was the long line at the border. She and her daughter were only two among thousands of other refugees waiting to make claims.
Telma hadn’t realized that, several months before she and her daughter had left for the border, the Trump administration had made the process of claiming asylum more difficult. Until recently, those claiming asylum could speak to US officials and be processed immediately. For some reason, there was a wait now even to see an official, and it got longer as asylum seekers kept coming. When Telma arrived, she heard that it could be more than two weeks. The wait as of early 2019 was several months. CBP told me that the slowdown was because
the number of inadmissible individuals CBP is able to process varies based upon case complexity; available resources; medical needs; translation requirements; holding/detention space; overall port volume; and ongoing enforcement actions. No one is being denied the opportunity to make a claim of credible fear or seek asylum. CBP officers allow more people into our facilities for processing once space becomes available or other factors allow for additional parties to arrive. Depending upon port circumstances at the time of arrival, individuals presenting without documents may need to wait in Mexico as CBP officers work to process those already within our facilities. We expect that this will be a temporary situation.
CBP could not provide me any proof that there was no space or that detention areas were full. In the previous year, 2016, there had been more claims of asylum, and there were no migrants like Telma lining up at the border and waiting. Experts I spoke to had never heard of a wait time just to fill out an application for asylum; the current situation was unprecedented. At the same time, the rules for asylum had become stricter. While Telma and her daughter were traveling to the United States, Jeff Sessions, then attorney general, issued a ruling narrowing the scope of claims that the country would process, directly affecting migrants from Central America like Telma: “Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum,” wrote Sessions. Such claims had been honored prior to the ruling. Telma’s chances to save her daughter had just gotten slimmer.
After Telma’s two-week (or longer) wait just to make a claim, the process itself could take months after that—and even then, there was no guarantee of asylum. Where would she wait? She had no money and no place to stay. When I met her, she was sitting in the sweltering heat on a sidewalk that leads up to the port of entry with other migrants and their children. If she had to wait two weeks or two years to make a claim of asylum, she would. She would not be heading back home. She had come all this way and was without options. She would try her best to provide a safe home for her daughter.
Given all the obstacles Telma had overcome and survived just to be at the doorstep of the United States was enough to strengthen her resolve. She eventually got in to file her claim, but I am not sure if her request was ever granted. She and her daughter were lost to the maze of detention facilities. They might have been deported because the threats they had faced no longer qualified them to seek safety here. At that time, the Trump administration denial rates for asylum seekers jumped by 89 percent, meaning that more asylum seekers would be denied their requests and sent back to their countries of origin.
In October 2018, about 10,000 migrants, mostly from Honduras, organized into what is now known as the migrant caravan. The group formed as a response to the violence, poverty, and drought that had stricken its region and made living there nearly impossible. For many years prior, Central American migrants had suffered extortion, kidnapping, robbery, and rape as they made their journey through Mexico to the US border. The idea of the caravan was to offer people safety in numbers as they left their homes for a better life; they didn’t have to pay high cartel fees for protection, and a large caravan was quite visible.I spoke to farmers who said they had been living on one tortilla a day—that’s why they joined the caravan.
I joined the caravan when it came to Mexico City and made its way to Tijuana, Mexico, just south of San Diego, California—which was its eventual destination. I spoke to dozens of migrants about why they were coming and heard similar stories of violence and poverty that had forced them northward from their own country. Trump had heard of the caravan and declared that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in” among those traveling in the caravan. These statements quickly criminalized the group, and both the right-wing media and the president referred to its members as invaders.
One story that I heard repeatedly from Central American migrants surprised me. A prolonged drought in their regions had persisted for about five years, and this year had been especially harsh. I traveled to the “dry corridor” of Central America where the drought had hit hardest due to climate change—parts of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Migrants told me that the rains would come, and staple crops like corn and beans would sprout, but then the rains would stop and the crops would dry well before harvest, leaving the farmers with almost complete crop failure.
The drought had persisted for long enough that the World Food Programme (WFP) of the United Nations had set up offices there. People were starving. When I visited in late 2018, the WFP had already declared that 400,000 people in the region had reached famine status. It was difficult to determine exactly how many people in the caravan were leaving because of famine, but all of the hundreds I spoke to, in particular Hondurans, had been somewhat affected. Many had been farmers who had lost their crops of corn, beans, rice, or bananas. They had sold farming tools, and some had sold their land if they could and tried to get jobs in nearby towns, but those were scarce or paid poorly. I spoke to farmers who said they had been living on one tortilla a day—that’s why they joined the caravan. Lori Melo of the WFP in Guatemala told me that
I looked for statements from the Trump administration about the drought in Central America and support for the crisis of famine that was sure to worsen if the drought persisted, but I could find no acknowledgement of climate change or recognition of famine in the region. The WFP declares that by 2019, over two million people will go hungry there, and that number is expected to climb if conditions remain the same. If millions of Central Americans go hungry next year and in years to come, how many will be forced to flee north?
The 10,000 migrants who began the caravan in Central America had dwindled by half by the time it reached the US-Mexico border. They encountered five thousand National Guard troops courtesy of the Trump administration, along with concertina wire added to border fences and tear gas shot across the border. How will future waves of migrants be greeted as they seek refuge, especially if millions come? The Trump administration’s “seal the border” approach is unlikely to stem the flow of migrants trying to cross in the coming years. And given the administration’s refusal to acknowledge the effects of climate change, I doubt that it will institute policies to offset the devastation wrought by famine and drought. So far, the administration has not acknowledged a climate crisis in Central America as the impetus of the caravan or other waves of migration, ignoring the precedent set by the United Nations, which described it in “Food Security and Emigration,” a report published in 2017 detailing the effects of prolonged drought in the region and the factors that force people to flee their homeland.
Excerpted from Sand and Blood: America’s Stealth War on the Mexico Border by John Carlos Frey. Copyright © 2019. Available from Bold Type Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.