US President Donald Trump signs an executive order to start the Mexico border wall project at the Department of Homeland Security facility in Washington, DC, on January 25, 2017.
US President Donald Trump signs an executive order to start the Mexico border wall project at the Department of Homeland Security facility in Washington, DC, on January 25, 2017. Credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump is no stranger to South Texas, but campaign season visits to Laredo and San Antonio were all about fundraising instead of fact-finding, so it’s probably fair to say he has moved into the White House with little appreciation of the region’s deep cultural and economic ties with Mexico.

Trump, keeping a campaign promise, and with the flourish of his pen on Tuesday ordered construction of a border wall and a significant buildup of the Border Patrol. It was more than a symbolic move. Taken on the eve of a scheduled visit next Tuesday to Washington by President Enrique Peña Nieto, the action has created a foreign affairs crisis where none needed to exist.

After a Thursday morning message sent via Twitter by Trump suggesting the Mexican president stay home unless Mexico is willing to pay for the wall, Peña Nieto announced that Mexico would never pay for the wall and he would not come to Washington.

A campaign promise has turned into brinksmanship and a foreign affairs crisis with The U.S.’s second biggest trading partner.

The majority of South Texans would like to see construction of more border bridges rather than a wall, knowing better infrastructure would ease the vehicle congestion brought by ever-growing cross-border trade.

Estimates for building a wall vary wildly, from $14 billion to $25 billion, which raises the issue of whether the Republican-controlled Congress will fund such a project. Even if they do, a wall the entire length of the 2,000-mile border is not realistic.

Anyone who has trekked the terrain surrounding Lake Amistad or Big Bend knows better. It’s rough ground, although not as impossible as Trump’s promise to make Mexico’s leaders foot the bill.

Peña Nieto repeated his pledge on national television late Wednesday night:
“I have said it over and over again: Mexico will not pay for any wall.”

Border security matters. Liberals and conservatives alike get that. Our friends in Europe have learned the hard way that open borders, however noble in concept, can lead to terrible outcomes. And most of us realize our immigration system is broken. We have an economy that depends significantly on low-wage foreign workers who fill jobs no one else will take at prevailing wage rates. Yet a political standoff in Washington prevents any real reform. We’ve gone decades now, unable or unwilling to reconcile our workforce needs by legalizing workers.

The result is that many people want to treat undocumented immigrant workers like criminals, even as we employ them. A small percentage are lawbreakers, just as a small percentage of Americans are lawbreakers. But most migrants, like most U.S. citizens, are not criminals. They are hard-working, law-abiding people who make good neighbors and want a better life for their children.

Central American refugees, especially women and children, fleeing crime and political instability are another matter. Addressing the crisis in a way that is both humane and protects our border is a real challenge, one that has been left largely unaddressed by the federal government as church groups and nonprofits struggle to resettle the incoming families.

Acting punitively on the immigration issue is going to have economic consequences for both countries.

San Antonio has prospered in many ways since Nov. 7, 1992, when President George H.W. Bush, Mexico’s President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and Canada’s Prime Minister Brian Mulroney gathered outside San Antonio’s former German-English School on South Alamo Street to initial the North American Free Trade Agreement.

There were winners and losers with the 1994 enactment of NAFTA, as there are in any trade deal, but trade among the three countries has boomed in the ensuing years – as has job growth – and today Texas measures cross-border trade with Mexico in the tens of billions of dollars.

US-Mexico border in San Diego California.
The U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego. Credit: Creative Commons / Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuño

Can a wall stop Mexicans from illegally crossing the border? Will it slow the export of heroin and cocaine by the drug cartels? Will it bring back manufacturing jobs that have moved south of the border?

A border wall, South Texas congressional representatives agree, is not the answer. Neither is a war of words between Washington and Mexico City. Bipartisan agreement is rare in the nation’s capital, but Texas representatives from both parties moved quickly Wednesday to state their opposition to the wall.

“President Trump’s anti-immigrant orders mask his broken campaign promise – he is not building a wall that Mexico will pay for,” U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-35) said in a press release. “Now he demands that American taxpayers pay for his folly with the false hope that someday he can eventually extort the money from Mexico … To achieve both true security and economic growth, we need to reject his narrow-minded approach in favor of comprehensive immigration reform.”

“The facts have not changed: Building a wall is the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border,” U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-23) stated in a press release following Trump’s executive order to build the wall. “Each section of the border faces unique geographical, cultural, and technological challenges that would be best addressed with a flexible, sector-by-sector approach that empowers the agents on the ground with the resources they need.

“A wall may be an effective tool in densely populated areas, but a variety of tools are needed between Brownsville, Texas, and San Diego, California,” Hurd added. “The 23rd District of Texas, which I represent, has over 800 miles of the border, more than any other member, and it is impossible to build a physical wall in much of its terrain. Big Bend National Park and many areas in my district are perfect examples of where a wall is unnecessary and would negatively impact the environment, private property rights and economy.”

U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-20) also issued a statement after the signing.

“The border wall is a lazy and ineffective security strategy. In fact, recent polls show that 59% of the American people disagree with building a wall along our nation’s southern border,” Castro stated. “President Trump’s actions represent a hostility toward Mexico, one of our oldest allies and trading partners … I am concerned about the harmful effects these measures will have on San Antonio, Dallas, the Rio Grande Valley, and other places in Texas that sell so many goods to Mexico. American jobs depend on that commerce.”

Managing the now damaged U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship should be a bipartisan undertaking, and Hurd, as the face of next-generation Republican leadership, is better situated than his Democratic colleagues to urge administration officials to adopt a more nuanced appreciation of our neighbor to the south.

If Trump succeeds in keeping another promise and upending NAFTA, and the already weakening Mexican economy slides into recession or worse, the resulting loss of jobs in that country will lead to new waves of workers trying to cross the border in search of employment. Do we really want that, and do we really believe a wall will stop them?

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.