By LISA LUINENBURG
On Feb. 15, President Trump declared a National State of Emergency in order to appropriate billions of dollars to build his much-touted wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Even though Congress had granted him $1.375 billion for the border wall in the latest federal budget bill, this wasn’t enough for Trump. He wanted $5.7 billion!
Since Trump started campaigning for the presidency in 2016, he has been vilifying immigrants as dangerous criminals and rapists, here to steal jobs and corrupt U.S. society. This most recent maneuver is just the latest tactic in an ongoing campaign to scapegoat immigrants and to keep them too afraid to fight back for their rights.
In reality, though, the U.S. economy heavily depends on the cheap and easily exploitable labor of undocumented immigrants. It is also a highly mobile workforce, which the capitalist class can easily draw on when and where it is needed.
Recent immigrants currently make up around 17% of the U.S. workforce, often taking difficult, dangerous, or low-paying jobs that U.S. citizens don’t want. They work as field laborers, factory workers, and care providers for children and the elderly. And while undocumented immigrants hardly use any public benefits at all (mostly because they are not eligible for them), they contribute an estimated $11.6 billion in taxes each year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
In fact, Trump himself heavily relies on the labor of undocumented immigrants to line his already rich pockets with even more profits. In mid-January, the Washington Post reported that Trump had knowingly been hiring undocumented immigrants to work in his chain of golf clubs. While workers at the Westchester County, N.Y., club were suddenly told their documents had been audited and were found not to be valid, these same workers reported to the Post that the managers at the golf club either knew they had false documents or helped them obtain them.
About a dozen workers were fired from the New York club starting on Jan. 18, following a story reported by The New York Times late last year that featured an undocumented worker who worked at one of Trump’s golf clubs in New Jersey. In an e-mail statement, Eric Trump said, ”We are making a broad effort to identify any employee who has given false and fraudulent documents to unlawfully gain employment. Where identified, any individual will be terminated immediately.”
While Trump’s sons are busy denying any culpability, trusted workers who have contributed years of their lives to Trump’s business are now left without a means of supporting themselves and their families. Gabriel Sedano, a Mexican worker who had worked in maintenance at the club since 2005, said to the Post, “I started to cry. I told them they needed to consider us. I had worked almost 15 years for them in this club, and I’d given the best of myself to this job. I’d never done anything wrong, only work and work. They said they didn’t have any comments to make.”
One of the former managers at the club said, “It didn’t matter. They didn’t care [about immigration status]. It was, ‘Get the cheapest labor possible.’” Several of the immigrants are now working with an attorney to sue Trump’s business for the firings.
While Trump’s blatant hypocrisy was being exposed in the national press, opposition to his plan to build a wall along the U.S-Mexico border was already generating waves of opposition. On President’s Day, there were about 250 protests planned across the country against Trump’s declaration, organized by a coalition of community organizations. To date, 16 states, including California and New York, are suing the president over the wall, along with many non-profits, including the Border Network for Human Rights, the ACLU, and the Center for Biological Diversity.
On Feb. 27, the House passed a resolution with a vote of 245-182 opposing the wall. The resolution will next go to the Senate for consideration, but even if it passes, the president has threatened to veto it, meaning it will have little meaningful impact to stop Trump’s heavy-handed project.
Why are all these players so mad about the wall? First of all, as reported by National Public Radio, Trump has said he plans to allocate a total of $8 billion to the construction of the wall. Ironically, Trump plans to obtain the money by diverting $3.6 from military construction projects and $2.5 billion from the Department of Defense’s counter-drug activities.
Despite the fact that military officials are now up in arms about their funding being diverted to Trump’s pet project, this allocation of money also highlights how much of the bloated military budget could be diverted towards stemming the real emergency that is occurring—the thousands of migrants from Central America and their children who are now waiting in squalid camps on the Mexican side of the border, with little access to sanitary conditions, clean food and water, or medical care, while they wait for months to apply for asylum in the U.S.
But how realistic is Trump’s project of building a physical wall along the U.S.-Mexico border? According to an investigation by USA Today into the logistics of the project, there is little clarity on the logistics involved or the actual cost and environmental impact of building the proposed wall. USA Today found that despite about $2 billion having been spent to date on border construction, only about 350 miles of the 2000-mile-long border currently has fencing meant to stop people (not vehicles) from crossing.
Much of the border runs through either private property or inaccessible desert regions. All told, 4900 parcels of property sit within 500 feet of the border in Texas and would need to be seized by the U.S. government in order to build a wall. After the 2006 Secure Fence Act, over 300 condemnation cases were brought by the U.S. government against land owners. As of 2017, 85 of those cases were still in litigation.
It has been clearly documented that the increased militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border over the past several decades has forced immigrants to cross at more dangerous locations. This has resulted in a dramatic increase of deaths along the border, at a time when border apprehensions are at their lowest point in four decades (based on Border Patrol data). Thousands of deaths along the border have never been reported. At the same time, a physical border is unlikely to stop drug trafficking, and a human smuggler told USA Today that a border wall won’t stop people from crossing, but will allow him to charge people more money for the privilege.
The environmental impacts of building the wall are dire. As reported by National Geographic, a physical wall along the border will cross through six diverse ecological regions, bisecting the geographic range of 1506 native animals and plants, including 62 species listed as critically endangered. Biologists say that the jaguar will become extinct in the U.S. without access to Mexico. In addition, a wall is expected to exacerbate flooding in the region and will disrupt several wildlife refuges and parks.
Because of the REAL ID Action passed in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Homeland Security has authorization to waive any laws in the name of national security, including over 30 federal environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
Native American tribes, such as the Tohono O’odham Nation, whose traditional lands sit on an estimated 2.7 million acres in the Sonoran desert, straddle the border between Arizona and Mexico. Tribe members worry that the building of a wall will sever their tribal ties to Mexico, where they currently have the ability to pass back and forth across the border with their tribal ID cards. A border wall will cut them off from their sacred lands. “It will be in my backyard—the wall, and all its political policies along with it,” said Ofelia Rivas, a member of the tribe.
Despite all the barriers he faces, Trump is not alone in utilizing the State of Emergency power to get what he wants. In fact, according to a report in The Atlantic, 60 states of emergency have been declared since the National Emergencies Act was passed in 1976, and there are currently 30 in effect, having been renewed on a continual basis without any review by Congress. Once a State of Emergency is declared, the president has access to a broad range of more than 100 special provisions. For the most part, the president is free to use any of these powers he wishes, even if they don’t relate at all to the emergency currently on hand. This has many worried that these special presidential powers are ripe for abuse.
Most states of emergency have been declared in the past in order to impose economic sanctions on other countries. Or they have been used in response to terrorist attacks or natural disasters. But other powers give the president the ability to activate laws allowing him to shut down electronic communications inside the United States, to freeze bank accounts, or to deploy troops inside the country in order to subdue domestic unrest.
As Justice Robert Jackson wrote in his dissent in the 1944 Supreme Court decision that upheld the internment of Japanese Americans, each emergency power “lies about like a loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need.”
It is clear that despite growing opposition to Trump’s State of Emergency declaration and his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Congress has little ability to offer any kind of meaningful roadblock, while the best lawsuits can do is tie up the plan in the complex legal system, at great expense. Meanwhile, migrants who have risked their lives to come to the U.S. seeking a better life for their families are languishing at the border in squalid refugee camps.
What is needed now is a mass movement of immigrant workers and U.S.-born workers joining hands to oppose Trump’s plan, the kind we saw in 2006 when millions poured into the streets to oppose the reactionary Sensenbrenner law. While the immigrant rights movement is currently at low ebb in the U.S. (along with most other social movements), there are still many opportunities to organize around this critical issue. Organizing efforts are currently underway in hundreds of U.S. cities to declare, “No Border Wall! No Human Being is Illegal! Immigrants and Refugees are Welcome Here!”