A wall by any other name would probably not smell as sweet, which is why President Trump keeps applying the name to things that are not walls. His latest compromise on his signature campaign promise — a roughly 2,000-mile, Mexico-funded wall of “precast concrete slabs” along the southern U.S. border — is now actually a fence, a series of “artistically designed steel slats, so that you can easily see through it,” he tweeted on Tuesday.
It has been a frustrating few days for Trump’s border security ambitions. As of Thursday, he seemed close to torpedoing a Senate-passed, GOP-backed funding deal to avoid a partial government shutdown because it included none of the $5 billion in wall funds he had requested. “At this moment, the President does not want to go further without border security, which includes steel slats or a wall,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement, according to CNN. The preceding week went no better. A series of high-profile spats with congressional Democrats — who have said repeatedly that they will not give Trump wall money — alongside resistance from fellow Republicans have all but guaranteed he will have to get creative with his funding sources. “Mexico is paying (indirectly) for the wall through the new USMCA, the replacement for NAFTA!” Trump tweeted on Wednesday, embracing this inevitability.
But like something out of a conservative fantasy — where the functions of government become so inept and immiserating that everyday Americans must assume its duties themselves — Trump’s supporters have opened their own wallets to bankroll his infrastructure demands. They are far from funding whatever barrier he ends up concocting. But with almost $6 million and counting raised on GoFundMe from nearly 100,000 donations in three days (a cursory scroll suggests some donors were responsible for multiple contributions), it is no small sum. “If the 63 million people who voted for Trump each pledge $80, we can build the wall,” Brian Kolfage, the campaign’s organizer, wrote.
However far from its $1 billion-goal it may be, Kolfage’s GoFundMe campaign demonstrates how galvanizing Trump’s border wall promise still is for his base, even years after he first committed to it, and following several conceptual readjustments — including that Mexico will almost certainly not pay for it, and that it will likely not stretch uninterrupted from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. But it also suggests that rhetoric is more important than the logistics. The nuts and bolts of how the structure gets built, what it’s made of, and who funds it seem as malleable for Trump’s acolytes as they are for Trump. As long as something gets constructed, somewhere along the border, that gives an unwelcoming impression to those who would enter undocumented, his supporters will throw their weight behind it. The president has already denied that a wall per se was his preferred plan — ”beautiful” steel slats are better, he claims, plus they will “save us billions.” The $1.6 billion he secured earlier this year for barrier fortification has gone toward strengthening already-existing structures and fencing near San Diego and Texas’s Rio Grande Valley — not wall construction. But if current patterns hold, the president will continue rebranding whatever compromised version of a concrete wall he is forced to settle for as a “wall,” while his base spends its money covering whatever he fails to coax out of Mexico or Congress. Mexico, purportedly, will end up reimbursing construction expenses through some labyrinthine sequence of trade deals into which Trump will inevitably seduce them.
But wall aside, more immediate immigration overhauls loom. Trump continues to narrow the options for asylum seekers at American ports of entry, a dynamic that resulted in several Central American migrants rushing the U.S.-Mexico border at San Ysidro in November and being tear-gassed by Border Patrol agents. On Thursday, the administration formalized a long-gestating deal with Mexico to refuse entry to the U.S. for people seeking asylum at the southern border until their applications are processed. The measure will force travelers to stay in Mexico indefinitely while they wait, likely for weeks, months, or even years. A senior administration official described the decision as “one of the most significant border security developments in decades,” according to Vox. Indeed, it will drastically reorient the calculus many asylum-seekers use to decide whether a trip to the U.S. is worth the trouble. Spending months in Mexico’s border towns — where the Mexican government will grant them “humanitarian visas, work authorization, and other protections,” according to a statement from Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen — is far less appealing than being able to establish a foothold in the United States while their claims are processed. The extent to which this will deter future seekers is to be seen. But between this and the perilous desert trek that already awaits immigrants crossing the border, who needs a wall?