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Ahead of his 11 April Kaldor Centre talk, award-winning author and UCSD professor David FitzGerald answers five questions about the myths and realities of border politics under President Trump.

Professor FitzGerald, you've been researching US-Mexican migration for some time. What's your view of the current situation? 

David FitzGerald: There are a lot of unknowns about the intentions of the Trump administration and what Congress and the courts will allow. The biggest unknowns are what Trump will do about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for unauthorised immigrant who arrived in the United States at a young age; whether Congress will make a major appropriation for building more border fortifications; and whether the courts will allow the administration to punish sanctuary cities that limit cooperation between local police and federal immigration authorities by withholding federal grants.

But several developments are clear. The number of unauthorised entries from Mexico has been falling for years and has reached lows not seen since the 1970s. That tendency is likely to continue, at least in the short run, as potential migrants put off their plans until the situation becomes clarified.

Deportations reached an all-time high during President Obama’s first term, before declining during his second term. Under Trump, deportations are likely to reach new highs.

There are already 700 miles of physical barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border. I think it’s unlikely that a 2000-mile wall will be completed. It’s more likely that shorter sections of wall will be added. At least some stretches will look like a typical “wall” rather than the existing structures so that Trump can be photographed in front of a wall. The entire border will not be sealed.

If the U.S. attempts to make Mexico indirectly pay for the wall by increasing tariffs, it will hurt the US economy at least as much as it will hurt Mexico. There is a high level of “co-production”. Forty percent of the value of imports from Mexico was added in the United States. Mexico is the second largest U.S. market for exported goods.

Finally, while edicts from Washington are poisoning the overall binational relationship, local and states officials along the border will continue to act in a much more collaborative and pragmatic way.

Can you briefly tell us how we got to this point? Is the wall just an evolution, or quite a dramatic shift?

David FitzGerald: The wall itself is an evolution. The Border Patrol was first formed in 1924. By the 1980s, there was a rudimentary fence in urban areas. Serious border enforcement began in the mid-1990s during the Clinton administration with the deployment of more agents, increased fencing and other types of physical barriers, stadium-style lighting, and greater use of military surveillance and sensor technologies. Until the last Great Recession, there was bipartisan support for more enforcement, but since the crisis, enforcement has plateaued.

Are you surprised about the recent changes in US policy or is it somewhat predictable?

David FitzGerald: More than any particular policy, the biggest and most surprising shift is the extremely hostile tone toward Mexico. No one predicted that in the twenty-first century an American president would be elected who called Mexicans rapists, denigrated a judge for being Mexican, and consistently doubled down on anti-Mexican rhetoric. Trump has tested the bounds of U.S. diplomacy like no other leader since it became a world power.

Policymakers on both sides of the border must be considering all possible responses - can you tell us a bit about the different pressures on each of these groups?

David FitzGerald: The Mexican government is under domestic pressure to stand up to Trump, which is why President Peña Nieto cancelled his trip to Washington after the inauguration. But Mexico is in a tough position. Its entire strategy for export-led development is dependent on a good relationship with the United States. Eighty percent of its exports go to the United States. There is no Plan B. Mexico has thrown in its lot with North America. 

On the US side, Democrats and Latinos are strongly opposed to Trump’s hostile moves toward Mexico. But he will face significant pushback from Republicans in border states as well if he provokes a trade war with Mexico. The closer Republican members of Congress live to the border, the more likely they are to oppose a wall. Republican-controlled Texas is the main trade conduit to Mexico.  

How might all this impact of other policies and parts of the relationship?

David FitzGerald: The first impact will likely be decreased cooperation between Washington and Mexico City around narcotics enforcement. Under the Obama administration, cross-border collaboration reached an all-time high. That collaboration is based on trust. It’s hard to imagine such trust has not been eroded.

Mexico plays a major role in making it more difficult for Central Americans to reach the United States. In the last couple of years, it has ratcheted up its apprehensions and deportations. Mexico now deports more Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and Hondurans than the United States. The US government has financed much of that effort and trained Mexican agents. If the Trump administration continues its hostile approach toward Mexico, it will make it more difficult for the Mexican government to openly act as a buffer between Central America and the United States.  To the extent that the Mexican government is concerned that Central Americans headed for the United States will become bottled up in Mexico in the face of increased U.S. enforcement, the Mexican government may continue mass deportations. But it will do no more than what it perceives to be in its own immediate interests.

Professor David FitzGerald holds the Gildred Chair in US- Mexican Relations and is Co-Director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at University of California-San Diego. His books include 150 Years of Transborder Politics and Culling the Masses: The Democratic Origins of Racist Immigration Policy in the Americas.

Hear David FitzGerald’s talk, 'Remote Control of Asylum Seekers: The US Experience', on Tuesday 11 April at 6.30pm in Sydney. 

The Kaldor Centre plays a vital role in developing legal, sustainable and humane solutions for displaced people around the world.