The Dreamers vs The Wall

In the Stranger Things reality of Trump’s America, the image of the Statue of Liberty holding up her beacon to welcome ships of migrants to American shores has been turned upside down.

Painted border fence in Tijuana, US-Mexico border, January 2018. Photo: John-Andrew McNeish

Written by John-Andrew McNeish, Professor, Department of Environment and Development Studies

I could have gone pretty much anywhere in the world this year. Sabbaticals and writing books can take place just about anywhere. Invitations from host institutions abroad are also not so hard to get. Especially so when you have some great colleagues and you and your home institution (not your hosts) are footing the bill. I thus made a conscious choice to come to San Diego this year. My circumstances are a great deal more comfortable than those of most migrants, but whilst there is no necessity to be here, I am here because of a certain attraction to the American dream: life, liberty and prosperity for all. I guess, like many Europeans of my age and persuasion, there is a fascination with the way it has imprinted itself on popular and political culture. Like the other millions, I am also aware of the fact that this dream can be imperfect, fleeting and when seen in the stark sunlight, a shadow of what was first imagined.

[The] image of liberty has now been sabotaged by a foul-mouthed, orange-tinged imposter. He points with stubby fingers towards a wall, and wears a red baseball cap reading ‘Make America Great Again’ instead of a crown.

As has been repeatedly expressed in the speeches of presidents and popular accounts in books, films and television, the US was built by immigrants who left their home countries in search of something better – and often as a last resort in order to survive. However, in the Stranger Things reality of Trump’s America, the image of the Statue of Liberty holding up her beacon to welcome ships of migrants to American shores looks like the upside down of what it should represent. Despite the echoes of great words and deeds, a foul-mouthed, orange-tinged imposter has now sabotaged this image of liberty. He points with stubby fingers towards a wall, and wears a red baseball cap reading “Make America Great Again” instead of a crown. Immigration politics might have been inconsistent and confusingly politicized earlier in US history, but it is even more so now. Here in San Diego – a border city – this is markedly so for the Hispanic population.

‘The shining city on the hill’

In September 2017, the Trump administration announced that it planned to scrap DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), the program that provides temporary protection to undocumented migrants who arrived in the US as children. Those provided protection under the DACA program are popularly referred to as ‘dreamers’. For most, this term is thought to refer to their parents desperate efforts to reach and share the wealth of the ‘shining city on the hill’, as passed presidents have biblically characterized the US. The reality is, however, that the name was a bi-product of the failure of Congress to pass the so-called Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (Dream) Act, which would have offered those who had arrived illegally as children the chance of permanent legal residency.

DACA was created by the Obama administration as a compromise bill in 2012, to allow people brought to the country illegally as children to temporarily live, study and work in the country. Those applying are rigorously vetted for any criminal history or threat to national security and must be students or have completed school or military service. If they pass vetting, action to deport them is deferred for two years, with a chance to renew, and they become eligible for basics such as a driving license, college enrolment or a work permit. Most dreamers are from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and the largest numbers live in California, Texas, Florida and New York. They range in age from 15 to 36, according to the White House. The announcement by the Attorney General that the program was to end placed the future of these close to 800,000 people into serious question.

The Trump government’s actions in opposition to DACA are one of several controversial efforts to radically overhaul immigration policy in the United States. Other initiatives also include the executive order by the President, now in its third version following legal opposition and injunctions, to prohibit people from six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. They also include the use federal agents to make sweeping arrests of illegal immigrants across the country.

As the international media have made very clear, the Trump government’s decision to scrap DACA has so far not gone as the administration had hoped. When Trump ended Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, he gave lawmakers a six-month deadline to review and swiftly redesign national immigration policy. Now in January 2018, the bi-partisan group charged with creating new policy has met to present their findings to the President. The week started positively with some initial optimism that a deal had been struck to avoid the dreamers becoming vulnerable to deportation. Even the President seemed pleased at the possibility of taking credit and responsibility for a bi-partisan deal to end DACA and beef up immigration and border security.

A “smart wall”

However, as the week progressed things turned increasingly ugly. Immediately following Trump’s optimistic comments on the possibility of defining an alternative to DACA, a federal court shifted the balance by ruling to block the government from terminating the program. In addition to new provision for the dreamers, the bill proposed support for building a “smart wall” or “technology, physical barriers, levees, tools and other devices” to be used by the Department of Homeland Security at the US-Mexico border.

This emphasis on “smart” alternatives contradicted Trump government’s position, and the President’s personal campaign trail claim that a physical border wall must be built as part of new border security measures. While Trump claims the wall can be constructed for as little as 12 billion USD, the Department of Homeland Security place the bill at 25 billion, recognizing the complicated geographical and topographical challenges that would be encountered in building the wall. Senate Democrats question whether even this estimate is correct, suggesting that the bill could easily rise to 70 billion USD.

Media “shit-storm”

The President’s anger was further sparked last week when renewed emphasis was made by lawmakers and the bi-partisan work group on continued protections for immigrants from Central America and Africa. In response to these suggestions, Trump is reported to have angrily blurted: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here? Why do we need more Haitians?”…Take them out.” Having met with the Norwegian Prime Minister in Washington the day before, he also reportedly went on from these comments to suggest that the US should bring in more people from Norway. Norwegians seem to share the white skin, economic policies and migrant sensibilities that Trump admires. Leaked to the press, these comments started a “shit-storm” as journalists and statesmen- and women around the world responded to Trump’s salty language and further indications of his racism.

With the legal injunction in place, the DACA program persists for now, but a new round of legal and political will occur when the dreamers‘ permits expire in March. The insecurity of the dreamers remains.

The City in the City

Here in San Diego, a city that is essentially joined-at-the-hip with the US-Mexico border, the federal-level discussion of the dreamers is hard to ignore. Trump’s ‘America first’, anti-immigration policies are focused on so-called Sanctuary Cities such as San Diego, i.e., cities that limit cooperation with the federal government to enforce immigration law. In Trump’s 2015 election campaign it was cities such as San Diego that were characterized as sharing responsibility for allowing crime to rise as immigrant levels supposedly rose unchecked. Mexicans migrants were singled out as a danger to US society. As Trump repeated frequently, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists”.

Despite a refusal by the local government to assist the implementation of the government’s new immigration initiatives, federal officials have made multiple sweeps and arrests of illegal immigrants in San Diego. At the behest of the Trump government, 8 prototype models of a wall 30 feet tall have also been constructed close to the two border-crossing points over to San Diego’s conjoined sibling, the city of Tijuana[1]. In 2017, nearly 24,000 migrants were caught trying to enter the US illegally in the 60-mile San Diego sector and 415,816 in the US-Mexico border as a whole.  Illegal migrants from other parts of Latin America, as well as Africa and the Middle East have also increasingly arrived at the US-Mexico border. Homeland Security has also introduced tighter checks on the average 135,000 people that cross the border between San Diego and Tijuana each day. This has significantly slowed the crossing time over the border, and has had a negative impact on trade between the two cities, as well as between the Northern State of Baja California and the US state of California (one region until 1848 and the settlement of the Mexican-American War).

Although many San Diegans don’t like to admit it, San Diego and Tijuana form a cross-border metropolis where deep economic and cultural linkages have locked them together. Dreams and aspirations on either side of the border are dependent on the other. During my stay here, it has been common for colleagues and neighbours to say that they rarely think much about or visit Tijuana – but then I am living in a middle-class, academic bubble in the North of the city. It is said that only foreign tourists, bachelor parties and spring-breakers risk Tijuana in search of cheap cocktails, cheap hotels and cheap thrills.

There is frequent mention of Tijuana’s extreme levels of poverty and crime (around 70% of Tijuana’s 2.2 million population are unable to cover basic needs), and the contrasting socio-economic conditions are obvious to the eye. Shantytowns crowded on hillsides and poor infrastructure are visible elements of the city as soon as one crosses the San Ysidro border.

Despite these realities, San Diegans insistence that they have little to do with their southern neighbour is not really true. Cultural life in both cities runs into the other; they share a common history, language(s), gastronomy, music, radio stations, artistic scene and a love of fancy cars. Efforts have even been made to formally constitute a common Mexican-American identity (Chicano culture).   Both sides of the border are reliant on the other for labour and economic well-being (illegal and legal). Estimates of the value of formal cross-border trade lie close to 4 billion USD per year.

A Chicano mural at the University of California, San Diego. August 2017. Photo: John-Andrew McNeish

Multiple industries are established close to the border, including the world’s largest medical device production cluster and Mexico’s top aerospace, electronics and defence clusters. There are nearly 600 export-manufacturing plants and 50 contract-manufacturing options meeting global quality standards within a 15-mile radius south of the San Ysidro port of entry; $42 billion worth of goods are imported and exported at Otay Mesa each year. San Diego’s biotechnology and pharmaceutical, biomedical, software and communications clusters are significant contributors to a $52 billion innovation economy that accounts for over 400,000 jobs — 30% of the city’s employment. Tijuana adds close to $20 billion to San Diego’s production each year. The value of trade between San Diego and Mexico consistently exceeds $4 billion per year. Commercial exchange between Tijuana and San Diego is valued at $2.1 million daily. Undocumented labour adds significantly more to these estimates. Indeed, in the State of California (the eighth largest economy in the world), undocumented immigrants’ ​labour (10% of the state´s work force) in agriculture, gardening, child care, domestic cleaning, restaurants, hotels and construction is worth more than $180 billion a year ​to the state’s economy — about equal to the 2015 gross domestic product for the entire state of Oklahoma.

It has to be said that, whilst San Diego is an extremely wealthy city and a leader in business development and innovation, it is also a city where not all are ‘living the dream’. Well-paid jobs that were lost by American middle-class and skilled labourers following the 2008 financial crisis have been replaced by a growth in low-paid jobs in the service-economy sector. Many people in these jobs are working only part-time as they face a series of family (child-care) and health challenges. Again, the relationship with Tijuana has become vital for San Diegans finding themselves without options. Lacking the finances to cover high health insurance premiums, it is estimated that hundreds of people from San Diego cross the border every day to buy their medicines and to purchase cheaper medical and dental care in the clinics of Tijuana. Indeed, pharmacies and clinics in Tijuana have actively thrived through the offer and advertisement of their services to US citizens in San Diego. Americans returning from Tijuana by the footbridge at San Ysidro commonly carry with them plastic bags filled with boxes of medicines purchased in the pharmacies lined up across the road from US border exit.

Service and Protection

Close to 31% of San Diego’s population are Hispanic (a majority of 42% are characterized in official statistics as Caucasian, with smaller populations of Asians and African Americans). Despite the proximity to the border, it would be wrong to assume that this Hispanic population are only Mexican in origin. As well as being a centre for business and innovation, San Diego is also home to the US Pacific Fleet and the US Marine Core. Around 15% of naval and marine servicemen and women are of Hispanic background. Whilst the majority of them have entered as naturalized American citizens, a high number have enlisted in order to quickly access American citizenship. The US has long granted citizenship in exchange for military service, and this was significantly expanded in order to rapidly expand the number of active personnel following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the foreign expeditions to Iraq and Afghanistan that would follow.

There has also long been a somewhat “natural fit” between the US military and the countries of origin of many of these candidates. Since the introduction of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, the US government has justified the policing of its southern “backyard” (i.e. Latin America) for reasons of national security. The result of this has not only been a rather dubious record of periodic military intervention, gun-boat diplomacy and the secretive counter-insurgency actions or “dirty wars”, but close political and cultural alliances with Latin American governments and militaries.  These alliances were generative of the annexation of Puerto Rico and Guantanamo, and the favourable status given to certain social groups when it came to citizenship. People from El Salvador, Honduras, Haiti and Nicaragua were granted Temporary Protected Status because of these political and military understandings.  This would become important in speeding assistance and removing people from danger when natural disasters such as hurricanes devastated El Salvador or the earthquake in Haiti. These communities were also considered favourably as applicants for US military service.

Curiously, despite the gains and continued need of the US military for Hispanic recruits, the Trump government has recently rescinded the Protective Status granted to people from Central American and the Caribbean. In addition to the dreamers, around 300,000 people with this status have been instructed that their residency permits have been revoked. Representatives of these communities have commented in the local press here in San Diego that this reversal of policy seems mean-spirited, especially given the fact that they had arrived in the US seeking safety, and the periods of service given to the country. In the case of Central America, the stated effects of the reversal of policy are forecasted to be particularly negative. Over the last decade, economic remittances sent by migrants to the US to their families in home countries have been an essential addition to otherwise failing local economies and household budgets. Indeed, in the case of El Salvador, remittances are estimated to make up a 5th of the country’s entire GDP. The return of Salvadorian migrants to the country, including those with military experience, worries analysts and human rights organisations.  It has been suggested that these people could become the targets – or perpetrators if employment cannot be found – of extortion, kidnapping and coerced service to gangs. El Salvador currently has one of the highest levels of homicide in the Americas resulting from the spreading influence and infighting of organised gangs and crime syndicates. It is important to note that the origins of the most powerful of these gangs has a direct relationship to the earlier wave of forced return of migrants with criminal records from the US in the 1980s.

Differential disaster response 

In Trump’s America, the assistance granted to citizens in response natural disaster is also under review. San Diegans face significant threats from wild fires and earthquakes, but this year there has been mostly surprise and horror regarding the way in which the current administration responded to the destruction caused by the recent hurricanes that hit Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. My neighbours here wonder what will happen to them if disaster strikes closer to home.

A hundred years have passed since Puerto Rico became US territory and citizenship granted to its residents, and yet it is evident that this was no guarantee of equal help and support to this Hispanic territory.  Hurricane Maria hit the island in September 2017, destroying homes and leaving Puerto Rican residents stranded without communication and power. High winds and heavy rains washed out roads, bridges and other necessities. Over 780 million USD of local agricultural yield was lost. Whilst the Trump administration was quick to grant emergency funding and technical support for reconstruction efforts in Houston and Miami, assistance to Puerto Rico was slowed by the President’s reluctance to remove restrictions on foreign shipping transporting emergency aid from the US mainland to Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, the US media revealed that the government granted 300 million USD for the reconstruction of the island’s energy grid to the Whitefish Energy Holding Company, a tiny company of three people from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hometown. This deal is now under investigation by Congress and the Emergency Management Administration. At present, over half of the population of Puerto Rico still lack electricity in their homes.

Borderline Life

The dreams of Americans along the US-Mexico border have, it seems, serious contradictions, concerns and surprises. Indeed, for the Hispanic community here in San Diego, this is very much a ‘borderline life’ in which they are both within and outside of the US. The wall is so much more real than it is for those from North of the border. The Hispanic populations are wanted and not wanted, they are essential and disposable, permanent and transient. Under the current administration and the current terms of the country’s political economy, these conditions of marginality will not improve. Indeed, it seems that these conditions are expanding to other social sectors caught by growing economic disparities.  Walls are not only physical but also social and economic.

Great opportunities and ideas abound in the US, and San Diego is a powerhouse in this sense. Whilst I certainly share an enthusiasm for being here – the warm weather and great beaches don’t hurt – it is clear that the cost of waking up here is the knowledge that for many of San Diego’s residents, dreams and opportunities are unfairly restricted by the prejudice of a politically jaundiced few.


John-Andrew McNeish is a Professor in International Environment and Development studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.  He is currently on sabbatical at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).








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