Four Presidents and a Wall

By Vicki B. Gaubeca

Bull-dozing sacred burial sites. Destroying delicate wildlife. Siphoning billions of dollars from other programs to build dangerous and deadly border walls. President Donald Trump’s actions in the year since he declared a national emergency in a cash grab for wall funds — a state of emergency which he recently extended — seem like they’re out of dystopian novel, or the actions of a dastardly villain in a movie. 

We wish we could just stop watching this horror flick, but this state-sanctioned violence against border communities playing out before us is more real than we could imagine. 

The people of our nation want to believe that Trump’s mission to institutionalize his rhetoric of hate and discrimination, and his deliberate targeting of border communities and families seeking safety are a rare turn in our living history. 

They're not.

Yes, it’s true that from his first day as president, Trump attacked border communities and our most vulnerable populations with terrifying speed and intensity, all in obsession with building his wall. It’s true that Trump’s mission to institutionalize his rhetoric of hatred and division has led to the separation of families and the tear-gassing of toddlers and their families at our borders.

But Trump’s heinous border policies are part and parcel of a long legacy of militarization at our borders under the watch of both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations alike.

Before Trump’s wall, there was Obama’s wall, Bush’s wall and Clinton’s wall.

Our nation must come to terms with the fact that we’ve been employing the same misguided, enforcement-only border policy for decades, leaving us to pick up the pieces of a broken system set up to get politicians elected on the backs of immigrants and border communities.

A Legacy of Death

While cruel and unaccountable border agents have existed since the 1920s, it was Operation Gatekeeper — an anti-immigrant enforcement-only strategy of “prevention through deterrence” which was implemented in 1994 — that brought about large-scale militarization at the southern border. 

"Before Trump’s wall, there was Obama’s wall, Bush’s wall and Clinton’s wall."

Operation Gatekeeper, which was implemented by President Clinton, a Democrat, increased the number of unaccountable Border Patrol agents deployed on the ground and expanded the invasive Border Patrol checkpoints far from the actual border. It also built walls and other infrastructure where there had been none, and purposefully pushed migrants to dangerous crossing areas, resulting in the death and disappearance of thousands of people. 

Militarization on both sides of the aisle

This legacy continued well into the presidency of George W. Bush, who sought to increase the presence of border patrol by 6,000 agents, ostensibly doubling their presence at the already heavily-monitored border. While the Bush administration accepted record numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers, it also expanded detention centers and deployed the National Guard to the southern border

The Obama Administration, hailed as a golden age for progressive politics, followed a similar path. While Obama implemented Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), he also authorized mass deportations of over 1 million people during his first term. Obama’s number of deportations remain higher than Trump’s. Obama also deployed 1,200 National Guard to the border

Looking back at the last two decades of border policy and it’s clear to see that for border communities, Trump’s actions, while certainly more brutal than his predecessors, are part of a deadly historical trajectory of decades border militarization. Border communities have struggled against the harsh policies of each of these administrations, and continue to do so under Trump.

It’s time for our nation to recognize that Trump is ramping-up the policies that previous administrations laid before him, and that he’s using the foundation of wrong-headed enforcement-only policies to pass his agenda of hatred and discrimination for political gain.

We need to right these historical wrongs, and the time is now.

A New Border Vision

It is precisely because of this history of state-sponsored violence against our communities that SBCC created a New Border Vision, a framework for border policy that expands public safety, upholds human rights, and welcomes all people to our borders. A New Border Vision is a guiding beacon from border communities who have experienced decades of harmful, enforcement-only border policy, and who also have the expertise and insight needed to stop this deadly and harmful legacy. Our communities have been reacting to the militarization of our borders for decades, and now we’ve created a visionary outline to build a border that truly revitalizes our communities, one that affirms our values of hope, opportunity and welcoming.

This election year, presidential candidates and other elected officials have the opportunity to stop this deadly legacy by turning to a New Border Vision as a guiding light — just like Berkeley, California did. We need more of our elected officials to adopt policies that protect our most vulnerable communities and to stand up against policies that have caused so much harm to the vibrancy of our border communities. 

"A New Border Vision is a guiding beacon from border communities who have experienced decades of harmful, enforcement-only border policy, and who also have the expertise and insight needed to stop this deadly and harmful legacy."

Our hope is that whoever takes office in January of 2021 will listen to the voices of the southern border and end the legacy of militarization, violence and death for good, and that across our nation, elected officials stand together to move our border policy into the 21st century by aligning with global-best practices, as outlined in a New Border Vision.

It’s time to end this deadly legacy for good, regardless of who is in power.

Vicki B. Gaubeca is director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition. She also writes border_lines, a weekly blog that informs readers about border-related policy initiatives.


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