Write a book about immigration on the U.S.-Mexico border, and you’re bound to get a few questions. This past summer, at an event in Austin, I had just read from my novel, which deals with human trafficking, when a hand went up from a woman in the first row. She wanted to know what I thought about President Trump’s relentless push to build a border wall — something he had been talking about nonstop since launching his campaign and even more so, it seemed, after he repeatedly failed to secure its funding. So I told her what had been on my mind all summer: If there is no wall, there is no second term.
The woman in the first row and everyone else in the room looked stunned, as if the thought had never occurred to them that a second term might be contingent on the president’s delivering on his promise of the wall. And perhaps it hadn’t, but now, after reading “Border Wars,” the new book by Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear, a stark account of the Trump administration’s ongoing attempts to disembowel the nation’s immigration policy — one created over time to foster this land of immigrants — and his utter desperation to build the wall at any cost, it seems clear to me that this same thought has crossed our president’s mind.
In the same way that Trump’s obsession with the wall is about more than his wanting to build a barrier to protect us from the “invasion” of immigrants at our southern border, “Border Wars” is about more than his administration’s strategizing and ill-fated efforts to make this happen. The book also reveals the rampant dysfunction within the administration, much of it happening because no one can rein in the president, and his aide Stephen Miller’s xenophobic push to move the country toward zero immigration, meaning none at all, documented or undocumented, refugees or asylum seekers. None.
If you have kept up with the news, many details you’ll find in “Border Wars” may sound familiar, but what’s new here is how each initiative concerning the construction of the wall or attempting to stem the flow of immigrants, followed by a degree of shortsightedness, followed by disastrous results (see: family separation), followed by a high level of damage control, is part of a larger pattern. Hirschfeld Davis and Shear argue that it isn’t just a ban on travelers from certain Muslim nations, or a decision to not renew the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, or a sudden “national emergency” on the border that most people living on the border weren’t aware of. It’s that these all add up to an assault on immigration, a comprehensive plan not to strengthen our policies but to dismantle them from within the White House.
Trump’s problems started when he based his 2016 presidential campaign on an undeniably tangible structure that most experts agreed wouldn’t be effective at solving the problem of immigrants slipping into the country. Presidential candidates generally make less-tangible promises. Think health care, or scaling down a war, or increasing spending on education — all subjects of promises that can be measured to some degree but also leave room for interpretation. A wall is a wall. It’s either sealing off all 1,200 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, as Trump continues to promise, or it’s not. And right now, it’s not anywhere close to that.
Hirschfeld Davis and Shear, both New York Times correspondents, interviewed about 150 people to get this behind-the-scenes account of what happened when the media and the rest of us were out of the room. And it isn’t pretty.
Trump’s obsession with the wall has extended even to his preference for certain building materials. In an exchange with Kirstjen Nielsen, his homeland security secretary at the time, he requested that the barriers be a series of flagpoles set next to one another, their tops sharp so no one would dare climb over, and the pointy parts painted black so they’d become scorching in the hot sun. While we’d like to envision our commander in chief as someone who takes a hands-on approach, I don’t expect many of us expected a president who, according to the book, would insist on “flat black!”
Nielsen’s other job, aside from helping the president realize his vision of a wall, was to contain Trump’s impulse to shut down the border the more frustrated he got over not securing adequate funding for the barrier, and to monitor the increasing number of immigrant families arriving — a result of his continued assertions that he would be building the wall and immigrants’ fear that he would eventually seal the border.
If all this sounds like a circus, consider that Trump even toyed with the idea of building a moat and filling it with alligators and poisonous snakes that would further deter immigrants from attempting to cross the border. At one point, the president suggested that Border Patrol agents fire back if immigrants threw rocks at them. When he was told this wasn’t possible under the Customs and Border Protection use-of-force policy, Trump asked if the agents could at least shoot the immigrants in the legs.
The point was to make their passage into the United States as dangerous and uncomfortable as possible, whether that meant being impaled, burned, electrocuted, bitten by snakes or eaten alive by alligators.
Toward the end of the book, Jared Kushner, the president’s aide and son-in-law, is described as joining a meeting in the West Wing to see if he might offer some perspective. This was in January 2019, a little more than two weeks into the partial government shutdown Trump initiated when he could not get Congress to give him money for his wall. Kushner asks the Customs and Border Protection commissioner, Kevin McAleenan, now also the acting homeland security secretary, how effective a wall across the entire border would be. McAleenan tells him it would cut illegal immigration by maybe 20 to 25 percent, whereas closing the loopholes that dictate how CBP deals with families, children and asylum claims — details of immigration policy the president paid little attention to — would decrease the flow by 75 to 80 percent. “Okay,” Kushner replied quietly. “So we’ve wasted the last two years.”
As might be expected in a book by New York Times reporters, “Border Wars” avoids polemics in favor of a fact-based account of what precipitated some of this administration’s more brazen assaults on immigration. The Muslim ban. The president talking about shithole countries, about Haitians with AIDS, Africans living in huts, none of which he apologized for. The president mobilizing the National Guard to defend our border against a caravan of immigrants traveling from Central America. The family separations at the border. The DACA “dreamers” debacle. The precipitous drop in admitted refugees. Two government shutdowns as a result of Trump’s not getting the funding he demanded. The move to declare a “national emergency” at the border and divert military funds to build at least part of the wall. Hirschfeld Davis and Shear had only to state the facts and allow readers to draw their own conclusions. Trump has already taken care of impaling himself.
By Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear
Simon & Schuster. 480 pp. $28.00