“We’re going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it!”
This heavily repeated slogan is easily the most famous, or rather infamous, quote and catchphrase associated with Donald Trump. Legions of Trump supporters across the country would repeatedly chant “Build that wall! Build that wall!” at his rallies and to anyone else who had the misfortune of listening. Hell, I remember kids in middle school chanting that in the hallways. His plan of a grand border wall became his signature policy and made him the face of a growing right wing contingency of immigration hardliners.
Despite the strong association between Trump and hardline immigration policy, the idea of building a wall at the United States-Mexico border is not unique to him at all. In reality, border wall and fence construction has been occurring since the 1990s. The idea is only so strongly associated with Trump because of him repeating “build the wall” at any chance he could. The phrase was crafted by Sam Nunberg, one of Trump’s consultants, as a way to keep him on track without trailing off into ranting about “The Apprentice” or his beloved Rosie O’Donnell. The phrase became a hit among his base, but it doesn’t mean that border construction is a new idea by Trump.
The modern era of border wall construction can be traced back to 1994. Facing a large wave of illegal border crossings, specifically near San Diego, Bill Clinton introduced Operation Gatekeeper, not to be confused with Operation Gaslight or Operation Girlboss. One of the provisions of the plan was to build 14 miles of border fence starting at the Pacific Ocean, where the highest level of illegal immigration was occurring. It also led to an increased militarization of the border, causing a staggering 3,800 deaths since the implementation of this plan. Despite the death toll of the plan and its implementation of border wall construction, Clinton largely escaped criticism of it thanks to him totally not having sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky.
The next significant action occurred during the administration of ultimate nepo baby, George W. Bush. During his second term, Congress passed the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which authorized the construction of 700 miles of new border fence. This was, and still is, the largest amount of border construction ever authorized by the federal government, greatly outweighing any action Trump took on the border. It’s also worth noting that the bill was bipartisan and passed by significant margins in both Houses of Congress, showing that it’s not just Republicans who support border construction. By the end of Bush’s tenure, more than 500 miles of border fence was constructed. But the massive plan is generally ignored in discussions about Bush, as his legacy is more defined by the War on Terror, the 2007-08 financial crisis and his general incompetence.
The implementation of the Secure Fence Act continued when Barack Obama took office in 2009. Under his administration, 128 miles of new border fence was constructed. Obama also continued the Bush-era practice of waiving federal laws regarding the environment, farmland and historic sites in order to push ahead with this construction. The continuation of the Secure Fence Act was one of many tough-on-immigration actions pursued by his administration, another of which was the deportation of roughly three million illegal aliens, which earned him the moniker of “deporter-in-chief.” Though he consistently faced criticism for his policies during his presidency, his calm, well-spoken demeanor helped prevent him from becoming the face of the anti-immigration movement.
At long last, now we finally get to Donald Trump. He rode the wave of white anger to the presidency with his brash anti-immigration rhetoric and vowing to build a glorious wall. But what did he actually accomplish? The answer is not much. Under the Trump reich, only 80 new miles of border barriers were actually constructed. A vast majority of the construction that occurred under Trump focused on replacing already-existing structures and barriers at the border. And Mexico didn’t pay for a dime of it, with the money instead coming from the Department of Defense’s budget. Trump’s construction at the border pales in comparison to the actions of his predecessors, despite him being more vocal about border construction than all of them combined. Trump bragging about the border is the equivalent of that one person in a group project who barely did anything but then slaps their name right at the top of it and brags about all the work they did, which is accurate given his massive ego.
But the story of border construction does not end with Donald Trump. Last month, Joe Biden announced the construction of 20 new miles of border barriers in Texas, a plan initially authorized by the Trump administration. Biden has come under fire for this, as he declared during his campaign that “there will never be another foot of wall constructed on my administration,” yet is doing just the opposite. The new plan is also controversial because the Biden administration plans to waive 26 environmental laws in order to complete the construction, an action previously taken by the Obama administration.
In summation, construction at the southern border is not a unique idea only espoused by Trump, but rather one that has been the norm for presidential administrations in the past 30 years. Sure, Trump regularly yelled “build the wall!” at any chance he could, but the actions of the Clinton, Bush, Obama and now Biden administrations speak louder than any words that Trump said.