Why Democrats Are Wrong About Trump’s Border Wall

Sep 4, 2017
9:34 AM

By Jillian Hernandez, Raúl Carrillo, and Alan Aja

Two weeks ago, Trump again threatened to shut down the government if Congress refuses to pony up for his pet project. While terrifying, the recent rhetoric obscures a subtler development: Trump is actually seeking compromise on the wall. As his comments to Enrique Peña Nieto indicate, he realizes the wall is his most important political promise. He’ll negotiate however he can in order to build it.

Look no further than his crowing at an Iowa rally, earlier this summer:

We’re thinking about building the wall as a solar wall so it creates energy and pays for itself… Pretty good imagination, right? Good? My idea.

A solar wall isn’t his idea, of course. In fact, both Las Vegas contractors and Ivy League academics have proposed it before, indicating broader appeal. But Trump knows when he smells paydirt. A greenwashed wall reeks of centrist “common sense:” most politicians think border militarization is fine—so long as it’s deficit-neutral.

When Trump first threatened shutdown in April, he forced Democratic leaders to clarify their priorities. And so they did, revealing they oppose the wall… primarily because it’s expensive. A spokesperson for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi argued that American taxpayers should not “foot the bill for a multi-billion dollar boondoggle.” Similarly, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer vilified the wall as “a pointless waste of taxpayer money.” Their remarks have framed the debate for Democrats. Since April the leadership has continually failed to condemn border militarization fully and directly.

To put it bluntly, Trump is losing most battles, but the Democrats are losing the war. The House has already approved Trump’s proposal for excessive funding for the Department of Homeland Security, including $2.7 billion for “multi-layered border security”— not only barriers, but staffing, surveillance equipment, and lethal tech. Although Senate Democrats are staging a fight, history suggests both major parties will simply haggle over the price. After all, Democrats already share blame for the existing 694 miles of border fencing, as well as mass deportations, raids, gang exportation, drug wars, and summary executions in the desert. At this point, it’s hard for them to fight against “fiscally sound,” “pragmatic” border militarization.

It’s up to the public to fight on principle. The wall won’t achieve its supporters’ aims and it would certainly misuse public money. But that focus destines us for self-defeat. When we insist “we can’t afford it,” the right counters in the same frame: if we can’t afford the wall, we surely can’t afford amnesty, citizenship, jobs, or any public goods. Despite the immense financial power of the federal government, politicians, right to left, have convinced us that “we the people” must pay an absolute fiscal cost for every policy: everything comes out of our pockets. This is false scarcity in action. Trapped within these fictitious parameters, we replace real talk about material reality and morals with chit-chat about nominal costs. We need to bust out.

Monetary Mysticism vs. Legal Realism

Like Republicans, Democrats suggest the federal government takes money from taxpayers and then rations it. But the modern monetary system doesn’t work this way. Although Washington spends and taxes, it doesn’t really spend “taxpayer money.” Rather, the federal government spends brand new money and chooses how to offset that spending, whether via taxes, bonds, or other means. The government can choose to raise taxes as it spends, but it’s not required to do so in the short run or the long run. The “taxpayer money” narrative is inaccurate, warping our sense of who pays for what.

As a matter of Constitutional law, the federal government needn’t collect taxes —nor even “borrow”— in order to spend. The Supreme Court has held that Congress can authorize the creation of U.S. legal tender backed only by its own full faith and credit. And this is exactly how it works: Congress votes on spending and the Treasury and Federal Reserve coordinate to inject “new money” into the economy. Typically, if the Treasury hasn’t collected enough in taxes to “offset” this “new money,” it tells the Fed to auction bonds, which the Fed routinely exchanges for “new money” anyway. No matter how you slice it, Congress writes the check and the government spends new public money into the economy.

“If the government chooses to offset spending with bond sales rather than taxes, it does necessarily increase the “national debt.” But this is a good thing: the government only owes bondholders because it’s put more financial assets in our hands. The U.S. government cannot “go broke” and can always pay bondholders. In fact, the U.S. has serviced outstanding Treasury debt since 1791 and has never paid down the total. Today,certain financial institutions are required to buy the bonds no matter what. And although Congress might have to occasionally raise the infamous “debt ceiling”—anearly universally hated handicap—the ceiling doesn’t limit how much public money the U.S. government can create overall. This is why central bankers and sophisticated financiers don’t speak of federal insolvency, but inflation.”

Some people fear inflation so much they clutch onto the “taxpayer money” narrative despite its empirical shortcomings. But right now, price stability isn’t a worry. Conventional wisdom says inflation —a continuous rise in general prices— occurs when too many dollars chase too few goods and services. Assuming this is true, so long as government targets spending at sectors that can produce more goods and services —sectors with unused resources and idle hands— the new money isn’t likely to cause inflation. More importantly, as even The Wall Street Journal now recognizes, inflation has more to do with the concrete actions of businesses, consumers, workers, and financiers than some government-controlled “money supply.” Indeed, banks generate far more “fountain pen money” than Uncle Sam, yet few inflation hawks seem to notice. When fiscal “moderates” focus on limiting federal spending, rather than curbing bank lending or speculation, they reveal their ideology. They raise the spectre of inflation to protect the perceived indispensability of private capital, not the public good.

Budget Brinksmanship vs. Building Power

If anything, the “taxpayer money narrative” is just another form of respectability politics: an ugly, misleading, and ineffective political strategy. Deficits deliver the goods to supporters. The last four decades of history demonstrate Republicans understand this, but Democrats don’t. In office, Republicans fight for deficit spending on war, extraction, deportation, imprisonment, or any policy that protects the ruling class. Out of office, they fight against deficit spending for anything. When Republicans do run deficits, “serious thinkers” predict fiscal horrors, but they never come to pass.

The left can learn from the right, here. Democrats like to pout about prudence, but prudence isn’t realism. And it’s time to stop fighting battles we lose. As the Jon Ossoff debacle in Georgia reiterated, federal “‘fiscal responsibility’ …has no discernible base of support with actual voters.” Indeed, the few true deficit hawks are those who possess piles of “old money”, and thus care passionately about constraining “new money” in order to maintain power.

Perhaps worst of all, the scolds who argue the government can run out of financial capital tend to suggest the public can run out of political capital. Yet just like the U.S. government can generate currency, the people can generate power. We don’t need to collect favors. We need to mobilize.

With that in mind, here are better arguments against the wall:

Taxpayer Anxiety vs. Human Rights

Finance is a legal framework for recording and measuring social obligations. But it doesn’t represent the entire picture. Moreover, misleading financial arguments, like the “taxpayer money” narrative, twist our sense of who truly “owns” and who truly “owes.” In the context of border policy, the “taxpayer money narrative” obscures the identity of the actual freeloaders: multinational financial interests.

The social ledger is complex, but the balance is clear: the United States and its business partners perpetuate great violence upon the Americas,pressuring people to emigrate, then profiting off their detention when they do. The U.S. government constantly exploits economies south of the border.High finance fuels the drug war. And as coin and kilos incessantly flow across boundaries, we deny sanctuary to humans.

In the face of great human wrongs, we must defend human rights. As people escape U.S. imperialism, neoliberal trade, and drug wars, we must champion their freedom of movement and treat forced migration as the humanitarian crisis it is. The U.S. has long been in violation of its international human rights obligations regarding the treatment of vulnerable migrant populations at the southern border, but a beefed up wall will only make a bad situation worse.

Externalized borders are not only ineffective—they’re lethal. Empirical evidence shows that border barriers only push migrants to travel by more dangerous routes. About 500 people per year (est.) already die attempting to cross our current border barriers. Since the Clinton administration’s 1994 implementation of “Operation Gatekeeper,” the U.S.-Mexico border has become the deadliest in the Americas. And in 2014, the last time crossing surged, migrants were overwhelmingly unaccompanied minors and women with children fleeing violence created by U.S. wars and gang extradition. Many of the migrants have colorable asylum claims and thus needed to physically cross the border in order to assert them. Additional border militarization all but condemns these people to death. And it would exacerbate violence committed by coyotes, traffickers, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and civilian paramilitaries.

Mexico–United States barrier at the border of Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, USA. The crosses represent migrants who died in the crossing attempt. Some identified, some not. Surveillance tower in the background. (Photo © Tomas Castelazo, www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0)

And the human cost of a border wall doesn’t stop at the structure itself. With increased enforcement comes increased detention. The government funnels migrants apprehended at the border into (oftentimes private) facilities. There, they can face seemingly indefinite detention. Conditions are beyond deplorable, and like most vicious features of the carceral state, they are worse for trans and gender nonconforming individuals. Beyond this, detainees face routine physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the ICE agents and private prison employees. Substandard medical care leads to preventable deaths, which will undoubtedly rise under Trump. To make matters even worse, detained migrants are less likely to obtain relief they otherwise merit due to lack of legal representation— a fact known by the public-private partnerships building facilities in the most remote parts of the borderlands.

Real people’s pain is far more important than tax dollars. Moreover, resistance couched in terms of taxpayer protection only encourages Trump to fleece more exploitable populations. During the campaign, Trump proposed seizing remittances, canceling visas, and eliminating aid. Since Trump’s election, the GOP has floated both a remittance tax and an import tax. All in all, this suggests we need to look beyond the U.S. government’s financial balance sheet. We must consider deeper obligations between people… and obligations toward the planet.

Faux Sustainability vs. Environmental Justice 

Contrary to the claims of both Trump and Democrats, there is no wall design that offsets the ecological damage of border militarization. The wall would slice through ecosystems, disrupt wildlife migration, halt water flows, and diminish plant diversity. It could turn several endangered species extinct. The deterioration of the beautiful borderlands, already ravaged by industrialization and climate change, would accelerate.

Solar wall advocates are attempting to turn border militarization into an environmental asset. They believe a solar wall would enable the government to generate and sell clean electricity. This proposal follows years of Democrats attempting to halt migration in the most efficient and technologically adept ways possible. Trump’s call to scan all travelers isn’t new. Bill Clinton signed a 1996 bill mandating a comprehensive biometric entry-exit tracking system. Silicon Valley has long had its tendrils deep in border policy. Since receiving an Obama Administration contract, Palantir Technologies has been building a super-lean migrant surveillance machine far more terrifying than the wall.

Attempts to greenwash the clampdown miss the bigger picture. Border militarization creates significant environmental liabilities that Trump will not satisfy. Although it refused has refused to legally recognize them, the U.S. government already owes ecological debts to the global south and to its own border communities. Climate debt is most obvious. In this context, U.S.-driven global warming is eviscerating the borderlands, which are drying out faster than any other region in the Northern Hemisphere. The impact of the decline of rainfall on soil erosion in northern Mexico is extreme. Trump’s proposals will only exacerbate these problems. The necessary cement and steel alone would cause major greenhouse gas emissions. And as the years go on, Latin America’s climate refugees will continue to migrate to the United States. 

If we want to stop the wanton destruction of the planet, we should stop focusing on flows of people and focus on flows of money that fund factories, troops, and pipelines in the borderlands. Broadly speaking, to consciously manage both our ecosystem and our financial system, we need to direct our focus on causes of emigration, rather than scapegoating immigrants. This ultimately means controlling capital, and accommodating people, including supposed “job takers.”

The Reserve Army  vs. The Job Guarantee 

Both major parties suggest immigrant employees ‘displace’ American employees, even if only in the long run. This is yet another false scarcity story obscuring real social and economic relationships.

All around the world, economic systems coerce humans into wage labor. States protect property with cops, courts, and prisons, issue their own currencies, and demand we pay taxes and fines in those currencies. We need money. Unless we steal the money, we have to earn it. Yet workers everywhere are often deprived of the ability to work for even subsistence funds. In the Americas, the United States exacerbates this social sin by imposing its own absurd financial punishments and actually destroying jobs.

Capitalist states should at least ensure employment. Ideally, every country in the world would establish a Job Guarantee, employing everyone willing and able to work and thus depriving capitalists of the reservoir maintaining their power: the reserve army of labor. In the meantime, the U.S. economy doesn’t have enough labor and can welcome even more immigrant workers. There is no limit to the amount of jobs the United States government can create. Just as money doesn’t grow on taxpayers, jobs don’t grow on corporations.

The federal government can fund a U.S. Job Guarantee, providing everyone in this country with  decent, living-wage work. If we can’t get a job at a private firm or start our own business  or cooperative, federal funding should employ us not merely due to legislative mandate, but as a matter of right. The answer to “they took our jobs!” is to guarantee everyone a job serving a public purpose. The current fence in Nogales, Arizona, is accompanied by cameras, vibration sensors, drones, and Blackhawks. Trump’s wall project would employ people —temporarily, disdainfully, exploitatively— to expand this violence. Instead, the same people could build something beneficial: instead of a border wall, given the adverse effects of climate change—a sea wall. Indeed, the counterforce to macho Trumpismo should be “fiscal feminism”—the financing of locally administered, cooperative, unionized green work and care work. Bonus: if we can adopt such a program here, it will be easier for other countries in the Americas to follow suit as a matter of global policy.

Overall, if we’re concerned about economic waste, we shouldn’t measure it in federal “taxpayer dollars.” We should measure it in the hours of labor and tons of raw material deployed, temporarily for evil.

On the whole, Trump’s immigration policies won’t fix structural unemployment. To truly solve the jobs crisis, the U.S. government must embrace deficit spending and a Job Guarantee.

Authoritarian Scarcity vs. Democratic Abundance 

In the final analysis, just like deportations, detention centers, travel bans, and the entire criminal immigration system, the wall is not bad because it hurts budgets. “Sound finance” isn’t about economic stability. It’s about social discipline. Some elites even acknowledge conceptual constraints on federal spending are “part of an old-time religion,” but argue they’re necessary to avoid “pulling back the curtain on the entirely ephemeral nature of money and finance itself” and upsetting hierarchies. As such, we must cease collaborating with these fictions.

The wall is bad because it hurts real people. It is a human rights violation, an ecological affront, and a waste of human energy and real resources. If more people think about in these real terms, as opposed to nominal costs, there will be less animosity and violence.

We must abandon the “taxpayer money” narrative. There is, of course, no accounting for pure hate. Hardliners fear migrants are diluting the country’s racial-cultural stock. Case in point: they’re not focused on general birth rates, they’re focused on anchor babies. White supremacy and patriarchy intertwist with myths about money. The people really pulling the strings are those who hoard money while obfuscating how money works. Thus, the best weapon against the wall is not fiscal bargaining, but defiance. As one Democratic official, Rep. Filemon Vela, had the courage to say, “My view on the wall is that we should bulldoze the existing structures.”

Bulldozing. That should be our approach toward all violent barriers—those in the desert and those in our discourse. False scarcity is a feature of authoritarian capitalism; it has no place in a free democracy. We must embrace the power of public finance, rather than reject it. Only then can we begin to build an egalitarian, prosperous commons, open to all.


Jillian Hernandez is a non-profit immigration attorney based in New York City. She represents children, LGBTQ immigrants, and survivors of human trafficking.

Raúl Carrillo is an attorney and a director of The Modern Money Network. He is a native of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

Alan Aja is an associate professor in the Department of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College. Before academia, he worked as a union organizer in El Paso and Austin, Texas.

An op-ed version of this essay appeared in Teen Vogue on August 23, 2017.