Donald Trump is moving to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, acting on the foundational promise that launched his run to the presidency.
Mr. Trump's executive orders Wednesday – which also included instructions to cut federal funding from cities and states that refuse to help deport illegal immigrants and to expand the number of immigrants targeted for deportation – give effect to the central premise of his political agenda: That immigration is both an economic and security threat to his country.
"Building this barrier is more than just a campaign promise, it's a common-sense first step to really securing our porous border," Mr. Trump's spokesman, Sean Spicer, told reporters at the White House Wednesday. "This will stem the flow of drugs, crime, illegal immigration into the United States." Despite Mr. Trump's orders, the plan faces enormous hurdles, including land-ownership battles that could delay actual construction by years and a hefty price tag that could cause lawmakers to balk.
What's more, immigration experts say a wall would likely have no effect, because the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico has slowed to a trickle in recent years.
The action by the President continues a whirlwind week in which he has quickly moved to show he will keep the controversial promises that vaulted him into office.
It comes just two days after he pulled the country out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and reiterated his promise to renegotiate the North American free-trade agreement, continuing his push to throw up barriers – both economic and physical – around the United States' borders. And as early as Thursday, he is expected to clamp down further on immigration, with a ban on most refugees and a moratorium on people from seven countries in the Middle East and Africa.
The border wall, brandished in Mr. Trump's first campaign speech 18 months ago, was his defining promise: Supporters chanted "build the wall" regularly at his rallies, while detractors labelled it an outlandish pledge with racist undertones.
"With today's executive orders and those expected later this week, President Trump is following through with policies that match the ugly bigotry of his campaign. These orders will only deepen the wounds of division that Trump promised to heal," said Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, in a statement. "Like the skyscrapers that bear his name, a wall at the southern border will be nothing more than a monument to Trump's vanity."
The President's orders instruct John Kelly, the new Secretary of Homeland Security, to "take all appropriate steps to immediately plan, design and construct a physical wall along the southern border," and to suspend federal grants to "sanctuary cities" – jurisdictions that have adopted policies to not prosecute illegal immigrants. It also orders immigration enforcement to start targeting for deportation all immigrants who have been charged with a crime or may have committed one, regardless of whether they have been convicted.
The order does not specify the exact form of the wall. During the campaign, Mr. Trump said it would be a concrete barrier between 30- and 65-feet high, taller than either the Berlin Wall or Israel's wall around the West Bank. He has said it would cover at least 1,600 kilometres of the 3,200-kilometre border, focusing on areas where there are not already natural barriers to crossing.
Implementing such a plan as promised could be time-consuming and extraordinarily expensive.
"The logistical and legal problems he's going to face are really insurmountable – building a wall of the kind he has described is just fantastical. It will never happen," said David Bier, an immigration-policy analyst with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. "Will some kind of physical barrier be built? Absolutely. But it's not going to look anything like what he has described."
For one, Mr. Bier points out that much of the land the wall would have to be built on is either privately owned or controlled by indigenous groups. Property owners unwilling to co-operate with construction have proved an obstacle to previous, more limited attempts to fence off parts of the border, and could tie up construction for years with court battles.
Using extrapolations of construction costs for those smaller border fences, Mr. Bier and other researchers have estimated construction costs at $25-billion to $31-billion – between double and triple Mr. Trump's estimates.
Mr. Trump promised Wednesday to force the Mexican government to reimburse the United States for its construction costs, but President Enrique Pena Nieto has already refused. It is not clear whether the United States holds enough economic leverage to force such a payment, or that Congress would approve such an enormous sum with no guarantee of repayment. Mr. Pena Nieto is "considering" cancelling his scheduled trip to Washington next week in the wake of Mr. Trump's order on construction of the border wall, a senior Mexican official said Wednesday.
In any event, it is not clear the wall would even serve any purpose. Not only are immigrants generally less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans – a 2000 review by academics Ramiro Martinez, Jr. and Matthew T. Lee of a century's worth of studies showed that immigrants tend to make up a smaller proportion of crime statistics than native-born – but illegal immigration from Mexico has already largely stopped.
A Pew Research Center study of Homeland Security data showed that the number of Mexican immigrants in the United States, most of them illegal, peaked at 12 million in 2008, then dropped to 11 million. It has held steady ever since, meaning the net migration from Mexico to the United States is effectively zero.
Douglas Massey, a Princeton professor and co-director of the Mexican Migration Project, attributes this change to Mexico's falling birth rate and the lack of economic pressure on young Mexicans to migrate to the United States.
"With net undocumented migration at zero, the border is as under control as it's ever going to be," Prof. Massey argued in an essay in Foreign Policy magazine last year, saying Mr. Trump's plan will effectively spend "billions of dollars more on border enforcement to solve a problem that no longer exists."
Mr. Trump is expected to push forward on another immigration move as soon as Thursday, barring most refugees from entering the United States and suspending all visas from people in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen until the country can put in place tougher vetting for immigrants.
The move will be his attempt to fulfill a campaign promise of a moratorium on Muslims entering the United States, a pledge so controversial that even Republican supporters of his rivals for the party's nomination openly described him as a fascist at campaign rallies.
The action is likely to draw court challenges on the basis of discrimination, but some legal experts say Mr. Trump actually has the authority to do this.
Stephen Yale-Loehr, who has practised immigration law for 30 years and teaches at Cornell University, said the law gives the President broad discretion on whom to allow into the United States. Although the law prevents the government from barring people based on nationality, Prof. Yale-Loehr contends that Mr. Trump's move for a temporary ban would likely be upheld in court.
"In general, any president has broad authority over who to admit to the United States, since immigration touches on national sovereignty and foreign relations," he said. "Also, courts generally defer to whatever a President does on immigration. Thus, while lawsuits may be filed challenging President Trump's executive orders about refugees and other overseas visa applicants, they are likely to fail."
Regardless of the legality, Mr. Trump's moves seek to vastly expand the reach of immigration enforcement – so much so that the government may even lack the resources to carry them out.
Prof. Yale-Loehr pointed in particular to the order Wednesday expanding the number of immigrants who will be targeted for deportation.
"It may bump into the reality that there are not enough personnel to process this," Prof. Yale-Loehr said. "But that is really going to change the landscape – it's a very broad expansion."