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Migration and the US Border Wall: Interview with Sociology Professor Dr Jennifer Elrick

On Friday, January 25, President Trump announced that the United States House of Representatives voted unanimously to end the government shutdown. Trump shut down the US government to pressure Democrats to agree to the border wall along the US-Mexican border. The 35-day partial shutdown is the longest in history, and has resulted in close to 800,000 federal employees being without work or forced to work without pay, some seeking unemployment and food assistance or new employment altogether.

The wall, an integral part of Trump’s presidential campaign, is, according to him, “an issue of ìnational security.” A new policy went into effect on January 25, which would force migrants claiming asylum in the US to be sent back to Mexico until their court date.

Debates around the border wall and immigration policy have intensified over the last few weeks. To gain some insight on this issue, Dr Jennifer Elrick, Assistant Professor of Sociology, who specializes in immigration and political sociology, sat down with the Daily to discuss border walls, immigration, and the current condition of the United States.

The McGill Daily (MD): Can you speak to the functionality of border walls, and whether or not they are effective?

Jennifer Elrick (JE): I think immigration scholars would agree that walls don’t work as a means of keeping people out of a national territory. Their function is largely symbolic – they’re a gesture in politics to a certain constituency; that would be their main value. There are currently parts of the US-Mexico border that do in fact have walls, and have for some time, so there has been some research done as to whether or not they work as deterrents. With these walls and other security measures, the answer is simply no, they are not effective. People find more creative, more dangerous ways of crossing the border anyway. The wall, in this case, is particularly ineffective as people can arrive by plane – the land route is not the main route of entry. Even where the land route is concerned, the wall will not stop people. I would also go so far as to say – and research supports me on this ñ that there’s no way it’s intended to be effective. There’s a very disingenuous aspect to the politics of border walls, and that is that very large swathes of the US economy rely on the existence of a large pool of flexible, undocumented immigrant labour, because those are legally very vulnerable people. They don’t need to be paid a living wage, because who are they going to complain to? They don’t have any rights as workers. So there’s a disingenuousness about calling for a wall, because the people in places of power who are, quite often, tied to interests in industry and economics. They don’t have a real interest in stopping these movements, and if they did have an interest, as I said, the wall wouldnít be effective. So it’s more of a dog whistle than anything else.

MD: What impact can enforced borders and strict immigration policies like this have on a community?

JE: There’s a lot of new research, actually, coming out on the idea of these policies impacting a community as a whole, not just the people who are targeted by them, but their friends and family members. Quite often people who are undocumented have relationships and ties with people who are citizens. Having someone in the household who is, as researchers call them, “under the threat of deportability,” creates a lot of strain, even psychological strain, on an individualís life. In the community as a whole, there’s psychological strain too – there’s a heightened sense of suspicion among these populations. As we saw early on into Trumpís presidency when there were crackdowns in the agricultural sector, there can also be a negative economic effect on communities. As I said, there are many sectors, particularly agricultural and service work, that are dependent on workers whose legal status is uncertain in the United States. As the climate shifts towards an increased threat of deportation, thatís relevant not just for the people who are directly affected psychologically, but also the economic base of the community.

MD: Do you think this especially affects communities that are in close proximity to or right on the border?

JE: Absolutely. They feel the brunt of this. The land may be claimed by the US, but border lands are always mixed territory. Theyíre complicated and have intricate community structures that have thrived in the absence of strict control regimes. I think those are the communities hit hardest. The symbolic politics played out on their grounds actually has the least possible benefits for them. Theyíre usually the case in point for arguing against a closed border.

MD: How do immigration “crises” in North America compare to those elsewhere in the world?

JE: I would push back against that and say, who says we have a crisis? That word “crisis” is very interesting. What we’re seeing play out in the immigration discourse in the US at the moment very much echoes the kind of discourse that’s been ongoing in Europe, especially Western Europe, for the past couple of decades. Starting in the 1990s with the collapse of communism, there was a very strong skepticism that rose in Western Europe regarding multiculturalism. There was talk among scholars about the ëdeath of multiculturalismí from this point, and even more so after 9/11. There’s a very strong anti-immigrant discourse that paints them as a threat to welfare, to security, to culture, and to communities. This is being mirrored currently in the US.  

MD: How do strong anti-immigrant sentiments fit together with ìcultural mosaicî mythologies that are also present in countries like the US?

JE: It makes intuitive sense to me as a sociologist that a lot of the receptiveness to these discourses is based on two things. One is a very low level of knowledge in the public of the immigration system, how it actually works. What is legally possible in terms of admission and deportation processes, I think there’s a huge lack of knowledge there. So for skilled politicians, it’s very easy to manipulate that and to make broad claims. Combined with that, I think we don’t do a great job of historicizing current debates. I think that mythology can sit side by side with the anti-immigrant sentiments because a lot of people who empathize with that relate the country of immigrants’ narrative as completely separate. So it’s then possible for those people to say that immigrants who are coming in today are not the same as the immigrants who built this country. You get the current immigrants characterized as “freeloaders” and getting lots of support, going against the narrative that founders of this country got very little in comparison and “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” to form what we have today. That argument only resonates if you dehistoricize those earlier waves. Immigration control as we know it today didn’t exist back then, and this is true for both Canada and the United States. Near the end of the 19th century. people just were arriving by the boatloads and were being taken in. And that argument, that immigrants got no support, is simply not true. In Canada, for instance, there were many programs well into the 20th century for assisted migration. Many people could come and have everything set up for them. There are people who make wild claims about what benefits immigrants are entitled to and levels of selectivity for those who are being let in. This is evident in campaigns from the recent Quebec election: the promises that people would be deported after a certain amount of time if they didn’t learn French. But deportation was never a provincial jurisdiction – Quebec cannot control that. So I think it’s anachronistic to imagine that current standards are relevant to those earlier waves of immigrants. This is why these statements can co-exist, because we misunderstand legal and other frameworks that structured the earlier migrations that these myths are founded on, and we misunderstand the current situation. So the bottom line here is a lack of knowledge and an unwillingness to dig deep and understand whatís happening. Immigration is an emotional issue, and it’s easy to see how people can get caught in knee-jerk reactions, but I think a lot of the damaging effects of these populist discourses could be muted if people took the claims being made and really read them through. We can’t stop politicians from playing those cards, but I think, as citizens and voters, we can do a lot to inform ourselves and make careful judgements.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.