Why Trump's 'New American Moment' Isn't Right for Many Latinos

As a third-generation Tejano originally from the U.S.-Mexico border, Donald Trump's "new American moment" isn't right for me

President Donald J. Trump applauds during his State of the Union speech before members of Congress in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol on January 30, 2018 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Bill Clark/CQ/Getty

Despite calling for bipartisanship and national unity during his first State of the Union address on Tuesday (that is after almost an hour of self-congratulating), Trump still brought up his most divisive, discriminatory policy yet: His “four pillars” for immigration reform. Along with ending both the family reunification and lottery visa programs, the reality TV star president is seeking $25 billion in border wall funding in exchange for developing a pathway to citizenship for roughly 1.8 million undocumented immigrants. Apparently that will keep America safe from raging gun violence. Even though there is no credible data to prove Trump and other American nativist's claims that immigrants are responsible for an outsized share of crime.

It's clear that the Trump administration is hell-bent on fulfilling his controversial campaign promise of building a "great wall" along the U.S.-Mexico border at all costs, irrespective of the number of brown lives potentially affected by such an overarching deal that seemingly tries benefiting Dreamers (at least on Republican terms). In fact, White House officials reportedly referred to the proposal, which was crafted by Trump's ultra-conservative senior advisor Stephen Miller, as "extremely generous" when it was first unveiled last Thursday.

But "generous" how? And to whom exactly? While much of the discourse surrounding immigration lately has centered on renewing protections associated with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and shielding hundreds of thousands of Dreamers from deportation (and rightfully so), the border wall has loomed largely in the background with less attention, even though, it, too, impacts thousands of lives; granted not on the same level as physical removals and family separation. And because of that harsh reality, the border issue is handled differently, as though with less importance. The proof is in its constant appraisal.

The problem is that Trump and his Republican cohorts have masterfully tied Dreamer relief (and other significant measures) to the wall, further complicating how Democrats decide to approach these topics moving forward. It's the Sophie's Choice of 2018: Help young undocumented folks who only know life in America or destroy hundreds of miles of land on U.S. soil to create a wall that will serve as a deterrent to dark-skinned people seeking refuge and opportunity? It's become a matter of political maneuvering for Democrats, who, are actively prioritizing Dreamers over everything else immigration-related (as they should). But that doesn't mean neglecting the border altogether, nor does it mean immediately reaching for the American people's checkbook for the sake of compromising, particularly at the expense of a culturally-rich region that boasts millions of tax-paying residents and hundreds of plant and animal species that now face eradication should the wall proceed.

While negotiating the terms for ending this month's government shutdown, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), by his own admission, "reluctantly put the border wall on the table for discussion" in exchange for DACA. It was only after the government reopened (which Schumer voted affirmatively for, along with 32 other Democrats and all but three Republicans) that the New York native rescinded the original wall offer. Regardless of the eventual flip-flopping, countless Democratic supporters, namely Latinos, responded to the vote by accusing their party of caving to Republicans, most of whom are intrigued by the wall's purpose of keeping "bad hombres" (and this alleged cavalcade of MS-13 members) away from supposedly terrified citizens. Their thunderous applause in the House chamber Tuesday is clear evidence of such thinking. I see you with that standing ovation, Ted Cruz. 

But that has come with a price. For instance, in Eagle Pass, where I'm from, my Texas border town's Fourth of July celebrations take place at a park near the international bridge that has a 14-foot-tall barrier (the physical version of Trump's "pillars," if you will) stretching for miles to our left and the Rio Grande calmly flowing to our right. My fellow Eagle Passians are now constantly caught between two symbols that each carry such distinct meaning to this predominately Mexican-American community. Because just imagine having to walk past towering black metal posts designed to keep brown immigrants out while commemorating American independence and the beauty of our nation’s democracy. All the while, a few hundred yards away is the perfect representation of our heritage and cultural origins, which alone, paint a certain picture of who we are to the rest of the country. And I’m sorry, but that picture is far from scary or dangerous.

Sen. Schumer's team did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the initial promise to Trump or his current thoughts on border wall funding. "Current" is an important modifier, because Schumer was part of the bipartisan group of lawmakers who voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which allowed the Department of Homeland Security to provide “at least two layers of reinforced fencing” along our southern border. That list also included then Democratic Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). More than a decade later, Feinstein and her colleague Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) were among the 15 Democrats to vote against reopening the government, saying they were dissatisfied with proposed DACA protections outlined in the stopgap spending bill. Neither of their offices, though, responded to a request for comment specifically on their positioning regarding border wall funding in light of this month’s shutdown. Requests for comment from five other U.S. senators representing border states, including border wall fans Sen. Cruz and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), went unanswered.

I genuinely feel like Republicans and Democrats, to an extent, have mythologized border life (despite probably never visiting), to the point where we're now debating the merits of its organic, natural existence to appease Trump's mostly-white backers. Plus, legislators will always concern themselves with a topic that could likely damage their political reputations. Because, let's be frank, who wants to be on the record these days as saying they could care less about the future of Dreamers? Coming out in support of border wall funding, in whatever capacity, though, just doesn't hold the same weight.

New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall, who assumed office after the Secure Fence Act was signed, told Rolling Stone in a statement: "I am furious that President Trump is holding the future of Dreamers, and our nation, hostage over a xenophobic vision for immigration that is motivated by hate. New Mexicans at the border know what they need better than President Trump: They don't want a wildly expensive, ineffective, and offensive wall along the entire Southern border."

For a vast majority of us who actually hail from the border, those characterizations are incredibly apt. Because the truth of the matter is, the border, along with the wall, itself, signifies something different for three groups of people, and that was made quite evident this month when it was essentially deemed an afterthought by politicians preoccupied by Trump's other schismatic demands. For Republicans, the wall is a tangible product that will calm a xenophobic base worried about drug dealers, rapists, and murderers; for some Democrats, the border translates to Latinos, and Latinos typically mean votes and majority support, especially when compared to the alternative; and for longtime residents, like myself, the border is simply home where thousands of miles away from the rancor of D.C., we enjoy the unique blend of both American and Mexican cultures as proud U.S. citizens.

Of course there's always a give-and-take when negotiating legislation – especially when it comes to saving vulnerable undocumented people in desperate need of our help – but our representatives should see that the border is also a living, breathing entity. One that requires political recompense, not a bigoted fence.