Why you should care
Because Trump is running out of options to keep his biggest campaign promise.
We all know the sound bite by now. Donald J. Trump is going to build a “big, beautiful wall on our southern border” to help crack down on illegal migration and drug trafficking. The best bit? “Mexico is going to pay for it.” Trump’s big, beautiful campaign pledge, however, has hit some snags since he took up residence in the White House, including the fact that the Mexican government says it will not pay for it “under any circumstances.”
But even if the U.S. government were to somehow elicit the funds from Mexico through NAFTA negotiations or even a remittances tax, there are still several other major, ahem, barriers to such a wall. Not least among them: Leaders of the Tohono O’odham Nation, a Native American reservation split in two by the U.S.-Mexico border, refuse “over [their] dead bodies” to support any such project on their land, and pressing ahead without their consent would require a special act of Congress. Cue the mother of all Standing Rock–style protests. Leaving a 62-mile gap in the wall in southern Arizona isn’t really feasible (existing border fences on either side of the tribal lands have only served to funnel illegal migration and drug crime through the Tohono O’odham Nation’s territory). Which leaves very few options for President Trump, unless …
Surely losing Tucson is a price worth paying for border security?
Here’s my solution that could not only help ensure the wall gets built but also provides an attractive incentive for Mexico to fund it. In short, the U.S. returns an area of almost 30,000 square miles, mostly in southern Arizona plus a little piece of southwestern New Mexico, to their southern neighbor. It’s a chunk of land that was bought from Mexico in 1853 known as the Gadsden Purchase, or Venta de la Mesilla in Spanish, in what was the last major acquisition of territory in the contiguous United States. “For the most part, it’s pretty remote and desolate land,” says Oscar Martinez, a professor of history at the University of Arizona, though in the 19th century it featured agricultural land, ranching land and a few silver and copper mines of some value.
The key economic interest back then was finding flat-enough land for the construction of the Southern Pacific Railroad, which became America’s second transcontinental railroad. Today, in addition to the Tohono O’odham Nation and miles of treacherous desert spotted with saguaro cactuses, one of the notable losses for the U.S. should the land be returned would be the city of Tucson. But surely losing Tucson is a price worth paying for border security? The price of the deal in 1853 was $10 million, which, as a proportion of U.S. gross domestic product, is now equivalent to over $56 billion, roughly two years of the economic output of Tucson, or two and a half times the cost of the wall, as estimated by PolitiFact.
The idea doesn’t come from nowhere. Two months before the 2016 presidential election, center-left Mexican senator Armando Ríos Piter, who has announced a run for the presidency in 2018, proposed that his country should tear up the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo should Trump be elected. That was the treaty that ended the Mexican-American War by granting California, Nevada, Utah, parts of Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, and Arizona, minus the area of the later Gadsden Purchase, to the U.S. “Mexico lost half of its land as a result of that war,” Martinez says, “the most valuable part of Mexico was stolen by the United States, and that had a huge impact on Mexico.” Piter’s plan to regain control of the whole lot may be a nonstarter, but returning the Gadsden Purchase could serve as a demonstration of goodwill and perhaps the only way forward on Trump’s wall.
Even so, the compromise might not be palatable to all, including residents of Tucson and even the Tohono O’odham people, representatives of whom were unavailable to respond to OZY’s requests for comment. “They don’t want to be part of Mexico!” says Martinez, who argues that it’s not realistic to think the borders will ever be redrawn.
“I love you, Tucson!” Trump shouted to a roaring crowd three days before the Arizona Republican primary in March 2016 (which he won). Well, with few other options remaining for him to keep his campaign promise in full, maybe he’ll soon have to decide which one he loves more — the city of Tucson or a big, beautiful, contiguous wall, paid for by Mexico.
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