Jessica M. Kim: Why Trump’s Wall Will Fail

Imperial Metropolis by Jessica M. KimToday we welcome a guest post from Jessica M. Kim, author of Imperial Metropolis: Los Angeles, Mexico, and the Borderlands of American Empire, 1865–1941, published this month by UNC Press.

In this compelling narrative of capitalist development and revolutionary response, Jessica M. Kim reexamines the rise of Los Angeles from a small town to a global city against the backdrop of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, Gilded Age economics, and American empire. It is a far-reaching transnational history, chronicling how Los Angeles boosters transformed the borderlands through urban and imperial capitalism at the end of the nineteenth century and how the Mexican Revolution redefined those same capitalist networks into the twentieth.

Imperial Metropolis is available now in both print and ebook editions.


Why Trump’s Wall Will Fail

Much of the $700 billion in annual trade between the U.S. and Mexico is centered in major borderlands cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego, Laredo, and El Paso.[1] Indeed, even as Trump tweeted threats to close the border in early 2019, investors met in Los Angeles to convene the second annual U.S.-Mexico Real Estate Business Investment Summit which drew together hundreds of executives from Los Angeles, California, and northwestern Mexico.  Their objective was to “deliver a comprehensive analysis regarding the current situation and outlook of the real estate market in Mexico…[and] opportunities in commercial, industrial, tourism and residential real estate in Mexico open for U.S. industry players.”[2]

Los Angeles and other border cities will be the grounds where battles over immigration and trade policy are fought and where Americans are increasingly questioning the inequalities of global capitalism. No wall can stop that.

The meeting of a Mexican and American financial elite in Los Angeles to map out foreign investment in Mexico is nothing new.  As I explore in Imperial Metropolis: Los Angeles, Mexico, and the Borderlands of American Empire, 1865-1941, for well over a century Los Angeles and other borderlands cities have served as the nexus for Mexican and American investors and policymakers intent on facilitating the flow of investment dollars and trade across the U.S.-Mexico border. In fact, the rhetoric of the Los Angeles summit in early 2019 sounds eerily similar to a meeting of Los Angeles investors and Mexico policymakers that took place in 1897. Over a lavish dinner in downtown Los Angeles, they celebrated plans to “study what lines of trade can be profitably carried on between Southern California and Mexico, and to try to stimulate trade as much as possible.”[3]  Nineteenth-century Los Angeles boosters and investors were the leading proponents of cross-border trade and investment while also working to carefully control the flow of labor between the two countries for the benefit of agricultural employers.  They believed that Los Angeles could boom by building a borderlands economy that reached deep into Mexico for development opportunities and exploited Mexican workers north and south of the border.  As a result of their efforts, both in the late nineteenth century and at the dawn of the twentieth, Los Angeles has historically functioned as a node of concentrated wealth and power in a borderlands economy, a phenomenon explored in more depth in the book.

Given this history, it is no surprise that a city such as Los Angeles, with its thriving and globally-connected economy and diverse population, would host a summit in 2019 to increase trade with and investment in Mexico.  Financiers in economic centers like Los Angeles and other borderlands cities know that despite Trump’s inflammatory, nativist, and protectionist calls to close down the border, the economies of the two nations are too deeply entwined to sever, even for a day.  Duncan Wood, director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, told CBS earlier this year, “If you are thinking about a total shutdown of the border, then it’s hundreds of millions of dollars a day—maybe a billion.  It’s an economic impossibility.  Literally, the two economies would grind to a halt.”[4]  Financiers and trade executives in these regions would likely rebel against a prolonged closure of the U.S.-Mexico border because it would cost billions and disrupt the workings of a free market capitalist economy.  Agricultural and industrial employers, from California to Florida, also continually point out their reliance on an immigrant labor force, composed primarily of workers from Mexico and Central America, and complain that in the era of Trump and rumblings of a border wall, they are unable to recruit an adequate labor force.[5]

As you read this, however, urban social movements and grassroots organizing campaigns in cities like Los Angeles are openly challenging both free trade and free market capitalism, as well as xenophobic reactions to the migration crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.  Preemptively resisting an anticipated federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants and the building of a border wall, Angelenos, from the mayor and city councilmembers to university students and union members, are declaring their support for all Los Angeles residents, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or immigration status. Municipal leaders have declared Los Angeles a “sanctuary city” where local officials will protect the undocumented and refuse to enforce federal immigration policies.  Many Angelenos also point to the inherent contradiction of open borders for capital with simultaneous limits on the flow of workers across the border.

This outlook, so different from the transnational relationships imagined by nineteenth-century Los Angeles investors or promoted by trade policies like NAFTA, is the product of the city’s now robust labor movement, its base of progressive nonprofit and immigrants’ rights groups, and the growing power of an immigrant and nonwhite electorate. Together, these communities have spent the better part of three decades organizing to demand that city officials support and protect Los Angeles’s stunningly diverse population and promote more progressive social and economic policies. Los Angeles, they demand, will provide refuge for those most vulnerable to the vagaries of American empire and globalization. As observed by journalist Juan Gonzalez, the revolt in Los Angeles is part of a “new grassroots urban political revolt in America . . . [with] huge swarms of voters rallying behind a crusade against income inequality and roundly rejecting a conservative free-market worldview that has dominated American urban [and foreign] policy for the past fifty years.”[6]

It is too early to know if this urban-based resistance to the violent tightening of borders, appalling xenophobia, and the ever-deepening local and global chasm between the rich and poor will work. One thing is evident, however, to any close observer of Los Angeles. In the twenty-first century the city will continue to be the major crossroads for the United States and Mexico, urban growth and the borderlands, and capitalism, empire, and resistance. Los Angeles and other border cities will be the grounds where battles over immigration and trade policy are fought and where Americans are increasingly questioning the inequalities of global capitalism. No wall can stop that.


[3] “A Mexican Consul.” Los Angeles Times, May 20, 1897, p. 10.
[6] Juan González, Reclaiming Gotham: Bill De Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities (New York: New Press, 2017), 6.


Jessica M. Kim is associate professor of history at California State University, Northridge.  Follow her on Twitter.