The Folly of The Wall

“Build the wall!” “Build the wall!”

That was the familiar refrain which became a staple of then-candidate Donald Trump’s campaign rallies throughout late 2015 and 2016. The chants, a fixture at Trump events across the United States, referred to Trump’s signature pledge to construct a border wall along the nearly 2,000 mile border with Mexico and then make Mexico pay for it. This was part of Trump’s broader plan to crack down on illegal immigration in the United States, which Trump argued was necessary to help “Make America Safe Again”.

After his surprising win in the 2016 election, a wall along the US-Mexico border is looking more and more like a reality. Previously dismissed as a vanity project for a long-shot candidate, the wall is now US policy. Now-President Trump began the process with an executive order on January 25th, 2017, which, among other things, ordered the Department of Homeland Security to “immediately plan, design, and construct a physical wall along the southern border” [1]. Subsequently, on January 26th, Republican Congressional leaders stated they expected a request from the Trump Administration for $12-$15 billion to fund the construction of the border wall. Lastly, on February 24th, the Administration announced that the Department of Homeland Security expected to be awarding contracts by mid-April 2017 for the construction of the wall, with the first bids to be accepted around March 6th. After months of being merely a chant, “the wall” looks like it will soon be a political reality.

Unfortunately for the Trump Administration, as well as for the people of the United States, the border wall will most likely do little to solve the overall problem of illegal immigration in the United States or make America safer. On top of that, the construction of the wall will most likely do a great deal of damage to America’s image abroad, and will almost definitely damage short and long term relations with Mexico, one of the United States’ most important allies and trading partners.

The proposed border wall with Mexico is bad policy for a wide variety of reasons, but here are the 4 largest: First, the wall will not stop illegal immigration to the United States, as it will not address those who overstay their legal visas. Walls can also be gone under, over, or around. Second, the wall is a ludicrous waste of taxpayer money at $12-$15 billion, especially for a President who claims to want to put “America First” and spend on jobs, infrastructure, and healthcare reform. Third, although the wall will play well with Trump’s anti-immigration base and Republican voters in general, it will do a large amount of damage to America’s image abroad, and especially damage relations with a neighbor and important partner. Lastly, building a wall does absolutely nothing to address the broken immigration system in the United States (hereafter referred to “comprehensive immigration reform”, which is what the Trump Administration should be focusing its efforts on if it really wants to curb the issue of undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Admittedly, the idea of constructing a large wall along a land border seems at first to be a good solution to preventing people from crossing said border. How can people get in if there is a giant concrete barrier in the way and an army of Border Patrol agents on the other side? Unfortunately, a concrete wall along the land barrier with Mexico will do little to prevent one of the largest sources of illegal immigration in America: people who enter the United States on legal visas and then overstay their visit. According to a 2006 study from the Pew Research Center, around 40% of unauthorized immigrants in the United States had entered from a legal point of entry (land, sea, or air) and then overstayed their visa or entry authorization (while a it may seem errant to cite a study from 2006, this was the last year that good data on this subject was available)[2][3]. More recent data from 2015 from the Department of Homeland Security suggests that of the over 4 million people who entered by sea or air in fiscal year 2015, around 416,000 (about 1%) were still in the country without authorization (DHS does not have reliable date on tracking land entry).

A wall will do little to solve this issue. While it may deter land crossings along the US-Mexico border, it will do nothing to resolve the issue of people who obtain legal authorization to come to the United States and subsequently overstay their visa and melt into the populace. Theoretically, the federal government could attempt to alleviate this by more stringently tracking/hunting down those who overstay a tourist or business visa, but with the recent announcement of Trumps plan to hire 15,000 Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents already facing scrutiny for practicality and financial reasons, extending the responsibilities of an already stretched DHS seems both unlikely and ill-advised[4].

It also must be noted that a wall will likely do little to prevent people from attempting to smuggle drugs/good across the US-Mexico border. There are already many well document cases of tunnels going under the border—

a well-publicized recent example involved a tunnel that ran from Tijuana, Mexico, into Otay Mesa, California, outside of San Diego. The tunnel was equipped with lights, rails for trolleys, and stairs, and was believed to have been used by the Sinaloa drug cartel to move drugs from Mexico to the US[5]. What will a wall do to prevent people from using these tunnels to enter the US illegally?

The overall costs of the wall are another strong reason to against its construction. As mentioned, Congress has estimated the total cost of the wall to be $12-$15 billion (that’s billion, with a b) dollars. This is ludicrous for a number of reasons, the most glaringly being that it seems incredibly hypocritical for a Republican Congress so purportedly interested in cutting government costs to want to pursue a useless, overpriced, pet project of the President. At a time when most centrist Republicans in Congress are bickering over the best way to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act without kicking millions of newly ensured working class Americans off Medicaid, it would seem prudent to redirect the wall funds into healthcare, or perhaps one of those infrastructure projects that the President has seemed so fond of but so far has offered few specifics on.

The third argument against the wall is perhaps a little more nuanced, and it is that building a giant concrete barrier along the southern border with Mexico and then attempting to force a major US ally, trading partner, and friend to pay for it will irreparably damage not only US relations with Mexico but also hurt the image of America around the world. It also has the dangerous potential to further the rise of far-right populist movements in Europe which were ignited by Brexit, stirred by the election of Trump, and have found new fuel with the apparent impending success of France’s Marine Le Pen and Netherlands’ Geert Wilders. It may be cliché, but the phrase “bridges not walls” rings true in this situation. The construction of a wall in an age where the world is moving towards globalization whether people acknowledge it or not makes the United States look petty, isolationist, and uncooperative.

Mexico is the United States’ third-largest trading partner and one of its most important friends and allies around the world. Trump has repeatedly vowed to make Mexico pay for the wall, which Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has repeatedly stated will not happen. Disagreement over the wall and who would pay for it has already resulted in the cancellation of a state visit from the Mexican President early in Trump’s tenure. Further cross-border bickering has the potential to not only further sour relations between the neighbors, but also possibly, within in the context of Trumps broader calls for a border tax on Mexican imports and even a withdrawal from NAFTA, ignite a trade war. Unfortunately, those who suffer the most in a US-Mexico trade war would be not the Trump-opposing, liberal, elite, fake-news consuming, well off residents of the major metropolitan areas on the coasts, but working class Americans in the heartland (i.e. Trump’s base), who would feel the effects of higher prices and a slowed economy the greatest. Funnily (or sadly, depending on how you look at it), Trumps greatest supporters would be the worst off in a potential trade crisis between the US and Mexico which could be potentially be set off by the construction of the wall.

Lastly, and briefly, the wall does nothing to address needed comprehensive reforms to America’s immigration system. So far in his nascent time in office, Trump has appeared to favor stricter enforcement of existing laws combined with the wall. While this may play well with his base, it will do nothing to resolve the deeper issues in America’s immigration system, the most glaring being what to do with the 11 million unauthorized immigrants already in the country (for a variety of reasons too long to list in this short piece, mass deportations are not a feasible, realistic, or humane strategy). The wall also does nothing to address issues related to the incredible backlog for green card applicants, the issues surround H1-B visas, or the myriad other issues facing the US immigration system.

Cheers of “build the wall!” may have helped Mr. Trump get elected, but the building of that wall will do little to help Mr. Trump maintain relations with an important neighbor, reform America’s broken immigration system, or significantly stem the tide of illegal immigration. Whether or not Mr. Trump has the foresight to realize this remains to be seen.

[1] https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/25/executive-order-border-security-and-immigration-enforcement-improvements

[2] http://www.pewhispanic.org/2006/05/22/modes-of-entry-for-the-unauthorized-migrant-population/,

[3] http://www.politifact.com/florida/statements/2015/jul/29/marco-rubio/rubio-says-40-percent-illegal-immigrants-are-overs/

[4] http://www.npr.org/2017/02/23/516712980/trumps-plan-to-hire-15-000-border-patrol-and-ice-agents-wont-be-easy-to-fulfill

[5] http://www.foxnews.com/world/2016/12/13/mexico-finds-2-border-tunnels-leading-into-us.html

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