Though cheered by millions, Donald Trump’s proposed border wall will be impossibly expensive and ineffective, and should be replaced by true immigration reform.
Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the US-Mexican border incited immediate controversy. Some hailed him as the new Reagan and others condemned him as a racist madman. A recent survey revealed that 92 percent of Americans agree that there is a significant problem with the status quo of immigration policy, 77 percent characterizing the issue as either “very serious” or “somewhat serious.”1 After the proposal, Trump rose exponentially in the polls. He has retained his position of preeminence, currently standing as frontrunner of the Republican Party. Unarguably, immigration reform is necessary. But even if Trump’s proposal is taken seriously for the sake of the argument, it is clear that building a wall is ultimately unviable due to its high fiscal cost and the proven ineffectiveness of physical barriers at keeping immigrants out of America. Rather than merely attempting to tighten the border, America must strive to make truly effective immigration reform.
Magnitude of the Project
In his proposed immigration reform plan, Trump has promised to build a 2,000 mile long wall made of precast concrete slabs 40 to 50 feet high. In an interview with MSNBC, he estimated that it would cost the US $8 billion.2 Such a barrier would not be a mere fence, either. Building a concrete wall was proposed because it would afford far more protection than a mere fence.3 Many Americans believe that this project will prove a relatively simple undertaking. Mr. Trump stated that building such a structure would be “easy.”3
However, upon closer examination, the sheer magnitude of the project becomes clear. According to practicing engineer Ali Rhuzkan, “Trump’s border wall, if built as he has described it, would be one of the largest civil works projects in the history of the country and would face an array of challenges.”3 It is important to recognize that any effective border wall must extend five feet underground to prevent tunneling and must be at least 20 feet above grade to help deter climbing.
Such a momentous project would not cost a mere $8 billion. The Secure Fence Act of 2006 has already caused the US to spend 2.4 billion for fencing across nearly one-third of the border, which spans 670 miles.4 According to the Government Accountability Office, building a mile of fence in the easiest areas, such as near metropolitan centers, costs between $2.8 million and $3.9 million. More difficult building areas, such as in the desert or mountains, could cost upward of $16 million a mile.5 Therefore, the lowest possible cost of 1,000 miles of fence stands at $3 billion. A wall, which by its nature requires more material and upkeep, would cost far more.
Trump has matched the cost of his fence to Israel’s barrier between Israel and Palestine, which came to $7.99 billion. However, Israel’s situation is far different, since 90 percent of their barrier is a six-foot high electronic fence. Building an actual wall would cost at least $25 billion.6 The Brookings Institution estimated that due to this expenditure, the tax increases for each taxpayer would amount to $900.7 One structural engineer made calculations just for the concrete and found that just the concrete would cost $700 million.3 To give an idea of the greatness of its size, at 12 million, six hundred thousand cubic yards, the wall would contain over three times the amount of concrete used to build the Hoover Dam. The department of Homeland Security already spends millions of dollars a year to maintain existing fences and repair breaches. A complete concrete wall surely would cost far more to maintain than a fence.
Hidden costs in the project and complications that would arise from its construction add to its implausibility. For one thing, the hundreds of miles of wall must be cast in concrete facilities custom built in many uninhabited desert areas along the border. Somehow, trucks would have to ship the pre-cast materials through roadless deserts. Additionally, the large number of people working on the project often hours away from civilization, would need food, water, lavatory facilities, medical care, and housing.3
“The Mexicans Will Pay for It.”
When asked how he proposes to support the enormous cost of this endeavor, Trump handily responded, “the Mexicans will pay for it.” His campaign website explains that, currently, illegal Mexican immigrants cost the United States a colossal amount. “The costs for the United States have been extraordinary: U.S. taxpayers have been asked to pick up hundreds of billions in healthcare costs, housing costs, education costs, welfare costs, etc.”8 Trump goes on to explain how free tax credits paid to illegal immigrants quadrupled in 2011 and how the immigrants have taken jobs away from American citizens. Additionally, he reveals, Mexico accumulates billions of dollars on bad trade deals and remittances sent from remittances from illegal immigrants in the United States back to Mexico.8 Trump reasons that since Mexico has cost the United States so many resources, they must pay for the wall. Due to the $50 billion trade deficit, he says, Mexico certainly can afford to help us pay for the wall.
The Cracks in Mr. Trump’s Logic
This line of reasoning has problems for many reasons. For one thing, economic experts explain that there is no proven connection between a trade deficit and Mexico’s ability to fund a wall. Alex Norasteh, immigration expert at Cato Institute, contends that just because Mexico has a trade surplus relative to the United States, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Mexico is able to build a border wall. He quips, “It would be like me threatening my neighbor to build a new fence or else I’ll stop shopping at Walmart.”9 Many assume that the Mexican government is responsible for the trade deficit, when, in actuality, trade deficits arise from trading and investment by private individuals and companies.10 A government that is in such poverty that it cannot pay for roads, healthcare, or education certainly could not pay for a $25 billion dollar wall.11 There is no hidden pile of money in Mexico waiting to be spent on a wall.
Furthermore, it is obvious from a diplomatic perspective that America cannot expect Mexicans to build a wall to keep their own people out of America. Several prominent Mexican officials have expressed their displeasure at the prospect of paying for America’s wall. Mexico’s president, Enrique Pena Nieto, announced, “There is no scenario in which Mexico will pay for Donald Trump’s wall.”12 Other officials have been less polite. Felipe Calderon, Nieto’s predecessor, said the Mexicans will not “pay any single cent for such a stupid wall!” The President before Calderon vowed, “I’m not going to pay for that –– wall.” Mexico’s finance minister denounced the wall, calling it an “idea based in ignorance and has no foundation in the reality of North American integration.”12 In order for the US to coerce Mexico into paying for such a project, it would have to have a great amount of leverage over the country. The US does not have as much leverage over Mexico as Trump says it does. Trump claimed that the US sends Mexico “tens of billions” in aid each year, but the aid has actually averaged less than a quarter of a billion dollars in recent years.13 Clearly, this sum is not enough to convince Mexicans to view funding the wall favorably.
Similarly, Trump’s argument that the cost of hosting millions of illegal immigrants currently is so high that the wall would pay for itself in the long run does not stand. Contrary to Mr. Trump’s contention, large influxes of immigrants do not take American jobs or threaten US national security. The American job system is not simply a fixed pie that must be divided among a growing number of individuals. As the Cato Institute explained, “The labor market is not like a crowded skating rink where each new immigrant knocks out a native worker. Instead, each new immigrant makes the rink a little bigger, allowing more space for all of the skaters.”14 Since natives and immigrants specialize in different jobs, even if they live in the same location, the immigrants normally take jobs where perfect English skills are not required. Immigration serves to change the specific jobs employers need to fill and, with their cheap labor, make businesses such as farming and restaurants competitive.15 of living of American workers by boosting wages and lowering prices.”16 Moreover, studies have shown that highly skilled immigrants cause between 10% and 25% of productivity gains across 219 American cities since 1990.17 These productivity gains help increase American wages overall.
Furthermore, Gihoon Hong, economics professor at Indiana University South Bend, and John McLaren, economics professor at the University of Virginia examined the way immigrants effect a local demand for services. They concluded that immigrants overall boost employment by increasing the availability of various services. These economists argue, “For this reason, immigrants can raise native workers’ real wages, and each immigrant could create more than one job.”15 Finally, Andri Chassamboulli, economics professor at the University of Cyprus, and Geovanni Peri, economics professor at the University of California, find that illegal immigrants specifically, by receiving lower pay than native born workers, generate higher profits for local businesses. They explain, “This in turn pushes firms to create more jobs per unemployed person when there are more immigrants, improving the labor market tightness and reducing unemployment rate of natives.”15 Therefore, considering the net economic benefits caused by immigration, the fear that excessive immigration threatens national security does not stand.
Mexican immigrants do not sap welfare costs, either. The majority of American immigrants pay more into the system than they take out. Undocumented persons pay large taxes, but are not eligible for most government benefits.19 Although uneducated, undocumented aliens in 2005 paid less than they consumed, overall, the net economic effect of these unauthorized workers was positive, since they prevented the Texas economy by shrinking by 2.1%, or $17.7 billion.20 The truth is that American citizens consume far more welfare benefits than immigrants. Medicaid would shrink by 42% if poor Americans consumed this service at the same rate as poor immigrants.14 Overall, therefore, immigration has a net benefit on America.
At the End of the Day, It Won’t Help
Regardless of one’s view of whether building a wall is worth the trouble, the fact remains that it most likely would not truly increase national security. One must only look at Clinton’s failed “Operation Gatekeeper” to understand why higher walls will not necessarily deter illegal immigration. In order to obtain “control” of the San Diego-Tijuana border, Clinton doubled the budget for law enforcement along the border and built miles of new fence and trained hundreds of new agents.
However, these stringent measures did not make a large impact on unauthorized border crossings. Instead, they shifted the crossings away from the suburbs of San Diego and El Paso to the deserts and mountains.21 Individuals who genuinely wish to migrate to a specific country are extremely resourceful and will not allow a wall to stop them. Evidence of this fact can be found during the Cold War, during which some determined people escaped over the Berlin wall via hot air balloon. Tunnels also are the primary means of smuggling drugs into the United States, as was seen with the infamous escape of high-security prisoner, El Chapo.22 This method, as well as smuggling by boats would doubtless increase with the building of a wall. A mere physical border cannot and will not stop illegal immigration.
Building True Reform
Despite the positive effects of immigration, the fact remains that US immigration policy is in need of improvement. US government disregard for immigration laws undermines the rule of law. Without the bedrock of the rule of law, arbitrary rule will arise. The Brookings Institution pointed out that “The United States has already succeeded in tightening the border; what it has failed to do is to conduct effective immigration reform.”22 As mentioned before, increased infrastructure is not sufficient to uphold the rule of law and prevent illegal immigration. Under the Obama administration, existing immigration laws are not properly enforced; therein lies an avenue for true reform. In order to improve the situation, the administration must override and remove current executive policy directives that were aimed at circumventing or ignoring immigration law, grant immigration agencies the ability to enforce and apply the law without workplace interference or political pressure, and limiting the effectiveness of state governments who attempt to circumvent Congress’ immigration laws with their sanctuary policies.23
Another way to improve immigration policy is to make US Citizenship and Immigration Services more effective and efficient. Currently the system for allowing immigrants into the US legally is slow and cumbersome. This slow process only encourages further illegal immigration. In order to promote efficiency, the US must modernize the visa application system. Furthermore, the process for obtaining a visa to work, study, or permanently reside in the United States is paper-based and incredibly inefficient. An effective web-based application process would streamline the process and encourage legal immigration.23
Donald Trump’s wall appears to bring a simple solution to citizens who ultimately feel insecure due to the large influx of illegal immigrants. However, a closer look at his policy reveals that it would, at best, create both a false and expensive sense of security. Exacerbating tensions between Mexico and the United States would not achieve anything but animus and further problems in the future. Mexico will be more likely to work with the United States in the future if the two enjoy positive diplomatic relations. Rather than angering its neighbors with a useless wall, the United States should work to reform its immigration policy. And at the very least, the United States should strive to enforce the policies it already has in place.
- Cheryl Chumley, “92% of Americans: Immigration ‘Problem’ for U.S.,” WND, September 16 2015, http://www.wnd.com/2015/09/92-of-americans-immigration-problem-for-u-s/.
- Glen Kessler, “Trump’s dubious claim that his border wall would cost 8 billion,” Washington Post, Febrary 11 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2016/02/11/trumps-dubious-claim-that-his-border-wall-would-cost-8-billion/.
- Ali F. Rhuzkan, “An Engineer Explains Why Trump’s Wall Is So Implausible,” The National Memo, 3 April 2016, http://www.nationalmemo.com/an-engineer-explains-why-trumps-wall-is-so-implausible/.
- Matthew Boyle, “House Homeland Security Committee Aides Say No Fence For Border, Because It’s Too Expensive,” Breit Bart, 26 January 2015, http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2015/01/26/house-homeland-security-committee-aides-say-no-fence-for-border-because-its-too-expensive/.
- “Secure Border Initiative Fence Construction Costs,” US Government Accountability Office, 29 January 2009, http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d09244r.pdf.
- Kate Drew, “This is What Trump’s Border Wall Could Cost US,” CNBC, 9 February 2015, http://www.cnbc.com/2015/10/09/this-is-what-trumps-border-wall-could-cost-us.html.
- Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall: Mexico and the U.S. presidential campaign,” 15 September 2015, http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/order-from-chaos/posts/2015/09/15-us-mexico-relations-border-fence-felbabbrown.
- “Immigration Reform That Will Make America Great Again,” Trump: Make America Great Again, https://www.donaldjtrump.com/positions/immigration-reform.
- Alex Nowrasteh, “Donald Trump on Immigration: Same Anti-Immigration Ideas, New Salesman,” Cato Institute, 17 August 2015, http://www.cato.org/blog/donald-trumps-position-paper-immigration-same-anti-immigration-ideas-new-salesman
- Amy Sherman, “Donald Trump says of course Mexico can pay for wall – because of the trade deficit,” Politifact Florida, 26 January 2016, http://www.politifact.com/florida/statements/2016/jan/26/donald-trump/donald-trump-says-course-mexico-can-pay-wall-becau/.
- “Mexico,” The World Bank Data, 2016, http://data.worldbank.org/country/mexico.
- Andrew C. McCarthy, “Trump’s Border Wall Plan is Ridiculous on its Face,” National Review, 9 April 2016, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/433877/donald-trump-border-wall-plan-ridiculous-guaranteed-failure.
- Joseph Lawler, “Will Mexico pay for Trump’s promised wall?” Washington Examiner, 15 August 2015, http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/will-mexico-pay-for-trumps-promised-wall/article/2570272.
- Alex Nowrasteh, “Donald Trump’s Immigration Myths,” Cato Institute, 19 August 2015, http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/donald-trumps-immigration-myths.
- Jefferey Sparshott, “Does Immigration Suppress Wages? It’s Not So Simple,” The Wall Street Journal, 1 June 2015, http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2015/06/01/does-immigration-suppress-wages-its-not-so-simple/?mg=id-wsj
- Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney, “Ten Economic Facts About Immigration,” Brookings Institute: The Hamilton Project,” September 2010, http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2010/9/immigration%20greenstone%20looney/09_immigration.pdf.
- Christopher Matthews, “The Economics of Immigration: Who Wins, Who Loses and Why,” Time, 30 January 2013, http://business.time.com/2013/01/30/the-economics-of-immigration-who-wins-who-loses-and-why/
- 18, Giovanni Peri, Kevin Shih, and Chad Sparber, “STEMworkers, H1B Visas and Productivity in US Cities,” IDEAS, https://ideas.repec.org/p/nor/wpaper/2013009.html.
- “Donald Trump on Immigration Reform:Blame Mexico!” The Economist, 18 August 2015, http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2015/08/donald-trump-immigration-reform.
- “Dreams Deferred: The Costs of Ignoring Undocumented Students,” Immigration Policy Center, 18 October 2007, http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/sites/default/files/docs/Access%20to%20Higher%20Ed%209-25%20FINAL.pdf.
- Joseph Nevins, “Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the ‘Illegal Alien’ and the Remaking of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary,” Foreign Affairs, April 2003, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/capsule-review/2003-03-01/operation-gatekeeper-rise-illegal-alien-and-remaking-us-mexico.
- Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Avoiding tunnel vision about El Chapo’s escape,” Brookings Institute, 13 July 2015, http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/order-from-chaos/posts/2015/07/13-el-chapo-escape-felbabbrown.
- David Inserra, “Ten-Step Checklist for Revitalizing America’s Immigration System: How the Administration Can Fulfill Its Responsibilities,” Heritage Foundation, 3 November 2014, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2014/11/ten-step-checklist-for-revitalizing-americas-immigration-system-how-the-administration-can-fulfill-its-responsibilities.
Photo credit: © Dano, https://www.flickr.com/photos/mukluk/435205245