Let’s get it out of the way: There’s no crisis at our Southern border. Illegal immigration is near a 40-year low. The vast majority of drugs enter the country through legal ports of entry. The scary caravans comprise mostly families escaping dangerous lives and poverty for a chance to live and work in the wealthy and supposedly welcoming United States.
President Trump, however, says he’s considering declaring a national emergency at the border. Not only is this absurd—presidents have declared 42 national emergencies since 1976, but nearly all of them restrict trade with adversaries such as Iran and Russia—it’s also an argument against prioritizing a wall. An emergency requires a rapid response. If we decide a wall is the best solution, it will take several years to finally address this “emergency.” Obviously, any competent president would want a more efficient solution to an emergency that threatened his country, such as in this case sealing or militarizing the border. This, however, also raises the concern that Trump might use an emergency declaration not just to build a wall, but to take some truly scary authoritarian steps he isn’t talking about. He’d also have to seize land, which, as addressed below in more detail, is a non-starter, especially for some of the most conservative people in the country.
So yes, this is all a fiction and political theater—including much of the reporting on it—so in a sense I’m sorry to add to it. The wall is nothing more than a metaphor for racist anger and it doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. That said, it’s important to understand this isn’t just politics. Not many people have explained why this is a stupid idea to begin with. But a physical barrier at our southern border—which depending on the material could cost anywhere between ten and thirty billion dollars—is essentially useless.
First, a border barrier corrupts our moral standing in the world. But we don’t only value our moral standing just because we want to be nice. A border wall would reframe the way we see ourselves and the way the world sees us, so there are practical reasons we try to do the right thing: It all comes back to us.
Of course we welcome people looking to make a better life for themselves because it’s part of our core values, but we also benefit from those people. They want jobs (many of which American citizens don’t want to do), they’re entrepreneurs who contribute new ideas, and they’ll spend the money they make here. Undocumented Americans are also less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.
Internationally, as the most powerful nation in the world, we use our moral standing to engender trust and sustain mutually beneficial partnerships with other countries. In other words, as long as others believe they’ll benefit from our systems and ideas, they allow us—the most powerful country in the world—to rig systems in our favor. In the ridiculous debate this long view has become lost to us, in no small part because Trump doesn’t understand or care about the long-term reciprocal implications of any policy. But allies and countries with emerging economies will be less inclined to work with a country stupid, vindictive, and capricious enough to build a barrier between itself and its third-largest trading partner. No American business doing trade with Mexico wants Trump to poison that well. Mexico, obviously, would demur at being immured. I wouldn’t want to work with such a neighbor, either.
This also raises the question of the economic impact domestically. So:
Trump wants $5 billion for his wall. That simply won’t cut it, though it would make for a good campaign photo op, which is all he wants out of it anyway. But a) if we truly wanted an effective barrier—”effective” being relative—the cost is steep; and b) Mexico ain’t gonna cover it, despite Trump’s spurious argument that the recent tweaks to NAFTA—which Congress hasn’t even approved yet—would indirectly cover it. Any profit increases, obviously, would go not to the government but to businesses who trade with Mexico, and whatever extra taxes we’d collect (which thanks to corporate tax breaks won’t be much) wouldn’t be earmarked for a wall.
But now the cost itself. A 2009 Government Accountability Office report detailed the average cost-per-mile of 317 miles of extant pedestrian fencing, in part to project the cost of building a new section of the 2007-mandated 700 miles of fence. According to that report, the first 70 miles cost on average $2.8 million per mile, but in more challenging areas the cost climbed to $5 million. One particularly rugged region demanded about $16 million per mile. And guess what? People cross the border in sections with a low risk of arrest, often because geography makes patrolling those areas difficult. In other words, some of the places where a wall should be most effective—and urgent—are some of the most expensive sections to build.
In the end the GAO projected the cost of the average section would be $6.5 million/mile. Going by this low figure, even if Trump abandoned his phallic fantasy for a simple fence, the final stretch to reach 1,000 miles would require at least $10 billion. Of course, that fencing, as opposed to a wall or “steel slats” can be quite easily cut and climbed. Additionally, the GAO figure addresses construction costs and doesn’t account for the cost of peripherals, such as the high-tech sensors, manpower, and maintenance an effective barrier would require, and which would be substantial.
Speaking of money…
Cash is the best key. Trump likes to exploit the image of an unyielding, incorruptible, all-powerful law enforcement apparatus at our border, but they’re just people, and of course some people are corrupt. A quick Googlin’ turns up a case just from last October, where corrupt Miami police officers were arrested for conspiracy to traffic cocaine and heroin. Here are two recent cases of immigrant trafficking. A wall won’t do anything about corruption—well, except make that cottage industry more lucrative and increase the incentive to accept bribes. The wall also incentivizes other activities, as well.
Trump and his base seem to imagine some absurd caricature of immigrants, like they’re just running across the border in sombreros and ponchos. And yes, many do cross on foot, but Mexico isn’t a backwards place. Cartels have incredible resources. They can, do, and will get past walls.
The wall is actually the outdated technology here. Trump for some reason plays up this “ancient technology” as a good thing, but all walls are vulnerable and eventually all of them fail or fall. Even a wall of “steel slats.” Someone sawed through the prototype, and even if you use stronger steel, there are acetylene torches, etc etc. And tunnels: You can’t make the ground out of steel. You can put up a ladder, or if the barrier is tall, a ladder on the back of a truck. Also, here’s a video from 2010 of two women scaling an 18-foot steel bollard-style fence (steel slats!) in less than 18 seconds.
Trump once said no one could get over the wall with a ladder because they’d have “no way to get down.” He thought on that for a couple seconds and said, “Maybe a rope.”
There’s also the problem of tunneling. In 2010 U.S. Customs and Border Patrol reported that between 2007 to 2010, agents discovered on average more than one tunnel per month. In October of this year, U.S. law enforcement in Arizona found a cross-border tunnel that went from an abandoned Kentucky Fried Chicken on the U.S. side to a bedroom trap door in Sonora, Mexico. A wall would further incentivize tunnel digging, which, if we wanted to stop it, would demand a sprawling, sophisticated, and expensive underground sensor network. Which brings us to…
As mentioned earlier, the vast majority of illegal drugs from south of the border enter the U.S. through legal ports of entry, often in the form of incredibly high-tech cars that obviate detection. A wall would do literally nothing about this.
A wall would also do nothing to stop the many human traffickers who also smuggle immigrants through legal ports of entry. Further, Trump has over the last year mainly hyped a case against asylum-seekers, who primarily—though not necessarily—use legal ports of entry. (The caravan, for instance.) Under U.S. law, people can request asylum in the United States after crossing the border “whether or not at a designated port of arrival,” irrespective of their legal status. Trump tried to override this law in November, but the Supreme Court blocked his executive order.
It will be prohibitively difficult to get the land for the wall. Trump would have to seize private land through eminent domain, which would meet with fierce resistance from a diverse group of people, including Native Americans, libertarians, ranchers, and right-wing constitutionalist wackos who fiercely oppose federal land grabs, such as the Bundy crew.
In fact, Native American tribes and private individuals own more than two-thirds of land along the border. Because much of this is in Texas, the government chose to build about 70 percent of the extant border fence in New Mexico, Arizona, and California, almost all of it on federal land. When the government tried to use eminent domain to seize private property in those states, many people responded with lawsuits. One dragged on for seven years.
Native American tribes can delay and possibly block a wall. In 2007, the Tohono O’ogham Nation (which has land on both sides of the border) consented to vehicle barriers, but the Bush administration promptly desecrated burial grounds, including human remains. Also, we saw what happened when the Obama administration approved oil pipeline construction through the Standing Rock Indian reservation. Those substantial protests, which drew sympathizers from around the country, and eventually got violent, would pale in comparison to what we’d see in a similar situation at the border.
The wall is stupid.