Regardless of whether you want fewer immigrants in the United States, more newcomers, or prefer immigrant numbers to remain the same, there is no good argument for a wall on the border with Mexico. It will be a gravy train for Trump’s construction cronies, but a huge expense for taxpayers. Worse, it addresses a supposed problem that doesn’t exist. And, if anything, over time it would increase the number of undocumented people living in the United States, not lower it. This waste of public money should concern conservatives as much as progressives.
Yesterday, Donald Trump ordered construction of a wall on the southern border, acting on a central campaign promise which he claimed would take aim at illegal immigration into the United States. The problem? Net migration from Mexico has been negative or close to zero for years. The Pew Research Center estimates that 140,000 more Mexicans left the United States for Mexico than entered the country from 2009 to 2014. (See here.) There are no tidal waves of economically desperate Mexicans flowing into the country, despite ongoing fears of drug wars, corruption and economic inequality in Mexico.
This means a multibillion-dollar wall is like building a bridge to nowhere: a nice pay-out to construction companies, but useless in practice. As a candidate, Donald Trump claimed a U.S.-Mexico wall would cost $8 billion. Senate leader Mitch McConnell has put the price tag at between $12 billion and $15 billion. Others provide even higher estimates, up to $25 billion of taxpayer money, based on the cost of completed barriers on the border. (See here.)
Depending on your political views, you may want that money to go to education and healthcare, or directed to veterans’ benefits, or back in the wallets of taxpayers. But certainly everyone can agree that it makes no sense to spend that sort of money for a problem that doesn’t exist.
Even more troubling, especially for those who consider unauthorized migration to be a problem, there is good social science evidence that building walls on the southern border actually increases the number of undocumented residents living in the United States. (For the academic analyses, see research by political scientist Wayne Cornelius here or sociologist Doug Massey here.)
Since that seems pretty counter-intuitive at first glance, it is worth spelling out why.
First, if walls keep people out, they also keep people in. There is a long history of migration between Mexico and the United States, migration that the United States encouraged during World War II and the two decades following since Mexican workers filled labor shortages in agriculture, on railways and in construction. Some of this migration was “circular”: people would work in the California or Arizona for a while, and then return to Mexico. Make that return trip more difficult — with a wall, with a greater chance of dying in a desert or in the mountains, with a higher price to pay to smugglers — and people will chose to stay on “this” side of the fence. As the time they are away from their families grows longer, those family members — wives and children, siblings and parents — will take the risk of going north to live as a family again.
Second, walls rarely keep determined people out. Border control agents will tell you that if a wall is 20 feet high, people will sell ladders that are 21 feet long. Tunnels can be dug under walls. In places where walls are impossible — over rivers or in rugged mountain terrain — humans can go around walls. The cost, however, is high, in both payment to the smugglers who control the tunnels or in the cost of lives lost to hypothermia or heat exhaustion. An overview by the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute (see here) reports that while the Tucson, Arizona, morgue recorded an average of 18 migration-related deaths per year in the 1990s, the numbers climbed to almost 200 per year in the 2000s, after walls went up in the San Diego-Tijuana corridor.
Walls mean death. That is an agenda no one should support.