It’s no secret that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has made it a pillar of his campaign to build a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico with the alleged intention of keeping out Latin American immigrants. I say, “alleged” because it doesn’t take a great deal of thought to realize why such a plan will only spend an immense amount of money before it fails miserably. With weeks to go before the Republican National Convention, Trump’s rhetoric on this idea has considerably died down, just as he has largely abandoned or wavered on so many of the views that made him beloved by his supporters a few months ago. Nonetheless, many of these supporters still view the idea as a viable possibility. It is thus important to take a moment to realize how unrealistic the idea is and how once again, as on so many issues, Trump’s most loyal supporters are being conned by their candidate. Let’s consider the issue briefly.
The U.S. border with Mexico spans 1,989 miles. However, the total border length of the contiguous United States is 17,479 miles. That makes Mexico’s border 11.16% of the total U.S. border. So let’s say Trump’s supporters win and we build a wall. Now we’re down to only 88.84% of the U.S. coastline that illegal immigrants have to choose from. That isn’t much of a reduction. Maybe we can take it one step further, though, and build a wall on the border with Canada as well. Canada’s border is, after all, even longer at 3,145 miles and another 17.99% of the U.S.’s total border length. Now we’re down to 70.85% of the U.S. border standing without walls. At this point, the U.S. is starting to look a lot more like the Soviet Union and we still have a vast majority of the border without walls. What about the cost of all of this? On average, according to White House budget data obtained by the Associated Press in 2011, the United States spent approximately $90 billion from 2000 to 2010 on border security. That’s about $8.18 billion per year for only 29.15% of the total U.S. coastline. The costs of building and maintaining a wall along that same stretch of border would undoubtedly make such a figure pale by comparison. This, however, is hardly the characterization of events that Mr. Trump and his supporters would have us imagining.
The question remains: will we have solved the illegal immigration problem then, or even begun to? It’s doubtful. You see, in the time that these walls have been built, the United States–aside from some unattractive new walls and the higher taxes that paid for them– is still a far more desirable place to live than Mexico or any of our southern neighbors. The incentives on the ground for immigrants have not changed, and where the incentives to immigrate to the U.S. are there, people will do so. In our new scenario, this will mean looking to the 70.85% of borders now left without walls: the coastlines. Immigrants will be led to start smuggling themselves over in cargo ships instead of in the back of eighteen-wheelers and on rafts as Cuban refugees do rather than crossing into Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona on foot. The new hotspots will be Florida, California, the Gulf Coast, and the eastern seaboard. The problem will become dispersed across more States, all while the much-heralded walls likely still permit land immigration, albeit at perhaps a slightly reduced rate.
Well now, by Trump logic, something really must be done. The government would have to build even more walls all up and down America’s coastline. We’ll need new revenue not only to build these installations but to pay for the guards, patrols, and armaments needed to defend them. Maybe, rather than Mexico, we’ll make our neighbors across the Atlantic and Pacific pay for these or, more likely, we’re looking at higher taxes again. I’m going to guess the second. How much? If we take the cost-per-mile of border protection as constant (meaning that we will likely underestimate the cost), then based on the 2000-2010 costs, we are looking at about $28 billion per year. That includes only an increase in the quantity of border protection, not any improvements upon the existing quality thereof.
In the end, we’ll connect the walls on the Mexican and Canadian borders, wave goodbye to our beaches and beautiful shorelines, and say hello to Fort United States. Meanwhile, we’ll be eagerly reassuring ourselves that the new walls are only for keeping undesirables out and not keeping Americans herded inside, all while a handful of politicians– the same ones who have already advocated charging exorbitant fines and fees for renouncing U.S. citizenship– are wringing their hands, devising ways to use these new fortifications to regulate Americans’ own travel. Soon enough, the immigrants whom the walls were built to exclude fall further down the public’s list of worries, and the national debate commences over “concerns” that will no doubt emerge among politicians as to who we should let out as much as who we should let in. But what’s done is done. Long-vilified by those building the walls, immigrants will have been decried as a threat for a generation, and politicians will continue to use them as a scapegoat for ever greater government controls.
The resulting picture is bleak. Some will say that it is unimaginable, unrealistic. I invite them to look to the gradual manner by which government controls are usually instituted and the unintended consequences that they produce. The Soviet Union was not closed in a day. China was not closed in a day. Restrictions are gradual, but their consequences are real.
We have the choice before us of pursuing either the full enclosure of the United States and the beginning of our decline, the partial enclosure of the United States and merely a wasted boondoggle at taxpayers’ expense, or– alternatively– real and rational immigration reform that can make the system work better for both immigrants and American citizens. Republicans have surrendered the opportunity to achieve positive reforms while they have had the majority, arbitrarily assuming that “reforms” meant “abandoning border protection.” Nothing could be more baseless. With Donald Trump’s candidacy staggering towards the finish line and the risk that he might cause Republicans to lose the Senate, Democrats may well take one house in November. If so, the opportunity for effective reforms will have been wasted on stubbornness and ignorance.
It’s time to acknowledge that real immigration reforms are possible without wasting money and political capital on nonsensical ideas about giant walls or going to Democrats’ irrational extremes by granting automatic citizenship to everyone who crosses the border. First, though, the right has to clean its own house. It has to get over the idea of Fort United States.