Ever since Donald Trump announced his presidential run in 2015, he has promised his supporters a “big, beautiful wall” stretching the border of the United States and Mexico, as a means to stop illegal immigrants from entering the country. He has recently called on the government to initially fund the wall, insisting that Mexico will pay “one way or another,” even threatening to shut down the federal government should funding for it not reach the budget bill underway.
It would be easy to wax historical and point to any number of examples such as the Sumerian’s Amorite Wall, The Great Wall of China, and the even Berlin Wall to demonstrate walls don’t work very well when it comes to keeping people out or in. In the case of Trump’s wall, numerous experts have spoken out against the cost and effectiveness of a wall along our southern border with Mexico.
Trump has stated before that a wall would only cost roughly $10 billion. That figure however would only barely account for mere fencing of the entire border. A steel and concrete wall stretching the entire 2000 miles, would cost approximately $40-70 billion. And that only accounts for the construction costs of such a project. How much would maintenance and staffing for the wall cost?
As of 2016, the budget of Customs & Border Protection was over $13 billion, and the number of border and interior enforcement officials at over 49,000. The budget of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2016 was over $6 billion. The Department of Homeland Security requested for the budget that those numbers increase respectively to $16 billion and $7 billion. Those numbers do not even account for a potential border wall project.
It’s likely that border protection personnel would balloon due to the necessity of staffing the wall in order to prevent immigrants from climbing over, and it would be equally necessary for the wall to have deep foundations, not only for stability but to discourage tunneling. Even if all those needs were met, the salaries of the border patrol would have to be enough to discourage smugglers from bribing officials, becoming yet another additional cost.
Geographic difficulties of building the wall are also a serious issue. In several areas along the border it would be difficult to construct or even reach construction. There are more than a few mountains and valleys that span the more western area of the border, along the Sonoran Desert and near San Diego.
Many engineers have discussed the implausibility of such a construction. In an Op Ed piece for National Memo, engineer Ali F. Rhuzkan wrote about the difference in scale and familiarity between building a skyscraper and building a border wall:
Though I would never classify the construction of a 95-story building as simple, it is a feat that has been achieved many times before. There are at least 30 buildings that have reached a height of 95 stories or more, according to the obsessively detailed database at SkyscraperPage.com, and there are even more in the design phase or under construction.
On the other hand, human beings have built a 2,000-mile-long frontier wall exactly one time. Once. And it was accomplished only through a centuries-long building campaign that necessitated the forced labor of millions of Chinese peasants.
The challenge of Trump’s border wall is not technical, but logistical. The leap in complexity between “building a wall” and “building a 2,000-mile-long continuous border wall in the desert” is about equal to the gap between “killing a guy” and “waging a protracted land war.” 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 not found when constructing 95-story skyscrapers.
This all compounds with the fact that most illegal immigrants do not actually enter the country through physical border crossing. They instead attain legal entry through a temporary visa, and then outstay the length of time allotted. We must instead ask how that can be prevented.
The simplest way to prevent illegal immigration is to remove the reason for coming. Immigrants enter the United States in order to find bountiful employment, either to live a better life than in their home country, support their families there, or both. There are proposals that we mandate the E-Verify system as outlined in Rep. Lamar Smith’s (R-Texas) H.R. 3711, which would check that all employees in the United States are legally capable of working here. While this would likely increase “under the table” employment of illegal immigrants, the major positive would be that it completely deters companies from hiring illegal workers.
It would take time for the economies of our nation and of these immigrants to adjust to the labor shock, but we would recover. The argument of many is that these workers do the jobs that “Americans can’t,” the problem however, is that employers are not paying their employees living wage for their labor. Farms that utilize migrant workers pay them pittance for long, grueling hours in the sun in order to keep costs down. Their razor thin profit margins are in turn due to nationwide distributors and producers looking for crops at the lowest possible price; if a farm were to raise prices by just a tiny bit in order to pay workers more, they would lose their contracts with the Kellogg’s, the Kraft-Heinz’s, the Nestle’s, of America. It’s a cruel cycle in which the workers and small business owners of America are punished by the corporate elite.
This approach would also require us to reexamine the disastrous effects of neocolonial policies and trade deals such as NAFTA, which have devastated the local economies of Central and Southern America. We cannot merely stop illegal immigrants from entering the country, we need to help make their home countries a better place to live.
It will be incredibly difficult; lobbyists in congress will fight tooth and nail to maintain their ill-gained profit margins, but Trump’s alternative in the wall is akin to putting a bandage on an amputated arm. Unfortunately for Trump, his boisterous promises during campaign season over a wall may force him to demand a wall, no matter the cost to Americans.