On June 16, 2015 Donald Trump announced his campaign for the presidency and first mentions his idea to build a southern border wall stating, “I will build a great wall ? and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me ?and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.” For good measure, he boasted, “And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.” My question is, will the building of a southern border wall protect the United States or is it a campaign promise that will waste billions of dollars of resources.
Historically, walls have a very mixed record in achieving their goals to keep people out. Walls cannot stop modern military because planes and missiles go over them, tanks can smash right through them and bombs can bring them down altogether. Additionally, walls are not necessary to mark the territorial extent of the country because they are expensive and maps, boundary stones, and GPS data can serve this purpose (Di Cintio,2013). But what about their use as a way to keep out unauthorized immigrants?
In recent years this thought has advanced as a popular solution, although the evidence is mixed on whether walls are effective at preventing large movements of people across borders. Of course, walls short in length and heavily guarded with troops or law enforcement officers are very effective at stopping movement. Take for example, in the 1990s on the United States/Mexico border when the first sections of fencing were built in El Paso and San Diego, manned by large deployments of Border Patrol agents. In the weeks that followed, crossings in those areas dropped significantly.
However, the walls did not completely prevent crossings into the United States entirely, but instead shifted flows to other locations that were more remote or less guarded. This example showed us two things, first, on longer borders, it is extremely difficult to fence the entire length and adequately guard it. Building fencing or a wall also entails acquiring the necessary land (much of the nearly 2,000 mile-border is owned by private citizens and businesses), building and maintaining roads, and supplying the necessary manpower to guard the barrier. A second reason that walls are not effective is that many unauthorized movements, particularly those of terrorists or smugglers, do not happen between crossing points. The bulk of unauthorized immigrants in the United States entered with a valid visa and simply overstayed the terms of their visa.
Additionally, many smuggled goods (people included) come through ports of entry or through tunnels built under the walls (Dear, 2013) What will this wall cost? Well that depends on who you believe. The Department of Homeland Security reportedly estimated a wall would cost about $21.6 billion, not including maintenance, while Senate Democrats released a report estimating that it would cost about $70 billion to build, and $150 million a year to maintain. These amounts do not include the cost to acquire the land and the legal battles that will ensue. The Department of Justice reportedly requested $1.8 million for 2018 (one year), enough to staff 20 positions, to meet demands during the construction along the border. So the citizens of the United States (Mexico is not paying for this wall) will have to shell out billions of dollars for a border wall.
If walls only work to divert, not prevent, illegal immigrant flow, why spend billions to erect one? The truth is that walls are only effective as symbols that demonstrate that politicians are doing something to address the perceived threats of illegal immigration. While the underlying issues are very rarely solved by border security, “build a wall” has become a catchphrase and the barrier itself is only a visual symbol of action. Consequently, despite the expense and questionable effectiveness, we will be wasting billions in resources could be use for something like criminal justice reform or infrastructure repair.