5 Problems With Building a Mexican Border Wall

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Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall along the Mexican border is more than an idle promise. He’s made it a central theme of his campaign, even boasting about how he’d make Mexico pay for the wall. The problem is, the U.S. already tried something like this in the recent past. The Secure Fence Act of 2006 provided for building 700 miles of barriers along the border. It’s been far more expensive and difficult to build than expected. And it has been a moderate success at best; immigrants climb the fence in places, and tunnel under it in others, sometimes destroying part of the fence in the process. Here’s why that fence hasn’t worked as expected, and why spending untold billions more to build a much bigger, longer wall may be financially difficult — and why it might be ineffective even if built.


5. A Wall Will Cost Far More Than the Border Fence

A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle monitors the fence along the Mexican border in the Algodones Dunes. Credit: U.S. Border Patrol

A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle monitors the fence in California’s Algodones Dunes. Credit: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Trump says his wall would cover about 1,000 miles of the 1,989-mile-long Mexican border; he points out “natural barriers” would help secure the rest of the border. He’s estimated the cost at up to $12 billion. When you consider that the U.S. spent $2.4 billion building a much smaller border fence that covers around 650 miles, Trump’s estimate seems totally unrealistic. Analysts point out that fence’s cost is misleading, given that the completed sections have mostly been in urban areas that are easy to access. Construction costs would jump in the more mountainous and more remote spots along the border.

Now, consider that Trump proposes a wall up to 40 feet high, which would dwarf the fence in both scale and cost. One estimate solicited by the Washington Post put the estimated cost of a wall at up to $25 billion. Trump’s website claims that building a wall would be less expensive than the financial impact of illegal immigration.


4. Mexico Can’t Afford and Will Not Pay For the Wall

Protestors march for immigrants rights. © J. Voves

Protestors march for immigrants rights. © J. Voves

Former Mexican President Vicente Fox made it clear what he thought about Trump’s plan to have Mexico pay for a border wall. “I’m not going to pay for that f—ing wall!” Fox told Fusion in February. After that comment, Trump doubled down, saying during a GOP presidential debate that, “I will (make them pay) and the wall just got 10 feet taller, believe me.” Vicente has since apologized for his comment.

But really, why would Mexico pay for the wall? An even better question is, how could Mexico pay for it? This is a poverty-stricken country that already has received billions of dollars in financial aid from the U.S. in recent years. Trump has said he could make the deal to work by reducing the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico, currently almost $50 billion per year. Mexico will not willingly go down that road. Trump has also threatened to try to prevent immigrants living in the U.S. from sending money home to Mexico.


3. Any Border Wall Can Be Breached

An immigrant climbs the border wall near Brownsville, Texas.

An immigrant climbs the border wall near Brownsville, Texas.

In March 2016, law enforcement officers made an unusual discovery: a smuggling tunnel stretching almost a quarter-mile from a restaurant in Mexico into a house in Calexico, Calif. It passed under a 14-foot-tall border fence. Authorities say it’s the first time smugglers had built a private home in the U.S. to conceal a smuggling tunnel. Officers seized some $6 million worth of drugs at the house. The lesson: Even a 40-foot wall Trump advocates could be tunneled under. Authorities have discovered more than 75 similar smuggling tunnels in the past five years, most in California and Arizona. As an advocate for capitalism, Trump should understand that raising the cost of something (i.e. raising illegal drug prices by building a wall to block smuggling) would encourage smuggling entrepreneurs to tunnel under the wall to restore the flow of goods to the marketplace.

Wayne Cornelius, director of the Mexican migration field research program at the University of California at San Diego, told the Washington Post that Trump’s proposal is “ludicrous,” and that “Any physical barrier can be tunneled under or climbed over or gotten around. There will always be gaps, and smugglers and migrants will seek out those gaps and go through.”


2. Maintenance Costs For a Wall Would Be Prohibitive

The U.S. border fence near El Paso.

The U.S. border fence near El Paso.

Let’s assume that President Trump succeeds in getting a 40-foot wall built, spanning 1,000 miles. The troubles may just be beginning. The wall will require maintenance, which usually ends up costing more than expected. Take the existing border fence. The Government Accountability Office estimated a few years ago that the fence would cost about $6.5 billion to maintain over 20 years. That’s about $300 million per year. To put that figure in perspective, the entire annual budget for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency is about $13 billion.


1. Wall Could Have Deadly and Unintended Consequences

U.S. Border Patrol agents rescue a woman and her daughter, both from El Salvador, from the Rio Grande River in Texas. Credit: U.S. Border Patrol/Carl Nagy

U.S. Border Patrol agents rescue a woman and her daughter, both from El Salvador, from the Rio Grande River in Texas. Credit: U.S. Border Patrol/Carl Nagy

Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children crossed the U.S./Mexican border in 2014-2015, most of them fleeing poverty and gang violence in Central America. Everyone from Pope Francis to President Barack Obama declared a humanitarian crisis. But the U.S./Mexican border has long been an inhospitable place to immigrants trying to cross into the U.S. According to the International Business Times, more than 2,700 bodies have been found in Arizona near the Mexican border since the U.S. began building border barriers in 1993. The aforementioned Secure Fence Act, and increased U.S. surveillance along the border, has caused immigrants to trek across more desolate desert and mountain regions to reach the U.S. If a bigger and longer border wall is built, more immigrants will almost certainly attempt these dangerous crossings. Many immigrants will become endangered by the elements and need assistance from U.S. border patrol and law enforcement authorities, eating up manpower and financial resources.

Then, we have the law of unintended consequences, and there are too many variables here that could result in a wall actually making the immigration situation worse. For those who think the border is a dangerous region now, consider this: if a wall is built, drug-smuggling networks will almost certainly sense a business opportunity and jump in to help immigrants cross.  Also, as it becomes more difficult to cross the border, many seasonal workers who cross back and forth across the border might be encouraged to stay in the U.S. — and they’d try to bring their families with them.

While a border wall might sound nice to millions of Americans, other options exist. Increased electronic surveillance of the border would help. So would better enforcement of employment laws designed to weed out illegal immigrants. There’s general agreement the U.S. needs to reform its immigration laws. But a recent Pew Research poll found that 60 percent of registered American voters oppose building a wall. If those voters turn out in numbers in the presidential election, Trump’s dream of building a “big, beautiful wall” won’t become a reality.

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