The Woe With Walls


Building border walls as a way to protect national economic and security interests is something that has existed throughout history. For example, construction of the Great Wall of China began in the  7th century BC for military defence against Mongol invasions and for the protection of economic development and trade. Hadrian’s Wall, built in 122 AD in north England, was intended to protect the Roman province from what is now Scotland. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, forty countries have built walls and fences at their borders. Spain has erected fences on the Moroccan border. Hungary built a wall on the Hungary-Serbia frontier and is now building more on the Romanian and Croatian border. Israel built partial barriers to separate itself from Palestinian territories. These are just some of the 70 border walls that exist today.

The most recent wall of discussion is the “big, beautiful, powerful” wall that Trump has promised to build on the U.S.-Mexico border since his presidential election campaign. According to the Economist, the 40-foot-tall wall will fortify the existing 650 miles of fencing and cover a total of 1,000 miles. To justify the wall, Trump has  claimed it will halt the flow of migrants into the U.S. from the southern border. Trump has labelled Mexican migrants as drug dealers, criminals and rapists. This  aggressive rhetoric creates an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality, further justifying building a wall as a means of protection from Mexicans.

Building a wall appears to be a simple, concrete response to the growing unease of working and middle class Americans who feel that their place in the economy is being threatened. Identifying immigration as an enemy of American livelihoods and building a wall to solve the problem seems like a practical and easy solution, and has thus gained popular support. Such a simple policy also allows the Trump administration to gain domestic political appeal and to be seen as taking action on migration issues.

However, border walls have seldom achieved their purpose. The logic of constructing a wall and fortifying the existing fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border as a solution to U.S. economic and immigration issues is flawed. This approach fails to identify the actual problems. The economic downturn of many working and middle class Americans, particularly those in declining industries, is a result of globalization and the natural workings of the free market economy. The construction of a border wall gives people a false sense of security, despite the fact that it cannot fully deal with the issue of unauthorized immigration, let alone the underlying issue of globalization. Trump’s claim that the U.S. requires a wall to solve the issue of unauthorized migrants is misleading. For instance, the Pew Research Center has found that around half of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. are not those who have made illegal border crossings, but are those who overstay their visas. Furthermore, the number of Mexicans leaving the U.S. is actually greater than the number of Mexicans entering the U.S. Thus, Trump misrepresents the issue of Mexican migrants and the threat they pose to Americans. Building a wall ignores the realities of a much more complex problem of globalization and changing economies.

Also, walls are not effective barriers against immigration. Ruben Andersson, anthropologist at the London School of Economics and Political Science, explains that if people want to cross a border wall, they will find creative ways to do it. Physical border barriers do not solve the problem of illegal border crossings. He adds that such barriers, “…generate novel and more dramatic entry methods, such as the collective ‘runs’ at the fences witnessed at various borders in recent years.” Furthermore, a taller, stronger wall does not necessarily enhance the impenetrability of the border. Walls do very little to prevent immigrants from being hidden and smuggled across the border in vehicles. To be effective, the wall would still require substantial monitoring and border patrol. Marc Rosenblum, former Deputy Director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, added that walls only work in densely populated areas. This is due to the fact that slowing down an illegal crossing by a few minutes makes a significant difference to border patrol. However, building walls in unpopulated areas of the U.S.-Mexico border makes little difference to immigrants who have already travelled mountains and deserts for several days to cross into the U.S. In these places, walls are trivial and ineffective at preventing illegal crossings.

Moreover, building and maintaining an effective border wall comes at a high cost. Trump claims the wall will cost $10-12 billion. However,  BBC fact checkers have deemed this value to be an underestimation, and have given higher estimates of up to $25 billion. This is because other costs are likely to be incurred. Construction of the wall in remote, rugged terrain significantly increases the costs of building. The wall would also cut across private land, so additional costs would come from filing eminent domain lawsuits against private landowners and making financial settlements of private property. In addition, according to the CNBC, maintenance of the wall is expected to cost up to $750 million annually and operating border patrol is budgeted at $1.4 billion. These figures reflect the significant costs of Trump’s wall, especially since there is great uncertainty regarding who will pay for the cost of building and maintaining the wall. The great costs of the wall and its questionable effectiveness calls for greater reflection and reconsideration of the policy.

There are various measures that could be taken in place of building a border wall that would better address the fear amongst Americans regarding immigration and their place in the economy.

Rather than jumping into the construction of a wall, more research and communication with U.S. citizens whose lives will be affected by the construction of a wall could prove valuable to tackling the issue of illegal immigration. Pamela Taylor, 88, lives in the U.S. border town of Brownsville, Texas. Taylor expressed her desire for increased community engagement with regard to the building of the wall. She added, “I would like for Mr. Trump – I would even feed him – if he will come down here and talk to the people. He is doing exactly what the government did to us in the beginning. He’s not asking how it’s going to affect the people that live here.” This points to the fact that more comprehensive research and community involvement can result in more effective policy responses.

The cost of building the wall may well be spent on other, more beneficial and effective responses to the economic woes and fear of immigration of the American working and middle class. To tackle the issue of unauthorized border crossing, there needs to be more comprehensive and well-researched solutions that can be employed. Historical evidence suggests that the most effective policies used to manage immigration focus on the countries of origin of unauthorized immigrants and create programmes and partnerships. Since trying to stop immigration altogether simply pushes the issue underground, as evidenced by the prevalence of people smuggling, experts have suggested the creation of an immigrant guest-worker programme. This would allow migrants to find work in the U.S., protect U.S. workers and fulfil the needs of employers in the U.S. Also, this addresses the root causes of the immigration problem in a diplomatic, cooperative manner. In response to Americans who fear they will lose their jobs to immigrants, the government could focus more on issues of unemployment and expanding the economy to create more jobs, rather than stopping immigration with a wall and creating separation. After all, addressing the fear of immigration only addresses a symptom and not the real cause of the struggle of working and middle class Americans.

Overall, building a wall is an oversimplified and misguided solution to illegal immigration and to the feeling of economic insecurity. Not only would such a costly construction be deemed as a waste of money and resources, but it also separates people and distracts citizens and politicians from focusing on more important global problems like economic inequality, unemployment and other issues associated with globalization. Instead of building a wall, focus should be redirected to more relevant, cooperative and effective policies that directly improve the lives of all people.