Is Trump’s Border Wall Even Necessary?


At a rally in Iowa this week, President Donald Trump floated the idea of adding solar panels to his Mexican border wall. But is a wall, with or without solar panels, even necessary? Probably not, and here’s why.

The Pew Research Centre reports that approximately 45% of the illegal immigrant population came to the U.S. legally through a border crossing point or an airport. Immigrants are given visas that allow them to reside in the U.S. for a given time. They become an “overstayer” if they continue to stay after that given time. A border wall, however, will not prevent immigrants from overstaying their visas.

If a border wall were to be constructed, it’s likely that most of those immigrants crossing the border illegally will simply resort to using the “overstay” method. Meanwhile, immigrants who can’t get a visa, could still find illegal ways of getting into the U.S. Over the last two decades, the Department of Homeland Security has discovered over 140 tunnels under the Mexico-U.S. border. Ladders and ropes can be used to climb over the wall. Drugs could be transported over the wall by using a drone or even someone with a strong throwing arm.

It’s likely that a wall would prevent some number of illegal border crossings, but certainly not as many as people expect. Furthermore, if there were ever a time when building a wall was unnecessary, it’s now. According to Pew, border apprehensions are at “historic” lows. In 2014, Mexicans made up only half of the total apprehensions at the border, having decreased rapidly from 809,000 in 2007 to 229,000 in 2014.

Immigration expert Douglas Massey attributes this drop to a declining Mexican fertility rate. According to Massey, the fertility rate has dropped rapidly from 7.2 children per woman in 1965, to 2.4 in 2016. Unless it picks up again, the number of illegal border crossings by Mexicans will remain lower than what it has been historically.

Another explanation is the decline of the U.S. economy since the Global Financial Crisis. The majority of illegal immigrants are men who leave their families in order to work in the U.S. for a short period of time. After the GFC’s effects on the economy since 2008, the U.S. has become a less attractive destination for economic migrants. Increased job creation in Mexico as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has also reduced the necessity of travelling to the U.S. for work.

Advocates of Trump’s wall policy might argue that if the disparity between the American and Mexican economy grows, illegal immigration from Mexico to the U.S. might grow. They would be correct, but building a wall along the Mexican border would actually increase the number of illegal immigrants living in the U.S.

After Ronald Reagan increased border security in 1986, the illegal immigrant population has grown. “Although the intent of border enforcement was to discourage migrants from coming to the United States, in practice it backfired, instead discouraging them from returning home to Mexico,” Massey argues. “Having experienced the risks and having paid the costs of gaining entry, undocumented men increasingly hunkered down and stayed in the United States, rather than circulating back to face the gauntlet once more.”

In other words, building a wall wouldn’t decrease the incentive of coming to the U.S., it would decrease the incentive of going back to Mexico. The data from Pew backs up Massey’s theory. Approximately 66% of illegal immigrants “have lived in the U.S.A. for at least a decade.”

The illegal immigrant population in the U.S. stands at 11.3 million, having declined steadily since 2007, according to Pew. This means that net immigration to the U.S. is less than zero. That is, there are more immigrants leaving than there are arriving. Building a wall will just give illegal immigrants an incentive to bring their families to the U.S.A. to “hunker down,” thereby increasing the illegal immigrant population living in the U.S.A. In essence, a wall would marginally decrease the number of illegal border crossings, but would increase the number of illegal immigrants actually living in the U.S.A.

Regardless of the wall’s efficacy, it would be incredibly impractical to build. In a senate hearing on border security, Senator Heidi Heitkamp said that “there has been no one that has come before this body suggesting that we need to build a concrete wall across the border — no one. Not one person, no matter what political persuasion.” There’s a reason for that.

There are huge obstacles along the Mexican border that make wall construction difficult. There are not only canyons, jungles, and rivers, but also American private property standing in Trump’s way. The seizure of people’s private property necessary to construct a concrete fence along the Mexican border would be a legal and moral nightmare.

Representative Henry Cueller from Texas told the Los Angeles Times, “In Texas, we have a long tradition of private property rights. Any time big government starts using eminent domain and taking land — especially the valuable part, access to water — then it becomes a battle cry. Lawsuits will definitely be coming in.”

Texas and other border states have already been through a similar ordeal. The 2007 Secure Fences Act led the Bush Administration to seize privately owned property. The eminent domain lawsuits slowed down construction of the fence significantly. According to border security expert Terence Garrett, there are still over 90 eminent domain cases still tied up in court. Building a concrete wall along the entire Mexican border would be even more of a legal nuisance.

Vox’s Dara Lind and Tara Golshan describe the situation of Mauricio Vidaurri, who owns a ranch close to the river where Trump’s wall would be built. “He has some practical concerns; he relies on the water from the river to grow hay on his ranch,” they explain. “Then there’s sentiment. The wall could cut off his family’s nearly 200-year-old cemetery, where his great-grandfather, grandfather, and father, a World War II veteran, are buried.”

There’s also the issue of tribal lands. Federal law recognizes tribal lands held by Indian tribes as “distinct, independent, political entities,” according to the CATO Institute. The Tohono O’odham Nation, which spans territory on both sides of the border, have already expressed disapproval of Trump’s wall policy. Building a wall would mean cutting the historically significant land in half.

The ecological impacts of the wall are also concerning. The wall could restrict access to water resources, divide communities of animals, and hinder breeding between those animals. “Border infrastructure not only blocks the movement of wildlife, but… destroys the habitats, fragments the habitats and the connectivity that these animals use to move from one place to another,” Arizona Sonora Desert Museum’s Sergio Avila-Villegas told the BBC.

Estimates of the cost of the wall range from $21 to a whopping $70 billion. The most official estimate come from the Department of Homeland Security, with an estimate of $21.6 billion. As the Hillary Clinton campaign rightly pointed out, “that is enough to build 16 Golden Gate Bridges or 1,500 new elementary schools. It is enough to send more than 300,000 veterans to college — or install enough renewable energy to power fiver million homes.”

A border wall isn’t just unnecessary, it’s ineffective and a practically impossible goal. The U.S. is almost $20 trillion in debt, have a crisis in healthcare, a declining middle class, and crumbling nationwide infrastructure. Surely $21 billion could be spent better elsewhere, if spent at all.