What’s wrong with a wall?

A coworker wondered why there is such a fuss among some about establishing a wall along the southern border. He asked, why shouldn’t we stop the influx of immigrants that are depleting our resources and taking jobs? Why shouldn’t we stop the flow of drugs coming into the country? Why shouldn’t we limit the movement of violent criminals into our communities?

These are interesting questions, but they assume too much.

The first step in devising a plan to solve a problem is to correctly identify the problem and the likely causes. The person’s position assumes a number of things without attempting to refine the issue at hand or to identify the likely causes. Instead, he assumes that jobs and resources are depleted, and that the cause is immigrants coming through the southern border. He assumes that drug use is a critical problem, and that most drug use is facilitated by movement of drugs or drug precursors through the southern border. He assumes that illegal immigrants through the southern border are the primary cause for violent crime. Some of this is implicit rather than explicit in the questions, in large part due to the vagueness of the assertions. In any case, the assertions in the questions were not supported by any data or analysis.

The bigger assumption is that, even if these problems are genuine issues in need of solution, the wall is the best response for all issues simultaneously.

With further examination, will these suggested problems be validated? What about the proposed solution? We’ll have to look at each position within the questions to assess whether the concern is valid.


First and foremost, how many of our current estimated population of undocumented immigrants are coming across the Southern border? Pew Research estimates a total population of 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants based on 2014 data. This represents a stabilization of the total number from 2009. Of that 11.1 million, 8.65 million are estimated from Latin America, 5.85 million of those being from Mexico. (The 5.85 million from Mexico represents a decline from a peak of 6.9 million Mexican unauthorized immigrants in 2007, according to Pew.) That means that about 78% of the total unauthorized immigrant population is from south of the US. That is a significant percentage. The next level of analysis mist focus on status upon arrival. The Department of Homeland Security estimates approximately 174,393 individuals from countries south of the border entered the US legally and overstayed, representing approximately 2% of the total unauthorized immigrant population. However, the data from DHS is very limited in scope. For example:

The Homeland Security report on overstays was limited to foreigners whose permission to be in the U.S. expired during the 2015 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. It examined admissions for business or pleasure by air or sea, which were 85% of arrivals with visitor permits that expired in fiscal 2015, but not other smaller categories such as visas for students or for temporary workers and their families. It covered only those who arrived by sea or air, not land arrivals from Canada or Mexico, which account for most temporary visitors.

This means that we do not have meaningful metrics to evaluate how many from Central and South America and the Caribbean Islands arrived legally and overstayed as opposed to illegally crossing the border. However, Pew provides that the number of new unauthorized immigrants each year is approximately 350,000. With this number as a frame of reference, the 174,393 overstays during 2015 might represent nearly 50% of all new unauthorized immigrants. Between 2 and 50% is an enormous margin of error. What we can ascertain from this is that not everyone coming from south of the border illegally is crossing on foot. This fact on its own does not provide much insight into how to address the issue.


On the other hand, AZ Central reports that the number of immigrants attempting to cross the border has declined while the number of deportations has risen. This information is supported by Pew data cited earlier in this article. The reasons are manifold, but three factors seem most relevant: an increase in enforcement along the border; the recession in the US; and economic improvement in Mexico. This suggests that a general solution to the numbers of immigrants from nations to our south might be better impacted by economic or trade policies between the US and Central and South America. The increased numbers of migrants coming from south of Mexico are largely leaving situations of economic and security instability. Commitments to work with these nations to address these issues should logically lessen the flow of migrants. Additionally, adjustments to our own immigration and visa policies might allow for more of these migrants to enter legally and contribute to this country’s economic development.

This seems an apropos segue to the issue of immigrants depleting resources and taking jobs. On the latter point, unauthorized immigrants make up about 5% of the workforce, and are primarily concentrated in low-wage, low-skill jobs. Often these are jobs that are undesirable to US workers either because of the physical demands of the work or the associated wages, and most often a combination of the two. In some occupations the unauthorized workers make a reasonable wage for their efforts, but are more desirable to the employers because employers do not have to pay for benefits or account for these workers for tax purposes. There may be some cases where unauthorized immigrants are occupying specialties for which US workers might want to compete, but a wall might be a less effective strategy than strictly enforcing laws that prohibit employers from hiring unauthorized workers. Since one of the principle motivators for migrants to come to the US is economic opportunity, enforcement of these laws should logically curtail a great deal of illegal immigration.

Regarding resources, one is left to assume that the resources in question – apart from jobs – relate to social programs. A recent assertion that undocumented immigrants cost taxpayers in excess of $113 billion annually was deemed “mostly false” by Politifact, primarily on the basis that data underpinning the estimate was not well established and that it failed to account for offsets in terms of taxes paid by undocumented immigrants. In accordance with Public Law illegal immigrants are not eligible for federal assistance programs, but their children born in the US are US citizens under the principle of jus soli, allowing some undocumented immigrant families to draw benefits on their children’s behalf. Undocumented immigrants do pay federal taxes and contribute to social security, and pay state and local taxes either through paychecks or by spending money in the US (since every purchase is taxed). Children of undocumented immigrants are entitled to public education, and since most public school funds are contributed through property taxes every immigrant paying for rent contributes to public school funding. The numbers do not support a welfare system being unduly overburdened by unauthorized immigrant.


On the topic of drugs, Sean Hannity provided numbers in late 2016 that Politifact rated as “true” indicating that a significant portion (75%) of federal drug possession convictions were attributable to illegal immigrants. The same numbers showed significant numbers of other federal convictions for various crimes attributable to unauthorized immigrants as well. It is important to note that this only dealt with federal convictions; inclusion of state and local criminal convictions likely yield different results as percentages, given that the American Immigration Council, citing FBI statistics, asserts that immigrants – legal or otherwise – are less likely to commit violent crimes or be incarcerated than native citizens. It is also significant that the 75% conviction rate cited by Hannity relate to drug possession, though the rate of trafficking was 18%, which is significant. (That still leaves 82% of trafficking convictions attributed to native citizens.) That percentage relates to all illegal immigrants, not exclusively those from south of the border. The drug trade does account for a great deal of violence, though in the case of drugs coming from or through Mexico most of the violence occurs south of the US. Nevertheless, the DEA confirms that the majority of drugs coming into the country are coming through Mexico and that Mexican cartels outpace all other transnational criminal organizations with respect to drugs.

Since the problem of drugs coming in through the Southern border is legitimate, we next need to examine how these drugs enter. As it happens, experts have weighed in on this, and they estimate that the overwhelming majority – upwards of 95% – of the drugs are coming across the water. Waterborne trafficking seems to have replaced airborne trafficking as the preferred method of moving drugs. But drugs still come across the border – usually through tunnels. This seems like a problem that a wall will not influence in the slightest. In any case, one must wonder about the focus being on deterring or blocking access to the US. These cartels would not commit so much energy to getting drugs into the US if there were no market. What can we do in terms of domestic policy to curb the demand for dangerous drugs being supplied by these cartels? Perhaps legalization (and taxation) of some drugs might be appropriate? Maybe a shift in focus to treatment rather than criminalization of addiction? If the concern is over the negative societal impact of drugs, then the solution should be directed toward curbing demand to be effective.


It does not appear that a wall is an appropriate solution to any of the problems we set out to identify and address. But since there are some disagreements about statistics on some of these points, some may still argue its utility, even if the wall is only a partial solution. In that case, we should look at cost. Donald Trump offered estimates varying between 8 and 12 billion dollars for the wall. More recent estimates place the cost at between 15 and 25 billion dollars. These are initial costs, and do not include long term maintenance and repair. Trump has repeatedly claimed that Mexico will pay for the wall, while the Mexican government has made clear that they have no intention of doing so. One method for influencing Mexico to pay was to cut off remittances from undocumented immigrants back to Mexico. The value of remittances (wire transfers) to Mexico from immigrants is estimated at $24 billion, but it is unclear how much of that comes from undocumented immigrants. Trump has more recently suggested a tariff, but this would have the effect of putting the burden of the cost on US consumers. In short, it is extraordinarily unlikely that the cost of a wall will be borne by anyone other than the US – whether its government or its consumers – and there is little data to indicate that the wall will solve any problems within the US.

This all goes back to correct identification of the issues, their causes, and methods for mitigating the root causes. In the case of the wall, we started from the unsupported position that immigrants coming across the Southern border are the principle cause of our nation’s problems, and then assumed that a wall could actually keep them out. Both the problem and the solution lacked supporting data and analysis. A border wall would be an enormous waste of time and money, would not have any meaningful impact on immigration, drugs, or crime, and would send a message to the world that rather than taking a leadership role we were going to create an isolationist, xenophobic state operating on irrational fear.

That’s what’s wrong with the wall.


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