The dusk sky glows purple over the US-Mexico border fence, Baja California, Mexico
Physical barriers are meant to keep people out. That was the rationale behind the Bush Administration’s promise to build over a thousand miles of fencing along the southern US border. The fence would exist today, had its proponents not forgotten a critical fact: water and wildlife – even low-flying birds – would be kept out, too. The Supreme Court overruled the bill, citing violations of domestic environmental legislation. Nearly ten years later, Republican presidential candidates are also suffering from oversight. Like the Bush Administration, they seem to be forgetting the basics of barriers.
Fences and walls are also meant to keep people in.
That was the rationale behind barriers as infamous as the barbed wire around Auschwitz and the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto. It was the rationale behind the stone concoction separating East and West Berlin. The proponent of that particular famous Wall was the communist GDR, alarmed by the sheer number of emigrants. Unlike the GDR, a Republican White House would have little to gain if it emulated the Ming Dynasty and built the Great Wall of Mexico.
Luckily for a future Republican president, the Great Wall of Mexico would be an easy sell. Unlike other policies, the GWM can be monetized and then evaluated on a dollar-by-dollar basis. This kind of thinking seems to be popular amongst an electorate clamoring for lower government spending. Further, if certain figures are accepted as true, the Great Wall of Mexico has the potential to even generate revenue. That’s desirable ‒ and surely not just from the perspective of conservative hardliners, opposing “big government.”
The Association of Mature American Citizens (AMAC) published the following statistic in 2015: the average annual fiscal deficit incurred by the US government was $14,387 per immigrant household. Thus, according to the AMAC, the per capita cost of immigration, if an average household consists of 4 persons, is over $3,500. The lifetime cost of an immigrant (from the time of arrival at the age of 25 until death at 75) comes down to $175,000. Thus, if the United States begins building a wall next year, it would save 85 billion dollars over a 50-year period from “prevented immigration” in a single year alone. Bloomberg has estimated that a wall to “completely seal the border” would cost 28 billion dollars per year, in addition to construction costs. However costly, the Great Wall of Mexico Project could potentially break even. The Great Wall of Mexico, gauged only by the standards outlined above, seems to be a golden nugget in a world of infrastructure projects rife with uncertainty.
Having said that, I do not envy the federal agency charged with proving to Congress that the Great Wall of Mexico is a source of revenue. Forget about the inherent maliciousness in monetizing the livelihood of millions. The figures aren’t easy to estimate. After all, the population in question shares one common characteristic ‒ their migration. Immigrants, as the name implies, move.
The AMAC estimates about the “cost” of immigration inch towards the higher end of the spectrum. Other sources, like the CSI, estimate that the average immigrant household costs $1,040 in total. That brings us down to a per capita cost of $260 – almost a tenth of our previous figure of $3,500 per immigrant. If this is the case, then the Great Wall of Mexico would drain the American taxpayer with its insurmountable cost, indeed undermining the rhetoric that has gotten thousands elected. The Bridge to Nowhere comes to mind.
The wall also has the evident flaw of ignoring the benefits of a constant influx of cheap labor. Only 30% of all foreign-born workers are in management, professional and related occupations according to the Migration Policy Institute. The remaining 70% work in service, construction, natural resource production, and transportation, forming the lifeblood of sectors dependent on cheap, unskilled labor. Hence, ironically, the Great Wall of Mexico could need the labor force it intends to keep out. The most common industry for undocumented immigrants in the border states of Texas, Louisiana and New Mexico is construction, and nationally, 15% of the labor force in construction is made up of immigrants.
The crux of the matter, however, is that the Great Wall of Mexico runs the risk of becoming obsolete. That is because migration trends show a decline – even a reversal, if deportation and migration statistics are combined. The trend has been documented not only by purportedly neutral institutions (notably the Pew Research Center), but also by the US Department of Homeland Security. In 2000, roughly 1.6 million people were apprehended trying to enter the United States. In 2014, the number dropped to less than half a million. The Pew Research Center also estimated that 350,000 crossed the border successfully. Without 4,000 miles of electrified fencing, Border Patrol is catching more than half of all crossers ‒ and committing human rights violations in the process.
Homeland Security figures also show a steady decline in the number of Mexican-born immigrants, and a steady increase in the influx of immigrants from other countries. Of the 480 thousand people caught crossing the border in 2014, only 229 million were Mexican while 250 million came predominantly from Central America. This indicates that in order to be successful, immigration policy, regardless of its political inclination, must become multilateral. Mexico’s role in the phenomenon is changing: Mexico is becoming a transit country, and agreements and policies across the board need to reflect this new reality.
The Great Wall of Mexico, as a policy, ignores the root of what it aims to prevent. Many of the Mexican immigrants over the past decade and a half crossed the border because they were unable to find safety, employment, or both at home. As much as we bemoan the US’s failure to create comprehensive immigration reform, we should also deplore the factors that coerce people into migrating in the first place: a slow economy and drug-related violence. It is worthwhile to point out that US drug consumers provide a massive market for Mexican drug cartels, evidenced by a colossal loss of drug cartel revenue caused by the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, Oregon and Washington. Hence, although the War on Drugs is no longer a “hot topic,” US drug policy is intimately tied to immigration dynamics.
There are additional trends that conventional wisdom seems to be ignoring left and right to the detriment of all involved. Firstly, 86% of apprehended immigrants in 2010 were male – up from 82% in 2005. This decline in female immigrants is no doubt due to a wave of femicide that has assailed Mexico since president Calderon declared war on the cartels. The reality is that this statistic also hurts the “anchor-baby” rhetoric so prevalent in today’s debates: for every eight potential fathers crossing the desert, there are only two mothers.
The proportion itself has significant implications: married men leave their families behind, and unmarried men have a proportionately small pool of Latina partners to choose from. The married men that leave their families behind want to eventually return to them. Indeed, immigration is more temporary than we think. In the late 1990s, the Public Policy Institute of California asserted that most immigrants did not stay permanently in the US. Many returned to Mexico within two years, even when the 1990s were particularly turbulent in Mexico. A porous border does not hurt the Republican aim with respect to immigration. It helps it.
It’s become evident in the 2016 Presidential campaign that at least 20% of registered Republican voters want a president that, in the words of voters, “has the tiger by the tail” ‒ an America-loving “alpha-male.” Like alpha-males, walls are not known for their intellectual sophistication. Walls are not a reflection of strategy, but of its absence. After all, walls are a protective tool as old as time; physical barriers against aggression and psychological tools against fear. This lack of sophistication has the potential to drain an already dry budget. Even worse, it could leave the United States unprepared to grapple with the realities of millions within its borders ‒ some of whom, contrary to popular wisdom, dearly wish to return.
Alejandra Traslosheros is a sophomore at Earlham College, where she is majoring in Economics and Politics.
Image attribution: “Dusk Reflections” by Nathan Gibbs, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0