WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/David Maung)

12 Dec 2018 | Commentary

Blowing $5 Billion on a Wall Won’t Do Much to Secure the Border, and Everyone Knows It

In his December 11 meeting with Democratic congressional leaders, President Trump said: “You can’t have very good border security without the wall.”

That’s just not true. Here are five huge reasons why:

  1. Walls are useless in the rural and wilderness areas that make up most of the border.

Trump wants $5 billion to build at least 200 miles of new “wall.” This would almost entirely get built in rural and wilderness areas, because nearly all densely populated zones are already closed off, with high fencing.

In total, roughly one-third of the 1,989-mile border already has some type of barrier. “Pedestrian” fencing—so named because it can keep someone on foot from crossing—already covers 352 miles of the border, while “vehicle” fencing—low-lying posts which can stop cars—blocks another 300 miles. The only densely populated area still lacking fencing is in south Texas, where border-front property is privately held and where the winding, flood-prone Rio Grande river acts as a type of natural barrier. However, Congress has already signed off on building 33 miles of fencing in this area.

In cities, walls can have some impact on migration flows. However, building a wall in sparsely populated areas is pointless.

A barrier can slow down a border-crosser for several minutes. In densely populated areas, these few minutes can make a big difference in terms of preventing migrants from blending in with the local population, disappearing down side streets, or hiding in buildings. As the Republican-majority Senate Appropriations Committee put it in June: “physical impedance and denial of access can be an efficient and effective form of border security in high traffic areas with short vanishing times.”

But in rural areas, where it takes more time for authorities to respond and where there are longer “vanishing times,” this advantage disappears. A wall may slow someone down for the 10-15 minutes it takes to climb over, but those 10-15 minutes barely impact a border crosser’s head start in rural border areas.

A wall makes little difference: its only impact would be the realization of a vanity project for a divisive president.

  1. Undocumented migration is at near half-century lows.

The number of migrants apprehended by Border Patrol in fiscal year 2018 was the fifth-lowest total since 1973.

This number was only as high as it was because 40 percent of those apprehended were children and families, an unprecedented proportion. Poverty, severe insecurity, and corrupt, dysfunctional governments in Central America continue to drive people to flee. Nearly all of the apprehended children and families were seeking out border security personnel in order to petition for asylum.

Take away kids and families, and the number of single adults apprehended at the border was almost certainly the second-lowest total since 1970. Walls don’t deter protection-seeking kids and families, thousands of whom are patiently waiting their turn to ask for asylum right now in Tijuana while hundreds are also waiting for an appointment with U.S. officials in other, often dangerous, Mexican border cities.

  1. Un-walled parts of the border aren’t where the drugs are.

U.S. border authorities seize most illegal drug shipments at the 45 official land border crossings. These land ports of entry are where, in 2018, Customs and Border Protection seized 88 percent of northbound cocaine, 90 percent of heroin, 87 percent of methamphetamine, and 80 percent of fentanyl.

Marijuana was the only drug where the majority of seizures (61 percent) took place in the rural and wilderness areas between ports of entry. However, as more U.S. states have created legal markets for cannabis, marijuana seizures at the border have plummeted dramatically, experiencing a 70 percent decrease since 2013.

  1. U.S. border communities are already safe.

The FBI 2017 Unified Crime Report includes data for 29 cities with populations of at least 50,000 within about 100 miles of the border. Of these 29 cities, only 7 had violent crime rates higher than the U.S. national average. None of these were in Texas, the state that has by far the least fencing along its border. Only two of the 29 cities (Tucson and Santa Ana) had homicide rates over the 2017 national average.

  1. What the president is calling for would be a sad waste of $5 billion.

The Republican-majority House of Representatives’ version of the 2019 Homeland Security bill would give President Trump exactly what he asks for: “$5,000,000,000 for new border technology and the construction of over 200 miles of new barriers to fill critical gaps along our southwest border.”

$5 billion, coincidentally, is the very amount needed to improve infrastructure and technology at the dilapidated ports of entry, according to a 2015 CBP study.

It is also six and a quarter times what it is costing to send the Osiris Rex space probe all the way to an asteroid and back to Earth bearing samples.

Assuming (generously) that $4 billion of the $5 billion for “technology and construction” would go to the “construction” of 200 miles of border wall, you end up with a cost estimate of $20 million per mile of border wall. (The real number will probably approach the $25 million per mile that WOLA derived from an earlier White House estimate.)

See WOLA’s other resources on the border wall and migration:

  • Analysis: a government shutdown over the border wall would be like burning down your own house.
  • A 2017 report from San Diego outlines the limits to using walls to confront migration and drug trafficking challenges.
  • Fact sheet: building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border would be divisive, ineffective, and costly (more fact sheets on migration and border security issues here).