The futility of a Mexico-United States wall

The futility of a Mexico-United States wall

Filiz Garip
Building a wall to control immigration from Mexico is hardly a new idea. 

A wall has an obvious appeal. It represents a concrete and visible effort to keep immigrants out; it carries great symbolic power. But would it really keep immigrants from illegally entering the United States?

From 1965 to 2010, the United States spent over $40 billion (adjusted to 2010 values) to securing the border. These funds supported not just the fence and technology to prevent clandestine crossing, but also the number of officers patrolling the border.

Spending on the border first spiked after the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) – major legislation that increased border enforcement and imposed sanctions on employers hiring undocumented workers, and also opened the path to legalization for 2.3 million Mexicans already in the United States.

At first, the investment seemed to work. The number of undocumented migrants caught along the Mexico-U.S. border dipped after IRCA, from 1.6 million in 1986 to less than 900,000 in 1989. But this drop had more to do with legalization than to enforcement. Indeed, by 1993, the number of apprehensions on the border had climbed back to 1.2 million. From 1990 to 2010, the number of undocumented migrants from Mexico tripled, even though the amount spent on border control in the United States increased by more than tenfold during this same period.

Today, the tide has turned again. Since the end of the Great Recession, more Mexican immigrants have left the United States than have come here, according to the Pew Research Center’s analysisof government data from both countries.

It is difficult for the United States to develop an effective policy when the factors producing immigration are largely transnational or global, that is, beyond the control of any single nation. It is also hard for the country to settle on an immigration policy when there are interest groups with divergent views, such as employers or human rights groups, who favor migration, and workers who oppose it. These challenges often lead to policies that are not only mostly symbolic, but also carry unintended consequences. Building a wall is one such policy.

One might argue that previous border enforcement efforts haven’t been successful because they weren’t big enough. But historical evidence suggests that increasing enforcement is not always an effective deterrent of undocumented migration; it can introduce new threats to the border (more deaths for migrants and more involvement by criminal organizations), and can keep migrants in rather than out.

Improvements in enforcement do not come easy. Let’s take the “virtual fence” project. In 2006, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) started investing in a suite of cameras and radars to enhance surveillance along the border. In 2011, then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano canceled the project, stating that it “does not meet current standards for viability and cost effectiveness,” – after $1 billion had already been spent.

Before we make the leap to spending billions (about $8 billion according to Trump but as much as $25 billion according to some estimates) on building a wall, we need to know: What is the policy trying to achieve? How will we know if it is effective? And under what circumstances will we abandon the effort? The president’s signature plan to build a wall may work as a symbol, but there is little evidence to suggest it will make for effective policy.

*This abridged artile is taken from Reuters