The Comedy and Tragedy of Trump's Wall
Historically, walls do not fulfill their objective. A wall cannot stop travel from one side to the other, it will deter some traffic, but no wall is unbreachable.
The Berlin wall is a modern example of the effectiveness of a wall built with the intention of stopping people from crossing from one side to the other. For the purposes of comparing the Berlin wall to the proposed US-Mexico wall, this will be done from the perspective of East Germany, since they were the side seeking to prevent border crossings.
The Berlin wall
The Berlin wall was approximately 100 miles long and was patrolled by approximately 11,000 armed East German guards. Other components of the wall included 302 watchtowers, 259 guard dog runs, two main walls and additional subsidiary walls and trenches, and an assortment of electric fences, floodlights, trip-wire machine guns, and landmines. Can we all agree that even Trump won’t install those?
The border between Mexico and the U.S. is approximately 2,000 miles long and according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, as of September 30, 2016 there were 17,026 agents stationed along the Mexican border.
Funding has increased steadily starting in 2002. For the 2015 fiscal year, $3.8 billion was spent securing the Mexican border.
Specifications for Trump’s wall were released and are as follows:
- A ‘physically imposing’ height of no less than 18 feet but preferably 30 feet tall
- The wall must be at least 6 feet underground, to prevent tunneling
- The durability of the wall requires that breaches of the wall (using building or cutting tools, or torches) must take at least one-hour for concrete designs or 30 minutes for non-concrete designs
Trump’s budget proposal provides more than $4.5 billion in new spending. $2.6 billion will be for the down payment to build the wall with the remainder expanding the number border officers, prosecutors, judges, and expanding capabilities for detention, transportation, and removal of illegal immigrants. Specifically, $314 million of the new spending will provide for 1,000 new immigration officers and 500 new Border Patrol agents (to increase from 17,026 to 17,526). In executive orders issued five days after his inauguration, Trump called for adding 10,000 immigration officers and 5,000 border agents. Using $314 million as the expected cost for 1/10 of the staffing increase in his executive orders, the remaining 9/10 of the staffing increase would be an additional $2.8 billion.
Again, the requested down payment in Trump’s budget for construction is $2.6 billion. In total, Trump estimated the construction cost of the wall would be $12 billion while Congressional Republicans estimated between $12 and $15 billion. A report from Homeland Security estimated the cost to be $21 billion. One, you can choose who to believe on the total cost and two, I’m not sure anyone actually thinks Mexico is going to pay for the wall.
Putting it all together
The table below compares the Berlin wall with the proposed Mexican wall. The Berlin wall had nearly 13 times the number of guards per mile than the Mexico border at current staffing levels. Trump’s proposed 2018 budget adds 500 border agents decreasing this to approximately 12.5 times. If the staffing increase specified in Trump’s executive order of 5,000 agents is fulfilled, the ratio decreases to 10 times.
So, clearly Trump cannot rely on human border protection with U.S. staffing somewhere between 1/13th and 1/10th that of East German human guards. That then leaves the Mexico wall itself has to be a stronger deterrent to make up for lower human staffing (although really, the two go hand in hand).
As discussed above, the Berlin wall was actually two complete walls with a very large array of other deterrents like machine guns and guard dog runs. What will the Mexico wall offer in comparison? Tunneling will only be prevented to a depth of at least six feet and it must take at least 30- or 60-minutes to breach the wall. Really? That’s the impenetrable wall?
You may interpret the capabilities of the proposed Mexican wall differently, but I’m left with one simple conclusion. Human border protection, even with planned increases, will only be a fraction of what would be required to achieve border protection. This is due to the border length being 2,000 miles long. The physical wall itself is not nearly impenetrable enough to compensate for the lower human staffing. Then add in the fact that humans always adapt to new challenges with new solutions. Therefore, I expect the Mexico wall to have a negligible impact on preventing illegal immigration. Even if the new wall and staffing results in more arrests, the fact that illegal immigrants, once returned to Mexico often attempt another crossing, means that at best, you’ve patched up 10% of a breach in your hull and you bailed one bucket of water out. Whew, we just made boating great again.
Let's agree to disagree
Perhaps you think the wall will be effective. My last appeal will be for you to consider the cost. We are already spending $3.8 billion a year protecting the Mexican border. Trump’s proposal would require $12 billion to $21 billion in construction costs and an increase in annual costs from $3.8 billion to $8.5 billion. How much is it worth to you to catch a few more illegal immigrants? Is it worth $8.5 billion, every year?
Let me try to provide one more context to consider the cost. Apart from the request for an additional $4.5 billion in spending for border protection in 2018, Trump has proposed massive cuts to 62 agencies and programs. I’ll go ahead and omit programs related to the environment, renewable energy, helping the poor and elderly, and foreign aid since wall advocates already hated these programs regardless. Oh, and of course, screw Big Bird.
- Department of Agriculture – Water and Wastewater loan and grant program ($498 million) – provides funding for clean and reliable drinking water systems, sanitary sewage disposal, sanitary solid waste disposal, and storm water drainage to households and businesses in eligible rural areas, cause, y’know, f@!# clean water.
- Department of Education – Teacher Quality Partnership ($43 million) – A teacher training and recruitment grant program, because we have way too many good teachers, y’know, teaching our children.
- Department of Health and Human Services – Health professionals and nursing training programs ($403 million) – because just like teachers, there’s an oversupply, not undersupply, of healthcare professionals, especially with the baby boomers aging out, cause, y’know, f@!# access to health care.
- Department of the Interior – National Heritage Areas ($20 million) and National Wildlife Refuge fund ($13.2 million) – because we need more strip malls and pavement.
- Appalachian Regional Commission ($119 million) – because coal miners are doing just fine (hint: using coal as an industrial energy source started in the 1800’s. All these rich coal miners couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that coal is a century-and-a-half old technology?!?!?) Departing thought: the war on coal is about as legitimate as Henry Ford’s war on horses.
- Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board ($11 million) – sure, we could totally trust someone like Sheriff Joe Arpaio to respond to a chemical spill, and regardless, who needs clean drinking water (see above)
- Delta Regional Authority ($45 million) – works to improve regional economic opportunity with job creation and infrastructure for the 10 million people who live in the eight-state Delta region (Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee). Didn’t 9 of these states vote red because taking federal money is socialist?
- Institute of Museum and Library Services ($231 million) – meh, kids will do just fine with our public schools that are oversupplied with overqualified teachers (see above). We will make our kids great again!
Total cost of these eight programs? $1.383 billion. The wall? $12 to $21 billion for construction, with an increase in annual costs from $3.8 billion to $8.5 billion.
So, are catching a few more illegal immigrants still worth it?