A Dispassionate Look At A Border Wall

One of the great dangers to us during the Trump presidency is our tendency to automatically discount anything the man says as either false, foolish, or insane.

There’s a reason we do this:  Donald Trump is well known for proclaiming the impossible loudly and repeatedly, as though that would make it true — or convince anyone aside from his more militant followers.  However, just because he says something doesn’t automatically make that thing wrong.

I want to be very clear:  I disagree with many of Trump’s policies and far more of his statements.  I believe him to be ill-mannered and (at best) deliberately provocative or (at worst) casually mendacious.  I don’t trust his opinion on any subject whatsoever, and I’d advise anyone else to mistrust him as well.

Just as I refuse to permit him to tell me what’s true, I also refuse to let him dictate to me which things I oppose.  Frankly, I don’t respect his intellect enough to expect that he could be wrong on every subject no matter how hard he tried.

Recently, I’ve had reason to take a second look at Trump’s “Border Wall” proposal, and I’ve got this to say:  It’s not nearly as insane as it seems.

Granted, that’s a low bar.  But still.

We all know the problems with the concept; we know them almost without thinking.  But let’s list the biggest ones:

  1. It wouldn’t stop illegal immigration.  People who are desperate to enter the United States can do so.  Most of our illegal aliens are here under expired papers; the majority of the rest entered through the famously porous borders of Puerto Rico.  Comparatively few cross over from Mexico using the land route.
  2. It wouldn’t stop smuggling.  At this writing, well over a hundred billion dollars worth of illegal drugs are successfully smuggled into the country every year.  It comes on planes, boats, trucks, through tunnels, and in ways you couldn’t even imagine.  Where there’s that much money, there’s enough motivation to defeat any border defense.
  3. It would be expensive.  A reasonable estimate of costs puts the price tag at roughly $25 billion, not including maintenance.
  4. It would be an insult to Mexico.  Think about it:  We’re so upset by the idea of Mexicans becoming unofficial Americans that we’re willing to spend billions to prevent it, as though being Mexican was somehow subhuman.

While each of these is true, they aren’t quite so compelling when you examine them closely.  Consider:

  1. It would be a powerful symbol of our opposition to illegal immigration.  Admittedly, it would be largely ineffective.  On the other hand, symbols have power.  In this case, it would serve as a physical reminder that those who evade the legal methods of achieving citizenship are doing so against the will of the American government.  When there’s no barrier, it’s tacit approval; when there’s a massive wall, it sends a pretty clear signal.  That factor alone would certainly discourage some attempts.  Plus, all else aside, it would probably save the lives of the approximately five hundred people each year that don’t make it.
  2. It would discourage casual smuggling.  At present, moving drugs and people is a sizeable cottage industry along the border.  The existence of a patrolled and monitored wall would all but eliminate that, forcing illicit imports into wholesale routes and restricting human trafficking to avenues that are more easily monitored.
  3. It wouldn’t really be expensive.  $25 billion is serious money even for the government, but right now billions are spent each year along the Mexican border, and much of that goes to tracking down and deporting casual immigrants.  There are presently fences and barriers along much of the border; every year, they get cut or destroyed and need to be replaced.  Even with maintenance costs, the wall would pay for itself over time.  What’s more, it’s not like that initial construction expense would actually total $25 billion; every dollar of that would get taxed.
  4. It would actually relieve a huge burden on the Mexican government.  Yes, it’s an insult, but then again, so is so very much of what we do.  Right now our drug policies are paying for a huge drug war that costs thousands of lives each year — Mexican lives.  Failing to take any visible action to address this is one of the greatest insults I can imagine.

Look, I can think of better things to do than set up a border wall.  The first and most obvious is to create a viable immigration policy; second is to address the Drug War intelligently; third is to work to improve the Mexican economy enough to make the United States less attractive by comparison.  But none of that negates the potential positive aspects of the Wall — and there are several.  It’s not an either-or situation; we can do any number of things all at once, and none is a barrier to the others.

There is, however, one major objection to constructing a serious border defense:  It would be a major policy victory for Donald Trump.  He’s been one of the most divisive figures in American politics since Lincoln; preventing his re-election is worth some sacrifices.  Ideally, I’d like to see the Republicans nominate someone completely different; even if Trump ran as an independent, it would be a huge victory for the GOP, for the Democrats (who’d end up winning the election), and by extension for the American status quo.

Bottom line?  It’s a crying shame that Donald Trump is demanding a border wall, because we could probably really use one.

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