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Experts: Trump’s border wall could be costly, ineffective

Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up as he leaves for lunch after being summoned for jury duty in New York, Monday, Aug. 17, 2015. Trump was due to report for jury duty Monday in Manhattan. The front-runner said last week before a rally in New Hampshire that he would willingly take a break from the campaign trail to answer the summons. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Donald Trump, the current frontrunner for the Republican 2016 presidential nomination, released his first policy paper over the weekend, proposing “immigration reform that will make America great again.”

Trump has faced criticism for negative comments about illegal immigrants, but he has remained at the top of the Republican field in the polls and some of his opponents vying for the party’s nomination have adopted hardline positions on the issue similar to his.

One of the central tenets of Trump’s immigration policy is a wall across the U.S/Mexico border—“A nation without borders is not a nation,” he states in his policy paper—but immigration experts question the effectiveness and cost of such a venture.

“I actually think it’s going to be more symbolic than substantive,” said Walter Ewing, a senior researcher with the American Immigration Council, a non-partisan organization that advocates “sensible and humane immigration policies.”

Ewing noted that the approximately 670 miles of fences that have already been built along the border have been breached by smugglers thousands of times. Repairing those breaches requires money and manpower.

“Walls or fencing is a tactical tool. It certainly is not a solution in and of itself,” said Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Wilson said the existing fences have been effective in redirecting illegal immigration away from urban areas but they have not done much to actually stop it. He said a wall is of no use if border patrol agents and technological assets are not stationed close enough to intercept immigrants before they figure out a way around it.

Wilson also explained that approximately half of illegal immigrants in the U.S. entered through official crossing points, either by overstaying visas, using fraudulent documents, or being smuggled past the border.

“There are serious limits on what a fence can do,” he said.

Dr. Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. immigration policy program for the Migration Policy Institute, agreed that the value of a wall diminishes as it gets further away from heavily-trafficked urban areas, and it only serves a purpose if border patrol agents are nearby to stop people from climbing over or digging under it.

“It’s not that it would have no impact on border security…but you get sharply declining returns on those fencing investments,” he said.

Trump’s immigration plan also calls for tripling the number of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officers, which could help with patrolling a border wall, and enhancing penalties for immigrants who overstay visas.

Rosenblum and Wilson’s assessments of a border wall assume one could be built in the first place, but they said there would be a number of obstacles for accomplishing that.

Trump has at times suggested building a wall across the nearly 2,000-mile border and at other times indicated more selective placement, and the experts agree there are many places where it simply would not make sense.

Wilson said a wall in the right places is an important component of immigration policy, but putting a fence in the mountains where nobody is trying to cross, for example, is somewhat pointless.

The terrain along the border is very rough with no infrastructure in places, making it difficult and expensive to build and maintain sections of a wall. The treacherous conditions of the deserts and mountains can serve as a greater deterrent than a wall would, anyway.

Some of the land a wall would need to traverse is privately owned and the government would need to get permission to build there, buy the land, or seize it via controversial methods like eminent domain. Buying border land has proven expensive for the government in the past.

Other sections of the border pass through federally protected wilderness and Native American reservations where the Department of Homeland Security’s authority to build may be limited. There is also potential environmental damage the wall could cause.

“The list of challenges sort of goes on,” Wilson said.

He also observed that a wall could have a negative impact on U.S./Mexico relations. Despite Trump’s insistence that Mexico has “taken the United States to the cleaners,” Wilson said Mexico is often a strong partner in security, economic, and environmental issues and the two countries work together on those matters on a day-to-day basis.

“A wall is a strong symbol, not of friendship, but of separation,” he said.

Trump has maintained that he will make Mexico pay for the wall, although a spokesman for Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto told Bloomberg last week that will not happen. In his policy paper, Trump lays out several measures intended to collect funds from the Mexican government, illegal immigrants, and people crossing the border legally.

Mark Krikorkian of the Center for Immigration Studies, a research organization that supports a "low-immigration, pro-immigrant" approach to policy, wrote that these ideas make the notion of forcing Mexico to pay seem “less absurd,” but he criticized Trump’s approach to relations with Mexico in general.

“Its antagonism toward Mexico is not constructive – Mexico is indeed obstructionist in many areas, but it has been induced to be helpful in others (for instance, by interdicting many of the Central American illegals headed north),” Krikorkian said in a blog post. “Our approach to our neighbor to the south must be firm, but not ham-handed.”

The exact price tag of the border wall is difficult to pin down because there are many variables.

Pedestrian fencing is significantly more expensive than vehicle fencing, but also much more effective. Some proposals have called for double-layer fencing, which would require more land and labor.

Some stretches of the wall would be more expensive to build than others, depending on the difficulty of the terrain and the infrastructure in place.

The General Accounting Office estimated in 2009 that the several hundred miles of fencing built in relatively urban and easily accessible areas at that point had cost $2.8-3.9 million per mile. However, a $3.5 mile stretch of more difficult construction was estimated to cost about $16.5 million per mile.

Those figures are just for building. Based on the Customs and Border Protection security and fencing budget, Rosenblum and Wilson both estimated that building and maintaining the existing fence likely cost about $11 million per mile.

The total cost of building another 1,000 miles of fencing could be as low as approximately $3 billion if the terrain was easy to build on as the most urban areas, but it likely would not be. Maintaining and guarding the fence would cost billions more.

Other estimates have been even higher. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry claimed in 2011 that a border-length fence could cost up to $30 billion, and a 2013 Bloomberg Government analysis concluded that sealing the border could cost up to $28 billion per year.

Proponents of more restrictive immigration policies, however, argue that illegal immigration is costing the nation much more right now than a wall ever will.

According to a report by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), illegal immigration costs the federal government nearly $29 billion annually and costs state and local governments $84 billion. The organization claims illegal immigrants cost each native household $1,117 per year.

Taking into account taxes paid by illegal immigrants, the Heritage Foundation estimated that the average illegal immigrant household receives $14,387 more in government benefits than it pays in taxes, for a total annual fiscal deficit of $54.5 billion.

Other immigration policy experts say the fiscal impacts of illegal immigration are not so definitive, and they cautioned that many studies out there are partisan and skewed.

“I kind of leave that one as an open question in my mind,” Wilson said.

Rosenblum said there are three ways of looking at the economic costs of immigration: the fiscal impact on the federal budget, the impact on the size of the economy, and the impact on wages of U.S. citizens.

Since adult illegal immigrants are not eligible for most government benefits and they pay sales taxes and payroll taxes, they often do put in more than they take. Much of the money the government does spend on them goes toward law enforcement and detention.

Including illegal immigrants’ children, who often are U.S. citizens, in the equation changes things, though, because they are eligible for public education. The FAIR and Heritage studies found that public education for children was the largest cost illegal immigrant households impose on taxpayers.

Ewing, of the American Immigration Council, called that “kind of an underhanded calculation,” noting that native-born children receive the same education benefits without paying taxes too.

“You don’t exactly raise a lot of money when you’re 7,” he said.

Similarly, Rosenblum said all children consume more in services than they provide in taxes. He also observed that most low-income households, including legal immigrants and U.S. citizens, depend more on services than they contribute in taxes.

Rosenblum said illegal immigrants do have a positive impact on the size of the economy and GDP growth. They tend to have a positive effect on wages of educated non-immigrants, but they drive down wages for low-skilled, low-educated legal immigrants and citizens.

Ultimately, Rosenblum said illegal immigrants represent a very small part of the economy, so the debate over immigration policy is generally driven by non-economic considerations.

Wilson said it may be a mistake to focus on the wall, “a concept of security that comes more out of the Middle Ages,” given the nature of the modern economy.

“The state of the art in border management in the 21st century, in a globalized world where you have all these transnational flows…is to focus not so much on a border as a line in the sand,” he said, but to make better use of enforcement actions across a range of areas.

Trump’s immigration policy paper does lay out a number of other measures aimed to “return to the American people the safety of their laws,” including a nationwide e-verify system, mandatory deportation of criminal immigrants, defunding sanctuary cities, and ending birthright citizenship.

Those proposals have drawn a strong negative reaction from immigration advocates.

Wendy Feliz of the American Immigration Council called it “a smorgasbord of tired, old anti-immigrant policy ideas backed up by half-truths, misstatements, and loads of conflation.”

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, said in a statement, “This rhetoric and radicalism is something new, something dangerous, something that deserves to be aggressively countered by people who believe in an America that is permanently evolving in order to become a more perfect union.”

Trump, meanwhile, maintains that his policies will be popular and will have bipartisan support.


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