Blog No. 139. The Border Wall: The Death of a Symbol?

Workers raise a taller fence along the Mexico-US border between the towns of Anapra, Mexico and Sunland Park, New Mexico, where for almost two decades a Mass has been celebrated on Day of the Dead to remember migrants who have died trying to cross the fence, Nov. 10, 2016.

Asked on April 21 by the Associated Press whether he would sign a bill without border funding, Trump replied: “I don’t know yet. People want the border wall. My base definitely wants the border wall. My base really wants it.”

In what passes for good news, it now appears that a Continuing Resolution (CR), necessary to keep the government in operation past April 28, will not be stalled over the issue of funding for the border wall. Specifically,  Trump will not insist on a provision for wall funding in the 2017 CR, but will seek to include it in spending for FY 2018.  Democrats have been uniformly opposed to any funding of the wall, while many Republicans have viewed it with little enthusiasm and almost all were determined to avoid a government shutdown over the CR. If debate over funding the wall is postponed until September and consideration of the FY2018 budget, it can be conducted on a more informed basis. The passage of time and provision of more information will make it ever clearer that we do not need, and Congress will not pay for, anything like the massive structure spanning the length of the border that Trump has led his supporters to imagine. (“On day one, we will begin working on an impenetrable, physical, tall, power (sic), beautiful, southern border wall.”)

Trump’s base may be disappointed by the disappearance of Trump’s iconic wall. A recent Washington Post-ABC news poll showed that 76% of those who supported Trump’s election now support a border wall and 56% do so strongly. (That compares with all adults, among whom only 37% support the wall while 60 % oppose it.)  Nevertheless, Trump’s base will presumably get over the loss of the wall as they have gotten over various other failures and flip-flops.

As the CR was being negotiated, it became painfully evident that Congress has been given few details as to what Trump has in mind. The funding in the CR was variously reported to be for 48 miles or 62 miles of wall, both a small fraction of  a 1,900 mile border. The funding requested for the wall in the CR  was reported to be  some portion of either $1 billion or $1.4 billion. In either case, it was not clear how the segment of the wall covered by the CR would fit into the overall project or how it related to the  total cost of  border construction.. Congressman Pete Sessions, Chairman of the House Rules Committee said on Monday that Republicans are committed to border security but that he has yet to see a plan for the border wall from the White House or Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. In testimony on April 5, Secretary Kelly made it clear that he does not have in mind “a wall or physical barrier from sea to shining sea.” Rather, Kelly said, he would put the wall in places where it was recommended by personnel of Customs and Border Patrol and he made clear that it would provide only one element of security on the border. He also appeared confident that Trump would accept his recommendation:

The president knows that I am looking at every variation on the theme and I have no doubt when I go back to him and say, you know, boss, ‘wall makes sense here, high tech fencing makes sense over here, technology makes sense over here,’ I have no doubt that he will go tell me to do it.

It may well be that, as Kelly indicated, some sort of wall would be useful at some places along the border. But Kelly was unable to provide any estimate of how many miles of wall he would recommend or any estimate of what the cost would be. Trump himself has offered a low-ball estimate of $10 billion while other estimates have been over $20 billion and, in one case, nearly $70 billion. (Senator Claire McCaskill’s office estimated $67 billion using the Trump administration’s FY2018 budget request’s proposed $36.6 million per border wall mile and extrapolating it to the entire length of the border). Kelly, however, declined to make even a per mile estimate:

There is no way I can give the committee an estimate of how much this will cost. I mean, I don’t know what it will be made of, I don’t know how high it will be, I don’t know if it is going to have solar panels on its side, what one side is going to look like, how it will be painted. I have no idea. So I can’t give you any type of an estimate.

There continues to be no plausible basis to expect that “Mexico will pay for the wall” as Trump has repeatedly guaranteed. Moreover, there is no persuasive reason why they should pay for the wall. Surely it is up to the United States to defend its own border and not expect our neighbor, and a poorer one at that, to do it for us. Indeed, any wall that Mexico erected or paid for in order to confine its own citizens might be seen as an embarrassing descendant of the infamous Berlin Wall.

Thus, whatever a credible estimate of cost turns out to be, Congress should view it solely as a claim on our own treasury, and a  claim for which the case is notably thin. During the campaign, Trump touted the wall as a means of preventing “people pouring across the southern border.” In fact, if people were once pouring across the border from Mexico, they no longer are. The most recent data from the Pew Research Center indicated that the arrival of Mexicans illegally had greatly declined and that substantially more Mexicans are leaving the United States for Mexico than are coming here from Mexico.

Experienced observers writing in Politico have pointed out that our real immigration crisis lies not in Mexican immigration but the flow of refugees from other Central American countries (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) who entered Mexico illegally on their way to seeking asylum in the United States. A wall would be irrelevant to such refugees, who do not attempt to enter the United States surreptitiously, but present themselves to officials at official ports of entry. They may be victims of a humanitarian crisis but it is one that has created a serious problem for the United States:

It’s also a crisis of our immigration system, which is now bursting at the seams from processing this influx. Currently, there is a 500,000-case backlog in the immigration courts — with many cases pending for five years or more. This backlog ripples its way through the system because we can’t send people back who have pending asylum claims and we can’t and shouldn’t detain people during that delay. So the smugglers tell migrants if they get to the border, all they need to do is make a minimally credible claim for asylum and they’ll be allowed to stay for the many years it takes to resolve it in court. The smugglers aren’t wrong.

The writers concluded by explaining the steps that could be taken to alleviate the refugee crisis and pointing out that the Trump administration has not sought funding for any of them.

Trump may have begun to understand that his exaggerated claim of Mexican immigrants pouring across our border would not hold up. Thus, more recently, he has conspicuously changed his emphasis to one of combating drug smuggling. To that end, he tweeted on April 24:

The Wall is a very important tool in stopping (sic) drugs from pouring into our country and poisoning our youth (and many others)! If the wall is not built, which it will be, the drug situation will NEVER be fixed the way it should be!

But Trump’s alternative argument is also seriously flawed. To begin with, experts have noted that there are a variety of ways of circumventing a wall “catapults, hang gliders, underground tunnels, even submarines.” Even more fundamentally, an analysis in the Washington Post pointed out that “Drugs that flow across the Southwest border, like heroin, are primarily transported through existing border checkpoints via cars and trucks. Those checkpoints will be there whether the wall gets built or not.” Even Secretary Kelly acknowledged that illegal drugs “mostly come through the ports of entry.” Furthermore, the Post pointed out, “many of the drugs killing people in the United States originate right here. Prescription painkillers are one of the chief drivers of the opioid overdose epidemic today, accounting for roughly as many deaths as heroin.”

Finally it should be observed that, while efforts to combat the Mexican drug cartels must continue, and border security be improved, a primary cause of the current crisis is the American appetite for drugs. It is an appetite that must be addressed with far more vigorous and effective methods of prevention and treatment, but those are subjects for another blog.

So far as the border wall is concerned, Trump’s dream, and that of his supporters, has been a monolithic structure erected over hundreds of miles of the border. (“Someday, when I`m no longer around, they will call it the Trump wall. It’s got to be the greatest wall.”) Such a monumental wall would be not only expensive, but far more symbolic than functional and a distraction from dealing with the underlying problems it purports to address. The Trump Wall is a symbol that deserves a decent burial.

5 thoughts on “Blog No. 139. The Border Wall: The Death of a Symbol?

  • Like all of Trump’s blather, his proposal to build a wall along our southern border is populist nonsense, intended to pander to his base and prop up his disastrous presidency. We don’t need walls but thoughtful solutions to the real challenges facing America and the world. But now, all we can hope for is a rapidly shrinking president whose celebrity show continues its downward spiral in the ratings.

  • Mexicans were asked what they thought of Trump’s proposed wall. Jose replied, “We are very upset …..but we’ll get over it.” (With thanks to Bob Peffers for this pearl.)

  • Doug, thanks for a sane and balanced conversation on a topic that has not had much sanity and balance.

  • I was never quite sure that Robert Frost was a Democrat, but I am sure he would have been a RINO.

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