Over the past year, the debate over costs and benefits of President Trump’s border wall has continually grown more and more heated. According a report by the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of Americans oppose the wall, and only 35 percent favor its construction. With close to twice the amount of people against than for the project, President Trump is still adamant about his plan, and believes it will help America become “great again”. That said, a deeper look at the actual costs and benefits of the initiative begin to show that our newly elected President may not have done his homework.
Recently, the Center for Immigration released a study which claims that the economic benefits of fewer illegal immigrants will save enough revenue to fund the entire cost of the wall. The author, Steven Camarota, initially seems to present a sound argument in favor of building the wall from a purely cost/savings standpoint. Camarota claims that data from the National Acadamies for Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) shows that illegal border-crossers create an average net present value of $74,722 in fiscal burden across their lifetimes to be carried by US taxpayers. This calculation stems from the idea that many illegal immigrants have modest levels of education, and reap more in benefits than they contribute in taxes. By this calculation, Camarota says we could save $12 to $15 billion (which equals the estimated cost of the wall) over the next decade if we could prevent just 9 – 12 percent of the expected illegal crossers from making their way into the US. However, as pointed out in an article from The New American, assuming the number of illegal crossers continues at a rate of 170,000 per year and the children of illegal immigrants are included, the number could reach upwards of $210 billion in savings over the next decade. Following these calculations, the argument in favor of the wall begins to gain ground.
However, deeper analysis of his findings shows that multiple larger, macro implications of such a project were not taken into consideration. Camarota fails to consider the implications associated with weakening our diplomatic relationship with Mexico, and how it will affect the economy. According to a study conducted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, maintaining a positive relationship with our southern neighbor is critical for the US economy as a whole. Among these reasons:
- Trade between the US and Mexico equates to more than $1 billion daily, and Mexico is the US’s third largest trading partner. Close to 80 percent of this trade occurs across our land border.
- Six million US jobs, or 1 in 24 workers, depend on bilateral trade with Mexico. Furthermore, over 20 percent of all US jobs are linked in some way to trade along the Mexican border.
- Mexico has the growth potential to become the fifth largest economy in the world by year 2050, and has a growing middle class interested in legally entering the US to spend tourism dollars. In 2010 alone, more than 13 million Mexican tourists entered the US and spent $8.7 billion, making Mexicans the second-largest nationality of tourists for the US.
- State economies, especially those bordering Mexico, rely on trade with Mexico. In 2015, Mexico was one of the top five export markets for 36 states, and one of the top two export markets for 23 states.
With such a large dependence on bilateral trade between US and Mexico, compromising our diplomatic relationship with Mexico by building a wall could prove painful for the US. In a panel discussion conducted by The Brookings Institution, two congressmen from Texas described the wall as “the most expensive and least effective way of securing the border.” They, instead, favored infrastructure upgrades at entry ports, intelligence-driven enforcement operations, and more customs agents. They continued to explain how the border is not simply a division of two countries, but rather a joining point where two cultures blend together to share a common history.
That said, President Trump’s agenda not only aims to prevent future illegal border crossings, but also to remove all undocumented Mexican immigrants already inside our walls. Removal of the estimated population of undocumented immigrants would further increase our costs to an absurd level, according the a report published by the right-wing American Action Forum. This report estimates that in order to remove all 11.3 million undocumented immigrants in a two-year period, it would require:
- Federal immigration apprehension personnel to increase from 4,844 positions to 90,582 positions.
- The number of immigration detention beds to increase from 34,000 to 348,831.
- The number of immigration courts to increase from 58 to 1,316.
- The number of federal attorneys legally processing undocumented immigrants to increase from 1,430 to 32,445.
- A minimum of 17,296 chartered flights and 30,701 chartered bus trips each year.
Such an undertaking would reduce the US labor force by 10.3 million workers, thus decreasing real GDP by $1 trillion. So, even if President Trump is able to convince Mexico to foot the construction bill of the proposed border wall, the US economy will undoubtedly bear an enormous economic burden of the project. Considering this larger picture, the numbers indicate that it is simply not worth stopping illegal Mexican immigrants from “pouring across the southern border,” as President Trump suggests.
At an even more basic level, a study conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that since 2007, we have actually experienced a negative net-immigration from Mexico. In other words, more Mexicans have been leaving than coming to the US, and this trend has continued since 2007. The graph below, found in the Pew Research Center report, highlights the changes in net-immigration:
In conclusion, with such a high cost of executing President Trump’s plan to build a wall and eliminate illegal Mexican immigrants from living inside US borders, we would expect significant benefits to exist. In reality, these benefits (optimistically totaling $210 billion in savings over the next decade) fail to outweigh the extreme costs associated with conducting such an operation as well as the extreme negative economic impact of deteriorating our relationship with Mexico. Building a wall may prove beneficial to the state of President Trump’s ego, but it would come at the expense of the greater American economy.