My Thoughts On Week #2: Immigration, Part I

Donald Trump’s immigration plan has always perplexed me.

Nevermind his racist comments, his outlandish assertions of immigrants, those will be for following parts along with my general views on immigration as a whole. What I’m going to be talking about this week is the wall. Trump’s wall between the Mexican and American border will span the southern borders of California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas.

In his 2016 presidential bid address, passionately stated: “I will build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”[1]

Inexpensively, eh? The United States border with Mexico is 1,989 miles long[2] Nonetheless, Trump conceded that he’ll only need 1,000 miles of wall because of natural barriers[3].

In Trump’s defense, building the wall from the Western Coast of California to Texas (barring any eminent domain issues) is pretty straightforward, quite literately. Its when you get to El Paso, Texas and eastward that things get, again quote literately, twisted and turned for the worst. I don’t know how Trump would get his wall around all of that, around the Rio Grande, around the buildings and houses that would otherwise need to be removed to make the wall.

Late last year, Trump was asked about what the wall was going to be made out of to which he replied “hardened concrete, rebar, and steel”.[4] The size of the wall is varied, but Trump has stated over the course of about 8 months that the wall is going to be anywhere between 30 feet and 80 feet tall, much taller than the Berlin Wall’s 11.8 feet and the Great Wall of China’s 25 feet tall structure.[5]

From an engineering perspective, Trump’s wall faces several hurdles (no pun intended) to its construction. Just the concrete alone is going to cost a ton of money.

Bill Palmer Jr., the editor of Concrete Construction, says that a wall of concrete spanning 80 feet high, including 30 feet below grade, that’s 1 foot thick, and 2,000 miles long would be 21.7 billion pounds of Portland cement, about 10% of U.S.’s annual concrete consumption.[6]

Even though Trump’s plan is to make the wall half that size, that’s still 5% of America’s annual concrete consumption, all for a single wall. Paler notes that price would go down if they made their own concrete, “but getting materials, equipment, and people to the job site and building this as a government project (at prevailing wages) would be very expensive.”[7]

Ali Rhuzkan concluded that the wall will need 12,555,000 cubic yards of concrete and about 10,190,000 cubic feet of rebar, or around 5 billion pounds. This, he adds, does not take into account “surveying, land acquisition, environmental review, geological studies, maintenance, excavating for foundations, and so on.”[8]

Using Rhuzkan’s numbers and adding some of his own, Imgur user mustang19rasco estimates the total material cost to be a bit ore than $17 billion, not taking into account things like “the cost of labor or machinery, not to mention the millions of dollars it would cost for design work, surveying, and land acquisition.”[9]

A retired estimator and economist for one of the U.S.’s largest construction firms has an estimate that went even higher, $25 billion dollars, and that excludes a video system to keep watch on the border.[10]

The Washington Post explains that “it would cost about $10 billion for the concrete panels and $5-6 billion for steel columns to hold the panels, including labor. Concrete footing for the columns and a concrete foundation would add another $1 billion. A road would need to be built so 20-ton trucks could deliver the materials; that’s another $2 billion. Then you need to add another 30 percent for engineering, design, management and so forth. That adds up to nearly $25 billion.”[11]

Time is another factor that Trump will have to consider. Raul Meza, a structural engineer and El Paso’s state director for the Structural Engineer’s Association of Texas, estimates that “if money were no object, he said, the best-case scenario from the initial design phase to the wall’s completion would be five to 10 years.”[12]

And there are other factors, that can come up. The physical barrier between Mexico and the United States implemented during George W. Bush’s second term, for as simple at it was, even produced challenges.[13] Just having that 15 foot tall, 650-mile fence, cost $7 billion according to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Congressional Research Service, and that doesn’t even weigh in maintenance and upkeep.[14]

Real estate issues also came up and caused significant delay, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General.[15] Indeed, the Government Accountability Office reports that “federal and tribal lands make up 632 miles, or approximately 33%, of the nearly 2,000 total border miles.” The remaining 67% is “private and state-owned lands […] most of which is located in Texas.”[16]

Randal Meyer notes in The Daily Beast that “Eminent domain is certainly contemplated by the Constitution. But under the Fifth Amendment, the federal government would be on the hook for providing “just compensation” to all of these property owners. That will be quite expensive for the taxpayer, to say the least.”[17]

The Associated Press sums this up by saying that “Numerous bureaucratic, diplomatic, environmental, monetary, and logistical hurdles must be overcome.”[18]

Some people have compared to the border wall to Israel’s wall that separates it from the West Bank, but its the spread of the population that makes the difference. As Marc Rosenblum notes, “Border walls work in densely populated areas, such as Israel’s wall in the West Bank, where slowing down a person trying to illegally enter by five or 10 minutes can make a difference to border patrol. But when the migrant trying to enter is traveling over remote mountains and deserts for three days, using a fence to slow them down by a few minutes doesn’t have the same effect.”[19]

Just because its going to be a huge border wall does not mean that it wouldn’t be breached. Edward Alden of the Cato Institute explains that “Even the Cold War border between the two Germanies, the most heavily fortified in modern history, was successfully breached a thousand or so times each year. There is simply no way for a large, open, and democratic country like the United States to construct and maintain perfect border defenses.”[20]

The Great Wall of China, Trump’s model for his own, was also a failure, as Riho Laurisaar writes “The Xiongnu up north grew even stronger and in 200 BCE overran China, looting and plundering. […] The weakened Han Dynasty could not provide enough men to guard the wall, and the Xiongnu simply took control of one of the main gates and entered the land without much hassle.” [21]

Further into history shows other problems with the wall. During the Song Dynasty, a group of Jurchens conquered the capital of Song Kaifeng and was able to imprison the whole imperial family and the court. Still, the Mongols were able to find a port of the wall that was easy to traverse. And despite its revival during the Ming Dynasty, Ming General Wu Sangui defected to the Manchus and opened the gates to let the into the Shanhai Pass.[22]

“The consensus is, it [the Great Wall] didn’t work very well,’” says Edward Alden, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, of the wall that dates back to the 14th century, which the Manchurians repeatedly broke through.[23]

The other criticism that I have with Trump’s wall is how its going to be paid for. Indeed, Trump has outlined how he is going to pay for the wall on his website (amending Section 326 of the Patriot Act, passing trade tariffs, cancelling visas, increasing visa fees)[24], but even then, Mexican officials have refused to pay for the wall.

It is not a proposition we would even consider,” said Claudia Ruiz Massieu, Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs. “It is impossible to think of a 2,000-mile border being walled off and trade between our two countries stopped [and] frankly, it is not an intelligent thing to do.”[25]

Others have been more vocal about their opposition, such as Mexico’s former president Vicente Fox who famously said “I’m not going to pay for that fu**ing wall”[26], and Mexico’s Treasury Secretary Luis Videgaray who stated “I will say it emphatically: There is no scenario in which Mexico will pay for this wall that is being proposed by the United States presidential hopeful [Trump].”[27]

Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration expert at the Cato Institute argues “just because the Mexican economy has a trade surplus relative to the United States doesn’t mean the Mexican government has the resources to build a border wall. It would be like me threatening my neighbor to build a new fence or else I’ll stop shopping at Walmart.”[28] Mark Perry says that “the trade deficit is based mostly on trading and investment by private individuals and companies, not the government itself.”[29]

The Washington Post noted that Trump’s proposal “would jeopardize a stream of cash that many economists say is vital for Mexico’s struggling economy. But the feasibility of Trump’s plan is unclear both legally and politically, and it would test the bounds of a president’s executive powers in seeking to pressure another country.”[30]

Even then, it will be political suicide in Mexico to succumb to such blackmail, as editor of El Daily Post and former Mexican intelligence official Alejandro Hope said. Remittances from immigrants working in the United States, be they legal or not, back to their families in Mexico can go around Trump’s plan using bank account to ATM transfers, or electronic transfers from services like PayPal and Google Wallet.[31]

This, in turn, would damage American financial institutions, “creating a whole underworld of people sending money back and forth”, as Javier Palomarez, president and CEO of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce explains. [32]

But its not just relations with the United States that would be strained, rather, it would affect the United States on a global scale “the changes [Trump] suggests are so broad that they would affect U.S. citizens and immigrants of any legal status who send money anywhere in the world [and] it would still likely prompt a backlash from the U.S. financial industry”, says Manuel Orozco, a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue who studies remittances, who also argues that “in the very remote event that this situation were to happen, the legal implications and precedent of this decision could affect U.S. trade relations globally.”[33]

Although Trump’s wall is impractical fro the get-go, can it as least be effective? That is a hypothetical that I can’t really explain save for what I did above with the Berlin Wall and China’s Great Wall, but even then, they can’t be accurately compared with the United States’s border and the politics surrounding immigration and thus, can only be used as lesson by historical example. I’m sure that there will be ways around it, but I won’t get into that here.

So that what would be a better solution to the immigration problem? That will be for another blog post, but as some food for thought, Ana Campoy of Quartz argues that the experimental eye-scan test should be implemented, and would be ore effective and cheaper than a wall, arguing that “the new information could also lead to changes in the US’s immigration enforcement policies, which now focus heavily on patrolling the southern border.”[34]

To conclude this long-winded post, I leave you with a quote from Chad Haddal, Yule Kim, and Michael Garcia of the Congressional Research Service. “Do the gains in border security outweigh the risk of alienating Mexico and Canada? Should the Mexican or Canadian government’s opinions or wishes be taken into account when border fencing is concerned? Given the need to coordinate intelligence and law enforcement activities at the border, should maintaining cordial working relationships with Mexico and Canada take precedence over sealing the border with physical barriers?”[35]

[11]: Ibid.
[14]: Ibid.
[16]: Ibid.
[17]: Ibid.
[22]: Ibid.
[27]: Ibid.
[29]: Ibid.
[32]: Ibid.
[33]: Ibid.


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