Oh, where to begin with President Trump’s ballyhooed vision of a towering, impregnable and “beautiful” wall along the nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico? Rarely has a project promised so much when clear-eyed thinking should tell us that if built, the wall is likely doomed to epic failure.
We all know the phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But while there is plenty that is broken with America’s immigration system, Trump’s border wall won’t fix it. Why?
First, because a border wall would do nothing to address the reality that the large majority of people now become undocumented by entering the country legally. Yes, you read that correctly. Fully two-thirds of immigrants who joined the undocumented population in 2014 did not sneak across the border. Instead, they entered the country legally with a valid visa but did not return home when the visa expired, according to data from the Center for Migration Studies.
No border wall — not 10 miles long, not 2,000 miles, no matter how high and mighty — will stop people from entering the country legally.
A border wall ignores the lessons of history, too — one that teaches us a barrier won’t stop people from entering the country illegally, particularly when there are jobs for them here.
We are reminded of this again with the 654-mile border fence already in place, sections of it here in Texas. That fence was breached more than 9,000 times — with ladders, air cannons, even cranes — between 2010 and 2015, according to a Government Accountability Office report.
Though the report does not conclude that fencing is ineffectual, it states that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has not found a way to measure the barrier’s effectiveness in slowing illegal immigration. We must ask: Shouldn’t we have this information before committing to build a massive wall at a cost the Department of Homeland Security estimates at $21.6 billion?
The Migration Studies report poses more questions, such as given the availability of other enforcement tools at the federal government’s disposal — including video surveillance, drones, ground sensors, radar and Border Patrol boots on the ground — is a wall necessary? We support the use of those tools where they can be effective. So do some residents of deep South Texas who live in the shadow of the border wall already built there, as American-Statesman reporter Jeremy Schwartz found in his recent reporting on life along the wall.
Trump’s vow to build a “big, beautiful wall” exploited Americans’ visceral frustration with illegal immigration. It became a cornerstone of his campaign, cheered wildly by throngs of supporters who chanted, “Build that wall.” Mexico will pay for it, Trump told them — an assertion that seemed as ridiculous then as it does now.
Trump depicted a border overrun by marauding Mexican criminals coming here in numbers bigger than ever. It is a chilling narrative at odds with reality. For example:
• More non-Mexicans than Mexicans were apprehended at the U.S. border in 2016, and illegal immigration from Asia is growing at a rate faster than that from Mexico and Latin America.
• Illegal entries to the U.S. have plummeted to about one-tenth the level in 2005, according to Homeland Security data, and Border Patrol arrests are down to one-fourth the level of historic highs.
• The number of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. has declined since 2007, by about 1 million people, according to figures from the Pew Research Center.
• So has the number of Mexican immigrants crossing the border illegally.
An estimated 11.1 million people live in the U.S. illegally. As we have said often, our nation has an obligation to protect its borders and enforce its immigration laws. But the true test is in how we accomplish this. Do we, for example, place equal emphasis on the economic forces that pull immigrants here and provide them jobs? That’s the elephant in the room whenever Americans gripe about illegal immigration.
Nowhere will the wall’s impact be felt more than here in Texas. As surveying and planning work for a wall has begun, the Trump administration is approaching Texas landowners along the border wall’s proposed path with offers for their land — properties that have been in some families for generations. If an owner declines an offer, the government can seize the land through eminent domain. In that and other ways, a border wall can cause as much harm to Americans as it does to the people the government wants to keep out.
As our recent series on the border chronicled, the fences and walls already in place can disrupt Texans’ way of life. In the Rio Grande Valley, for example, the fence cuts off sizable pieces of Texas from the people who live there, some with roots tracing back more than 100 years. Homeowners and landowners, farms, nature trails and wildlife sanctuaries are caught in a No Man’s Land hemmed in by the fence. And in West Texas, a border wall threatens to blemish a jewel — the grandeur of a rugged and awe-inspiring landscape like no other. Recently, administration and elected officials have backpedaled off Trump’s vision of a wall in West Texas, perhaps realizing it would be useless there.
As the border wall moves forward, we urge the administration to maintain the beauty of our parks and public spaces. We recommend, too, that it give urgent and equal attention to shifting sources of illegal immigration and that it address the vexing problem of visa overstays.
Until it finds a way to record when visitors from other countries leave, solutions like a border wall seem out of touch with reality. In describing his vision of a “big, beautiful wall,” President Trump likens it — in jest or not — to a monument to great architecture. Unless the administration can square what it wants to accomplish in responding to illegal immigration with what a border wall can realistically deliver, Trump’s wall could be instead a sad and expensive monument to futility.