Hitting the Wall: An Analysis of the Feasibility and Realism of Trump’s Immigration Policy

Let’s build a wall. Let’s build a wall, because this is the only policy the candidates can consider. In an election fraught with contention, bitterness, and hostility, one thing has remained consistent. Donald Trump’s rallying cry against immigration drew tremendous support from conservatives, especially Populist-leaning farmers in the Midwest and white southerners close to the border. This is unsurprising, as the cry included a plan — or at least the idea of one — instead of a logical appeal meant to make people think there is a proposal hidden somewhere. Raw, honest, and tempting, the Republican candidate’s policy grew roots. And with such a noticeable lack of policy and issue debate in the election cycle, Trump’s steadfast dedication to constructing a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico drew considerable attention despite its implausibility as a solution to immigration, criminal justice, and economic problems.

Neither candidate was able to develop firm stances on specific policy. Each offered tax plans, but only non-partisan groups provided actual numbers. It is important to note that this is a departure from norms in the election cycle. Issues were the driving forces of attacks on one’s opponent, rather than the opponent’s character; for example, Bush’s defining moment of his campaign against Dukakis attacked his “soft crime” policies (see: Willie Horton 1988 attack ad). It does not take critical analysis to conclude that the race to the presidency this year lost much of this issue-driven fire. Clinton was attacked for being female, for her husband’s wrongdoings, and for her questionable use of email. Her position on issues shifted frequently, drawing serious ire and criticism from the public. Meanwhile, Trump expertly avoided candor regarding any of his positions. Save for one:

“I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively,” Trump said, announcing his candidacy on June 16, 2015. “I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall” (Politifact).

Trump’s wall, a proposed $10 billion plan, cemented him in a reality of racism, Populist ideals, and lunacy. The federal deficit would increase by billions of dollars with the construction of the wall. Even putting aside the detrimental impacts on tourism and business, it’s simply not realistic. Economists estimate the cost of the wall — not factoring in labor, fencing around the natural barriers, or necessary land acquisitions — would fall between $15 and $25 billion. Adjusting for those costs in addition to sweeping immigration reform brings the total combined cost to approximately $25,976,000,000 out of the federal budget.

(A mock-up of the proposed wall, courtesy of The Economist)

But say we ignore that for the moment, and consider this, quite simply: The wall will be cement, and any gaps, like those over the Rio Grande, will be made of barbed-wire fencing. The latter part of this plan is somewhat familiar. In 2006, President Bush introduced the Secure Fence Act (H.R.6061) that was passed 283–138 in the House and 80–19 in the Senate. Its aim? To build 700 miles of fencing along the US-Mexico border. Congress appropriated $1.2 billion for the implementation of the law, though some claimed this was underestimated by $4.8 billion, especially when it had a rather hefty goal to introduce:

…physical infrastructure enhancements to prevent unlawful entry by aliens into the United States and facilitate access to the international land and maritime borders by United States Customs and Border Protection, such as additional checkpoints, all weather access roads, and vehicle barriers.

The final cost released by analysts at the Congressional Research Service was $7 billion. By 2008, immediately after its final construction — a process that received ridicule as people realized it was not an effective strategy to curb illegal immigration — border crossings were down 18%. However, just one year later, a report by the Congressional Research Service found that immigrants had simply found new crossing routes, so Congress introduced the Reinstatement of the Secure Fence Act (H.R. 5124) in 2008, calling for an additional 700 miles of fencing. It died in committee.

So what makes Trump’s wall different? For one, it covers a much larger area. Initially proposed for 2000 miles, he has reduced the plan to a much more realistic 1000. With the “border between the United States and Mexico stretch[ing] 1,989 miles,” (The Economist) it is only necessary to build where no natural barriers exist. Additionally, as Mr. Trump is adamant in making clear, it is definitely not just a fence. He took to the popular social media website Twitter to clarify, as he often does; but unlike many of his clarifications, this particular tweet was not deleted, as it maintained its relevance throughout his campaign.

Despite this, any fence continues to appear more valid than the wall. The terrain around the border is rough and relatively inaccessible; that is, not ideal for a long-term, massive construction project. According to analysts, the difficulty lies in “requiring roads to be built just to get access to areas in which the international boundary passes through desert or mountain terrain.” It would be necessary to construct completely new roadways specifically for material transportation, costing millions of dollars. And this does not even factor in the raw materials.

Concrete, cement, wire. These three raw materials are not as accessible as many think. It is simple to assume they are, especially considering the relatively high number of concrete plants located around the proposed site. Those most likely to contribute (and thus profit) from this venture include the American plants Vulcan Materials Co. and CalPortland Co., as well as the Mexican plants Cemex SAB and Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua SAB. If it is even possible to manufacture the necessary amount of concrete in the timeframe of Trump’s term, Mexico would benefit the most:

Building the wall would require about 7 million cubic meters of concrete, which could cost more than $700 million at current prices, they said. That’s based on the assumption that the structure would extend 1,000 miles, rise 40 feet and reach seven feet underground, and have a thickness of 10 inches.

As seen in Bloomberg‘s report, America would likely pay $700 million to Mexico to build a wall for which they expect Mexico to pay. But that expectation is not rooted in any form of reality.

The President of Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos [Mexico], Enrique Peña, clarified his position on the wall:

At the start of the conversation with Donald Trump I made it clear that Mexico will not pay for the wall.
I repeat what I said personally, Mr. Trump, Mexico would never pay for the wall.

If it seems like a bad idea now, just wait.

(It gets worse.)

In 2006, a major environmental concern was introduced along with the Secure Fence Act. Many argued it would disrupt natural migration and pollute waterways, which it did. The government has even been sued over the existing fence. Now, these concerns are resurfacing and are more relevant than ever. The wall’s construction could induce flooding, obstruct natural run-off routes, trap debris in the rivers, and require the renegotiation of water contracts. The wall would need to be built largely in the United States rather than on the border or into Mexico. And after its erection, there is no estimate regarding the cost of maintenance or any necessary, proper cleaning of the impacted waterways. Really, I’m surprised our President Elect hasn’t just suggested we ask the immigrants to do it for free. That would certainly solve the problem of labor; however, it seems essential to Trump (who owns a clothing line manufactured in China) that we remain all-American. Therefore, the option would be to hire the Americans that would need to move off their land in order for the wall to be built to do the repairs.

At this point, it’s possible to hear the outraged gasps of the southerners who didn’t quite think this one through. Yeah, the government is going to take your land. In fact, the federal government will need to cite eminent domain and buy every portion of land along the border (Bloomberg). But again, consider the Bush administration’s ultimately failing policy on the subject: myriad “private landowners rejected buyout offers.” And even if Trump’s administration miraculously managed to buy land from each private owner on and near the border, land acquisition planning alone would take up to two years, with an additional minimum of two more for construction. The end of Trump’s first term would see a crumbling wall and a — quite literally — divided North America.

Unless Trump is planning to rely on peasant slave labor like his shining model of the Great Wall of China, he did his math incorrectly. In reality, the only beneficiaries would be the concrete plants near the border that would produce the raw materials for the business venture. If Trump chooses to use only American plants, the cost will increase exponentially. And, quite ironically, plants like these have pled guilty to hiring illegal immigrants before.

Such a gross underestimation of cost is worrying when one considers the eagerness of Trump’s followers to see this wall built and the assurance it can be. In this case, Trump does in fact have the popular vote. But, as an engineer so eloquently pointed out, “[He] could not build a doghouse.” His ignorance on the subject is overshadowed by a very appealing (to some — namely those with strong racial biases and a complete misunderstanding of the way government works) promise.

White America wants a wall. White America watches migrants travel through their ranch property on their way into the United States and is tired of doing so through the scope of a rifle. Individual and group manhunts for unauthorized Mexican immigrants are common in Texas, where white landowners say they “will do everything in [their] power to send them back.” Trump is on their side even though his wall may not be effective in this area. The number of migrants from Mexico is declining, with the number from other countries growing by over 300,000 according to the Pew Research Center. This is not to say that undocumented immigration has increased. In fact, under Obama’s administration, it has remained relatively stable, and is down since the Bush administration. Yet the resources involved in this one-million person deportation effort are dwindling, and the process is causing concern. People are often taken from what they consider safe spaces in the night, and sometimes their families are not even alerted that they have been arrested until they are on a truck to a holding facility reminiscent of a prison camp. One immigrant shares his feelings:

La comunidad indocumentada tiene miedo, sufre de ansiedad, depresión severa, estrés y no es para menos, porque en cualquier momento los pueden ir a sacar de sus casas, de sus sitios de trabajo. [The undocumented community is afraid, suffers from anxiety, severe depression, stress, and quite right too, because in any moment they can take them out of their homes, their workplaces.]
Signs read: “Not one more deportation!”

Massive social movements have emerged against deportation that protest holding facilities and the tearing apart of families, even as Americans who lean more toward Trump’s policies complain Obama’s administration has not done enough. Even so, the new president elect will likely be unable to keep up with his plan to deport 2 or 3 million more undocumented immigrants.

Trump claims that he would like to get these “bad hombres” out of the country due to the Mexican immigrants’ criminal tendencies. In fact, most undocumented immigrants are located through racial profiling in traffic stops or questionably legal searches and seizures, not violent crimes. Nearly half of all homicides are committed by whites (89. 3 per cent by males), and 52% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by whites. Nativist White America likes to ignore this and look to racial minorities. Concerned with the growing Latinx population in their neighborhoods and correlated rising crime rates, uncorroborated, racist ‘facts’ are highly appealing. These same individuals were comfortable electing an accused rapist to the office of president, evidencing that maybe that wasn’t actually the concern. A darker skin tone was.

In truth, this wall will not even be enough to stop the flow of illegal immigration, even if they are a real danger to the country. Tunnels could easily be built — hell, even catapults. If individuals want to be in the United States, they will find a way. Furthermore, a wall would likely encourage a higher percentage of migrants to remain in the country after completing their seasonal work. Families would cross together due to greater risk in border crossing. It is not realistic to expect Mexicans to stop crossing the border because a racist, irrational, and ludicrous leader of a fracturing country asks them to. If that were the truth, they would have stopped immigrating quite some time ago.

So is Mexico going to pay for this 26 billion dollar, 1000-mile wall even when the majority of undocumented immigrants no longer come from their country? ‘Yes!’ come the emphatic cries of white America. Even when Trump couldn’t even engage in negotiations with the President, and when there is no way to force the Mexican government to pay for the wall? Well, according to his 100 day plan — of which a portion is available here — he’s going to succeed bigly.