This past week, the Trump Administration notified Congress of its intention to reallocate $3.8 billion from the Department of Defense to the Department of Homeland Security in order to fund construction of an additional 177 miles of barrier wall along the US-Mexico border. President Trump has repeatedly stated that this wall, a major campaign promise of his, would be paid for by the Mexican government, and the wall has featured prominently in the national dialogue as the President cyclically denies and reaffirms this claim. Disregarding for a moment the legality of a president raiding the DOD for funding to fulfill a campaign promise of questionable practical value, it is important to consider the wall in the proper context.
The US-Mexico border is about 1950 miles long, and of that stretch, roughly 650 miles are already protected by fencing. The wall is a popular and contentious point of conversation, due in part to its racial undertones (President Trump has made no secret of his disdain for Mexico, infamously claiming in a moment of generosity that “ some [Mexican immigrants], I assume, are good people”), as well as due to its scale and absurdity. The year is 2020, and even those vehemently opposed to the wall must admit that there is some black comedy to be found in the picture of the United States, the preeminent global superpower, debating the necessity of a wall to prevent the entry of illegal immigrants from Mexico, while conveniently ignoring that many of these immigrants are essential for US agriculture. We may as well be living in Roman Britain for all the sophistication of this proposed solution to the complex and multifaceted issue that is illegal immigration. However, this will be no Hadrian’s wall. The reality is that in this day, we should be well aware that a wall does not have much power of deterrence unless significantly fortified and heavily manned, and even then, enterprising would-be border crossers will continue to search for alternate modes of entry. In truth, this entire conversation seems to mostly miss the mark, as the number of Mexican immigrants living in the US has been declining steadily since 2006, and Mexican immigrants have continued to make up less and less of the total population of unauthorized border crossings, down from 98% in 2000 to 62% in 2016. Moreover, the ever-ballooning price tag of the wall is a cause for concern. Taking the estimate given by the Pentagon that this reallocation of $3.8 billion will result in 177 miles of wall at face value, we are left to ponder the wisdom of spending $21 million per mile on steel and concrete. These numbers are even more striking when we consider that the DOD allocated $169 million to basic research in the entirety of 2018, supporting 24 5-year research grants in the fields of quantum sensing, game theory, bacterial-based electronics, protein functionality, and climate change and human migration modeling.
Granted, as an individual working in the physical sciences, I may be biased toward this type of funding, but one would hope that the decision between 177 miles of border wall, which has not been empirically documented to reduce border crossings, or an additional 515 basic science project grants, would be a clear one. While countries like China continue to pour government funding into quantum information science and artificial intelligence research, we are left discussing medieval construction. And while the White House has signaled a desire to increase funding for these high-priority research areas in its recent budget request, these increases are accompanied by major cuts to a number of central federal research funding programs, including the National Science Foundation (-6%), the National Institutes of Health (-7%), NASA science (-11%), the Department of Energy’s Office of Science (-17%), the National Institute for Standards and Technology (-19%), and the Environmental Protection Agency (-37%), among others. Some may argue that the purposes for which the DOD had earmarked this funding — namely fighters jets, surveillance planes, and drones — are also less than critical. However, the point remains that this funding was appropriated for these purposes by Congress, and is in danger of being usurped to fulfill (in part) an ill-conceived campaign promise, and this is something that should be giving all Americans, regardless of political affiliation, something to consider.
Originally published at http://dominikstemer.wordpress.com on February 20, 2020.