If the goal is to stop illegal immigration, I've got some advice for President Trump from here in California, which used to be part of Mexico and now has turned itself into a kind of sanctuary state.
For starters, the promised "big, beautiful wall" along the southern border of the United States doesn't make much sense. If Trump doesn't trust me, he should go to El Centro — as I did in March — and talk to Albert Garcia, the retired Border Patrol welder who spent 25 years fixing holes in the fence.
"I don't think anything they make is going to hold them back," Garcia said when I asked him about what kind of wall design might work best.
Not only is the idea of blowing billions of tax dollars on a wall a bad idea, but the timing couldn't be worse. The number of people entering the country illegally has been plummeting for several years, for reasons I'll get into in a minute.
But first I want to lay out a few things Trump might consider if his real goal were to reduce the number of people entering the country illegally, rather than tell his cheerleaders what they want to hear.
1. Squeeze the arms pipeline from U.S. gun manufacturers to Mexican and Central American cartels.
Many people come north to escape violence. I met a woman from El Salvador who was arrested by U.S. agents after crossing the border with her son to seek asylum. She told me her town's ruling thugs demanded a tax to operate their store, or she'd be killed. I know a carpenter who sends money to a brother in Guatemala who was told his family would die if he didn't pay for "protection."
The gangsters are not kidding. They kill people, and it's been well-documented that the murder weapons are often manufactured in the United States, where lax gun laws help funnel weapons across the border and into the hands of gangsters. If Trump is the tough guy he claims to be, why doesn't he take on his pals in the gun lobby, muscle the NRA's congressional stooges and demand some honest gun control?
2. Keep in mind that cartels love our insatiable addictions as much as they love our guns.
Trump's budget proposal whacked funding for treatment, research and prevention of drug addiction, even as his administration seems to be reigniting the war on drugs. The gazillion-dollar war on drugs has not stemmed the flow, some of which comes from south of the border, where brutal cartels have built fortunes on our human weakness and our public policy failures. Now might be a good time to focus more on the demand side rather than the supply side, and help stem the violence that Mexican and Central American people have scrambled to escape.
3. How about more work visas?
It's no secret that contractors, landscapers, hotel and restaurant owners, homeowners, ranchers and growers gladly hire illegal immigrants by the thousands. In the case of growers, lots of them helped drive illegal immigration by pocketing taxpayer-funded U.S. subsidies that put Mexican farmers out of business.
The workers wouldn't come here if nobody wanted to hire them. So why not offer more seasonal or temporary visas and employer sponsorships to working-class immigrants, rather than spend a fortune chasing them through deserts and mountains? One reason immigrants stay here after they make it across without getting arrested is that they can't legally come and go.
4. If you truly don’t want people here illegally, why run protection for their employers?
Trump loves to vilify illegal immigrants, but he's just another softy when it comes to all the enablers I just mentioned. How many high-rollers living in the Trump Tower have nannies and housekeepers whose papers they didn't check too closely? I'm not advocating this, but wouldn't a crackdown on employers be at least as effective as a 30-foot high wall, and why are banks allowed to profit by opening accounts and sending money abroad for people here without papers?
5. Beef up aid to Mexico and Latin America.
In addition to the trillions spent on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is sending about $3.1 billion in annual aid to Afghanistan. Well down the list, at $586 million, is Mexico, which comes in behind Tanzania. Spending more to develop jobs in Mexico may be a risky proposition, given the history of corruption. But has it been a smarter bet to invest in the rebuilding of Iraq and Afghanistan?
So there's my five cents' worth, take it or leave it. But even if you choose to ignore it, think twice about the wall.
A Homeland Security report this month said the estimated number of successful illegal entries into the United States was 1.8 million in the year 2000.
In 2016, it was less than 200,000.
Apprehensions in that time have gone from about 1.6 million to about 400,000.
"The fact is, unauthorized Mexican migration to the U.S. has fallen to levels not seen since the early 1970s," said Wayne Cornelius, a semiretired U.C. San Diego professor who was co-founder of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies.
"To hear [U.S. Atty. Gen.] Jeff Sessions talk about it, you'd think the border is totally out of control, but his own government evidence suggests that clearly is not the case," Cornelius said.
Cornelius said that in the peak years of illegal immigration, much of the pool of workers was drained. Then came the recession, and fewer U.S. jobs translated into a steep decline in illegal immigration. As for flat wages here, Cornelius said automation and the decline of private sector unions are a bigger factor than illegal immigration.
Cornelius said other factors keeping immigration down are a declining birth rate in Mexico, the rising cost of smuggling, fear of violence and theft by coyotes and a trend toward migration to job centers within Mexico.
Even where the wall is already fortified and patrolled, there's no evidence that arrests are a deterrent to those who make repeated attempts, Cornelius said. And "between one-third and one-half of recent illegal entries occurred through false or borrowed documents, or people concealed in vehicles," he said.
A fortress wall won't help in those cases. And in recent years, people who came to the U.S. legally and then overstayed their visas have outnumbered those who jumped a fence or tunneled under it.
"Jeff Sessions and the administration … are really like the proverbial generals who are always fighting the last war," Cornelius said. "They're determined to solve a problem that no longer exists, or at least not as it did in the 1970s to 1990s."
If it ever gets built, the wall will be big, it'll be beautiful, and it'll be a multibillion-dollar boondoggle.