Among the many manifestly bad ideas being promulgated by the newly minted Trump administration, the most hare-brained could well be building a barrier along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico — from the Pacific to the Gulf Coast — as a way to keep people from entering the country illegally. Even though there's no clear source of funding yet, President Trump signed an executive order Wednesday directing the Department of Homeland Security to get started, with a vow by the White House that "one way or the other, Mexico will pay for it."
The cost will be determined by the type of barrier Trump ultimately decides to build. Another important factor is whether the roughly 700 miles of walls and fencing the government already maintains in populated areas and at border crossings will be replaced, enhanced or left alone. Trump has said the wall could be built for as little as $8 billion, but other estimates put the cost as high as $38 billion. And even Trump's own new Homeland Security secretary, retired Gen. John F. Kelly, said in his confirmation hearing that a wall alone won't stop illegal border crossers — it will take manpower, surveillance and other security measures. The kinds of steps, in fact, that would probably make the wall less necessary.
Trying to bill Mexico for the project will be an exercise in either futility or inhumanity. Trump has proposed taxing the $24 billion that people in the U.S. send in remittances to families in Mexico, most of whom desperately need the money. About half of that money, some experts say, is sent by people living in the U.S. legally — including American citizens. Why should they have to foot the bill for this? Besides, the tax would have to be onerous to raise anywhere near the amount of money it will take to build the wall, which means the remittances would most likely be driven underground. And cutting off the remittances would simply create another factor sending impoverished Mexicans north to find work.
And what's the point of the wall, anyway? Illegal immigration from Mexico dropped off during the last recession; in fact, the Pew Research Center reported in 2015 that more Mexicans were leaving the U.S. than were coming in. Detentions of people illegally crossing of the Mexican border have plummeted since the recession too. More and more, residents who are living in the U.S. illegally came in to the country with visas, often from nations other than Mexico, but then didn't leave. The wall will have no effect on people who come in that way, obviously. And while drug-trafficking across the border is significant, history shows that blocking off one smuggling route just creates another as long as the demand remains strong. Mexican cartels have already made inroads deep into the U.S., an infiltration not likely to be affected by a wall.
Border security is important, and the U.S. doesn't do a good enough job at it, but changes should be a key part of a broader comprehensive reform. Instead, Trump is starting with a disruption, not a solution. He might be able to start building his wall, but the resistance he will face — beginning with California — means in all likelihood it will get delayed by lawsuits challenging everything from the seizure of private property along the wall's route to the environmental effects of such a massive intrusion into sensitive habitats.
Trump also Wednesday ordered a crackdown on those already living here illegally. He directed that 5,000 new agents be hired for the Border Patrol and 10,000 for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to track down potential deportees in the interior. He ordered that new detention centers be built near the border, and already overwhelmed immigration judges be sent to detention centers to handle cases there rather than in immigration courts. And he revived the controversial Secure Communities deportation program with the threat of defunding jurisdictions — such as San Francisco and, potentially, Los Angeles — that do not cooperate fully with federal immigration enforcement.
These are draconian steps that, taken together, will convert the border into a fortress, tear apart families and communities and harm sections of the economy that have come to depend on undocumented labor. And they would do little to make the nation safer, Trump's purported goal.