Donald Trump’s wall has been a centerpiece of Republican immigration policy since 2015. The bruising fight over wall funding led the current government shutdown that, at this point, is certain to last into the new year. Aside from funding, however, there is another big problem with the wall: It won’t do what it is intended to do.
The idea of the wall is established on the premise that a physical barrier running the entire length of the US-Mexico border is the only way to prevent illegal immigration. The total length of the US-Mexico border is 1,989 miles (3,201 km) and the sheer length of the border would make the construction of a wall along the southern border a massive undertaking.
Still, a wall of that length is not impossible to build. China’s Great Wall is 5,500 miles (8,850 km) long. Contrary to popular belief, however, the Great Wall is not entirely composed of the wide stone walls that we know from pictures. While about 3,900 miles are constructed wall sections, there are also 225 miles of trenches, and 1,400 miles of natural barriers such as hills and rivers.
Natural barriers are also present along the southern US border. While many Americans picture the Mexican border as a flat, desert wasteland, in reality, there are many different types of terrain. As pictured in an interactive map from USA Today, the border geography ranges from urban areas in places like San Diego and Laredo to the sheer rock cliffs of Texas’ Big Bend to coastal marshes and salt flats along the Gulf of Mexico near Brownsville, Texas.
One of the largest obstacles to the construction of a wall is that 1,260 miles of the border are defined by the Rio Grande. The entire border between Texas and Mexico is defined by this river, which in many places is shallow enough to walk across. At its deepest point, the Rio Grande is only 60 feet deep and at times the river is a mere trickle if there is a surface flow at all.
Walling up the Rio Grande may be possible from an engineering standpoint, but the river raises a different sort of problem in Texas. In the arid regions of south and west Texas, ranchers depend on the Rio Grande to water both crops and cattle. If the wall is erected on the northern side of the river, it would be equivalent to ceding the region’s primary water supply to Mexico. The Mexicans would most likely not cooperate with placing the wall on the southern side and a wall built in the center of the river would not only be structurally unsound but could alter the course of the river, a violation of treaties with Mexico.
At present, many plans for the border wall in Texas would be set back from the Rio Grande. The problem here is that it would not keep people from crossing the border illegally. It would only impede them in moving from the border region to the interior of the country. Such a wall would be more effective against smugglers than refugees seeking amnesty, who would easily cross onto US soil. It would also be a major inconvenience for American citizens who live or own property south of the wall.
Because much of the border land in Texas is privately owned, the federal government has had to use eminent domain laws to condemn and seize land where it plans to build the wall in Texas. After passage of the after the Secure Fence Act of 2006, Noel Benavides of Roma, Texas lost a swath of land that had been in his family since 1767 to a wall that has yet to be built across his property.
Wall-building would also be difficult in the desolate areas of west Texas. The southwestern United States contains rocky mountains and sheer cliffs that are reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote cartoons. This terrain is ill-suited to construction but is passable to determined travelers.
Even after the wall is built, the need for maintenance would be constant. Earthquakes, rock slides, floods, erosion, corrosion, and, of course, vandalism could cause damage to sections of the wall. The structure would have to be constantly monitored and repaired.
Would the wall be worth the time, trouble, and treasure that it would take to build and maintain it?
There are already about 650 miles of border fence along the borders of California, Arizona, and New Mexico. The current fencing consists of a mix of vehicle barriers and pedestrian fencing that vary in height, construction, quality, and condition.
While the wall is a centuries-old technology, the current fencing has shown that the concept can be defeated by other old technologies such as ladders, ramps, and tunnels. A 2010 viral video showed two young women scaling a border fence unaided by ladders or climbing gear in 18 seconds. Last November, we witnessed members of the migrant caravan climbing the fence near Tijuana. In 2012, a smuggler’s SUV got stuck crossing the border fence with the aid of ramps. It is uncertain how many similar attempts were not detected. More recently a plethora of smuggling tunnels underneath the border has been found in areas where there are physical barriers above the surface.
The bottom line is that a border wall is no panacea. While the wall might make it more difficult or costly to cross the border, smugglers and illegal immigrants will find a way unless they are physically stopped by Border Patrol agents.
Even though a wall backed up by sensors and Border Patrol agents would be at least partially effective, the immense investment in time and money would leave open another route for illegal immigrants. The Center for Migration Studies reports that visitors who enter the US legally and then overstay visas have exceeded those crossing the border illegally every year since 2007. By 2014, two-thirds of new illegals were visa overstays.
The bottom line is that assuming that a wall is feasible to build at all in areas that have not already been fenced, it will be much more difficult and expensive and much less effective than Republicans generally assume. If the fight to build it is ever won, the wall will still require a significant Border Patrol presence as well as constant maintenance. Even then, the wall would do nothing to prevent visa overstays, a larger source of illegal immigrants than the southern border.
H.L. Mencken famously said, “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” As conservatives, we should look beyond simplistic and emotional arguments to determine the facts before spending untold billions of dollars. Those facts tell us that a wall is not the best solution to the problem of illegal immigration. Fencing is appropriate for some areas but doesn’t make sense for the entirety of the border. Wall funding is almost certainly the wrong hill to die on, especially since most polls show that a majority of Americans oppose the wall.
The inability to control the border isn’t a problem unique to the southern United States. Walls didn’t work well for the Chinese either. The Great Wall didn’t prevent its defenders from being overrun on multiple occasions. No less than four times the Xiongnu, the Jurchens, the Mongols, and the Manchus pierced the defensive barrier.