In fairness, we were warned.
“On day one, we will begin working on an impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful southern border wall”. The rhetorical overture captured a political leitmotiv, and subsequently, Donald J. Trump hasn’t wavered. The initial comment – which appeared to be a hyperbolized metaphor extemporaneously pulled from the mystifying recesses of the 45th President’s intuition – has transformed into an imposing beacon of hope for his base, and a crude manifestation of exclusionary populism for others. On top of that, leveraging DACA extensions to suborn bilateral support for construction is, quite frankly, appalling. Moral outcry aside, the wall needs to be viewed in the context of what it purports to address: illegal immigration. It is arguably the cornerstone of Trump’s agenda, image, and appeal. As such, it’s worth considering whether the construction of a wall is the most cost-effective way of addressing the issue, as well as exploring the current nature of illegal immigration.
To end the suspense, it’s far from a panacea, only acting to compound the blatantly generalized and ill-informed perception of illegal immigration, and the way in which it occurs. It warrants mentioning that estimated costs of the wall are scattered, and likely to be exceeded; with all the variables associated, such as the transportation and acquisition of materials and machinery, building processes, and continued maintenance requirements, the bottom line should be astronomical. The king of all deficit hawks, Paul Ryan, is probably waking up in cold sweats.
Where does the recalibration begin? Statistically on the rise since 2007, legal immigrants overstaying their visas now exceed border-hoppers by 600,000. Moreover, illegal border crossings have diminished to a tenth of 2005 levels, and since 2014, overstays provide for two-thirds of the increase in illegal immigrants. For instance, California has 890,000 recognized overstays. A wall athwart Mexico doesn’t remedy that. None of this is to say that unauthorized entries don’t occur, but, given that the DHS wall projection lies at 22 billion USD over the next three years, could that level of spending be justified in light of only applying to half the illegal population, and an ever-dwindling one thereof? Can more localized measures not be pursued? Furthermore, an increasing portion of undocumented entries is attributed to South and Central Americans who willingly submit to authorities to request political asylum – fleeing violence, turmoil, and persecution – becoming ostensible refugees. With regards to reentry, an aspect Trump sought to stymy, it has already declined by a quarter over the last five years. An alarming rate, achieved without dystopian fortifications.
The dimensions of immigration are also visible with reference to the American economy. With the combined forces of legal and illegal immigration, low-skilled high-school dropouts see wage decreases on a scale of 3 to 8 percent. Bear in mind, however, that a third of illegal immigrants live in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. Even if they were all to leave, and the resulting demand for labour enhanced the wages of naturalized citizens, workers from other areas of the country would soon flock to these cities, returning wages to where they previously were. The narrative of foreign ‘aliens’ pilfering jobs from honest, blue-collar Americans is over-inflated, but not patently false – yet the principles of capitalism dictate these outcomes, not sinister machinations from across the aisle. There’s also little substantive information to suggest that illegal immigration has a deleterious impact on employment levels. They may take jobs, directly or indirectly, from American citizens, but will inevitably create jobs through consumption. Food, cellphones, public transit, plumbing, vehicle repairs, etc, are all goods and services that would presumably be required, hence, stimulating further demand. This is not an unequivocally beneficial or harmful arrangement, but it would be foolish to think that any proposed mass deportation would not have impact remaining individuals, and markets. Similarly, the Institution on Taxation and Economic Policy has calculated that undocumented immigrants account for, federally, $11.64 billion a year in tax revenue; they also posit that bestowing basic residential and work status upon all undocumented entries would increase local and state tax earnings by a projected $2.1 billion annually. Whether or not that is ever a reality, it is illustrative of the overall productivity of undocumented immigrants, frequently on inadequate wages and in substandard conditions (not all that shocking).
On a somewhat divergent note – but an equally pertinent one – the need to redefine the legal framework of status-acquisition is pressing, controversial, and multifaceted. Bar an insidious offence, an individual cannot be prosecuted for a crime occurring beyond 5 years prior. As such, if someone crossed illegally, or overstayed, 25 years ago, and has since sustained a career, started a family, and been an exemplary law-abiding citizen, should there not be a procedural and regulated path to legal status? Citizenship is a different matter, but legal status isn’t an unimplementable goal. Nor is it an egregiously permissible liberal pipe dream. Tracking down and deporting individuals who have long been contributing members of society is a sub-optimal, inane use of public resources and police efforts. The oft-cited yet valuable critique is the active barrier to an unauthorized immigrant being compelled to report a crime, which instigates a vicious cycle not only fostering paranoia and distrust, but inhibiting efficacious policing practices. According to Houston Police Department Data, sexual assault reports in Hispanic enclaves dramatically decreased by 43 percent in the first three months of 2017, coinciding with an influx, in comparison to the 2016 average. Instances of aggravated assault and armed robbery, reported by Hispanic individuals, have each diminished by 12 percent. That remedying this, through more systemic means, has been absent from federal policymaking points to a conception of immigration issues devoid of nuance or non-binary construals. Confirmation bias is a favored insulator for Mr. Trump’s love of an easily digestible relationship between problem, and solution.
Ultimately, there’s no doubt that the construction of a border wall would serve to ingratiate the President with his feverish, overwrought base, but it’s a counterproductive use of time, money, and energy – while guaranteeing a bout of congressional bickering (as if the country isn’t quite content with its current contretemps). Aiming to be a statement of intent, the notion of a wall is steeped in a shallow understanding of the changing patterns and methods of undocumented immigration. The myopic pigeon-holing of immigrants and their effects on the economic landscape suggests a detachment, whether out of obliviousness or willfulness, from the core issues at hand. Immigration is not as monochromatic or reducible as the left and right peddle, and even if we assume the latter’s narrative is entirely correct, the proposed measures don’t come close to mitigating the problem. On the other hand, they represent a misdiagnosis.
American self-interest – socially, fiscally, politically – and a reimagining of the approach to illegal immigration are not mutually exclusive. Don’t let the White House peddle its snake oil.