Donald Trump loves the ceremonial parts of his job, and his trip to California to inspect prototypes for a border wall was pure theater. He got to project toughness, point to something tangible, make big promises, and take credit—without actually accomplishing anything. He's not a president; he's a performance artist.
Of all his campaign pledges, none was more appealing to those at his rallies than the border wall, and none was more harebrained. The idea of creating an impermeable vacuum seal on our southern perimeter was appealing to opponents of immigration (legal or not) and drug smuggling. Forcing Mexico to pick up the tab made it irresistible.
Never mind that the idea had as much chance of materializing as a rainforest in the Sonoran Desert. Even Trump has hedged: "We don't need 2,000 (miles). We need 1,000, because we have natural barriers." But promising a 1,000-mile wall with hundreds of miles of holes might not have stoked raucous cheers from his crowds.
The cost would be enormous. An internal report by the Department of Homeland Security put the price at $21.6 billion. A study by the Democratic staff of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee calculated it at $70 billion, not counting maintenance. That's more than $200 for every man, woman, and child in the U.S.—and zero dollars for every man, woman and child in Mexico.
Those who would be most directly affected show the least enthusiasm. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), whose district includes 800 miles of the Mexican border, says "a wall from sea to shining sea is the most expensive and least effective way to do border security." The Texas Border Coalition, made up of mayors and other officials from the area, calls it a "false promise." For his Tuesday gala, Trump went to San Diego, whose City Council passed a resolution opposing the wall—which the Republican mayor declined to veto.
Trump claimed his wall would be "99 percent" effective, which is enough to make a lizard laugh. There is no reason to think endless slabs of concrete would stop illegal immigration or drug smuggling.
The Congressional Research Service looked at the experience of the "primary fence" built in San Diego and concluded that it, "by itself, did not have a discernible impact on the influx of unauthorized aliens coming across the border in San Diego." The main result, the CRS found, was that "the flow of illegal immigration … shifted to the more remote areas of the Arizona desert."
As for drugs, the Coast Guard says 95 percent of them arrive in container ships or other boats. Traffickers have discovered that the existing fence doesn't block underground tunnels, of which the Border Patrol has found hundreds.
Migrants have also found ways that don't involve dodging rattlesnakes. Two-thirds of the undocumented foreigners living here didn't sneak across the border; they came on temporary visas and forgot to leave. "So unless the wall is 35,000 feet high, it's not going to do much to stop those overstaying these visas," Robert Warren, a fellow at the Center for Migration Studies, told The New York Times.
It would, however, wreak havoc. Some landowners would be cut off from access to some of their own acreage, as well as water sources, and see their properties decline in value. They would also have to gaze upon the wall, in its full Soviet-bloc ugliness, every day.
Then there are the environmental harms. The Center for Biological Diversity reports that 93 wildlife species would be adversely affected. "This may well lead to the extinction of the jaguar, ocelot, cactus ferruginous pygmy owl and other species in the United States," it says.
All this assumes Trump's vision will come to pass. Hoover Institution economist John Cochrane notes that much of the barrier would have to be erected in California. That's the same state where the governor and Legislature have been pushing for a decade to build a high-speed train—"yet not one mile of the line yet exists." By contrast, Cochrane notes, "it took the Union Pacific four years to build the transcontinental railroad from Sacramento to Utah, over the Donner Pass, by hand."
But it doesn't matter for Trump. His wall promise rests on the same basis as a Ponzi scheme. It doesn't have to work in the end. It just has to work long enough to fleece the gullible.