Border wall

Should We Build the Wall? We Asked Trump Supporters.

The wall might turn out "big" and "beautiful." But how much will it cost, and what will it do?


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On March 13, 2018, President Donald Trump traveled to the border near San Diego to tour prototypes of the "big, beautiful wall" that served as the centerpiece of his presidential campaign.

Reason was on hand at a pro-Trump rally nearby to find out what supporters hope it will accomplish.

The first point to consider is cost. Trump has requested $25 billion just to build the wall, and independent estimates put the price tag even higher. Annual maintenance would optimistically run in the hundreds of millions of dollars, on top of the billions already being spent to expand Border Patrol personnel and technology.

Despite the president's repeated promises, Mexico will not pay for the wall. Whether through direct taxation or a new import tax, American taxpayers will be on the hook for the cost.

The people we talked to said one main reason we need a wall is to stop crime. But wouldn't all the resources we're allocating to blanket border enforcement be more effective if spent on targeting the bad actors?

The U.S. has erected hundreds of miles of fencing and other barriers in the last 30 years and more than quintupled the number of Border Patrol agents on the ground, in addition to installing high-tech sensors and cameras and using military drones to patrol.

And yet drug cartels and the human smugglers known as "coyotes" have out-innovated the authorities at every turn, using tunnels, planes, drones, ships, catapults, car ramps, and even specially built submarines.

There are other reasons to doubt the wall's efficacy in stopping the type of border crossings its supporters cite. The majority of unauthorized immigrants to the U.S. don't walk across the border—they show up with temporary visas and then overstay them. And lately, more Mexican migrants have been exiting the country than coming in.

"Get in line" was also a common refrain among the people we spoke to. Many proclaimed their support for legal immigration, even though Trump has thrown his support behind an effort to cut overall immigration in half over the next decade. Even at current levels, getting a visa is nearly impossible for many legal immigrants, especially Mexicans. In 2018, the quota is just 25,000 people, and there are nearly 1.3 million people on the Mexican waiting list who have already been vetted and approved by U.S. authorities.

Increased border enforcement has also backfired on supporters who worry about illegal residents. Reductions in guest workers and the expansion of fencing and Border Patrol activity over the past few decades have actually led to more unauthorized immigrants staying in the U.S. The new measures didn't stop motivated crossers, but they did raise the costs of going back over the border. An exhaustive study by the Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey concluded there are now over 5 million more illegal residents than there would have been if policies put in place under Ronald Reagan had been maintained.

Beyond the practical concerns about the proposed wall's effects, it also poses a threat to Americans' civil liberties. Only about a third of border land along the proposed wall route is owned by the federal government, with the rest split between states, Native American tribes, and private landowners. Existing fencing has already resulted in the seizure of American landowners' property via eminent domain, with more to come under Trump's proposal.

Supporters often point to other border walls, such as Israel's, as a model. But building a wall along the entire 1,900-mile U.S.-Mexico border poses unique practical challenges.

A double barrier like those that already exist near San Diego and around the Rio Grande needs to be porous so that flood waters can escape and Americans can access their land. Trump's wall would have to cross some of the most forbidding terrain on earth, cut through Native American burial grounds, and further threaten natural ecosystems.

In a world where most illegal immigrants don't walk across the border and not a single terrorist ever has, where small businesses rely on immigrant labor, and where average Americans could be hurt by increased prices or violations of their civil liberties, does it make sense to spend tens of billions of dollars on this wall?

Produced by Justin Monticello and Zach Weissmueller. Hosted by Monticello. Camera by Weissmueller and Alex Manning.

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