The Economics of the Wall

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The Economics of the Wall

Among the issues that determined the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, none was more important or divisive than Donald Trump’s promise to build a “wall” along the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border.   


Throughout history, there has been a tug-of war between those who demand “physically secure borders” and those who demand “open borders.”  The former have built barriers ranging from Hadrian’s wall, to the Great Wall of China, to the Maginot Line, to the Berlin Wall, at various times and for varied purposes.  During the administration of George W. Bush, a partial U.S.-Mexico barrier was authorized, funded, and largely implemented.


Much of the support and opposition to “Trump’s wall” are derived from the way it has come to symbolize the global rise of patriotism and nationalism we’ve recently witnessed in countries as diverse as the U.S., France, the Netherlands, Hungary, Italy, and the UK.  Passions have been inflamed further by Trump’s bombastic insistence that Mexico “pay for the wall,” which adds insult to perceived injury.


As a result, arguments typically focus on statements such as, “a wall can never be 100 percent effective,” “stopping undocumented migrants from entering the country is costing the economy valuable resources,” and “it’s simply unfair and racist to exclude people seeking a better life in the United States.”


In this emotional setting, it’s no surprise that we’ve seen so little hard data about the costs and benefits of the wall.  But, recently the non-partisan Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) examined the lifetime cost of illegal border crossers and compared those to the realistic costs of building a wall to stop them.1

So let’s ask what we know about the illegal border crossers and their impact on the U.S. economy.2

  • First, newly released research by the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) done for the Department of Homeland Security indicates that 170,000 illegal immigrants crossed the border successfully without going through a port of entry in 2015. While a significant decline in crossings from a decade ago, it still means that there may be 1.7 million successful crossings in the next decade; and even more if the economy returns to 1990s growth rates.  
  • Second, there is agreement among researchers that illegal immigrants overwhelmingly have modest levels of education; that is, most have not completed high school or have only a high school education...

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