Prototypes of Donald Trump’s proposed border wall are being constructed near the US-Mexico border in San Diego, California. The wall, a divisive rally call during the Trump presidential campaign, has become a greatly contested financial matter in Washington. After being continually rebuked by Mexican authorities on Trump’s claim that Mexico will pay for the wall, members of Congress have to determine how the project will be funded.
One of the biggest issues is the disparity in estimates for the wall’s construction costs – Trump has stated that a ‘super-duper’ wall would cost $10 billion or less while the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimates it will cost $21.6 billion. Independent estimates state the cost will be closer to $38 billion, and Democrats estimate it will cost $70 billion.
Rio Grande reality
Beyond the political posturing in Washington, there is a greater need to focus on the reality of what is happening on the ground in the borderlands. The wall has been touted as a dual solution to both illegal immigration into the country and protection of domestic labor markets. However, apprehensions at the border have plummeted to historic lows in Calendar Year 2017 while Mexicans have been leaving the United States at a higher rate than they have been entering since 2014.
Furthermore, the assertion that low-skilled native workers are replaced by foreign labor is still highly contested. While the number of labour migrants at the southern border continues to drop, a subset of migrants has been crossing in unprecedented levels during the last five years.
Numbers of women and children increasing
Despite an overall drop in people apprehended crossing the border, the number of family units apprehended at the southern border has increased 37 percent from 44,516 to 61,089 from 2016 to 2017. Apprehension numbers of unaccompanied minors at the southwest border have gone from 22,851 apprehensions in 2011 to 102,105 in 2016.
In that same time period, the number of women apprehended at the southwest border rose from 42,590 to 100,515. Far from protecting the domestic labour market, the likely effect of the wall would be to prevent vulnerable women and children from seeking refuge in the United States.
Conditions in Central America
A majority of these women and children are coming from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. A lack of economic opportunity undoubtedly plays a part in emigration from the region, but instances of violence in the form of extortions, targeted killings, and sexual violence are the primary migratory drivers.
Violence in the region is on par with war zones. Homicide rates in El Salvador and Honduras in 2015 were at 91.2 and 59.1 murders per 100,000 inhabitants respectively; only Syria has a higher average. While there are reports of decreasing violence in El Salvador, in late September gang infighting resulted in 108 murders in a four-day period. Gang violence on the streets coupled with government corruption and impunity for documented murder provide ample reason for vulnerable groups to seek safety beyond the borders of their country.
A moral responsibility?
At a time when the United States could be offering support to people fleeing from a climate of violence it is culpable in facilitating, it is slashing refugee admissions. This policy, antithetical to established moral principles of the country, compliments reports that border patrol officers are unlawfully turning asylum seekers away at the border. As asylum requests from these countries reach levels last seen when civil war ravaged the region, the U.S. response clearly promotes the newly adopted ethos of ‘America First’.
When considering country conditions in the Northern Triangle and the current profile of people crossing the border, the wall’s utility comes into question. The net effect will likely be to prevent mostly women and children from entering the country. The incoherence of this plan is further exacerbated by the fact that a majority of unauthorized migrants are here because of visa overstays. Further increasing a bloated border budget is unlikely to solve domestic labor issues. But perhaps the wall was never about facts; perhaps it is a concrete symbol of a country unwilling to be disturbed from a state of deep introspection. Whatever the fiscal strain it may put on the federal budget, the cost to the United States’ reputation may be far higher.