Walls, Ignorance, and Bad Policy

by Phil Anderson

"An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people." Thomas Jefferson  

The end of the partial government shutdown is over but all the underlying problems still remain. Can the differences, especially the funding of a border wall, be resolved in the next  week? Don't count on it.  

Immigration and border security issues are examples of too much demagoguery and too little knowledge. Ignorance on the issue is widespread and bipartisan. Public policy should be driven by the best available information. Let's look at what we know about unauthorized, or “illegal” immigrants.  

Immigration is not the most pressing problem facing the country. Many other issues have more impact on more people's lives. Issues like the cost of healthcare, education, housing and the decline in family supporting jobs affect many people. Environmental problems and climate change are impacting everyone and will havesevere consequences in the future. Immigration and border “security” problems have practically no impact on the average American. Yet the government spends more on immigration enforcement than all other federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined. 

There is no immigration “crisis” on the Mexican border. Neither is there any justification for using “emergency” powers to build a wall. We have had illegal immigrants since the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act first made people “illegal.“ Eleven million people, or about 3% if the population, are unauthorized immigrants. According to the Center for American Progress,  the number of unauthorized Mexican immigrants entering the country peaked in 2007. Now more Mexican immigrants are going home than are entering the country. The majority (60%) of unauthorized immigrants are long-term residents of the United States. They work, pay taxes, go to school, raise families and contribute to the economy like the rest of us. Any claim that we are now, suddenly, in a “crisis” is ludicrous.  

These neighbors are not “rapists and criminals.” The Migration Policy Institute, has estimated that about 7% of unauthorized immigrants have been convicted of any crime and only 3%  were felonies. By comparison about 6% of the general population are felons. The conservative Cato Institute says immigrants are considerably less likely to commit crimes or be incarcerated than the U.S. born population. The President is simply speaking from ignorance (or self-serving demagoguery) when he claims otherwise.  

Immigrants are good for the economy. The National Academy of Sciences says immigrants have an overall positive impact on the economy. Immigrants' impact on wages and jobs of native born workers is small. First generation immigrants may need help, primarily with education for their children, but the “second generation are among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors in the U.S. population, contributing more in taxes than either their parents or the rest of the native-born population.” The Center for American Progress says immigrants added an estimated $2 trillion to the U.S. GDP in 2016 and boost productivity through innovation and entrepreneurship. Even the conservative Heritage Foundations says it is “...folly to blame immigrants for hurting the economy..” 

Many unauthorized immigrants are not sneaking across the southern border. The Center for Migration Studies says from 2007 to 2014, more unauthorized immigrants overstayed their temporary visas than crossed the Mexican boarder. Two-thirds of new unauthorized arrivals in 2014 entered the United States on legal non-immigrant visas. The Department of Homeland Security says Canada is the largest source of these unauthorized immigrants. They come from Mexico, Brazil, China, Korea, India, and European and African countries. A wall on the Mexican border will do nothing to stop any of these unauthorized immigrants.  

Building a wall is a campaign slogan not an intelligent policy. Although a wall has political appeal for politicians pandering to their ill-informed, racist partisan base, it is not a solution to immigration problems. A continuous barrier along the over 2000 miles of the southern border is not cost effective. The existing 652 miles cost $2.8 to $3.9 million per mile. Estimates are the rest would cost $67 billion. Walls are expensive to build but easy to breach. They have never worked well in the past to control migrations or “invaders.” The conservativeHeritage Foundation states it well,“Throughout history, great nations have declined because they built up walls of insularity...It would be a tragedy if America were to turn toward a false sense of security...” 

A wall doesn't address the causes of migration or fix the larger problems with controlling he borders. It doesn't create a more rational or efficient process for screening and processing applicants. It doesn't deal with the 11 million people and their American citizen children already in the country. It doesn't fix people overstaying their visas. It doesn't address the the significant needs of business for immigrant workers. Plus it is an embarrassing symbol of racism in the supposed “land of freedom and opportunity.”  

The whole immigration debate is steeped in racism. This is why all the focus is on the Mexican border. This is why Canadian, Irish, Polish, Russian, and other European undocumented people are not being deported. ICE is deporting Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees from our war in SE Asia. We are deporting Hispanic U.S. military veterans who had been promised citizenship in return for their service. People of color from the Middle East or India get profiled and hassled. But most of the attention is on “Mexicans” on the southern border regardless of their country of origin.  We need rational immigration policy based on actual facts and not ignorant tweets or campaign rally chants. We need comprehensive reform. We need more rational foreign policy and trade policy. Real border security comes from good relations with your neighbors based on respect and fairness.  

All of us can help by taking Thomas Jefferson's advise and becoming an “educated citizenry.” Then we can hold our elected representatives accountable for their ignorance.         

Suggested Reading:“A Wall Cannot Fix Problems at Border; Smart Solutions for Asylum Crisis Can,” Migration  Policy Institute,  January 2019 

“The Facts on Immigration Today: 2017 Edition,” Center For American Progress, April 20, 2017. “A 2000 Mile Wall in Search of a Purpose,” Center for Migration Studies, 2017 

“The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration,” National Academies of Science, 2017 

“Here’s the Reality About Illegal Immigrants in the United States,” New York Times. March 6, 2017. 

“Why We Panic About Immigration,“ National Review, January 21, 2019  

“The Real Problem with Immigration... and the Real Solution,” The Heritage Foundation March 1, 2006     Informed vs opinionated