In the coming weeks I am going to be breaking down Donald Trump’s campaign platform. I want to first tackle his idea of building a border wall because of it’s centrality to his campaign.
“I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words”
Donald Trump likes to make claims that he can force Mexico to pay for a giant border wall, and he even has a policy proposal to do so. Put simply, the plan is that the United States would freeze remittances to Mexico from undocumented workers by requiring that in order to transfer money out of the country, individuals would have to prove citizenship and be physically present in the United States. This would mean that an undocumented worker could not transfer money to their families in Mexico. The goal of his policies is to hold Mexico’s economy hostage in order to coerce them into paying for the wall.
Enacting this policy requires a broad reading of a provision in the PATRIOT ACT (which yes, is an acronym: “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001”). Donald Trump’s plan specifically calls for various parts of the law to be retroactively redefined. While this isn’t an uncommon thing in government, extremely broad “redefining” by the executive branch is normally indefensible in federal court, and it wouldn’t take long before the Trump administration found itself there. A Trump administration would – however – be able to choose a Supreme Court justice. This doesn’t guarantee a victory for Trump even if he could shift the court to have a majority of conservative justices. But even assuming that the administration could successfully defend their policy, it isn’t out of the water yet.
Even if the policy is successful in harming the Mexican economy, it would just create a larger population of unemployed who will cross the border in hopes of finding a job. But this is assuming that Trump is right and that outlawing cash transfers to the United States would not only prevent $24 billion per year going to Mexico (only 2% of their GDP) but also that this amount would be significant. While there might be some impact, the transfers are such a small part of Mexico’s economy that most of the impact will be felt in impoverished communities where jobs aren’t available. Of course, undocumented workers in the United States could just pivot from mainstream means of transferring money and enlarge the black market for money transfers. Undocumented workers would simply pay US citizens to transfer money to Mexico. The sheer volume of these transfers would likely make it impossible to effectively stop the flow of money – so while Trump’s plan would likely decrease remittances to Mexico it wouldn’t be the full $24 billion, nor would it be a significant enough amount to force Mexico’s hand.
But wait, there’s more. Trump has contingency plans if preventing remittances doesn’t work.
Contingency 1: “Trade tariffs, or enforcement of existing trade rules.” Trump proposes that the United States would resume the tariffs on Mexican goods that were phased out with the North American Free Trade Agreement. Re-initiating them amounts to breaking the agreement which has been a boon for all North American economies. Not only would it inflict tremendous harm on Mexico, it would increase prices of thousands of consumer goods, and increase the price of fuel. Currently the United States has a trade deficit with Mexico, meaning that we buy more of their goods than they buy of ours. But there is only a trade deficit because of fuel imports. Eliminating the petroleum that we import from NAFTA countries the United States has a trade surplus. Considering that we have to import fuel anyway, doing it from ally countries seems very much desirable to sending money to countries where our relationship is more ambiguous. While NAFTA has had a negative impact on manufacturing jobs in the United States, a strong majority of economists agree that it has been a net positive. There is no doubt that improvements to trade agreements can be made, but entirely eliminating ones that have a beneficial effect on our economy isn’t a good idea. All of this is ignoring the moral implication of plunging an emerging economy like Mexico’s into a massive depression and the effects it would have on other countries’ trade practices with the United States after seeing us destroy an significant piece of international legislation on a whim. That is to say, the negative effects of this move would reach beyond trade with Mexico and would likely harm the international economy in general.
Contingency 2: “Cancelling visas.” Trump’s site states that “Immigration is a privilege, not a right. Mexico is totally dependent on the United States as a release valve for its own poverty – our approvals of hundreds of thousands of visas to their nationals every year is one of our greatest leverage points. We also have leverage through business and tourist visas for important people in the Mexican economy.”
Visas are documents that allow individuals from other countries to provisionally stay within the borders of a country of which they aren’t a resident. There are visas for tourists, students, government representatives, fiancees of United States’ citizens and more. In general, all of these visas have a positive effect on the economy. A micro-example is student visas. At Idaho State University in Pocatello Idaho, international students from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait account for $23 million a year in revenue and international students represent an even larger total. This accounts for about 1/4 of all tuition payments at the University, and next year Kuwait and Saudi Arabia will be removing all of its students from the campus due to a string of hate crimes and discrimination largely from in the surrounding community, but also from students and faculty within the school itself. This massive reduction will have a tremendously harmful effect not only on the school itself, but on businesses in Pocatello. Trump suggests that the United States should voluntarily stop issuing visas, which would have a horrifying impact on small communities like Pocatello.
Contingency 3: “Visa fees.” Trump site states that “Even a small increase in visa fees would pay for the wall. This includes fees on border crossing cards, of which more than 1 million are issued a year.” Here is where some questionable math comes into play. Trump has estimated that building his border wall would cost between $8 and $10 billion. Accepting this extremely conservative estimate, visa fees would have to be increased by $8,000 each. But more realistic estimates for construction (and not maintenance) are between $25 billion and $40 billion.
“If you build a 30-foot wall, all it’s going to do is create a market for 31-foot ladders” Considering the sheer unfeasibility of the wall is one thing, but it’s effectiveness is another. Almost half of illegal immigrants are in the United States because they overstay their visas, so right off the bat there is no reason to believe that a wall would stop illegal immigration, especially when there is already border fencing in populated areas which serve the same purpose. There is a legitimate purpose to border security, especially as it pertains to various types of trafficking, but a wall has no more deterrence factor than a fence, and in many places not much more deterrence than flat ground. Furthermore, there is a greater amount of undocumented individuals from Mexico leaving the country than entering it suggesting that the problem isn’t preventing undocumented workers from entering the country, but rather addressing the issue of undocumented workers currently in the country.
Political galvanization in Mexico would likely be another result of Trump’s actions. Policy makers aren’t going to accept an ultimatum such as the one Trump suggests, and their citizens aren’t going to want them to. This is perfectly summed up by Jorge Ramos, former President of Mexico:
Finally, this policy will hurt joint efforts between the United States and Mexico to decrease the influence and power of drug cartels. When our policies shift from cooperation to confrontation it will prevent law enforcement from both countries from effectively addressing a problem that crosses both sides of the border. The United States provides $1.6 billion in aid to various Central and South American countries to combat drug cartels and cooperate and share information with their various enforcement agencies. While a wall might slow some of these activities, it won’t prevent cartels from being a prevalent force and the net effects on crime will be negative as the Mexican economy slows due to scrapping NAFTA. Many of the unemployed will be forced into the drug trade in order to support their families. Central America is the most dangerous place in the world that isn’t an active war zone; out of the ten countries with the highest homicide rates, Central American countries comprise half of them. So, any setback in cooperation in combating drug cartels will have a direct human impact.
To conclude, the border wall isn’t likely, isn’t feasible, isn’t cost effective, won’t be paid for by Mexico and will have a negative impact on crime.