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Arguments over President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall have ranged from the silly – walls don’t work (despite evidence to the contrary) – to the bizarre – they are immoral (even though that claim comes from politicians who have voted for fencing).
The most interesting question is whether the wall is too costly.
To answer that question, a Washington think tank this week crunched the numbers and calculated that a wall would have to stop only a small fraction of illegal border crossings to be cost-effective.
This week’s report by the Center for Immigration Studies, an update of a study it released in 2017 examining a proposed wall costing $12 billion to $15 billion, looks at the $5 billion Trump has requested for fiscal year 2019.
At that price tag, according to the report, the wall would have to prevent about 60,000 illegal crossings – or 3 percent to 4 percent of the expected total over the next decade – to save taxpayers at all levels of government as much money as the wall would cost.
Steven Camarota, director of research at the think tank, bases the number on the estimated cost to taxpayers of each illegal immigrant who makes it into the United States across the southwest border. He approximates that cost using fiscal estimates developed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
Illegal immigrants tend to have high school diplomas or less. As with Americans of that educational profile, the jobs those migrants get, on average, pay less than they use in government services. The net lifetime cost, after accounting for taxes paid, is $74,722 per illegal crosser. Adjusted to 2018 dollars, that figure is $82,191.
That means for every illegal immigrant stopped by a wall, taxpayers at the federal and state levels combined save roughly $82,191. Breaking even on a $5 billion wall would require the barrier to prevent roughly 60,000 illegal immigrants.
Much of the burden of illegal immigrants falls to state and local governments for basic services, such as schools, roads and police protection. So, stopping only 4 percent of attempted border crossers would not allow the federal government – where the entire cost of the barrier would fall – to break even.
Many experts believe that for every illegal immigrant apprehended, one makes it into the interior of the country. Camarota uses a more conservative estimate by the Institute for Defense Analyses that there are between 1.95 and 2.28 apprehensions for every successful crossing. That would translate to about 170,000 to 200,000 successful crossings in fiscal year 2018 and 1.7 million to 2 million over the next decade if the current number of attempts holds steady.
If the number of foreigners attempting to sneak across the border were to decline over the next decade, the success rate would have to be higher than 3 percent or 4 percent to hit the break-even mark. The same is true if the fiscal cost of each illegal immigrant is less than projected.
If the fiscal cost of each migrant is half of the projected figure and the number of attempts over the next decade is half of what the rate was in 2018, a wall would have to stop 12 percent to 14 percent of border crossings to pay for itself, according to the report.
“But the range of reasonable assumptions indicates that a wall would not have to come close to being anywhere near 100 percent effective to pay for itself,” Camarota writes. “This would be true even if a wall cost twice as much. A wall that is only partially effective could pay for itself by offsetting the cost that otherwise successful illegal crossers would create.”
Camarota stresses that his analysis does not attempt to measure the effectiveness of a wall, although the experience of border barriers in the United States and other countries suggests that they are quite effective at deterring illegal border crossers. The report also notes that a wall would do nothing to deter the hundreds of thousands of people who enter legally and then remain unlawfully after their visas expire.
But other experts have pointed out that it would be harder for foreigners who now sneak across the border to instead come on a visa and overstay. That is because of the cost and requirements of getting the visa in the first place. A high school dropout in Guatemala with no immediate family members in the United States and no job offer is unlikely to qualify for a work or student visa.