Build the wall: The utility of futility

“Who mows the lawn?” was the question asked to the students. –“The Mexican mows the lawn”, was the answer a young man in his late 20’s gave in return while practicing his Spanish language abilities.

There are few tricks that can be so ingeniously exploited for political gain as social identity issues: the rhetorical and often-times fictitious battle of “us” versus “them”.

We’ve been hearing much about this under the guise of “nationalistic” sentiment, a hijacked term to veil a form of anxiety brought about by ethnic diversity. A feeling of impending doom borne from blurring the lines between us, US citizens, and them, the illegal immigrants making a dash towards the southern border. To assuage those fears some elected leaders have promised constituents a border wall. Let them have it.

At first glance it would appear as though a border wall might play right into the hands of those who embrace racism and xenophobia, and negatively affect law-breaking immigrants who cross the border in search of security and a better life. Neither is accurate.

A border wall would be a gigantic, financial undertaking. An infrastructure project with a price tag of anywhere between $15 and 25 billion dollars, according to official estimates.To be certain, mega-projects the likes of this are usually wise policies when fighting-off recessions, and even though the US is not currently in one, economic indicators point to a decrease in GDP growth over the next two years.Add the ongoing trade war with China to the mix and the forecasts become shakier. Therefore, southern states -those more imminently threatened by hordes of immigrants- should embrace the idea of a wall, as it would bring a steady and robust stream of funds and create jobs for the next decade.

However, aside from the prospects of benefiting local economies, the wall would be a waste of resources akin to fraud, waste and abuse in all other regards.

For starters, estimates show that from 2015 onwards only about 200,000 people cross the border illegally every year. A wall of $20B means that US taxpayers would invest $100,000 dollars per illegal immigrant stopped the first year after completion. That’s roughly the salary of two border patrol agents per year per immigrant apprehended. To get a better idea of the ridiculousness of the thought, imagine a city that employed two police officers per every one resident. That’s not very cost-effective. And, even though the cost over time will even out, there’s still the problem of up keeping some 2,000 miles of border wall, a cost estimated at$150 million a year.

Still, a wall like this would be a good thing for illegal immigrants. For one, it would discourage many from trying to make the dangerous trek across the border, which in 2018 alone saw the deaths of 376 people, according to the Missing Migrants Project, which tracks this type of data worldwide. This would make immigrants seek asylum at official ports of entry, already beset in scores of applications, which in turn pile up backlogs, court filings and legal challenges, and fuel the merciless microscope of a public opinion ready to take aim at anything less than politically correct.

This leads to a third reason why a wall would be good for illegal immigrants: immigration reform. The visual representation of intolerance, in the form of a border barrier, will eventually become a shrine of shame, and it would make it difficult to take seriously any tolerance-advocating politician that supported it in the first place. That is a good thing for the immigrants’ cause. An ever-more diverse and cosmopolitan electorate would find it unpalatable to vote for nationalist-populists.

A word of caution.

Just as people have a tendency to forget history, history has a tendency to repeat itself. There was a time in the 1900s when the south was a homogenous, democratic-blue.It does not look that way nowadays. And, despite the myriad of explanations as to why the South is now solidly red, the fact remains: absent a force majeure, people will vote their values and, fortunately, politicians will vote their interests. It is true that, in some states, a “nationalistic” type of base would still put people into elected office. And yet, the likelihood of losing key states will loom larger every successive national election, prompting party leaders and politicians to reconsider their approach.

The genius of our political parties will not consist in chastising one another over a massive-albeit futile- construction project, nor in punishing federal employees in so doing by means of furloughs during their standoffs. The real coup will consist in avoiding political irrelevance. A border wall will only propel both parties into a structural transformation.

For their part, Democrats need only bemoan intolerance to earn popular favor. Human suffering, political correctness and the absence of major externalities such as a war, that unpredictably affect voting patterns, mean that democrats will be able to command suburban and minority votes, tallying larger and larger electoral successes. They will not, however, push through a comprehensive immigration reform. That would constitute political suicide, given how immigrants tend to espouse traditional, conservative-leaning values. To give this electorate the ability to vote on issues other than immigration would set back the party. Instead, Democrats will stick to the tried and true promise of change. When people have little or nothing, the offer of hope goes a long way.

On the other hand, Republicans should cherish their electoral fortunes with a touch of worry. History will record how American workers paid for a political standoff in the form of a budget impasse and its accompanying government shutdown.And, should the wall be erected, people will remember the billions of dollars spent in a contraption of questionable efficiency, its environmental impact, its heinous aesthetics, and the promises not kept, such as the issue of who would fund the wall. Furthermore, voters will have a tangible memento of how nationalist-populists stoke fears for political gain: a constant reminder of intolerance wrapped as an eloquent, yet unconvincing, security issue. To peddle such policies will spell the end of their stranglehold along the southern border. That’s a good thing. In its pursuit for political relevance, and unable to credibly challenge Democrats in promising an immigration reform, the Republican party will have to overcorrect,not for the sake of immigrants per se, but to allow them to vote on issues other than immigration.

“Who builds the wall?”, should ask teachers when imparting English language to foreigners. –“The Americans build the wall” would be a formidable, tale-like response. The irony, though, is that US companies awarded contracts for this mega-project will seek to maximize profits. Construction work along the southern border will be carried out with immigrants’ labor, who usually command lower wages. It will be quite amusing when the first reports of illegal immigrants’ involvement in building the wall reach the national media outlets.  Only then we’ll realize that such a wall was not as useless as some had imagined. It will at least have given them jobs and a better life for years to come.

Ayax Rangel
Ayax Rangel
Doctoral student of Global Security at American Military University. @AyaxRangel