The True Costs of the Border Wall

A Tufts political scientist details the national security costs of the shutdown and how to make our borders secure
migrants at the US-Mexico border
Migrants along the border in Cuidad Juarez, Mexico. Building a wall along the border “relies on a misdiagnosis of the roots of many of the problems it seeks to solve, such as human and drug trafficking,” says Kelly M. Greenhill. Photo: David Peinado/AP
January 9, 2019

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With the partial federal government shutdown in its third week, President Donald Trump gave a brief televised address on January 8, arguing for the construction of a wall along the border with Mexico. He said that U.S. national security was at stake, and urged Congressional lawmakers to fund the wall, the contentious issue that led to the government shutdown.

Kelly M. Greenhill, an associate professor of political science, director of the International Relations program at Tufts, and author of Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion, and Foreign Policy, has studied migration and related international political issues and is currently completing a new book on related issues, a cross-national study that explores why, when, and under what conditions “extra-factual” sources of political information—such as rumors, conspiracy theories, myths, and propaganda—materially influence the development and conduct of states' foreign and defense policies.

Tufts Now reached out to Greenhill to talk about Trump’s speech and if the proposed border wall would be the best answer to immigration issues in the U.S.

Tufts Now: If this partial government shutdown continues, what are the implications for U.S. national security and the economy? 

Kelly M. Greenhill: It depends how long the shutdown lasts and what provisions, such as back pay, are made for those directly affected once the shutdown is over. However, we are already starting to see troubling signs, even if they may for the moment be invisible to many Americans. For instance, an increasing number of unpaid TSA screeners and air traffic controllers are calling in sick, quitting, or planning to do so if they are not paid this week, all of which will negatively affect the safety and security of air travel in this country as well as promise significant delays and other direct and indirect economic and social effects. 

“It is fair to say that the president has made a significant number of erroneous, misleading, and simply false statements about the state of affairs on the U.S.-Mexico border and about the causes and consequences of illicit and irregular flows of people, drugs and other goods across it,” said Kelly M. Greenhill. Photo: Kelvin MaIf the shutdown continues, I suspect we will see an increasing number of other “essential” but unpaid employees follow suit. Those in this category include Secret Service agents, Coast Guard personnel, corrections officers who staff federal prisons, and even the Border Patrol agents who guard the southern border along which the wall would be built. 

It is also worth remembering that the number of people directly financially affected by the shutdown is not limited to the 800,000 federal employees commonly cited, but also the more than four million government contract employees who are also not being paid and the myriad array of businesses and entities—local, national and international—that depend on federal employees and direct and indirect relationships with the U.S. government for their livelihoods and for the proper functioning of systems that keep us safe and secure.

Moreover, as state and local governments are forced to divert more resources to fill voids left by the shutdown, broader security and economic effects will likely balloon. 

Will President Trump’s proposed wall make the United States safer? Why or why not?

Setting aside the question of whether there really is a national security crisis on the southern border, it is unlikely that the president’s proposal would make us safer. To be clear, the psychological and rhetorical appeal of a border wall is obvious: a wall offers a powerful and visible symbol that purportedly will provide a simple and straightforward solution to a knotty and complicated set of issues.

The problem is that such a solution is far too simple for at least three reasons. First, it relies on a misdiagnosis of the roots of many of the problems it seeks to solve, such as human and drug trafficking. Second, it ignores the physical diversity and logistical complexities of the 2,000 miles of southern border and what it actually takes to secure them. Third, building the proposed barrier would be very costly—anywhere from five to more than seventy billion dollars, the estimates vary widely—expenditures that appear especially foolhardy when what is instead required is a sophisticated mix of infrastructure, human beings, and technology, much of which is already in place.

Thus far in the debate over the border wall, are the president’s points about the southern border credible? Are the Democrats’?

Such a wide array of claims have been bandied about that I don’t want to make blanket statements about the overall credibility of such claims. However, it is fair to say that the president has made a significant number of erroneous, misleading, and simply false statements about the state of affairs on the U.S.-Mexico border and about the causes and consequences of illicit and irregular flows of people, drugs and other goods across it.

I discussed a number of these misrepresentations in a Foreign Affairs piece a few months ago, and the situation has not changed for the better since then. For instance, as the New York Times and other news outlets have pointed out, last night’s speech also contained a number of falsehoods and misleading claims about the border and the debate that surrounds it. Misleading claims have at times been made by other Republicans and Democrats as well, but the president is particularly prone to making insupportable assertions.

You are at work on a book that explores why and how some sources of political information—such as rumors, conspiracy theories, myths, and propaganda—materially influence the development and conduct of states’ foreign and defense policies. Does your research help inform your analysis of the Trump administration’s case for the border wall?

Absolutely. My book, Fear and Present Danger, offers an in-depth and historically-informed analysis of the strategic deployment and exploitation of rumors, conspiracy theories, fake news, and other forms of extra-factual information to incite, stoke, and fan fears that have little or no basis in objective reality, but which ring true to target audiences on a deep and visceral level.

As I mention in my Foreign Affairs piece, this kind of manipulation is something that Trump has masterfully and repeatedly engaged in with regard to discussions of the wall and the migration debate more broadly. 

It bears noting, of course, that this selfsame strategy was also employed rather dramatically and apparently successfully by the Russians during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But that is a different, if not wholly unrelated story, for another time.      

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