Nearly a month has passed since U.S. voters chose their next president, and over the past few weeks it has become a little clearer how the policies of President Donald Trump will differ from the promises of candidate Trump. As we have seen since January 2009, when newly elected President Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize for his campaign pledges of change and hope, reality has a way of constraining a leader's ability to effect real change. More often than not, the policies that presidents put into practice look very different from the ideas they put forth on the campaign trail.
The same will probably be true of Trump's vow to seal the U.S.-Mexico border by building a wall. One of the biggest problems with this proposal is that the flow of illegal immigrants and contraband between the two countries is not a simple matter of physical security, international relations, or customs and immigration law. Rather, the cross-border movement of goods and people is driven by formidable economic forces that are powerful enough to overwhelm any barrier — just as they have with walls built for the same purpose in the past.
Digging Into the Economics
Anyone who knows me or has read my columns is aware that I love to analyze criminal and terrorist tactics. As a former special agent who spent years investigating bombings, crime and fraud, those subjects get my blood pumping much faster than talk of politics and economics. (Needless to say, I wasn't at all excited when I was forced to take economics in high school and college.) That said, the more I study criminal trends, the more I see the principles of economics at work.
No matter what kind of barrier the U.S. government tries to build along its border with Mexico, it will be impossible to stop the flow of drugs and people north (or the flow of guns and money south) so long as there is money to be made in the process. A kilo of methamphetamine, for example, might cost $300-$500 to synthesize in Mexico but sell for $20,000 in the United States. By the same token, guns purchased legally in the United States can be sold for three to five times that in Mexico. Those are profit margins any businessman would envy.
As we've seen over the past few decades, border barriers can redirect the illicit flow of people or goods, but they cannot stop it. Driven by the prospect of striking it rich, smugglers have come up with any number of creative means to go over, under or through walls. They are constantly coming up with new ways to hide contraband in commercial cargo shipments, personal vehicles or people's bodies. In fact, far more drugs cross the U.S.-Mexico border through official checkpoints than are smuggled through the empty expanses of desert on either side — especially when it comes to high-value drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin.
This is why Mexican drug cartels spend so much effort fighting for control of walled border-crossing cities (referred to as "plazas" in Spanish). Massive amounts of illegal trade pass through these towns, and the organizations that control them can collect a tax (or "piso") on the smuggling activities taking place there. If walls were truly an effective way to halt the movement of contraband at the border, cartels would never bother to expend the blood and treasure needed to capture and hold cities such as Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, Juarez and Tijuana — all of which have had walls running through them for decades.
One of the biggest gaps smugglers have discovered in border security is people. The U.S.-Mexico border is the most heavily trafficked land border in the world: Some 6 million cars, 440,000 trucks and 3.3 million pedestrians move northward across it every month. These volumes skyrocket when you add in the goods and people traveling between the two countries by train, bus, air and sea. And all of these individuals present transit opportunities for smugglers.
Nevertheless, barriers have become more effective (and screening equipment more sophisticated) in recent years, making it more difficult to illegally sneak people or goods through checkpoints. As a result, the number of corruption cases involving border inspection and law enforcement officials has spiked, and corruption has seeped through every layer of local, state and federal government. In some places, it is simply cheaper and easier for smugglers to pay an inspector to look the other way as a shipment of drugs passes through an inspection lane than it is to dig a tunnel or find some other means of bypassing it. Similarly, as it has become harder to legally cross the border, the level of interest in obtaining legitimate border crossing cards, visas and passports from corrupt authorities has risen.
Another Brick in the Wall
Fences have existed along some parts of the U.S.-Mexico border for decades. In the early 1990s, Washington began to construct more substantial barriers in urban areas, many of which were made with surplus metal runway mats (known as perforated steel planking) from the Vietnam War. More sophisticated fencing techniques did not appear until 1995, when Sandia National Laboratories created a barrier three layers deep that was designed to slow intruders until border patrol agents could respond to the breach. In this scheme, the layer closest to the foreign country is a thick metal wall, separated from the middle layer — a metal mesh fence — by a well-lit open area blanketed with technological surveillance, including cameras, thermal imaging and an array of sensors. Then, in areas most prone to heavy traffic, a low fence forms the third and innermost layer.
In 2006, the Secure Fence Act sought to extend existing fences along the border. Yet even with the additions, there are still gaps that are hundreds of kilometers long in the nearly 3,200-kilometer (2,000-mile) border.
Lawmakers have repeatedly proposed measures that would fund fence-building in these areas, but none have been approved because of the serious doubts that remain on fences' effectiveness in deterring illegal border crossings. According to The Washington Post, the Department of Homeland Security spent $3.4 billion and completed 1,030 of the 1,050 kilometers of fencing and vehicle barriers called for by the Secure Border Initiative before it was shuttered. Filling in the rest of the border (with the exception of a 322-kilometer stretch of land in southwest Texas) is estimated to cost somewhere between $7 billion and $10 billion. But despite the money spent on the Secure Border Initiative, there has been no discernable drop in the flow of narcotics into the United States, based on their steady prices on the street.
The Buck Stops Here
The bottom line is that until Americans stop paying premium dollars for drugs being transported through or manufactured in Mexico, it simply won't be possible to keep them from entering the country. When I talk to U.S. or Mexican politicians and law enforcement agents, they are well aware of this fact and understand that they are fighting an unwinnable war. Nevertheless, they feel compelled to keep trying to stem the drug trade as best they can.
If government authorities could quash the demand for drugs, Mexican cartels would implode. They would continue to be groups of criminals, but they would be criminals with far fewer resources. Smuggling plazas would no longer be worth fighting bloody battles for, and they would not need to worry about getting cash across the border in bulk. Moreover, cartels would not have the money to pay top dollar for U.S. guns, or to buy off government officials on both sides of the border.
Unfortunately, reducing demand for narcotics is easier said than done. Drug addiction is a serious social, moral, public health and mental health issue to which there is no simple solution. We cannot just arrest our way out of the problem, either: People will continue to spend exorbitant amounts of money on illegal drugs, regardless of the risk of imprisonment. And as long as the demand for drugs exists, the lure of massive profits will continue to push smugglers to find new ways to circumvent border security.
The same is largely true for illegal immigration. It is clear that the improving health of the Mexican economy has done more to reduce the flood of job seekers heading to the United States than stricter border controls have. That said, Venezuela and Central America's northern triangle are still suffering from steep crime and bleak economies. If Americans are willing to hire workers who are here without documentation, laborers will find ways to come to the United States.
Clamping down on demand for illegal labor is a little easier than eliminating the need for drugs. In fact, all it takes is the strict enforcement of laws prohibiting the employment of undocumented workers. So, if the U.S. government is serious about halting illegal immigration, it could put more effort into arresting and fining the U.S. citizens who hire illegal immigrants rather than the immigrants themselves, drying up the demand that is drawing job-seekers in droves. The fines collected from these cases could even be used to build the rest of the border wall. This approach, however, would be deeply unpopular with construction and landscaping firms, poultry processors and other powerful agriculture groups, which is why these laws are not tightly enforced now. That U.S. companies in these sectors employ undocumented workers is a poorly kept secret, and immigration authorities know which ones are guilty of doing so. But any attempt to slap these firms and their leaders with fines or criminal charges would probably amount to political suicide, as would fining people who hire illegal immigrants as gardeners, nannies or maids. Cracking down on these practices could also damage certain U.S. industries, making it a strategy unlikely to be implemented anytime soon.
Of course, even if demand for illegal labor were significantly slashed, criminal aliens — those who migrate to the United States to commit crimes instead of finding work — would not be directly affected. Even so, if the total number of undocumented aliens greatly declines, more law enforcement resources could be funneled toward countering criminal aliens and more sinister threats such as terrorist operatives, rather than be spent chasing day laborers.
With no surefire way to decrease demand for drugs and no politically feasible method of reducing demand for undocumented labor, border security will continue to be punted from one administration to the next.