Mr. Trump’s wall is, literally, a divisive issue. It’s almost impossible to discuss it without appearing bipartisan. But our government has ground to a halt over this issue, so perhaps it’s time to discuss the pros and cons of building a wall on our southern border in a dispassionate, practical way.
On one side of the aisle, Republicans have a legitimate grievance that the United States has had a difficult time excluding undocumented foreign nationals from entering through its southern border. On the other side of the aisle, Democrats are perturbed by the fact that this administration has played up the dangers that undocumented immigrants pose, and that the administration has written off the benefits that hardworking, entrepreneurial immigrants bring to our country.
Although some undocumented immigrants who enter our country are connected to criminal elements, virtually everyone who has looked at the issue agrees that in fact the percentage of individuals crossing our border who end up committing crimes is lower than the rate of criminality in the general American population. We also have a porous border with Canada, but the administration has not mentioned increasing enforcement there. More importantly, when it comes to international terrorism, our law enforcement agencies are looking at our nation’s airports, not at the desert on our southern border.
Nevertheless, this President was elected in no small part on the basis of his promise to build a wall on our southern border – he also mentioned something about the funding, but that appears to have fallen through. At any rate, Americans have a right to exclude foreign nationals from entering this country, and they have a right to have immigration laws enforced. So let’s look at whether a wall would be effective in deterring and reducing the undocumented immigrant population.
As the President has said, walls work – just ask Israel. In fact, terrorist attacks in Jerusalem have been reduced since various barriers and walls were erected there. Illegal immigration was also significantly reduced after the erection of about 150 miles of fence along Israel’s border with Egypt. The reduction in immigration and terrorism has not been attributed exclusively to the barriers, but they certainly appear to have made a difference.
It should be noted that there is a marked difference between the very real dangers that Israel faces, and the threats that this administration believes undocumented immigrants pose. In Israel, they have to scrape the blood off the streets to hold parades. Mercifully, the United States has been spared from this type of international terrorism since 2001. This is doubtlessly due to the tireless work of our law enforcement agencies.
Let’s take a closer look at the undocumented immigrant population in the United States. A Center for Migration Studies report estimates that forty four percent of those in living within the United States illegally in 2015 were visa overstays. A report written by Robert Warren, a former director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service’s statistics division, says that sixty five percent of individuals who entered the country to join other undocumented aliens were visa overstays. These are individuals who entered the country legally, and overstayed their welcome. So about half of the illegal population in the United States entered legally. Obviously, a wall on the southern border would not have prevented these individuals from entering and overstaying.
Additionally, our law enforcement agencies have indicated that illegal drugs from the southern hemisphere enter largely through ports of entry, for example, by smugglers who conceal drugs in vehicles. Fentanyl, the deadly synthetic opioid that is ravaging middle class communities in this country and is responsible for the alarming increase in deadly drug overdoses, is mostly manufactured and shipped from China, either directly or through Canada. A wall would not help.
The most effective deterrent to illegal immigration and drug smuggling are boots on the ground and technology. Israel uses a panoply of sensors, unmanned drones, and officers with experience in human behavior to identify dangerous individuals at its borders. The United States also employs technology and personnel effectively, but it also has thousands of unfilled positions with Customs and Border Protection. Our efforts should be focused in getting experienced staff to the border to man cameras, sensors, drones and other technology, all of which can cover a greater area, more effectively, for a significantly reduced cost. This should work seamlessly and in redundancy with strategically placed border barriers.
Additionally, we have a shortage of immigration judges that is causing cases to stretch for years. Foreign nationals whose cases are scheduled several years out into the future have the opportunity to get a job, pay taxes, marry, and build other equities in this country that ultimately strengthen their case to remain here. The longer that immigration cases last, the more likely it is that the foreign national will be permitted to stay. An increase in immigration judges would expedite immigration cases, which would ultimately reduce the undocumented population.
Lastly, if we are to have a dispassionate, honest conversation about immigration, we also need to discuss who we should allow into our country. If a wall must be built, it should include metaphorical turnstiles that give us control over who can be admitted. America is still a beacon on a hill, and we are in a position to select among the best and the brightest talent from all over the world. A wall on our southern border may inadvertently turn this talent away, because it sends the message that America has closed itself off from the world.
We must maintain an inflow of distinguished individuals who bring new ideas and a sense of entrepreneurship to our shores. Without America’s doors being hinged open to immigrants, Google and Apple may not have been the companies that they are today. We must maintain an image of openness and hospitality in order to attract top talent, because that is how we remain competitive on the world stage, and that is how we maintain a vigorous, innovative economy. A wall may end up deterring these talented entrepreneurs more so than it would deter actual criminals and terrorists.
Michael Wildes, is the Mayor of Englewood, New Jersey and the author “Safe Haven in America: Battles to Open the Golden Door”. He is a former Federal Prosecutor and an Adjunct Professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.