Donald Trump claims that we need a roughly 1,000-mile-long wall along our southern border in order to protect us from crisis-level threats to our national security.
Such possible security threats include crime, terrorism and illegal drugs.
It’s worth taking a look, then, at what a border wall would or wouldn’t do to stop these kinds of threats.
Crime: “Building a wall will stop a massive influx of criminals from coming into the United States.”
This is one of the most emotionally compelling arguments for building a wall. In his televised speech on January 8, 2019, Mr. Trump gave specific examples of illegal immigrants who had raped or murdered native-born Americans. He argued that if we’d had a wall, we could’ve stopped these and similar incidents.
If a wall is a cost effective way to deal with crime — especially violent crime — then building one could be a really good idea.
For example, if a million Americans a year are falling victim to violent crime from illegal immigrants, and a wall would stop this cold, then that would be well worth doing.
If we can build a wall for $5 billion, then we would be spending $5,000 to stop one rape or murder a year. That would be a good deal. And of course, the average cost would only go down the longer we had the wall. Over ten years, that would be more like only $500 to stop a serious violent crime. Personally, I’d be enthusiastic about such a solution, and I’m sure you would be, too.
On the other hand, if building a wall would only stop, say, 1000 rapes and 100 murders over 10 years, then we’re up to spending more like $5 million to stop each rape, and $50 million to stop each murder.
If that’s the math, then there are probably much more effective ways we can spend that money to stop violent crime at a less expensive cost.
Remember that taxpayer dollars are limited. This is real money, and it comes out of your pocket and mine.
If we take a quick look at the total number of murders in the United States, we see that there are fewer than 20,000 murders each year, total. Only some small fraction of these are murders of native-born Americans by immigrants.
Illegal immigrants are only around 3% of the population. Only about a third of these (or around 1% of America’s population) entered illegally across the southern border, at some time in the past (most of them, years ago.)
This suggests that only a small percentage of serious criminals are illegal immigrants who came across the southern border. If these folks are about 1% of the population, you might suspect they could be around 1% of serious criminals, too. Unless they’re really, really violent, in which case they might be around 2% of serious criminals.
And surely a significant portion of any murders that illegal immigrants might commit are close-knit affairs in which the victim is a family member or a friend or associate who is also an immigrant.
The number of possible murders a wall might prevent is quickly looking smaller and smaller. So right off the bat, it looks like we might have a bit of a cost-effectiveness problem.
Looking closer, however, it’s really not even the sheer number of violent crimes that matters. It’s the rate of crime.
Here’s why: It’s the crime rate that determines how safe, or how unsafe every one of us is.
Let’s take a very concrete example. Suppose we have a town with 100,000 citizens. From past experience, we know we can expect to have about 5 murders every year.
Our annual murder rate, then, is 5 citizens out of 100,000. (Incidentally, this is actually as close as we can come in round numbers to the real, nationwide US murder rate of 5.3 per hundred thousand.)
Now let’s bring in a bunch of immigrants. For illustration purposes and to keep the math really simple, we will import 100,000 immigrants. This will double the town’s size.
A full one-half of the town is now made up of new people.
If the murder rate among the new, immigrant population is higher than the original 5 per 100,000, then our murder rate is going to go up.
But if the murder rate among the immigrants should happen to be lower than 5 per 100,000, then the overall murder rate will go down. That’s going to mean that individual citizens (including the American-born ones) will be less likely to be killed next year, than last year.
Let’s say, for example, that only 3 of the 100,000 immigrants we bring in are going to kill someone in the next year. And this is typical of the group of new people we’ve brought in. We know that we can expect pretty much the same every year.
Among the 100,000 original citizens, we’re going to have 5 murderers, remember?
This means we can expect a grand total of 8 murders next year, among 200,000 people. So for every 100,000 people, we’ll have 4 murders.
Therefore, our overall murder rate has gone down — from 5 per 100,000, to 4 per 100,000.
Now we’ve made the entire 200,000 people a single community, so we’re likely to have at least a few immigrants murder native-born Americans — and also a few native-born Americans murder immigrants. Because it’s one population now.
But in general, your odds of being a murder victim have actually gone down. In this example, those odds have dropped by 20%.
Note that this is still true even if two of the native-born Americans murdered this year — half of them — are killed by immigrants!
So what’s important, then, is not whether a native-born American was killed by an immigrant, or by another native-born American. What’s important is: What are your odds of getting killed, and how have those odds changed?
Now, the question is: Do immigrants, legal or otherwise, drive the crime rate up? Or down? Or do we know?
The evidence (as usual) is a bit complicated. But for the most part, it seems to show that immigrants — even illegal immigrants — have a lower crime rate than native-born Americans.
This might surprise or even shock some readers. Why? Because it isn’t the narrative that a lot of us have been sold.
Even without a pre-made narrative, it’s both natural and easy to believe that people who are different from you, ethnically or otherwise, must be a threat of some sort.
But beyond this natural inclination, there are people out there who appear to be dedicated to convincing us that immigrants — especially if they walk across the border illegally — are coming here just for the express purpose of raping and killing anyone they can rape and kill.
The salespeople of this danger narrative then turn up the heat by telling you graphic stories of some of the few illegal immigrants who actually have harmed native-born Americans.
What they never, ever tell you is how relatively few these stories are. They also never mention any cases in which Americans have been spared from being victims because native-born criminals attacked an immigrant instead.
They almost never talk about the crime rates, either, and what they actually mean. If they do, they tend to ignore any and all of the evidence that shows that immigrants actually don’t commit that many crimes.
So why might immigrants have a crime rate lower than that of native-born Americans? Well, there are a couple of really good reasons.
First, evidence suggests that immigrants are likely to commit less crime than native-born Americans because they have a lot more to lose.
If a native-born American commits a crime, he or she is typically fined or locked up. If an immigrant — and especially an illegal alien — commits a crime, the penalty isn’t just a fine or jail. It can also mean getting deported and losing their place in America. In this sense, it can cost them their whole way of life, at least as they’ve established it here.
And this brings us to a second reason why immigrants may have a lower crime rate than native-born Americans.
An awful lot of crimes are committed by repeat offenders. If a criminal is native-born, then we have no choice but to release him or her back into our society as soon as his or her time is served. But an illegal immigrant can be deported. And we tend to do that whenever an illegal immigrant commits a serious crime. The first time.
Such deportations, then, reduce the serious crime rate.
Is it possible for some of these deported criminals to sneak back across the border? Certainly. But just as certainly, not all of them do. Having to make a difficult journey back across our border is a barrier to further offenses that we simply don’t have with the native-born.
So in summary, while it’s certainly true that a few illegal aliens commit crimes in the United States, the vast majority aren’t coming here to engage in criminal activity. They’re coming here to work, keep their noses as clean as they can, stay out of trouble, and try and build a better life for themselves and their families.
So if anything, they’re likely lowering our crime rate — at least a little bit — and not raising it. As a result, you may be just slightly safer than you otherwise would be.
Still don’t believe me? Ask Art Acevedo, the Chief of Police in Houston, Texas.
Here’s what Avecedo says: “There’s no wave of crime being committed by the immigrant community. As a matter of fact, a lot of the violent crime that we’re dealing with is being committed by people that are born and raised right here in the United States.”
Chief Acevedo has 32 years of professional experience in law enforcement in and around the immigrant community.
Before we leave the topic, I want to note a possible objection to all of this. Someone may say, “Okay. First-generation immigrants may well have a lower crime rate than native-born Americans. But what about their children? Don’t their children just grow up and get into gangs and become drug dealers and kill people?”
It’s true that the crime rate goes up among the children and grandchildren of immigrants. But the research generally tends to indicate that over time, this simply converges to equal the higher crime rate of the native-born population.
Which makes quite a bit of sense, when you think about it.
Most of the available evidence, then, says that a wall would do nothing to reduce crime. More likely, less than nothing. Because based on the best data we have, if we exclude immigrants, whether by a wall or otherwise, we’re more likely to push the crime rate up than we are to push the crime rate down.
When we propose to spend some billions of dollars, and our most realistic expectation is that doing so won’t reduce the crime rate, we’re going to have to look for a different justification to build the wall.
What actually stops crime? Law enforcement.
Terrorism: “Building a wall will stop terrorists from coming across the southern border and save American lives.”
Recently the Trump administration claimed that Customs and Border Protection picked up “nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists” in just one year “that came across our southern border.”
The claim, however, was simply not true.
In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security detained a total of 2,554 individuals on the terrorist watch list who were trying to enter the United States.
The list is known to catch random people who coincidentally have the same or similar names to people we suspect, and it’s possible that even many of the people we suspect may not belong on the list.
In any event, the vast majority of these 2,554 individuals were at airports. Only 335 of them were traveling anywhere by land. And the DHS didn’t tell us how many of the 335 were at the southern border, and how many were at our border with Canada.
So what’s the actual number? Whatever it is, it’s not zero — but it is small. The pro-border-wall Center for Immigration Studies was able to find 15 individuals who appear to have genuine terrorist ties over the past 17 years who crossed, or wanted to cross, our southern border. Ten of these were stopped by existing security. Some of the others crossed years ago before current security measures were in place.
In any event, they identified at least 5 known individuals with credible terrorist ties, who apparently crossed the southern border over 17 years. We’ve undoubtedly missed some, but even if we multiply that by several times, we could still only be talking about one person a year.
And none of these are any of the people who’ve actually attacked us. We’ve had some 450 terrorist incidents handled by US law enforcement since 9/11. About 85% of them involved American citizens or legal residents who live here, and didn’t need to cross any border at all.
Not one of our 450 actual terrorist incidents involved a terrorist crossing our southern border.
We should also note that if it’s Muslims we’re specifically looking out for, Mexico has approximately 3,800 of them, total. Canada, our neighbor to the north — with whom we share a largely unguarded 4,000 mile border with no wall or fence — has well over one million Muslims.
For this reason, it appears much easier and more likely for Muslim terrorists to enter the United States through Canada than through Mexico.
So yes, it’s theoretically possible that we could be attacked by a terrorist crossing our southern border. But there are so many easier ways for terrorists to get in that so far — even without a thousand-mile border wall — this simply hasn’t happened at all.
In fact, if we had the proposed border wall, any terrorist interested in entering the US by the southern border could simply get false documents and come in at any legal port of entry — or sneak across the Canadian border instead. Or sneak ashore from a ship.
All of this means that a multibillion-dollar border wall on our southern border probably won’t stop a single real terrorist. Most of those who are going to attack us are US citizens or permanent residents, radicalized and inspired by propaganda online. The ones that aren’t don’t sneak across the southern border in any volume. And for the very rare terrorist who would prefer to take that route, a wall probably isn’t going to change anything more than his travel plans.
What actually stops terrorism? Law enforcement, the efforts of our military, our partnerships with other nations, effective screening at ports of entry, surveillance where appropriate, and good relationships with those who can tip us off.
Drugs: “Building a wall will stop the flow of illegal drugs.”
This leaves illegal drugs as the one remaining security threat that a border wall might hopefully address.
Unfortunately, the great majority of illegal drugs from outside already enter the US via routes that will be completely unaffected if we were to build a wall.
This is because foreign drugs today are largely being shipped in through legal ports of entry, on ships, in big containers.
Or, they’re being smuggled in, using specially-built compartments buried deep in the mechanics of ordinary-looking cars.
Or, they’re buried in a single crate deep inside a truck filled with a thousand crates of legitimate fruit. Yes, some of them are coming from Mexico, but they’re already being driven right through our existing gates, as the drivers smile and wave to our customs and immigration officials.
The small percentage of drugs that are being carried across between legal ports of entry could almost certainly easily be rerouted if a wall were built.
If smugglers don’t like bringing them through a port of entry, they can build a tunnel — as they’ve been known to do. They’ve also been known to create catapults to fling them right over a barrier.
For all of these reasons, a border wall would almost certainly have no noticeable impact on the flow of illegal drugs.
What actually reduces the flow of drugs? Law enforcement, the best screening we can get at ports of entry, and our drug-fighting partnerships with other nations.
The Costs of a Feel-Good Non-Solution
Since a border wall would more likely cause crime rates to tick slightly upward rather than downward, and would prove no meaningful barrier either to terrorists or illegal drugs, its only contribution to our security — such as it is — would be to make some Americans feel safer.
This is roughly the equivalent of putting a “No Robberies” sign in a bank — albeit much more expensive.
Earlier we mentioned a cost estimate of $5 billion. Whether you call it a “wall” or a “steel slats,” that’s a lowball figure. It’s very unlikely such an amount would get us very far.
To get close to the full length, a figure of $20 billion to $25 billion is far more realistic.
Such a barrier would almost certainly take at least 10 years to build. It would mess with the environment, and with wildlife. It would require using government power to seize land from thousands of American citizens. It would also need ongoing maintenance in order to continue to be of any use. And it would mean that we effectively cede territory to Mexico at every place where it’s not practical to build a barrier right on the border, because of the geography.
For a “solution” that in the end isn’t going to protect us in any meaningful way from crime, terrorism or drugs, it’s not worth it.
We should ask ourselves exactly what we’re hoping to achieve on our southern border.
The functional purpose of a border wall is to further reduce the number of people who come into the United States without our permission. The question is, how much are we willing to pay to do this — when approximately two thirds of illegal immigrants are people who enter legally and then overstay their visas, and when the number of people crossing the southern border has steadily declined over the years, and is now around one fifth of what it was just 20 years ago?
If we want to further reduce illegal immigration, there are far more cost-effective ways to do so. Generally, surveillance technology is far cheaper than hundreds of miles and billions of pounds of concrete and steel.
In any event, speaking from a security perspective, there’s no need, reason or justification for building a multibillion-dollar 1,000-mile-long wall.
When it comes to crime, terrorism and drugs, we are far better off to invest our money instead into the law enforcement and related efforts that are actually going to have a positive effect.
John M. Woodman has been interested in helping create a better America since before he helped debunk the claims of the birther movement. He’s the author of a book examining the Obama birth certificate forgery theories, as well as many articles on the legal, Constitutional and historical meaning of “natural born citizen,” available at obamabirthbook.com.