The Wall:

The real costs of a barrier between the United States and Mexico

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Along the U.S. Mexico near Nogales, Arizona Getty Images

Vanda Felbab-BrownAugust 2017

The cheerful paintings of flowers on the tall metal posts on the Tijuana side of the border fence between the U.S. and Mexico belie the sadness of the Mexican families who have gathered there to exchange whispers, tears, and jokes with relatives on the San Diego side.

A woman in Tijuana, Mexico speaks with a U.S. immigration attorney through the border fence. Getty Images

Many have been separated from their family members for years. Some were deported to Mexico after having lived in the United States for decades without authorization, leaving behind children, spouses, siblings, and parents. Others never left Mexico, but have made their way to the fence to see relatives in the United States. With its prison–like ambience and Orwellian name—Friendship Park—this site is one of the very few places where families separated by immigration rules can have even fleeting contact with their loved ones, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Elsewhere, the tall metal barrier is heavily patrolled.

So is to be the wall that President Donald Trump promises to build along the border. But no matter how tall and thick a wall will be, illicit flows will cross.

Undocumented workers and drugs will still find their way across any barrier the administration ends up building. And such a wall will be irrelevant to those people who become undocumented immigrants by overstaying their visas—who for many years have outnumbered those who become undocumented immigrants by crossing the U.S.–Mexico border.

Nor will the physical wall enhance U.S. security.

The border, and more broadly how the United States defines its relations with Mexico, directly affects the 12 million people who live within 100 miles of the border. In multiple and very significant ways that have not been acknowledged or understood it will also affect communities all across the United States as well as Mexico.

Map showing the composition of the border: Border with no fence, vehicle or pedestrian fence, and the Rio Grande.

What the wall’s price tag would be

The wall comes with many costs, some obvious though hard to estimate, some unforeseen. The most obvious is the large financial outlay required to build it, in whatever form it eventually takes. Although during the election campaign candidate Trump claimed that the wall would cost only $12 billion, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) internal report in February put the cost at $21.6 billion, but that may be a major underestimate.

The estimates vary so widely because of the lack of clarity about what the wall will actually consist of beyond the first meager Homeland Security specifications that it be either a solid concrete wall or a see–through structure, “physically imposing in height,” ideally 30 feet high but no less than 18 feet, sunk at least six feet into the ground to prevent tunneling under it; that it should not be scalable with even sophisticated climbing aids; and that it should withstand prolonged attacks with impact tools, cutting tools, and torches. But that description doesn’t begin to cover questions about the details of its physical structure. Then there are the legal fees required to seize land on which to build the wall. The Trump administration can use eminent domain to acquire the land but will still have to negotiate compensation and often face lawsuits. More than 90 such lawsuits in southern Texas alone are still open from the 2008 effort to build a fence there.

Mountainous terrain along the U.S.-Mexico border is an obstacle to building a wall. Depicted here: a stretch of border about 100 miles east of San Diego. Google Earth

The Trump administration cannot simply seize remittances to Mexico to pay for the wall; doing so may increase flows of undocumented workers to the United States. Remittances provide many Mexicans with amenities they could never afford otherwise. But for Mexicans living in poverty—some 46.2 percent in 2015 according to the Mexican social research agency CONEVAL—the remittances are a veritable lifeline which can represent as much as 80 percent of their income. These families count on that money for the basics of life—food, clothing, health care, and education for their children.

The remittances enable human and economic development throughout the country, and this in turn reduces the incentives for further migration to the United States — precisely what Trump is aiming to do.

I met the matron of one of those families in a lush but desperately poor mountain village in Guerrero. Rosa, a forceful woman who was initially suspicious, decided to confide in me. Her son had crossed into the United States eight years ago, she said. The remittances he sent allowed Rosa’s grandchildren to get medical treatment at the nearest clinic, some thirty miles away. Like Rosa, many people in the village had male relatives working illegally in the United States in order to help their families make ends meet. Sierra de Atoyac may be paradise for a birdwatcher (which I am), but Guerrero is one of Mexico’s poorest, most neglected, and crime and violence–ridden states. “Here you have few chances,” Rosa explained to me. “If you’re smart, like my son, you make it across the border to the U.S. If you’re not so smart, you join the narcos. If you’re stupid, but lucky, you join the [municipal] police. Otherwise, you’re stuck here farming or logging and starving.”

Construction cost estimates*

*The above figures show the upper estimate when a range was suggested. Costs do not include annual maintenance.

Any attempt to seize the remittances from such families would be devastating. Fluctuating between $20 billion and $25 billion annually during the past decade, remittances from the United States have amounted to about 3 percent of Mexico’s GDP, representing the third–largest source of foreign revenue after oil and tourism. The remittances enable human and economic development throughout the country, and this in turn reduces the incentives for further migration to the United States—precisely what Trump is aiming to do.

A tunnel between Tijuana and a warehouse in California featured an elevator. Getty Images

A tunnel between Tijuana and a warehouse in California featured an elevator. Getty Images

Why the wall wouldn’t stop smuggling

Why the DHS believes that a 30–foot tall wall cannot be scaled and a tunnel cannot be built deeper than six feet below ground is not clear.

smuggling tunnel can be as deep as 70 feet, lower than the wall being 6 feet deep

Drug smugglers have been using tunnels to get drugs into the United States ever since Mexico’s most famous drug trafficker, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán of the Sinaloa Cartel, pioneered the method in 1989. And the sophistication of these tunnels has only grown over time. In April 2016, U.S. law enforcement officials discovered a drug tunnel that ran more than half a mile from Tijuana to San Diego and was equipped with ventilation vents, rails, and electricity. It is the longest such tunnel to be found so far, but one of 13 of great length and technological expertise discovered since 2006. Altogether, between 1990 and 2016, 224 tunnels have been unearthed at the U.S.–Mexico border.

Other smuggling methods increasingly include the use of drones and catapults as well as joint drainage systems between border towns that have wide tunnels or tubes through which people can crawl and drugs can be pulled. But even if the land border were to become much more secure, that would only intensify the trend toward smuggling goods as well as people via boats that sail far to the north, where they land on the California coast.

Another thing to consider is that a barrier in the form of a wall is increasingly irrelevant to the drug trade as it is now practiced because most of the drugs smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico no longer arrive on the backs of those who cross illegally. Instead, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, most of the smuggled marijuana as well as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines comes through the 52 legal ports of entry on the border. These ports have to process literally millions of people, cars, trucks, and trains every week. Traffickers hide their illicit cargo in secret, state–of–the art compartments designed for cars, or under legal goods in trailer trucks. And they have learned many techniques for fooling the border patrol. Mike, a grizzled U.S. border official whom I interviewed in El Paso in 2013, shrugged: “The narcos sometimes tip us off, letting us find a car full of drugs while they send six other cars elsewhere. Such write–offs are part of their business expense. Other times the tipoffs are false. We search cars and cars, snarl up the traffic for hours on, and find nothing.”

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer patrols some of the 24 lanes of traffic entering the U.S. from Mexico at San Ysidro. Reuters

Beyond the Sinaloa Cartel, 44 other significant criminal groups operate today in Mexico. The infighting within and among them has made Mexico one of the world’s most violent countries. In 2016 alone this violence claimed between 21,000 and 23,000 lives. Between 2007 and 2017, a staggering 177,000 people were murdered in Mexico, a number that could actually be much higher, as many bodies are buried in mass graves that are hidden and never found. Those Mexican border cities that are principal entry points of drugs into the Unites States have been particularly badly affected by the violence.

Take Ciudad Juárez, for example. Directly across the border from peaceful El Paso. Ciudad Juárez was likely the world’s most violent city when I was there in 2011 and it epitomizes what can happen during these drug wars. In 2011 the Sinaloa Cartel was battling the local Juárez Cartel, trying to take over the city’s smuggling routes to the United States, and causing a veritable bloodbath. Walking around the contested colonías at the time was like touring a cemetery: Residents would point out places where people were killed the day before, three days before, five weeks ago.

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Juan, a skinny 19–year–old whom I met there that year, told me that he was trying to get out of a local gang (the name of which he wouldn’t reveal). He had started working for the gang as a halcone (a lookout) when he was 15, he said. But now as the drug war raged in the city and the local gangs were pulled into the infighting between the big cartels, his friends in the gang were being asked to do much more than he wanted to do—to kill. Without any training, they were given assault weapons. Having no shooting skills, they just sprayed bullets in the vicinity of their assigned targets, hoping that at least some of the people they killed would be the ones they were supposed to kill, because if they didn’t succeed, they themselves might be murdered by those who had contracted them to do the job.

I met Juan through Valeria, whose NGO was trying to help gang members like Juan get on the straight and narrow. But it was tough going for her and her staff to make the case. As Juan had explained to me, a member who refused to do the bidding of the gangs could be killed for his failure to cooperate.

“And America does nothing to stop the weapons coming here!” Valeria exclaimed to me.

Weapons seized from alleged drug traffickers in Mexico City. Reuters

While President Trump accuses Mexico of exporting violent crime and drugs to the United States, many Mexican officials as well as people like Valeria, who are on the ground in the fight against the drug wars, complain of a tide of violence and corruption that flows in the opposite direction. Some 70 percent of the firearms seized in Mexico between 2009 and 2014 originated in the United States. Although amounting to over 73,000 guns, these seizures still likely represented only a fraction of the weapons smuggled from the United States. Moreover, billions of dollars per year are made in the illegal retail drug market in the United States and smuggled back to Mexico, where the cartels depend on this money for their basic operations. Sometimes, sophisticated money–laundering schemes, such as trade–based deals, are used; but large parts of the proceeds are smuggled as bulk cash hidden in secret compartments and among goods in the cars and trains daily crossing the border south to Mexico.

Some 70 percent of the firearms seized in Mexico between 2009 and 2014 originated in the United States.

And of course it is the U.S. demand for drugs that fuels Mexican drug smuggling in the first place. Take, for example, the current heroin epidemic in the United States. It originated in the over–prescription of medical opiates to treat pain. The subsequent efforts to reduce the over–prescription of painkillers led those Americans who became dependent on them to resort to illegal heroin. That in turn stimulated a vast expansion of poppy cultivation in Mexico, particularly in Guerrero. In 2015, Mexico’s opium poppy cultivation reached perhaps 28,000 hectares, enough to distill about 70 tons of heroin (which is even more than the 24–50 tons estimated to be necessary to meet the U.S. demand).

Heroin brand name stamps. DEA

Mexico’s large drug cartels, including El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel, which is estimated to supply between 40 and 60 percent of the cocaine and heroin sold on the streets in the United States, are the dominant wholesale suppliers of illegal drugs in the United States. For the retail trade, however, they usually recruit business partners among U.S. crime gangs. And thanks to the deterrence capacity of U.S. law enforcement, insofar as Mexican drug–trafficking groups do have in–country operations in the U.S., such as in wholesale supply, they have behaved strikingly peacefully and have not resorted to the vicious aggression and infighting that characterizes their business in Mexico. So the U.S. has been spared the drug–traffic–related explosions of violence that have ravaged so many of the drug–producing or smuggling areas of Mexico.

Both the George W. Bush administration and the Obama administration recognized the joint responsibility for drug trafficking between the United States and Mexico, an attitude that allowed for unprecedented collaborative efforts to fight crime and secure borders. This collaboration allowed U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agents to operate in Mexico and help their Mexican counterparts in intelligence development, training, vetting, establishment of police procedures and protocols, and interdiction operations. The collaboration also led to Mexico being far more willing than it ever had been before to patrol both its northern border with the United States and its southern border with Central America, as part of the effort to help apprehend undocumented workers trying to cross into the United States.

A U.S. Border Patrol officer looks through bullet-proof glass at the border near El Paso. Getty Images

The Trump administration’s hostility to Mexico could jeopardize this progress. In retaliation for building the wall, for any efforts the U.S. might make to force Mexico to pay for the wall, or for the collapse of NAFTA, the Mexican government could, for example, give up on its efforts to secure its southern border or stop sharing counterterrorism intelligence with the United States. Yet Mexico’s cooperation is far more important for U.S. security than any wall.

Chicago police at the scene of a shooting in the Englewood neighborhood. Getty Images

Chicago police at the scene of a shooting in the Englewood neighborhood. Getty Images

What the wall would mean for crime in the U.S.

Although President Trump has railed against the “carnage” of crime in the United States, the crime statistics, with few exceptions, tell a very different story.

In 2014, 14,249 people were murdered, the lowest homicide rate since 1991 when there were 24,703, and part of a pattern of steady decline in violent crime over that entire period. In 2015, however, murders in the U.S. did shoot up to 15,696. This increase was largely driven by three cities—Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Baltimore and Chicago have decreasing populations, and all three have higher poverty and unemployment than the national average, high income and racial inequality, and troubled relations between residents and police—conditions conducive to a rise in violent crime. In 2016, homicides fell in Washington and Baltimore, but continued rising in Chicago.

There is no evidence, however, that undocumented residents accounted for either the rise in crime or even for a substantial number of the crimes, in Chicago or elsewhere. The vast majority of violent crimes, including murders, are committed by native–born Americans. Multiple criminological studies show that foreign–born individuals commit much lower levels of crime than do the native–born. In California, for example, where there is a large immigrant population, including of undocumented migrants, U.S.–born men were incarcerated at a rate 2.5 times higher than foreign–born men.

A Mexican man is fingerprinted while in custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Reuters

Unfortunately, the Trump administration is promoting a policing approach that insists on prioritizing hunting down undocumented workers, including by using regular police forces, and this kind of misguided law enforcement policy is spreading: In Texas, which has an estimated 1.5 million undocumented immigrants, Republican Governor Greg Abbott recently signed a law to punish sanctuary cities. Among the punishments are draconian measures (such as removal from office, fines, and up to one–year imprisonment) to be enacted against local police officials who do not embrace immigration enforcement. Abbott signed the law despite the fact that police chiefs from all five of Texas’s largest cities—Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, and Fort Worth—published a statement condemning it: “This legislation is bad for Texas and will make our communities more dangerous for all,” they wrote in their Dallas Morning News op–ed. They argued that immigration enforcement is a federal, not a state responsibility, and that the new law would widen a gap between police and immigrant communities, discouraging cooperation with police on serious crimes, and resulting in widespread underreporting of crimes perpetrated against immigrants. There is powerful and consistent evidence that if people begin to question the fairness, equity, and legitimacy of law enforcement and government institutions, then they stop reporting crime, and homicides increase.

Police chiefs in other parts of the country, from Los Angeles to Denver, have expressed similar concerns and also their dismay at having to devote their already overstrained resources to hunting down undocumented workers.

The Trump administration has broadened the Obama–era criteria for “expedited removal.” Under Obama any immigrant arrested within 100 miles of the border who had been in the country for less than 14 days—i.e., before he or she could establish roots in the United States—could be deported without due process. The result: In fiscal year 2016, 85 percent of all removals (forced) and returns (voluntary) were of noncitizens who met those criteria. Almost all (more than 90 percent) of the remaining 15 percent had been convicted of serious crimes.

Children touch hands with family members through a border fence at Ciudad Juárez and El Paso. Reuters

Now, however, any undocumented person anywhere in the country who has been here for as long as two years can be removed. And although it claims it will focus on deporting immigrants who commit serious crimes, the Trump administration is gearing up for mass deportations of many of the 11.1 million undocumented residents in the U.S., by far the largest number of whom come from Mexico (6.2 million), Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Ecuador, and Colombia. To that end, it is vastly expanding the definition of what constitutes deportable crime, including fraud in any official matter, such as abuse of “any program related to the receipt of public benefits” or even using a fake Social Security number to pay U.S. taxes. The Trump administration is also reviving the highly controversial 287(g) program under which local law enforcement officials can be deputized to perform immigration duties and can inquire about a person’s immigration status during routine policing of matters as insignificant as jaywalking.

Many of the people being targeted have for decades lived lawful, safe, and productive lives here. About 60 percent of the undocumented have lived in the United States for at least a decade. A third of undocumented immigrants aged 15 and older have at least one child who is a U.S. citizen by birth. The ripping apart of such families has tragic consequences for those involved, as I have seen first–hand.

Many of the people being targeted [for deportation] have for decades lived lawful, safe, and productive lives here.”

Antonio, whom I interviewed in Tijuana in 2013, had lived for many years in Las Vegas, where he worked in construction and his wife cleaned hotels. Having had no encounters with U.S. law enforcement, he risked going back to Mexico to visit his ailing mother in Sinaloa. But he got nabbed trying to sneak back into the U.S. After a legal ordeal, which included being handcuffed and shackled and a degrading stay in a U.S. detention facility, he was dumped in Tijuana, where I met him shortly after his arrival there. He dreaded being forever separated from his wife and their two little boys, who had been born seven and five years before. But Sinaloa is a poor, tough place to live, strongly under the sway of the narcos, and Antonio did not want his loved ones to sacrifice themselves in order to rejoin him. As Antonio choked back tears talking about how much he missed his family, I asked him whether they might travel to San Diego to speak with him across the bars of Friendship Park. But Antonio wasn’t sure how long he could stay in Tijuana. He was afraid he would be arrested again, this time in Mexico, because in order to please U.S. law enforcement officials by appearing diligent in combating crime, Tijuana’s police force had gotten into the habit of arresting, for the most minor of infractions, Mexicans and Central Americans deported from the United States. Sweeping homeless poor migrants and deportees off the streets made Tijuana’s city center appear peaceful, bustling, and clean again, after years of a cartel bloodbath. Mexican businesses were pleased by the orderly look of the city center, the U.S. was gratified by Mexico’s cooperation, and tourists were returning, with U.S. college students again partying and getting drunk in Tijuana’s cantinas and clubs. If harmless victims of U.S. deportation policies like Antonio had to pay the price for these benefits, so be it.

Immigrant farm workers harvest spinach near Coachella, California. Getty Images

Immigrant farm workers harvest spinach near Coachella, California. Getty Images

How the wall would hurt the U.S. economy

If immigrants are not responsible for any significant amount of crime in the United States and in fact are considerably less likely than native–born citizens to commit crime, then what about the other justification for President Trump’s vilification of immigrants, legal and illegal, and his determination to wall them out: Do immigrants steal U.S. jobs and suppress U.S. wages?

There is little evidence to support such claims. According to a comprehensive National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine analysis, immigration does not significantly impact the overall employment levels of most native–born workers. The impact of immigrant labor on the wages of native–born workers is also low. Immigrant labor does have some negative effects on the employment and wages of native–born high school dropouts, however, and also on prior immigrants, because all three groups compete for low–skilled jobs and the newest immigrants are often willing to work for less than their competition. To a large extent, however, undocumented workers often work the unpleasant, back–breaking jobs that native–born workers are not willing to do. Sectors with large numbers of undocumented workers include agriculture, construction, manufacturing, hospitality services, and seafood processing. The fish–cutting industry, for example, is unable to recruit a sufficient number of legal workers and therefore is overwhelmingly dependent on an undocumented workforce. Skinning, deboning, and cutting fish is a smelly, slimy, grimy, chilly, monotonous, and exacting job. Many workers rapidly develop carpal tunnel syndrome. It can be a dangerous job, with machinery for cutting off fish heads and deboning knives everywhere frequently leading to amputated fingers. The risk of infections from cuts and the bloody water used to wash fish is also substantial. Over the past ten years, multiple exposés have revealed that both in the United States and abroad, workers in the fishing and seafood processing industries, often undocumented in other countries also, are subjected to forced labor conditions, and sometimes treated like slaves.

Typical housing for migrant farmworkers in a work camp in Sampson County, in central North Carolina. Getty Images

While paying more than jobs she could obtain in Honduras, the fish cutting job was hard for 38–year–old Marta Escoto, profiled by Robin Shulman in a 2007 article in The Washington Post. But she put up with it for the sake of her two young children, one of them a four–year–old daughter who couldn’t walk and suffered from a gastrointestinal illness that prevented her from absorbing enough nutrition. Yet the fear of raids to which the Massachusetts fish–cutting industry was subjected a decade ago, in an earlier wave of anti–immigrant fervor, drove her to seek a job as a seamstress in a Massachusetts factory producing uniforms for U.S. soldiers. But misfortune struck there, too. Like the seafood processing plants, the New Bedford factory was raided by U.S. immigration officers; and although Marta had no criminal record, she was arrested and rapidly flown to a detention facility in Texas while her children were left alone in a day care center. Unlike many other immigrants swept up in those raids, Marta was ultimately lucky: She had a sister living in Massachusetts who could retrieve her children. And as a result of large political outcry in Massachusetts following those raids, with Senators John F. Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy strongly speaking out against them, Marta was released and could reunite with her two small children. But she remained without documents authorizing her to work and stay in the United States and would again be subject to deportation in the future.

Estimated undocumented immigrant population

by state, 2014

  • 10,000 or less
  • 25,000 – 95,000
  • 100,000 – 130,000
  • 180,000 – 450,000
  • 500,000 – 2,350,000
Source: Pew Research Center

Immigrant workers are actually having a net positive effect on the economy. Because of a native–born population that is both declining in numbers and increasing in age, the U.S. needs its immigrant workers. The portion of foreign–born now accounts for about 16 percent of the labor force, with immigrants and their children accounting for the vast majority of current and future workforce growth in the United States, If the number of immigrants to the United States was reduced—by deportation or barriers to further immigration—so that foreign–born represented only about 10 percent of the population, the number of working–age Americans in the coming decades would remain essentially static at the current number of 175 million. If, however, the proportion of foreign–born remains at the current level, then the number of working–age residents in the U.S. will increase by about 30 million in the next 50 years. We need these workers not just to fill jobs but to increase productivity, which has diminished sharply. We also need them because the number of the elderly drawing expensive benefits like Medicare and Social Security—the costs of which are paid for by workers’ taxes—is growing substantially. Nearly 44 million people aged 65 or older currently draw Social Security; in 2050 that number is estimated to rise to 86 million. Even undocumented workers support Social Security: Since at least 1.8 million were working with fake Social Security cards in 2010 in order to get employment but were mostly unable to draw the benefits, they contributed $13 billion that year into the retirement trust fund, and took out only $1 billion.

Counterfeit Social Security cards confiscated by ICE agents. Reuters

If immigrants are not stealing U.S. jobs and suppressing wages to any significant extent, is NAFTA doing so? Sal Moceri, a 61–year–old Ford worker in Michigan, fervently believes so. He has not lost his job himself, but he saw his co–workers and neighbors lose jobs and sees new workers accepting lower wages for which he would not settle. Although he calls himself a “lifelong Democrat,” he voted for Trump in 2016 because of Trump’s promise to renegotiate or end NAFTA. In a CNNMoney interview with Heather Long, he blamed NAFTA for the job losses and decreases in wages around him, disbelieving the claims of economists that automation, not NAFTA, is the source of the job losses in U.S. manufacturing. He loves automation and hates NAFTA.

But contrary to Trump’s claim and Moceri’s passionate belief, NAFTA has not siphoned off a large number of U.S. jobs. It did force some U.S. workers to find other kinds of work, but the net number of jobs that was lost is relatively small, with estimates varying between 116,400 and 851,700, out of 146,135,000 jobs in the U.S. economy. Countering these losses is the fact that the bilateral trade fostered by NAFTA has had far–reaching positive effects on the economy.

The trade agreement eliminated tariffs on half of the industrial goods exported to Mexico from the United States (tariffs which before NAFTA averaged 10 percent), and eliminated other Mexican protectionist measures as well, allowing, for example, the export of corn from the United States to Mexico.

NAFTA has enabled the development of joint production lines between the United States and Mexico and allows the U.S. to more cheaply import components used for manufacturing in the United States. Without this kind of co–operation, many jobs would be lost, including jobs provided by cars imported from Mexico. In 2016, for example, the United States imported 1.6 million cars from Mexico—but about 40 percent of the value of their components was produced in the United States. Leaving NAFTA could jeopardize 31,000 jobs in the automotive industry in the United States alone. But now that it is threatened with the collapse or renegotiation of NAFTA, Mexico has already begun actively exploring new trade partnerships with Europe and China.

The big picture: Mexico is the third largest U.S. trade partner after China and Canada, and the third–largest supplier of U.S. imports. Some 79 percent of Mexico’s total exports in 2013 went to the United States. Yes, the United States had a $64.3 billion deficit with Mexico in 2016, but trade with Mexico is a two–way street. The United States exports more to Mexico than to any other country except Canada, its other NAFTA partner. Moreover, the half trillion dollars in goods and services traded between Mexico and the United States each year since NAFTA was enacted over 23 years ago has resulted in millions of jobs for workers in both countries. According to a Woodrow Wilson Center study, nearly five million U.S. jobs now depend on trade with Mexico.

Trade, investment, joint production, and travel across the U.S.–Mexico border remain a way of life for border communities, including those in the United States. Disrupting them will create substantial economic costs for both countries. And a significantly weakened Mexican economy will also exacerbate Mexico’s severe criminal violence and encourage violence–driven immigration to the United States.

The U.S.-Mexico border fence through the Sonoran Desert, in the Tohono O’odham Reservation, Arizona. Getty Images

The U.S.-Mexico border fence through the Sonoran Desert, in the Tohono O’odham Reservation, Arizona. Getty Images

What the wall would do to communities and the environment

If erected, Trump’s wall will not be the first significant barrier to be built on the border. That distinction goes to the 700–mile fence the U.S. began to put up—over protests from those on both sides of the border—some years ago.

These people include 26 federally–recognized Native American Nations in the U.S. and eight Indigenous Peoples in Mexico. The border on which the wall is to be built cuts through their tribal homelands and separates tribal members from their relatives and their sacred sites, while also sundering them from the natural environment which is crucial not just to their livelihoods but to their cultural and religious identity. In recognition of this problem, the U.S. Congress passed an act in 1983 allowing free travel across the borders within their homelands to one of the Native American Nations tribes. But when the fence was built, by waiving statutes like the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1994, Congress compromised that freedom of travel and made it hard for indigenous people to visit their family members and sacred sites.

Indigenous people from the Tohono O’odham Reservation protest against a border wall. Getty Images

Trump’s wall will, of course, exacerbate the damage to these Native American communities, causing great pain and anger among the inhabitants. “If someone came into your house and built a wall in your living room, tell me, how would you feel about that?” asked Verlon Jose, vice chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation, in an interview by The New York Times’ Fernanda Santos in February 2017. Stretching out his arms to embrace the saguaro desert around him, he said, “This is our home.” Many in his tribe want to resist the construction of the wall. Others fear that if the border barrier is weaker on the tribal land, drug smuggling will be funneled there as happened before with the fence, harming and ensnarling the community.

As Native American communities, conservation biologists, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all have highlighted, the wall will also have significant environmental costs in areas that host some of the greatest biodiversity in North America. Deriving its name from the isolated mountain ranges whose 10,000–foot peaks thrust into the skies, the “Sky Islands” region spanning southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and northwestern Mexico, for example, features a staggering array of flora and fauna. Its precious, but fragile, biodiversity is due to the unusual convergence of four major ecoregions: the southern terminus of the temperate Rocky Mountains; the eastern extent of the low–elevation Sonoran Desert; the northern edge of the subtropical Sierra Madre Occidental; and the western terminus of the higher–elevation Chihuahuan Desert. Among the endangered species that will be affected by the wall are the jaguar, Sonoran pronghorn, Chiricahua leopard frog, lesser long–nose bat, Cactus ferruginous pygmy–owl, Mexican gray wolf, black–tailed prairie dog, jaguarondi, ocelot, and American bison. Other negatively–affected species will include desert tortoise, black bear, desert mule deer, and a variety of snakes. Even species that can fly, such as Rufous hummingbirds and Swainson and Gray hawks could be harmed, and vital insect pollinators that migrate across the border could be burnt up by the lights necessary to illuminate the wall.

Bison on the grasslands of Rancho “El Uno” in northern Mexico. Reuters

Altogether, more than 100 species of animals that occur along the U.S.–Mexico border, in the Sky Islands area as well as in the Big Bend National Park in Texas and in the Rio Grande Valley, are endangered or threatened. But just as the DHS waived numerous cultural protection statutes to build the fence, it also overrode many crucial environmental laws—including the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972, and the Clean Water Act of 1972. The Trump administration wants to bulldoze through any remaining environmental considerations.

The administration’s approach threatens years of binational environmental border cooperation that has protected not only many wild species, but also agriculture on both sides of the border. Take the boll weevil, a beetle that flies between Mexico and the United States and devastates cotton crops. In the late 1890s, the boll weevil nearly wiped out the U.S. cotton industry. Since then, the United States and Mexico have spent decades trying to eradicate the pest and almost succeeded. But the wall may so sour U.S.–Mexico environmental and security cooperation that Mexico may simply give up on eradication efforts. This will cause little damage to those in Mexico, since there is little cotton cultivation along that part of the Mexican border, but it will result in significant damage to U.S. farmers.

A poisoned U.S.–Mexican relationship could also prevent the renegotiation of water sharing agreements that are critical to the environment as well as to water and food security, and to farming. For example, the 1970 Boundary Treaty between the United States and Mexico specifies that officials from both the U.S. and Mexico must agree if either side wants to build any structure that could affect the flow of the Rio Grande or its flood waters, water that is vital to livestock and agriculture along the border. The fence was built despite Mexico’s objections to it, and because its steel slats become clogged with debris during the rainy season, it has caused floods affecting cities and previously protected areas on both sides of the border, resulting in millions of dollars in damages.

The Rio Grande curving through Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas. Getty Images

It wasn’t just Mexico that didn’t want that fence. U.S. farmers and businessmen along the Texas border in the Rio Grande valley opposed it, too, since it blocks their access to the river water and also augments the severity of floods. Now the wall is to be brought to flood plain areas in Texas where water issues precisely like these had prevented the construction of the fence before.

Meanwhile, manufacturing, agriculture, hydraulic fracking, energy production, and ecosystems on both sides of the border depend on equitable and effective water sharing from the Rio Grande and the Colorado River, with both sides vulnerable to water scarcities. Over the decades there have been many challenges to the joint agreements governing water usage, and both Mexico and the U.S. have at times considered themselves the aggrieved parties. But in general, U.S.–Mexico cooperation over both the Rio Grande and Colorado rivers has been exceptional by international standards and has been hugely beneficial to both partners to the various treaties. That kind of co–operation is now at risk.

U.S.–Mexico cooperation over both the Rio Grande and Colorado rivers has been exceptional by international standards and has been hugely beneficial to both partners

If in retaliation for the Trump administration’s vitriolic, anti–Mexican language and policies, Mexico decided not live up to its side of the water bargain, U.S. farmers and others along the Rio Grande would be under severe threat of losing their livelihoods. One of them is Dale Murden in Monte Alto, who on his 20,000–acre farm cultivates sugarcane, grapefruit, cotton, citrus, and grain. Named in January 2017 the Citrus King of Texas, the former Texas Farm Bureau state director has dedicated his life to agriculture in southern Texas, relying on a Latino workforce. Yet he has memories of devastating water shortages in 2011 and 2013, when because of a severe drought Mexico could not send its allocation of the Rio Conches to the United States and 30 percent of his land became unproductive, with many crops dying. At that time he hoped that the U.S. State Department could persuade Mexico to release some water, even as Mexican farmers were also facing immense water shortages and devastation. U.S. diplomacy did work, no doubt helped by the rain that replenished Mexico’s tributaries of the Rio Grande. Without the rain, Mexico would not have been able to pay back its accumulated water debt. But without collaborative U.S.–Mexico diplomacy and an atmosphere of a closer–than–ever U.S.–Mexico cooperation, Mexico still could have failed to deliver the water despite the rain. That positive spirit of cooperation also produced one of the world’s most enlightened, environmentally–sensitive, and water–use–savvy version of a water treaty, the so–called Minute 319 of the 1944 Colorado River U.S.–Mexico water agreement. Unique in its recognition of the Colorado River delta as a water user, the update committed the United States to sending a so–called “pulse flow” to that ecosystem, thus helping to restore those unique wetlands. The United States also agreed to pay $18 million for water conservation in Mexico. In turn, Mexico delivered 124,000 acre–feet of Mexican water to Lake Mead. It was a win–win–win: for U.S. farmers, Mexican farmers, and ecosystems. But those were the good days of the U.S.–Mexico relationship, before the Trump administration. A new update to the treaty is under negotiation—once again a vital agreement and a lifeline for some 40 million people on both sides of the border that could fall prey to the Trump administration’s approach to Mexico.

River basins of the Colorado river and Rio Grande.

Yet this is a moment when maintaining cooperation is crucial because climate–change–increased evaporation rates, invasive plant infestation, and greater demands for water around the border and deep into U.S. and Mexican territories will only put further pressure on water use and increase the likelihood of severe scarcity.

Rather than a line of separation, the border should be conceived of as a membrane, connecting the tissues of communities on both sides, enabling mutually beneficial trade, manufacturing, ecosystem improvements, and security, while enhancing inter–cultural exchanges.

In 1971, When First Lady Pat Nixon attended the inauguration of Friendship Park—that tragic place that allows separated families only the most limited amount of contact—she said, “I hope there won’t be a fence here too long.” She supported two–way positive exchanges between the United States and Mexico, not barriers. In fact, for her visit, she had the fence in Friendship Park torn down. Unfortunately, it’s still there, bigger, taller, and harder than when she visited, and with the wall about to get much worse yet.

Vanda Felbab-Brown is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She is an expert on international and internal conflicts and nontraditional security threats, including insurgency, organized crime, urban violence, and illicit economies. Her fieldwork and research have covered, among others, Afghanistan, South Asia, Burma, Indonesia, the Andean region, Mexico, Morocco, Somalia, and eastern Africa. Her books include The Extinction Market: Wildlife Trafficking and How to Counter It (Hurst, 2017) and Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs (Brookings Institution Press, 2010). She received her doctorate in political science from MIT and her bachelor’s from Harvard University.

Price Tag

such a wall will be irrelevant to those people who become undocumented immigrants by overstaying their visas”Traffickers hide their illicit cargo in secret, state-of-the art compartments”violence claimed between 21,000 and 23,000 lives”177,000 people were murdered in Mexico”these seizures still likely represented only a fraction of the weapons smuggled”


This increase was largely driven by three cities”troubled relations between residents and police”but continued rising in Chicago”The vast majority of violent crimes”


foreign-born individuals commit much lower levels of crime”U.S.-born men were incarcerated at a rate 2.5 times higher than foreign-born men”then they stop reporting crime”and homicides increase”Almost all … of the remaining 15 percent had been convicted of serious crimes”newest immigrants are often willing to work for less than their competition”Sectors with large numbers of undocumented workers include”

U.S. Economy

are subjected to forced labor conditions”profiled by Robin Shulman in a 2007 article in The Washington Post”16 percent of the labor force”would remain essentially static at the current number of 175 million”and took out only $1 billion”In a CNNMoney interview with Heather Long”with estimates varying between 116,400”out of 146,135,000 jobs in the U.S. economy”79 percent of Mexico’s total exports in 2013”the United States had a $64.3 billion deficit with Mexico in 2016”

Communities & Environment

nearly five million U.S. jobs now depend on trade with Mexico”in an interview by The New York Times’ Fernanda Santos in February 2017”and the western terminus of the higher-elevation Chihuahuan Desert … and American bison”a variety of snakes”could be burnt up by the lights necessary to illuminate the wall”Yet he has memories of devastating water shortages in 2011 and 2013”