On September 10 the U.S. government acknowledged that its Secure Border Initiative (SBI) was behind schedule and over budget. Promoted in 2005 as a new way to block unauthorized immigration, the $2.7 billion project was supposed to create a 670-mile physical and “virtual” fence by the end of this year along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico.
After three years, the government’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has only completed 341 miles of the physical fence — 187 miles of wire-mesh fencing to stop pedestrians and 154 miles of shorter barriers to block vehicles. The cost for the pedestrian barriers has risen to $7.5 million a mile from earlier estimates of $4 million; the cost for the vehicle barriers has gone up from $2 million to $2.8 million a mile. The physical fence is already $400 million over budget. The “virtual fence” — SBInet, an electronic monitoring system being constructed by Boeing Co., the giant military contractor — is now on hold. Its cost so far has been $933 million; the official estimates are that it will cost $8 billion through 2013, and that number may triple, according to the DHS inspector general.1
None of this is really news, of course. Who is surprised by delays and cost overruns from politically connected contractors? And no one could have believed the physical fence would cost just $2-$4 million a mile; the 14-mile fence near San Diego, started in 1990, ended up costing taxpayers $9 million a mile.
Moreover, none of these estimates include the expense of maintaining the fence. In 1999 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated that the total cost of a border fence over 25 years — including construction and maintenance — would range from $16.4 million to $70 million a mile (adjusted to 2005 dollars).2 The 670-mile physical fence could cost as much as $46.9 billion by 2030, and that’s not including the still nonexistent “virtual fence.”
Clearly these taxpayer-funded projects are a windfall for corporate CEOs and stockholders from Boeing and the numerous other companies contracting on them. But will these fences actually stop people from entering the country without authorization?
Even if a fence along the entire border would reduce immigration — and there’s no reason to think it would — it’s clear that a fence along one-third of the distance will simply “squeeze the balloon,” forcing migrants to cross through the more remote and dangerous unfenced areas, or to get across the border smuggled in trucks or train cars, or by bribing border guards.
In the 1990s, the government started blocking parts of the border, promoting these efforts with catchy names like “Operation Gatekeeper” and “Operation Hold the Line.” Between 1993 and 2006 the number of Border Patrol agents on the southwest border tripled from less than 4,000 to about 12,000; the Border Patrol’s annual budget quadrupled from $400 million to $1.6 billion. What was the result? The Border Patrol gauges the rate of border crossing by the number of arrests of people seeking to enter the United States along the Mexico border. By this measure, the increased enforcement has had virtually no effect: arrests fell from 1.3 million in 1993 to 1.2 million in 2005.3 (It’s true that unauthorized immigration has dipped recently — just as it did during the 2001 recession, demonstrating the importance of economic factors in determining the flow of immigration.)4
This not to say that stepped-up border enforcement has accomplished nothing. Some 4,700 migrants have died over the past 13 years as the new policies forced them to use riskier routes for entering the United States. And people now pay dramatically more to smugglers and guides to get across the border. From 1994 to 2005 the average cost of being smuggled in the San Diego area rose from $300 to $2,500.5
As stepped-up enforcement increases the hardships, dangers, and expense of crossing the border, undocumented workers are naturally more afraid of losing the investment they have made in getting to the United States. In the past many immigrants — especially those from Mexico — would work here for brief periods and then return home after they’d earned some extra money for their families or when work slowed down. Thanks to increased border enforcement, now they are much more likely to stay rather than to risk another crossing.
Some experts on border issues think that by discouraging return migration, increased border enforcement may actually have raised the number of undocumented immigrants in the country.6 A careful study by researcher Florian Kaufmann found that as a result of escalated border enforcement during the 1990s, Mexican migrant household heads on average increased their time in the United States by 18 percent, moved one fourth of their family dependents to the United States, and reduced the amount of income they sent back as remittances — thus inducing other Mexicans to migrate to the United States.7
Increased border enforcement has another effect: it means immigrant workers are more likely to stick with low-paying jobs and less likely to risk deportation by joining a union or making complaints about workplace abuses. Immigration enforcement in the workplace, while advertised as a way to turn off the “job magnet,” ends up doing the same thing: slowing unionization drives and intimidating workers.
One of the main concerns working people have about unauthorized immigration — especially in a failing economy — is that an influx of immigrants can contribute to downward pressure on the wages of native-born workers. Politicians and pundits use this fear to sell their enforcement policies. But in large part it’s those same enforcement policies that produce the downward pressure — rather than the number of immigrants competing for jobs, as many people believe. Studies indicate that unauthorized immigrants are paid 15‑22 percent less than authorized workers with the same characteristics8; it’s hard to believe that enforcement policies aren’t a major reason for this disparity.
If border walls and workplace raids are only helping to keep wages down for everyone, and aren’t even slowing migration, why do we keep paying for them? Is this just another corporate bailout, for companies that aren’t even failing?
1 August Cole, “Virtual Fence for Mexico Border Is Put Off,” Wall Street Journal, September 10, 2008; August Cole, “Homeland Security Admits to Cost, Time Overruns in Border Fence,” World War 4 Report, September 12, 2008.
2 Blas Nuñez-Neto and Stephen R. Viña, “Border Security: Barriers along the U.S. International Border,” Congressional Research Service (CRS), Library of Congress, May 13, 2008, 33-34.
3 Bill Ong Hing, Defining America through Immigration Policy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004), 161 & 165; Douglas S. Massey, “The Wall That Keeps Illegal Workers In,” New York Times, April 4, 2006; Olga R. Rodriguez, “New Wall Not Expected to Stop Migrants,” Associated Press, October 6, 2006.
4 Walter A. Ewing, “Immigration Fairytales,” New America Media, August 4, 2008; Wayne A. Cornelius, Scott Borger, Adam Sawyer, David Keyes, Clare Appleby, Kristen Parks, Gabriel Lozada, and Jonathan Hicken, “Controlling Unauthorized Immigration from Mexico: The Failure of ‘Prevention through Deterrence’ and the Need for Comprehensive Reform,” Immigration Policy Center, June 10, 2008.
5 Cornelius et al.; Rodriguez.
6 Massey; Cornelius et al.
7 Florian Kaufmann, “Attracting Undocumented Emigrants: The Consequences of U.S. Border Enforcement,” presentation at the Center for Popular Economics (CPE) Summer Institute in Chicago, July 31, 2008.
8 Raul Hinojosa Ojeda, Robert McCleery, Enrico Marcelli, Fernando de Paolis, David Runsten, Marysol Sanchez, “Comprehensive Migration Policy Reform in North America: The Key to Sustainable and Equitable Economic Integration,” North American Integration and Development Center, School of Public Policy and Social Research, University of California, Los Angeles, August 29, 2001, 28, 30; Julie A. Phillips and Douglas A. Massey, “The New Labor Market: Immigrants and Wages After IRCA,” Demography, Vol. 36, No. 2 (May, 1999), 244.
David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review Press, July 2007), <thepoliticsofimmigration.org>.