It seems everyone has a strong opinion about Donald Trump’s border wall. But we should at least talk about it in the right way. That is, with clarity, pragmatism and common sense.
Not just in terms of how much this project would cost, with estimates soaring beyond $50 billion. Or whether Mexico is going to pick up the tab, as Donald Trump has insisted. Or whether our neighbor will be forced to pay for it indirectly through a tariff on imported Mexican goods. Or whether Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas might be on to something with his attention-grabbing proposal to use the confiscated assets of drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman to help offset the wall’s cost.
Not in a partisan way where the public is expected to swallow whole the fantastical narrative that Democrats harbor some deep-seated moral objection to building structures on the U.S.-Mexico border. Don’t be fooled by Sen. Chuck Schumer’s phony tears when he talks about how a wall would divide families; the New York Democrat voted in favor of the Secure Fence Act of 2006, as did his then-Senate colleagues Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Most Democrats love border enforcement, especially walls and fences.
Not in Washington parlance, where the only thing that seems to interest most of the Beltway media is the question: “Will he, or won’t he?” As usual, what reporters in the nation’s capital are obsessed with is the politics, not the policy. They never tire of speculating about whether Trump will follow through on building a “big beautiful” border wall, or whether he will ultimately cave to opposition from Democrats.
Judging from the reaction on conservative talk radio, Trump supporters are worried about a cave-in. They fear that the outsider they sent to change Washington has, in just over 100 days, been changed by Washington. They’re also concerned that the businessman’s obsession with getting deals done might soon become a liability if it prompts him to accept bad deals that give away too much to Democrats.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer tried to calm fears by telling reporters this week that the wall will indeed be built.
Maybe, maybe not. The administration failed to get the down payment it was asking for in the recent $1.07 trillion spending package.
But instead of getting bogged down talking about cost, politics and broken promises, there is only one question we should be asking: Is the border wall a good idea or not?
The answer is “not.”
For one thing, the border stretches nearly 2,000 miles from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego, California, and about a third of it is already covered by a wall or fence. Another third is made up of “uncoverable” terrain – rivers, mountains, Native American land, private ranches, a university. This whole debate is over what to do with the remaining 700 or so miles along the border.
Also, even if a wall does go up, it won’t do much to stop the flow of illegal immigrants. In the last few years, that flow has become a trickle as the economy in Mexico has improved and the human smugglers have raised their prices. The Trump wall is irrelevant before it’s even built, given an existing and sophisticated network of underground tunnels.
This could explain why – in my conversations with Border Patrol supervisors and rank-and-file agents – they tend to ask for tunnel-detection equipment and not for walls. They also want better roads to make it easier to apprehend border crossers, and the latest technology to help them win what is a battle of wits with smuggling cartels. And for their own safety, they would rather not contend with 20-foot-high walls they can’t see through or around.
But what do these experts know? They just walk the line every day.
Lastly, a wall could make the problem worse by “penning in” many of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants on this side of the border. Many of them have been separated from their families for so long that they consider it normal. They won’t go home for a visit – at Christmas or Mother’s Day – because they’re afraid they won’t be able to get back unless they pay a smuggler’s new and exorbitant “Donald Trump rate.” So they stay here, put down roots, and never leave.
Guess what, Mr. President. It’s not just health care, Syria and North Korea. Who knew a border wall could be so complicated?
Ruben Navarrette can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.