Ten years ago, President George Bush signed the Secure Fence Act. Requiring 700 miles of double-layer fencing on America’s southern border, the law was modified in 2007 to be almost useless, thanks to then-Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and the new Democratic Congress.
Since then, the fence has languished. And despite promising voters that he would build a substantial wall to stop immigrants from illegally entering the nation, President-elect Donald Trump appears to be backtracking on the vow.
Mr. Trump ought to backtrack further – a wall is both a waste of money and a distraction from the real culprit for most illegal immigration: economics.
According to new research from Pew Research, there are eight million illegal immigrants working or looking for work in the U.S., totaling five percent of the U.S. work force and the vast majority of the over 11 million illegal immigrants commonly estimated to be in the nation. While many of those immigrants pay taxes, there is a net cost to taxpayers of tens of billions of dollars per year, according to fluctuating estimates. Many of these costs are borne by state and local governments.
Building an expensive wall won’t force any illegal immigrants, about 40 percent of whom have overstayed their visas after legally crossing our borders, to leave the country. Enacting an effective E-Verify program enforced by fining businesses who hire illegal immigrants would, by removing the financial incentive of employment.
Likewise, Congress and Trump can simultaneously save taxpayers billions of dollars and remove at least some of the financial and legal protections provided to illegal immigrants by pulling funding from more than 200 sanctuary cities that refuse to work with federal customs officials.
Removing incentives related to legal protection and employment is just one of several key economic steps. Welfare reform must also be a top priority, both to prevent illegal immigrants from illegally receiving government cash and to get Americans out the door to work. Once businesses are incentivized to not hire illegal immigrants, and Americans are incentivized to work jobs instead of relying on government largesse, most illegal immigrants will have little to no reason to stay in the country.
The relationship between economics and immigration isn’t just theoretical; during the Great Recession, America’s illegal immigrant population dropped when fewer opportunities were available. The reduction didn’t require a wall – just less economic opportunity in America than was found elsewhere.
Economics can’t solve our nation’s entire immigration problem – stopping drug cartels and terrorists will always require manpower and technology on all of our borders. But it can make a significant dent, and set the stage for a more efficient and humane legal immigration system that permits more temporary workers, refugees, and asylum seekers. Law enforcement agencies will be able to focus on those intending to do us harm, rather than chase down people who violate our laws in their search for a better way of life.
Like all people, immigrants respond to incentives. They are not finding economic opportunity in their native countries and/or are being forced to leave their homelands due to war, government oppression, drug cartels, etc. Building a wall is bad optics and a waste of time and money. Better to let boring old economics take effect to reduce illegal immigration, grow our economy, and save taxpayers untold (and unnecessary) billions in welfare costs.