Mr. Peña Nieto, Pay For That Wall!

“It’s difficult to agree on secure borders without realizing that Donald Trump is the only candidate that has the spine, conviction and love for America to do what is necessary.”  — Dan Celia, “Trump’s Immigration Plan is a Winner”

im ready to work on the wallThe subject of immigration, and particularly of illegal immigration, into the U.S. has been a hot potato for several years now, and it’s only heating up during the run-up to the 2016 elections. Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump recently gave a speech in Phoenix, AZ, in which he laid out his official position on the matter. Now, some thought what he said betrayed a “softening” of his earlier comments. This is worrisome to some, encouraging to others. On the other hand, there are those like Townhall.com’s Dan Celia who think that Trump’s stance on immigration is now “more solidified than ever. We have more detail — and conviction — than we did four months ago.”

However, I’m still mulling it over and am not going to comment on that particular controversy. What I want to focus on is Trump’s longstanding and consistent call for an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall” along the border with Mexico and, especially, his insistence that he will make Mexico pay for it. That one has had me stumped for awhile and shaking my head every time I heard him say it.

We know that both the current Mexican president (Enrique Peña Nieto) and his predecessor (Vicente Fox) have spoken adamantly against it, and many of the Mexican people don’t like it, either — especially those with an interest in a porous border. (Of course, they don’t appreciate some of the incendiary remarks Trump has made about Mexico/Mexicans, either.) The Mexican government isn’t just going to build a wall voluntarily, and they aren’t going to write a huge check to the U.S. for that purpose. How in the world can Trump force Mexico to pay for a massive, expensive undertaking that they want nothing to do with?

There are legal, diplomatic, pragmatic, and ecological concerns regarding such a barrier, as well, which I think are probably all surmountable with reasonable solutions. But, for purposes of this post, let’s just take a quick look at the direct costs. Originally, Trump was talking about the wall covering the complete 1900 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. But, now he is estimating more like 1000 miles, with rough terrain being a natural impediment for the remainder. Assuming this is satisfactory (and I’m not convinced it is), we’re still talking hundreds of millions of cubic feet of concrete. Costs include production (e.g., materials, labor, overhead) and transport of the concrete slabs, along with labor for the installation. Trump has given an overall cost estimate of $8-10 billion (or was it $10-12 billion?), but various fact-checkers and engineers have since weighed in. A study by the Bernstein Group puts a more realistic cost at $15 billion and possibly as high as $25 billion. (The decisions on height and thickness have yet to be made.) Plus, there will be ongoing maintenance.

According to the narrative by many news outlets, Trump doesn’t really have a plan for paying for his proposed wall, let alone for making Mexico pay for it. In fact, Trump has mentioned some ideas on this, and he even provided a two-page memo to The Washington Post back in March that outlined several funding options he was considering.

Animation of proposed wall

Animation of proposed wall

One idea involves amending a provision of the Patriot Act which would allow the federal government to cut off money transfers (aka remittances) from illegal immigrants back to their relatives, friends, and associates in Mexico. This would hurt not only those Mexican nationals but the Mexican government — to the tune of $24+ billion per year. So, Trump would essentially threaten to enact this stranglehold plan unless Mexico makes a one-time payment of $X billion (likely $5-10 billion), which would of course go toward paying for the wall. This option sounds a bit like extortion on a massive scale, but the argument can be made that the illegal immigrants aren’t even authorized to make money here. That money should be earned by Americans in the first place, which means that most or all of it would stay in the U.S. I’m still thinking that one over. However, I am also uncomfortable with this option for the reason that it exploits an already controversial law and requires “redefin[ing] applicable financial institutions to include money transfer companies like Western Union, and redefine ‘account’ to include wire transfers.” This might have bad, unintended consequences for the rest of us down the road.

Another idea proposed by the Trump camp involves “[t]rade tariffs, or enforcement of existing trade rules”:

“There is no doubt that Mexico is engaging in unfair subsidy behavior that has eliminated thousands of U.S. jobs, and which we are obligated to respond to; the impact of any tariffs on the price imports will be more than offset by the economic and income gains of increased production in the United States, in addition to revenue from any tariffs themselves.”

Since Mexico needs our markets much more than we need theirs, it is reasoned that we have the leverage on this front. OK, but I am uncomfortable with the imposition of trade tariffs to begin with, so this isn’t a favorite of mine, either.

The next couple options in the memo involve visas for Mexican nationals. The point is made, “Immigration is a privilege, not a right,” and we always have the right to cancel immigration visas (idea #3) from Mexico and perhaps put a moratorium on issuing anymore for the forseeable future. “We also have leverage through business and tourist visas for important people in the Mexican economy.” Threatening these would definitely have an economic impact on Mexico. I suppose it’s worth considering, but I’m not sure the pluses outweigh the minuses from antagonizing a close neighbor and partner in trade. On the other hand, increasing visa fees (idea #4) sounds like something I could get behind. According to the memo,

“Even a small increase in visa fees would pay for the wall. This includes fees on border crossing cards, of which more than 1 million are issued a year. The border-crossing card is also one of the greatest sources of illegal immigration into the United States, via overstays.”

This seems like a valid, reasonable method of raising the funds with a minimum of additional cost or effort required. It has the added bonus of negatively impacting many of those who would abuse the privilege of visiting the United States.

Trump’s memo concludes:

“Mexico has taken advantage of us in another way as well: gangs, drug traffickers and cartels have freely exploited our open borders and committed vast numbers of crimes inside the United States. The United States has borne the extraordinary daily cost of this criminal activity, including the cost of trials and incarcerations. Not to mention the even greater human cost.”

mexican-drug-lord's cash seizedJust this past week, another innovative funding proposal has come to light that might be called a taste of “poetic justice” re the above, and it is my favorite. In short, the idea is to use drug money and other assets seized from cartels and others involved in illegal drug-trafficking to pay for construction of the wall. After all, $8.7 billion worth was seized by the U.S. Justice Dept. in just 2015. Add in similar assets seized by Mexico, and we’re well on our way to paying off that wall. One version of the plan would have both countries depositing said assets into a “joint border security fund,” from which funding for the construction and ongoing maintenance of the wall would be paid out.

According to LifeZette, which got the scoop on this proposed plan,

“A 2012 estimate compiled by the RAND Corporation at the request of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, found that Americans, on average, spend $100 billion annually on the four most widely trafficked illegal drugs: crack/cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine (meth)….

A 2013 study published by the University of Pittsburg estimated the annual profits hauled in by the cartels in Mexico total $25 to $30 billion dollars….

Advocates of the “make the cartels pay” plan believe it has the added benefit of punishing the “worst of the worst who bring violence to our streets and prey on innocent Mexicans and Americans,” while giving political cover to both leaders to accomplish their objectives….

A combined, cooperative effort to boost border enforcement could bring significant economic, national security, and health and safety benefits to millions of citizens in both nations.”

Depending on what option(s) Trump decides to go with, the Mexican government might pay for some of the wall, but they won’t be paying for 100% of it. Mexican nationals and/or Mexican criminals (along with criminals and their customers from the U.S. and elsewhere) will end up paying for everything else. Mexico does have some skin in the game, as noted above, so they should want to at least pay for measures to combat illegal trafficking of drugs, weapons, and humans by gangs, cartels, and others. In fact, I heard or read recently that Mexico has decreased the dangers from those elements over the past few years. But, there is still much to be done.

The problem is that Mexico probably benefits more from illegal immigration — i.e., relocating many poor and/or criminals to the U.S. and getting an influx of cash from the remittances — than if they kept those people in country, so they are understandably reluctant to support a huge and costly wall across the U.S.-Mexico border. Certain Mexican officials are probably also pressured/threatened by the cartels et al. to block any efforts that would put a serious dent in their bottom line. If anyone can “remind” the Mexican government of their dependence on us and use that leverage to negotiate a more favorable status quo, it’s Trump.

Personally, I’m in favor of both the visa fee increase and the “make the cartels pay” options.

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