Build the Wall: Border and Migration

by Steven Giallelis

Regardless of political opinion, a rising notion has persisted in the minds of many. Among our American neighbours to the South, assertions of “building a wall” continue to spark heated debates around dinner tables and international political debates alike. 

History of Border Walls and their Revival in the Modern Day:

The use of walls for fortification and protection can be seen throughout history in numerous stages of human development and evolution. This stretches from periods across ancient civilizations such as the Greeks and Romans, to the English Middle Ages, and to more contemporary contexts such as the Berlin Wall.

In the United States, upon launching his campaign in 2015, then-Candidate Donald Trump capitalized on this vast history regarding the use of walls for deterrence and security. Slogans of “build the wall” were chanted in regions throughout the United States, and even among supporters across the globe. Addressing unauthorized migration, explicitly targeting those coming from Mexico and South America was among the top of the Republican agenda. 

Do Walls Work at Deterring Unauthorized Migration?

While the commonality of the construction of walls for international security cannot be questioned, their efficacy certainly can be.  A recent report from the Migration Policy Institute took a deep dive into this question of efficacy by analyzing government data and scholarly research. The answer they derived is far from clear cut and is ironically suitable for a topic that is arguably quite difficult to address. 

According to the Migration Policy Institute, the utilization of walls possesses substantially mixed findings. Breaking down the concept theoretically, if a nation was to build a wall that successfully stretched from both ends of their international border and remained heavily guarded, its success would ultimately be determined by its length. In the context of small borders that neighbouring countries share, such a model has proven to be effective at decreasing unauthorized movement.

The commonly cited example  of the so-called effectiveness of border walls is the wall that was built along the US-Mexico border between El Paso and San Diego, which was erected in the 1990s. Upon its deployment, accompanied by significant border patrol personnel, unauthorized crossings within the areas dropped dramatically. Similar findings were reported along the border wall built in Hungary with the accompaniment of law enforcement officers (although lower levels of migration could have as well played a factor in this).

However, while border crossings were reduced in those particularly guarded and patrolled areas, crossings more generally, continued. The wall built along the El Paso and San Diego border merely displaced unauthorized migrants to other routes into the US that were unwalled and insufficiently guarded. In particular, migrants relied on the dangerous and remote desert paths through Western Arizona, leading to increases in the migrant death rate. With as few deaths as 18 in the 1990s, by the 2010s the toll climbed to over 200. While the overall effectiveness of border walls to deter unauthorized migration is generally unsupported, their impact on migrant deaths appears to be quite clear. 

Despite the reduction of migration along small borders, the contextual size of the wall must be thoroughly accounted for. In its entirety, the US-Mexico border stretches approximately 1,954 miles (3,144.658 km). Putting that into perspective, this is approximately the length of 34,390.4 US football fields that need to be blocked off and surveilled. This presents a significant opportunity cost when considering the requisite financial resources of building the wall and employing border patrol officers. 

Is Unauthorized Migration Really the Issue?

Placing further doubt on the claim that border walls help deter unauthorized migration is the fact that almost half (46% of a total of 10.7 million) of the undocumented migrant population in the US can be attributed to overstayed visas, and not from illegal border crossings. Why continue to build border walls then? The response to this can be answered anecdotally, through the example of locking the door at night. Simply ensuring the door is locked provides individuals with a sense of security, occurring regardless of the lock’s ability to protect from an attempted breach.

Just as locking the door at night is not a strong deterrent, building a wall for protection often fulfills moral justification rather than deterring real threats to public safety. Regardless of actual prevention, border walls of this substantial size likely do more to perpetuate a state’s sense of power and authority recognizable to the public as valuable efforts to ensure their safety. Despite their considerable cost to build and man, these moral and symbolic arguments may be enough for politicians to continue pushing for border walls, even in the face of conflicting evidence, similar to how we still lock our doors at night.

Steven Giallelis is currently in his first year as a Master of Public Policy student at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. He previously graduated from Ryerson University with an honours Bachelor of Arts in Criminology and Law. His policy interests include justice, immigration, environment, and labour policy.

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