Someone, somewhere, somehow is going to have to give President Donald Trump a piece of wall to stand in front of. It might as well be the Democratic congressional leaders Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.
The wall is not a good idea; it’s a colossal boondoggle in the making. That’s why many Republicans as well as Democrats oppose the president’s signature initiative. Walls are ill-suited to much of the geography of the U.S.-Mexico border, and much of that geography happens to be owned by private citizens who do not want a 30-foot eyesore destroying their property. Engineering problems will probably prove less daunting than the legal sort. Both pale before another ingenious threat: ladders.
Practicalities sometimes get tossed aside in the immigration debate, mostly because immigration policy is forged by joining two irreconcilable ambitions. On one side is the drive for human freedom for people who illegally crossed the border to build better lives and join the fabric of America. On the other is a fierce determination to prevent people from crossing the border illegally, period.
There is no way to make sense of these contrasting visions except by compromise that fulfills neither. Thus, the price of freedom for undocumented immigrants living in the United States, including Dreamers brought here as children, can be only some form of increased security.
Conservatives in Congress cannot face their voters if they agree to legalization, let alone citizenship, for all 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States without being assured that the process will not repeat itself in another few decades. A brief review of American history and a survey of its lengthy borders, staggeringly vast coastline, thousands of airports and magnetic attraction to strivers suggests that this may be an elusive goal.
The only genuine security against illegal immigration is a system, such as E-Verify, to prevent undocumented immigrants from gaining employment. Many industries, including agriculture, construction and food processing, are not eager to adopt E-Verify. And even if they did, it’s far from foolproof. Many employers, regardless of industry, cut corners. (Ask Trump.)
One way or another, billions of dollars will be spent on security to ransom Dreamers and eventually others, and much of that spending will be suboptimal.
For example, the doubling of the Border Patrol since 2004, and the deployment of sophisticated surveillance technology, has unquestionably made it harder to cross the border illegally. However, the nature of the crossings has changed as well. Many more immigrants are fleeing violence in Central America and are happy to turn themselves in to U.S. agents once they cross. Drones, surveillance towers and increased personnel merely facilitate the meet and greet.
Meanwhile, the militarization of the border has led to the professionalization of sneaking across it. Immigrants now pay increasingly high fees to cartels to secure passage.
Enriching those cartels was not exactly the desired outcome.
Other expenditures would surely be more cost-effective. The Border Patrol could make good use of paved roads and better technology. But spending money wisely on proven deterrents won’t fulfill the requirements of a political deal: Immigration conservatives must get something expensive and concrete in exchange for freeing Dreamers, even if that something turns out to be wasteful and largely symbolic. Indeed, the Trump administration has already proposed cutting useful programs to fund the symbolically satisfying sort.
Given those facts, a piece of wall is a small concession that Democrats (and border-state Republicans, most of whom also oppose the idea) should make. A wall is a symbol to Trump voters and a promise he desperately wants to fulfill. It’s a symbol Democrats can exploit, as well, reassuring swing voters that they are not the party of “open borders.” Sure, it’s a waste. But a brief, discrete stretch of tremendous, Trumpian edifice may be the incongruous price of human freedom.
Contct Francis Wilkinson, who writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View, at email@example.com.