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An Alternative To The Wall

I find it helpful in public policy discussions to suspend emotion and learn from data and research. I can still return to my feelings afterwards, but my sentiments will then be informed by reason.

Do I want the borders fixed? Yes. Do I agree with the construction of an additional 550 miles of a border wall along the US-Mexico border? No, not all of it. I don’t mind placing barriers in strategic locations, but I think there are better public policies to address this problem. The question is: how do we determine which policies make the most sense?

Public policies are difficult to evaluate. Policy ideas don’t fit into a laboratory or petri dish so it’s difficult to conduct a controlled experiment. Instead, we are left with empirical tools such as randomized control trials or observational data that allows us to conduct time series analysis, cross-sectional regression analysis, structural modeling, and other related methods. Fortunately, when it comes to the border wall we have a connatural experiment of sorts: The Secure Fence Act of 2006.

The act passed Congress with large bipartisan majorities, including the support of Republican senators, Mitch McConnell and John McCain and Democratic senators, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. In accordance with the act, the Bush Administration constructed 548 additional miles of border fence between 2007 and 2010 at a cost of $2.3 billion. Largely because of that, 658 miles of the US-Mexico border has some sort of barrier.  

Economists utilized statistical techniques to isolate the effect of this new fencing on migration flows and the economy. They used the Mexican government’s Consular ID card database to do the analysis. The database includes information about unauthorized migrants who used the ID card to open bank accounts and send money through Western Union. Researchers constructed a migration flow database that revealed origins and destinations of migrants between Mexico and counties in the United States. They then combined the migration data with economic data from the US Census, American Community Survey, and the Mexican Census.

The results are fascinating.

“Overall, we find that the additional fencing had a very small effect on migration and an overall negative effect on the economy,” said Stanford economist, Melanie Morten. Ms. Morten hails from the highly respected Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, also known as SIEPR. She’s quoted in a new release from the Stanford News Service as saying, “The wall was expensive to US taxpayers… but saw little to no economic benefit.”

Ms. Morten said that if the goal of the policy is to reduce migration, the policy remedies should address what leads people to migrate in the first place. “Mexican citizens tended to migrate to attain higher wages. The wall did not change that.”

Indeed, an estimated 45 percent of people who live in the United States illegally enter the country legally and become illegal after overstaying their visas (See “Modes of Entry for the Unauthorized Migrant Population,” May 22, 2006). An honest policy discussion must recognize this truth, not to mention other ways to get around a physical barrier.

I’ve always felt the best way to stem the tide of illegal migration from Mexico is to foster a healthy, growing, and strong Mexican economy. The Stanford study provided statistical support for this argument.

The economists simulated a 25 percent reduction in trade costs between Mexico and the United States. They posited that Mexicans migrate to America illegally to secure higher-paying jobs. Policies that increase overall economic conditions in Mexico, such as more trade with the largest economy in the world, would drive down migration.

Their model simulations confirmed this conclusion. Annual benefits ranged from $59 to $81 per person, depending on their education level. The authors concluded that trade policy would be more effective in reducing migration than a border wall.

We must do more to end illegal border crossings. My fact-based reasoning teaches me that a better policy rather than building a wall is to reduce trade barriers between the US and Mexico. We’d be wise to encourage our leaders to focus more on open markets, and less on an expensive border wall that won’t solve the problem.

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