Building a Border Wall of Debt

Building a Border Wall of DebtWho will foot the bill for Trump's executive order on border security and immigration?

National Security  | Quick Take
Feb 7, 2017  | By  | 9 min read | Print Article

Perhaps because of the sheer volume of activity coming out the White House since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the headlines reach for the simplest impact of the executive actions announced by the president.

Case in point, the recent executive order titled “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements,” and signed by Trump. While most coverage simply described the order as requiring that a border wall be built, that both over- and understates what the executive order actually achieves.

As a starting point, the order states the federal government has “failed to discharge” the “basic sovereign responsibility” of enforcing immigration laws and securing borders. The proposed solution is to direct the Department of Homeland Security to build new infrastructure, hire more government employees, write more reports and other measures that will cost taxpayers money. How much money – and exactly where it will come from – is unclear, but judging by the number of interests that stand to benefit and the multi-billion departmental wish lists floating around Washington in recent years, the price tag will be in the tens of billions of dollars.

Here are some initial cost estimates for the order’s main directives.

Border wall. The order states the White House’s intention to “secure the southern border of the United States through the immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border, monitored and supported by adequate personnel so as to prevent illegal immigration, drug and human trafficking, and acts of terrorism.” The southern border is defined as “the contiguous land border between the United States and Mexico, including all points of entry,” and the wall as “a contiguous, physical wall or other similarly secure, contiguous, and impassable physical barrier.” The order then directs the secretary of homeland security to immediately begin planning and constructing the wall using “all sources of Federal funds.”

The keyword here is “impassable.” Our 2,000-mile southern border already has nearly 700 miles of infrastructure on it, authorized by the 2006 Secure Fence Act. That infrastructure ranges from vehicle barriers to pedestrian fencing that cost an average of $3.4 million per mile, according to the Government Accountability Office, costing taxpayers $2.4 billion – and that’s not counting the millions spent on maintenance each year or wasted on the unsuccessful “virtual fence.” Trump has said he wants to build a 1,000-mile, 40-foot wall made of precast concrete slabs, which he claimed could be constructed for $8 billion. In addition to the implausibility of that figure – a Massachusetts Institute for Technology study estimated the cost at around $40 billion, and investment industry analysts placed it between $15 and $25 billion – lies the problem of migrants getting around any type of barrier, whether by tunnel, sea or a very large ladder, to paraphrase former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Regarding what the president means by “all sources” of government funding, the Department of Homeland Security can’t dip into the funding for other federal agencies, so we assume he refers to aid to Mexico.

Assessment of current border security. The executive order also gives the agency three months to “produce a comprehensive study of the security of the southern border” addressing “the current state of southern border security” as well as resources and strategies “to obtain and maintain complete operational control” of the border.

The Department of Homeland Security already does this regularly in its annual performance report, which uses various metrics to measure border security. These include estimates of unauthorized entry into the United States, recidivism rate of apprehended migrants and rate of interdiction between ports of entry. These measures are not comprehensive, as the Congressional Research Service has pointed out, due to the difficulty of measuring migrants who are not caught by Customs and Border Patrol and the fact that migration is influenced by factors outside of control of the U.S. government, such as economics and security in their countries of origin. Independent agencies like the Government Accountability Office and Congressional Research Service also regularly assess border security, so an additional report would be duplicative and therefore unnecessarily expensive.

DOI should be allowed to collect royalties owed to the taxpayer

Detention facilities. The order directs the Department of Homeland Security to “take all appropriate action and allocate all legally available resources to immediately construct, operate, control, or establish contracts to construct, operate, or control facilities to detain aliens at or near the land border with Mexico.” It also requires the secretary to assign additional asylum officers and immigration judges to the centers, though it doesn’t specify how many or whether they need to be new hires.

Detention centers are run by the Enforcement and Removal Operations component of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Though the federal government does run some centers, it also contracts with state, local and private prisons for space to house detainees. The amount of space has been a point of contention between Congress and the executive branch for several years, and in 2010 Congress began mandating the number of “beds,” or per-person detention space, the government must maintain. The fiscal year 2017 appropriations bills reported by both the House and Senate provided funding for 34,000 beds at an average daily rate of $126 for an adult bed and $161 for a “family bed.” This recent executive order does not specify how many beds the president wants to add, but they won’t be free.

Border patrol agents. The executive order also directs the hiring of 5,000 additional border patrol agents “subject to available appropriations.” In other words, this isn’t really an order unless Congress agrees to it.

Since Congress still hasn’t passed a spending bill for fiscal year 2017, the government is still running on 2016-level funding, which didn’t plan for 5,000 extra border patrol agents. Based on the department’s budget request, those agents will cost around $830 million in pay and benefits, at an average of $166,000 per agent. Training, security clearances and other logistics will run up that figure. The current agent total is below the 21,370 floor established by Congress due to attrition and the difficulty of recruiting new agents, but an additional 5,000 would put it far over the floor. In its justification to Congress for its budget request, Customs and Border Patrol actually asked to reduce the target number of agents, saying the money would be better spent on technology, vehicles and other equipment. More agents mean even more equipment, so that $166,000 for the annual pay and benefits for a single agent will rise even more.

There’s no denying that securing the nation’s borders is a basic responsibility of our government. But the question has to be asked how much it will cost and whether “all sources of federal funds” will be adequate to meet that cost. There is some indication in March the Trump administration will craft a supplemental spending request to cover both a wall on the southern border and additional money for the Department of Defense for consideration by the Congress. Where this money will come from is uncertain, but adding to the federal deficit to build a wall that may never be made “impassable” is a non-starter.

Originally published on October 27, 2017 in U.S. News & World Report