Back to the Wall

I don’t really understand the argument Jon Chait is making about building a wall across Mexico. My argument is that it’s foolish to spend money on an endeavor that, if it succeeded in reducing the number of immigrants to the United States, would hurt economic growth.

Chait responds:

Yglesias argues that illegal immigration helps America’s economy. But maintaining lax borders isn’t really a god solution to immigration policy. If we want more immigration than the law allows — and I think we should — then we should raise the legal amount of immigration. Letting people in on the basis of their willingness and ability to evade border guards is not a rational approach.

I agree with all of that. Maintaining lax borders isn’t a good solution to immigration policy problems, and letting people in on the basis of their willingness and ability to evade border guards isn’t a rational approach. What we ought to do, as Chait says, is have a comprehensive reform of the system that includes higher levels of legal immigration.


All that said, the policy issue I was discussing wasn’t the desirability of higher levels of legal immigration (I’m for it) or comprehensive reform (I’m for it) but of spending a few billion dollars a year on building a wall across the Mexican border. Building such a wall would be, in my view, economically harmful to the United States and therefore ill-advised. Chait doesn’t really seem to disagree.

Then he says “If we are going to have some limits on immigration, though, you’re going to have to enforce them in some way.” This is, of course, true. But we have lots of laws in this country and we put various amounts of resources into enforcing them. And of course none of our laws are perfectly enforced. For very good reasons, it’s illegal to steal other people’s cars. And the law against car theft needs to be enforced. But if a proposed anti-car-theft measure were to be economically harmful (say we mandated that all cars install locks that can only be opened after a retina scan) we would consider that a good reason to oppose the measure. I think it would be highly beneficial for the federal government to put more resources into preventing violent crime in high-poverty neighborhoods by hiring more police officers. But I think that for the federal government to spend more resources on building a wall on the Mexican border would likely be economically harmful, so I oppose it.

Last, Chait says “I could imagine some kind of deal that involved the construction of serious barrier to stop illegal immigration along with an increase in legal immigration and some amnesty for illegal immigrants.” Me too! Just because building a wall is a bad idea doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be worth doing in order to gain support for an overall beneficial package of changes to immigration law. That said, even though I’d be happy to strike a bargain that includes a wall, I think it’s crucial for advocates of immigration to be clear on the fact that the wall is not, on its own terms, a desirable policy.