Good Fences Make Bad Policy

Roy Beck, head of anti-immigration group Numbers USA, and Gordon Liddy were chatting yesterday about the desirability of building an Israeli-style giant wall across the Mexican border:

LIDDY: I’ve been over to Israel a number of times and they’ve got fences that work.

BECK: You bet.

LIDDY: They’re like Jersey barriers 18 feet high.


BECK: It would be a great thing…the idea was a double fence, you gotta have a double fence. Because the idea was you slow them down getting over the first wall. You’ve got these long distance cameras, they see the people working the first wall. And while they’re getting over the first wall and we’ve got boots on the ground — they’re driving between these two walls. And you either catch them or you get them on the other side of the wall, but that’s the whole idea.

I guess the thinking here is that Israel is a better-sounding example than the other analogy that comes to mind: East Germany. Still, though in my view there are all kinds of geopolitical and human rights problems with what Israel is doing with its wall, the basic thinking over there is that they want to keep out Palestinians who are trying to kill Israelis. Beck and Liddy, by contrast, are talking about a wall to keep out Mexicans who want to reach voluntary agreements to perform work in exchange for money. It’s about the least-nefarious plot of all time.

My colleague Andrea Nill notes that this is a fairly costly endeavor:

U.S. government investigators have indicated that it will cost taxpayers $6.5 billion over the next 20 years to maintain the fencing already in place and the Congressional Research Service estimated in 2007 that building and maintaining a double set of steel fences along 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border would add up to $49 billion over the expected 25-year life span of the fence.

That’s a lot of money to spend on an enterprise that, if successful, would reduce GDP and lower wages for most native-born Americans. It would make about a million times more sense to just spend an extra $2–3 billion a year on providing enhanced services or lower taxes to low-income Americans.