Wall isn't a lifesaver, it's a boondoggle

A border patrol agent was killed and his partner seriously wounded in the line of duty Sunday in West Texas. Few of the details of the incident have been released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but Border Patrol Agent Rogelio Martinez, 36, and his partner were said to have come under attack while on patrol, and some Texas lawmakers, including Sen. Ted Cruz, immediately called for enhanced border security.

Not to be outdone, President Donald Trump got into the act Sunday night tweeting not just condolences but — rather predictably — vowing to build a wall along the southern border. “We will seek out and bring to justice those responsible. We will, and must, build the Wall!" Mr. Trump wrote.

Glossing over the obvious hypocrisy that these are some of the same politicians who call it “politicizing victims” when there’s any suggestion of limiting access to military-style firearms, large magazines or upgrading background checks in the wake of a mass shooting, the bigger problem with President Trump’s proposal is that it’s simply ineffective and an enormous waste of time and money. Whether Mr. Trump understands this or not is unclear. What is clear is that he believes the call for the wall is a winning issue for him politically, and he feels no compunction about stirring public anger toward Mexicans and Latinos generally.

Make no mistake, whoever killed Agent Martinez deserves to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But even Congress seems to understand that a border wall is a boondoogle. There’s little chance that funding for the project — conservatively estimated at $10 billion but more likely to cost at least two or three times that — will win approval in the U.S. Senate. Democrats have even rejected it as a bargaining chip to restore Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA protections for so-called “Dreamers.” Far more likely is that Congress will eventually approve an expanded border patrol force.

Why is a wall the wrong fix? First, keep in mind that the proposal wasn’t born of study or careful consideration but was part of candidate Trump’s emotional appeal to voters, that mix of chest-thumping nationalism and race-baiting anger toward Mexican “rapists” and “drug dealers.” There are legal issues given that much of the land involved isn’t controlled by the federal government. When attempted in the past, it’s often proved ineffective — tunnels are a popular counter strategy, but there’s also a more basic counter-measure of simply entering the country legally and then overstaying your visa (which is how the majority of undocumented enter the country now).

On the other hand, if the attacker or attackers who killed Agent Martinez are involved in the drug trade, then there’s all the more reason to doubt the effectiveness of a wall. If the United States has learned anything about drug trafficking over the last several decades, it’s the fallacy of conducting a “war on drugs.” Should some impregnable wall actually get built, drug trafficking with all its inherent dangers will simply find another avenue — much as bootleggers did during Prohibition. Until the U.S. treats illegal drugs as a health scourge and not simply a crime, trafficking will continue, as the current opioid crisis with its accidental overdoses has demonstrated. Is it somehow more tolerable if a drug dealer was born and raised in this country? Statistically, police in Baltimore and other major cities face a greater threat of bodily harm than border patrol agents.

That makes the wall mostly a costly distraction, and one that stirs xenophobia and harms relations with one of this country’s most important trading partners. Illegal immigration isn’t the cause of this nation’s crime problem. Indeed, studies have shown over and over that, as a group, the undocumented are less likely to commit violent crimes than people who were born and raised in the U.S. The wall is most a symbol — not of U.S. hegemony over its southern neighbor but of the knuckleheadedness of its current leadership.

We aren’t at war with Latin America. We don’t need to turn Texas or Arizona into police states. And we don’t need a wall. What we need most is sensible policy, to pay attention to the circumstances that caused this tragedy, and to not mindlessly recite the usual scaremongering talking points to stir the electorate into fearing anyone who has a darker skin color or speaks Spanish.

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