It was his sure-fire applause line, one he pulled out of his rhetorical grab bag whenever he saw he was losing the enthusiasm of a crowd: "I will build a big, beautiful wall and Mexico will pay for it!" If we are lucky, though, now that he is president, Donald Trump will renege on this, his biggest campaign promise.
He could simply declare victory and say a wall along the border with Mexico is no longer necessary because illegal crossings have diminished to a trickle. Unlike many of Mr. Trump's statements, that would have the added virtue of actually being more or less true. The number of people apprehended by the Border Patrol has dropped by 64 percent from this time last year, the lowest level in at least 17 years, according to an LA Times report.
If he simply says he has fixed the problem, his most ardent admirers will have no objection; first, because they believe anything he says and, second, because most of them already interpreted talk of a wall as hyperbole, an amusing exaggeration that only meant he was going to get tougher on undocumented immigrants. Mr. Trump's detractors, meanwhile, would breathe a sigh of relief because the wall is an insanely expensive absurdity.
It is estimated that building a giant, impervious 1,951-mile-long structure like Mr. Trump has proposed could cost as much as $38 billion and suck funding away from far more worthy and vital infrastructure projects. American ranchers and landowners along the border fear the wall would make parts of their property inaccessible. It would certainly make the Rio Grande unreachable from the U.S. side of the river if a giant wall were in the way. It would also have the perverse effect of locking in thousands of migrants who might otherwise go back south.
In Senate testimony recently, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly lowered expectations about Mr. Trump's big promise. "It's unlikely that we will build a wall or physical barrier from sea to shining sea," he said. More likely, border security will be beefed up with stretches of wall here and there, supplemented with smaller fences, drones, electronic monitoring and other methods of interdiction, he said.
That almost makes sense.
Something that makes even more sense would be for Congress to put together comprehensive immigration legislation that would formally recognize the agricultural industry's need to employ guest workers from Mexico and elsewhere. Add to that assistance programs for Central American countries whose problems with criminal gangs and poverty are driving emigrants north. Such intelligent policies might go a long way toward lowering the number of people attempting the dangerous trek across the border.
Unfortunately, that kind of clear-headed thinking is not likely to emerge from the current Congress. Too many senators and representatives have benefitted from riling up voters by exploiting the immigration issue. Why would they want to actually solve the problem?
Mr. Trump, though, has proven he can be quite elastic in his policy ideas. After insisting he would make Mexico pay for the wall, for instance, he came up with the idea of putting a duty on goods coming from Mexico. When everyone figured out that would mean American consumers would be paying the price, that idea lost traction. The latest shiny object to catch his eye is California Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher's wacky scheme to raise money for the wall by offering U.S. citizenship to any wealthy foreigner willing to fork over $1 million.
Here's an easier plan, Mr. President: Latch onto the latest border crossing numbers and call this a problem solved. Then, basking in your victory, simply allow your beautiful wall to go the way of all pipe dreams.