View all Articles
Commentary By Jason L. Riley

Trump Needn’t Bang His Head Against the Wall

Economics Immigration

The border doesn’t have to be a fortress to hold back illegal immigration and the numbers prove it.

The conservative commentator Ann Coulter likes to rib President Trump for his administration’s glacial progress on walling off the border with Mexico. “Today’s border wall construction update,” she tweeted the other day. “Miles completed yesterday—zero; miles completed since inauguration—2.5.”

The criticism surely annoys the president, but supporters who aren’t obsessed with a border wall will probably cut him some slack. For Mr. Trump, the wall is part of a larger strategy to reduce illegal immigration. Unlawful entries have plummeted on his watch, even without the hundreds of miles of additional fencing he famously promised to erect on Mexico’s dime.

Congress has refused to authorize most of the border-security funding the president has requested, so he’s been forced to get creative. A favorable federal appeals court ruling last week allows the administration to take money originally intended for military construction projects and antinarcotics programs and spend it on new fencing. The White House is elated, but given what the administration has shown can be done to combat illegal immigration without more physical barriers, will it be money well spent?

Last spring there was a surge in illegal immigration from Central America. As The Wall Street Journal reported this week, “the Trump administration responded with a series of policies that have helped cut border crossings by more than 75% from their peak in May.” Those policies include forcing migrants who travel through Mexico en route to the U.S. to return there and await a hearing. One result is that the number of migrants arriving in families is down, as is the number of illegal entries by juveniles. The administration has delivered a strong message to sending countries and the migrants themselves that the U.S. is serious about cracking down on illegal crossings, and a wall apparently wasn’t necessary to make this clear.

Walls can be a deterrent. In the early 1990s, the Clinton administration erected barriers along popular entry points in San Diego and El Paso, Texas, and illegal entry along those corridors subsequently fell. But it rose in other areas. In fact, the country’s illegal population tripled between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, according to the Pew Research Center. Moreover, walls can only be a part of any solution, especially given the nature of the problem the country faces today.

The Department of Homeland Security reports that in 2017, for example, border patrol caught about 310,000 people attempting to cross into the U.S. illegally. Meanwhile, 700,000 people who entered legally that year overstayed their visas, and more than 85% of them simply never left. A wall can’t address this trend, or the fact that in recent years asylum seekers who voluntarily surrender to border agents now constitute an absolute majority of the people coming illegally.

Because Mr. Trump promised his supporters a wall, he’s likely to continue pushing for one regardless of whether it would make much of a difference. And because the “resistance” left has become so unreasonable on the topic of border security, the issue will almost certainly help him in the fall. Liberal lawmakers and judges refuse to revisit asylum laws that are clearly being exploited by phony applicants who crowd out real refugees. Some leading Democratic presidential candidates would eliminate criminal penalties for entering the country illegally, while others want to offer undocumented immigrants free health care. Yet polling shows that most voters favor repairing the border, not erasing it. Mr. Trump would be guilty of political malpractice if he didn’t make this an issue in the election.

The president’s best response to his critics on the right is pointing out what has been accomplished without a new border wall. Immigration restrictionists have long argued that illegal aliens displace U.S. workers and depress wages, especially among minorities and the less-educated. They insist that additional barriers are essential to protecting the border, but Mr. Trump’s first-term track record suggests otherwise.

Without completing the wall, we have 3.5% unemployment and record low joblessness for blacks and Hispanics—two groups that also happen to be experiencing their lowest poverty rates on record. Wages have grown faster for low-skill workers than for their supervisors. And labor markets are so starved for talent that fast-food restaurants are paying new managers six-figure salaries, and manufacturers are offering signing bonuses and covering relocation costs, even for hourly positions. Mr. Trump could stand to talk more about his impressive record of steady economic growth and job creation and less about his plans for a border wall. Ms. Coulter might gripe about it, but most of his supporters probably won’t mind.

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal (paywall)


Jason L. Riley is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, and a Fox News commentator. Follow him on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal