No fence, physical or virtual, will ever control the border

Hey, I don’t believe that any system is totally secure.
-David Lightman(Matthew Broderick), War Games

Building a physical fence along the entire southern border is exorbitantly expensive. I ran through my own quick-and-dirty cost analysis once and was quite surprised at my low-end cost: $30-50 billion for the entire 1951 mile-long border (my original analysis). The federal government has realized this as well, so they’ve hired Boeing to build “Project 28,” a 28-mile long virtual fence project near the Sasabe border crossing that integrates physical barriers and technological monitoring into a single system that is designed to catch everyone passing through the area.The technology employed is pretty impressive. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website, there will be redeployable sensor towers, unattended ground sensors, communications upgrades to CBP vehicles, and mobile command and control vehicles. According to an NPR story (U.S. Tests ‘Virtual’ Border Fence in Arizona), some of the sensors include radar, optical and infrared cameras, and ground-base sensors that detect footsteps. And Boeing has used satellite photography to determine where physical fences were necessary to prevent border crossers from blending into the local population in less than the minimum response time of the border patrol.

Like I said, impressive technology. And if we deployed it over the entire non-fenced 1951 miles of the border, it’d cost only $4.4 billion (calculated using the pilot project’s costs per mile over 95% of 1951 miles), a significant savings over $30-50 billion. Of course, this isn’t the (likely classified) total costs of the project, so the Arizona Daily Star’s estimate of $2 billion over 6 years is probably a better guideline. Which would put the costs at something like $333 million per year, or $11.9 million per year per mile. Extending that to the rest of the southern border, that’s about $22 billion per year in today’s dollars.

(NOTE: It will probably take 10-20 years to roll out this system across the entire southern border, so the actual costs will be significantly higher by the time its done. Also, keep in mind that the U.S. government wants to roll out the virtual fence project along the longer, rougher terrain, and harsher weather of the U.S.-Canada border too.)

As I alluded to in the War Games quote above, however, there’s no such thing as a perfect security system. Every technology can be beaten. Every physical barrier can be bypassed. Guards can be bribed, drugged, or just plain avoided. The point of security systems isn’t to make them truly impregnable, but rather to make the so hard to get through that it’s not worth the hassle. But people who are suffiently motivated will always, always find a way through. It might take bribing a guard or four to leave a blind zone in the camera net, or it may require special low-impact shoes that don’t set off the ground sensors (or riding a cow, since cows presently set off the sensors), or using camoflage netting, or any combination of technological and psychological methods to avoid detection. As former Border Patrol and INS agent and author of The Reaper’s Line Lee Morgan says in the Arizona Daily Star article I linked to above, “‘The end result is it will always be defeated by desperate people, whatever you put out there.'” The only sure-fire way to keep people from breaking through the border security is to first remove the motivation to break through.

And economics is the motivation. Drug smugglers haul pot, cocaine, heroin, et al across the border because we’ve got a massive number of drug addicts creating a huge market for illicit drugs. Migrant workers come north because, as bad as they have it here sometimes, the working conditions and pay are still better than at home.

According to a study by Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, approximately 86.8% of illegal immigrants in 2005 were Mexicans, while the vast majority of the other 13.2% came from Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. According to the USAID Greenbook, we spent a total of $2.26 billion in loans and grants to all of Latin America. Of that, $166.4 million went to Mexico, $42 million to Brazil, $55 million to El Salvador, $68 million to Guatemala, $270 million to Honduras, and $67 million to Nicaragua.

If we used the $333 million expected per year cost of just Project 28, we could boost total aid to Latin America by 15% over 2005 numbers, and if we divided it up just over the six nations that account for 99.6% of all illegal immigration, we would boost our total aid to those six nations by 50%. And if we expand Project 28 to the entire southern border (the $22 billion/year expense I mentioned above), we could instead use that money to increase our total aid budget to the entire world by 81%.

Now, there’s a chance that pure aid isn’t the best approach. Scholars & Rogues coblogger Gavin Chait has worked in this area in South Africa for a long time, and he’s pointed out that standard aid isn’t necessarily a good thing. So maybe we should subsidize U.S. industry to invest in Latin America instead of providing direct aid to potentially corrupt governments. Or maybe subsidizing a micro-loan program would work. But the illegal immigration problem won’t go away until we eliminate the economic motivation to immigrate. And until we reduce the demand for illicit drugs on our nation’s streets, we won’t stop the drug smuggling trade across the border either.

Now, I haven’t even addressed finding the money to secure our border without (further) breaking the national budget, nor have I addressed other, potentially even better uses for all this money (if we can find it at all) like education or developing non-carbon based energy sources. But if we can find the money to build a virtual fence along the southern border, there’s every reason to believe that the money involved would be better spent helping our neighbors improve their economies and reduce their respective poverty gaps than building better fences and hiring more border patrol agents.

16 replies »

  1. The problem is that the Mexican government and elite are totally corrupt and willing to sell out its own people. The corrupt U.S. government takes advatage of this. NAFTA and all other trade agreements with Mexico needs to be repealed and the U.S. pressure valve removed. Then Mexico will have no choice but to deal with it’s poor and disenfranchised and it’s population problem. It has the resources to do this and should be forced to do so.

  2. Jada, I grant you that Mexico has its own significant internal problems, but that doesn’t negate my point in any way. The only difference would be where the U.S. spent the money that we’re currently spending on border security on forcing the Mexican elites to re-enfranchise their population and cut deeply into the poverty gap between the elite few and the massive numbers of poor. Or we could spend the money on either repealing NAFTA (and handling the fallout from that action) or adjusting it to something more progressive. Either way, the money is better spent on figuring out a way to reduce immigration at the source than on border security.

  3. Great, great post, Brian. I especially like this succinct summation of the problem:

    “And economics is the motivation. Drug smugglers haul pot, cocaine, heroin, et al across the border because we

  4. Jim, getting people to listen is part of why I blog. I have perpetual hope that someone in power will listen eventually, even if no-one ever seems to. With a little luck, we’ll make enough waves here at S&R that people will finally start to listen.

  5. Israel has enjoyed stunning success with its fence… Built at a cost of $3.5 million a mile. US costs would be somewhat higher, but not be much. Keep in mind, much of the border is very flat and easy to handle.

    See “What America can learn from Israel’s West Bank security barrier” (http://www.slate.com/id/2143104/)

    “Here’s one lesson Americans can definitely draw from the Israeli experience of building a fence to separate them from the Palestinians: High fences don’t always make good neighbors. It didn’t happen in the West Bank, and it probably won’t happen in Texas. The country that builds the fence buys a sense of security, but the people prevented from getting to work, or shopping, or marrying someone on the other side will not be thankful for it. And the reason is pretty obvious: Fences work.”


    “Israel West Bank Barrier Fence To Cost $3.5 Million Per Mile” (http://www.parapundit.com/archives/001881.html)

    “At $3.5 million per mile the construction of an equivalent barrier on the almost 2000 mile US border with Mexico in order to keep out illegal aliens would cost $7 billion. This also is quite affordable. The potential savings in medical costs alone would pay for the barrier in the first year. Cost reductions in Medicaid expenditures alone would be substantial.”



  6. Peter, I’m afraid that you’re operating from a few faulty assumptions. The Israeli security wall and the U.S.-Mexico border wall are only barely comparable. Here’s why:

    1. The cost-per-mile of the U.S.-Mexico border fence will be much higher than the cost of the Israeli security fence because much of it is a significant distance from cities or towns. If you look at the West Bank (<a href=”http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/images/maps/fence10.jpg” rel=”nofollow”>good map here</a>), you’ll find that no part of the West Bank fence is more than about 20 miles from the nearest major population center. If you look at the southern border (<a href=”http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/americas/mexico_ibwc.pdf” rel=”nofollow”>good map here</a>), you’ll find that somewhere between 33% and 50% of the border is farther out than 20 miles from the nearest population center. This means that the cost will be higher because people will have to be housed on-site, with food, water and waste being trucked in and out. The construction materials will have to be trucked in significant distances, adding even more to the cost.

    2. The costs will be higher because the terrain of the southern U.S. border is rougher than the terrain of the West Bank, especially in parts of California and Arizona. Compare <a href=”http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fb/Israel_topo_en.jpg” rel=”nofollow”>this topo map of Israel</a> to these topo maps of <a href=”http://fermi.jhuapl.edu/states/maps1/ca_south.gif” rel=”nofollow”>S. California</a>, <a href=”http://fermi.jhuapl.edu/states/maps1/az.gif” rel=”nofollow”>Arizona</a>, <a href=”http://fermi.jhuapl.edu/states/maps1/nm.gif” rel=”nofollow”>New Mexico</a>, and <a href=”http://fermi.jhuapl.edu/states/maps1/tx.gif” rel=”nofollow”>Texas</a>. In addition, securing a water border is inherently more difficult (and thus more expensive) than securing a land border, and most of the Texas border is the Rio Grande.

    3. The United States has no interest in a simple, easily-bypassed concrete wall like that used in Israel, and a three-layer border fence like that used between San Diego and Tijuana is what I used to get my original $30-50 billion estimate (see my original analysis at the link in the main post). The only reason that Israel can have such a simple fence is that the fence is short enough in length to be regularly patrollable by soldiers who can catch people using simple ladders and ropes to climb over it (and yes, that’s all it takes). The U.S. lacks the manpower to patrol the entire 1951 mile length of the southern border, thus the reason for Project 28’s technological solutions. More border patrol agents and technology add significant costs to the border fence project.

    4. Your point about savings in medical costs (and probably education) from parapundit is questionable. Economists have yet to reach a consensus conclusion on the economic costs vs. benefits of illegal immigration, and until they do so, we cannot use any supposed savings from medical costs, education, etc. to offset the cost of building and maintaining a border fence.

    Fundamentally, the reason that the Israeli security fences work is because Israel is a highly militarized small country that feels itself existentially threatened by its neighbors. The U.S. cannot afford, economically or politically, militarizing the southern border to the same extent as Israel’s borders, and our solders are not so motivated by truly existential threats as the Israeli soldiers are. Israel has ~134k army soldiers and another 6k border police to protect a nation slightly over 20k square km and a border that is a little over 1000 km long. The U.S-Mexico border region is 3100 km long, and just the land within 10 miles of the border exceeds the entire area of Israel by a factor of 2.5. We simply cannot afford to flood the southern border with 350,000 border patrol agents and soldiers.

    And even if we did somehow increase the size of the southern border patrol by a factor of 35x, the really dangerous people (terrorists and drug smugglers) who might try to sneak in via Mexico today would just head north to Canada instead. And that border is 4500 miles long, has rougher topography, even fewer population centers, and worse weather.

  7. Your estimate is way too low, Brian. Building a fence — virtual or otherwise — through the desert is a much different engineering and logistics problem than building on down a river… through the Canyons along the Big Bend and through agricultural regions like the Rio Grande Valley. And have you built in for loss of habitat, the destruction of the tourism industry in the Big Bend, and of agriculture in the Valley?

    It’s a bigger boondoggle than anyone thought. How do we get our cut?

  8. Richmx2, I expect that the $22 billion is too low for a virtual fence, since the entire pilot project is within 30 miles of a major border crossing. The further you get from civilization, the more it’ll cost. So my original $30-50 billion (which is probably still low for the triple-fence used between San Diego and Tijuana if extended to the entire border) is probably ok for an extended Project 28-style border, but on the low end for a physical barrier.

    And no, loss of habitat, tourism dollars, and agriculture haven’t been accounted for. This is just the border fence. And even then, it’s mostly just construction, never mind maintenence.

    I just realized that it probably doesn’t include the cost of exercising eminent domain on the private lands on the border, either. That could be another huge cost, given the length of the border.

  9. Cudos for your analisis!
    I live in southern Mexico and weekly see 20-40 people leave for the northern climes and additionally see “Gringos” comming here for the
    southern climate-retirement.There is No incentive economically for these folks to stay here and develope thier lives in situ.
    My thoughts on this are conflicted.
    One thought I strongly agree with is “bootstrap” developement IE;mico loans,work programs,Education and, LOCAL economic developement!
    Corruption is the order of the day on many levels and if the waves of economic sojourners persists as it has the States will eventually be pulled into it by osmosis.
    Mexico is a wealthy country,rich in resources,not the least of which is its people.The structure here,and I assume the rest of “Latin America” ,is such that these folks will never achieve economic equallibrium!I don;t see ANY community based incentive(s) to improve economic benifit for the poor here.
    It seems that on all economic levels the States is looked to to provide solutions!
    This is the mind set that needs to shift before any proposed solutions whether border fence or electronic sensing would ever function as we would like.Actually a shift in Latin psycology of this sort would nulify the need for fences.

  10. Garfield Herr, in the process of doing all the research for my posts on this topic, I’ve been impressed by the number of times that people have commented that Mexico (and many other nations in Latin America) are actually quite wealthy, but that the concentrated wealth of the elites never trickles down to the masses. Which is why I think some of your suggestions for local development that bypasses the corruption of the elites and governments are excellent.

    I suspect bypassing the corruption would be difficult, but not impossible. Thanks for your comment.

  11. Brian,

    The only thing I can add to this masterful piece of work is the reiteration that the human factor is the one great weakness for any security system. Whether it’s a computer network, a bank, or a border, the race will always be between the people who want in and the people who want to keep them out. If people want in to something bad enough, they’ll find a way.

    Excellent work.

  12. Wait – so you’re saying that instead of treating the symptoms we should try and cure the disease?

    Why do you hate freedom?

  13. “Migrant workers come north because, as bad as they have it here sometimes, the working conditions and pay are still better than at home.”

    Who cares WHY they come here? All I care about is HOW they did it.

    dare I suggest a mandatory jail sentence and/or a massive fine per subject for anyone who employs illegals, subcontracts to anyone who employs illegals, or who aids and abets their conspiracy to circumvent employment regulations? 30 days and $150,000 per illegal employee per day would undoubtedly put a kink in the illegal labor market.

    Punish those who use them or help them break the law, and they’d have no reason to cheat their way in. Or maybe they’d stay home and fix their own damn country instead of bringing down the quality of life in MINE.

  14. Sharra, the problem is that no-one has been able to prove that illegal immigrants are actually reducing the quality of life in the United States. There are studies that say so, yes, but there are as many opposing studies that say illegal immigrants boost our economy more than they drag on it. Similarly, the crime studies I’ve seen are also inconclusive.

    I’m not opposed to fines for employing illegal workers – if we can prove that employing illegal workers actually is actually more of a drag on the economy than a boost.

    The “why” matters. If we can boost the economies and social conditions in the nations the immigrants are leaving, then not only do we reduce our illegal immigration problem, but we also create markets for U.S. goods at the same time. And if we can sell more goods and services to other countries, then we can improve the quality of our life at the same time we’re improving the lives of people who would have been illegal immigrants.

    The fact you described illegal immigrants as a labor market makes an excellent point – there is a supply-side and a demand side to illegal immigration. You propose exclusively working on the demand side with fines and prison terms (like we don’t already have a prison overcrowding problem already – do you realize just how much worse this would make it?). I’ve proposed working largely on the supply side, since I think that will be more effective. But in either case, the money we’d spend building a border fence would be better spent addressing the supply of, and demand for, illegal immigrant labor (and, not coincidentally, the supply of and demand for illicit drugs smuggled across the border).