The Border Wall & Partial Government Shutdown

The Mexico-United States barrier (barrera México–Estados Unidos) is currently a long series of discontinuous structures described as fences or walls which have been placed along 636 miles of the total 1,933 mile long continental border, leaving 1,297 miles unfenced. These structures aim to deter immigrants entering into the United States illegally. Between these structures are surveillance cameras and sensors which are used to alert the US Border Patrol agents to suspected immigration activity.

The issue of a border wall as well as comprehensive immigration reform has been a hot topic in Congress in the 21st century. In 2005 a Republican representative from California, Duncan Hunter, proposed a plan for constructing a fence with a 100-meter border zone on the United States side. It passed the House but not the Senate. The Senate proposed its own Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 but that bill did not pass committee.

Congress eventually agreed upon and passed the Secure Fence Act. It was signed in 2006 by President George W. Bush. This bill approved and partially funded the building of 700 miles of fence or barriers along the border with Mexico. In 2009 US Customs and Border Protections reported 580 miles of that had been constructed.

Trump ran on a campaign promise that he would “Build The Wall,” meaning fill in the gaps between the current barriers with a continuous wall. Trump entered office with the aim to fulfill this campaign promise. In March 2018 Congress averted a government shutdown by agreeing on a spending bill which gave Trump $1.6 billion out of $1.3 trillion to use on building new and fixing existing structures. This money was reportedly used to create 90 miles of added barriers with Mexico.

This campaign promise, Trump’s determination to fulfill it (Trump said he would veto any spending bill that didn’t include $5 billion for the wall), and the staunch opposition by the Democrats (who have the majority in the House of Representatives) eventually led to the federal government being partially shut down from December 22, 2018 to January 25, 2019. This was the longest federal government shutdown in history.

Sentiment analysis for the left shows slightly higher rates of sadness and anger, presumably due to the perceived negative consequences of the government shutdown as well as the reaction to an unfavored immigration policy and president. THe right shown more disgust on average, presumably due to their frustration with the left for blocking what they see as a necessary solution to perceived problems surrounding illegal immigration. However both sides show a negative sentiment.

Narratives on the Right:

The right sees a border wall as a common sense solution to reduce illegal immigration, and one that is widely used around the world. Blame for the government shutdown is placed upon Democrats who have refused support for this immigration policy and the building of a complete border wall.


Much frustration is expressed towards the left for resisting or blocking initiatives to build the wall, and Democrats are seen as having a naive “open border” philosophy that puts America at risk by denying what the right sees as obvious dangers of illegal immigration – namely crime, drugs, and overloading of public services. Frustration is also shown towards the right’s perceived hypocrisy of the left, supporting a border wall during Obama’s presidency, but now using the issue to support the narrative that Trump and his policies are racist. Trump represented this sentiment in a 2018 tweet, stating that he agreed with Obama’s 2005 statements on immigration:

“We are a generous and welcoming people here in the United States…but those who enter the country illegally and those who employ them disrespect the rule of law and they are showing disregard for those who are following the law. We simply cannot allow people to pour into the United States undetected, undocumented, unchecked, and circumventing the line of people who are waiting patiently, diligently and lawfully to become immigrants into this country.”

– Barack Obama, 2005

The news on the right reflects the momentum that the Republican party views it has gained for stronger immigration policy through Trump’s election into office. Trump’s blunt/ more explicit rhetoric–that he has used in office and on the campaign trail–stands in stark contrast to previous Republican party leaders who may have voted in favor of/ supported such policy but didn’t do so with such an unapologetic tone. The right media and Trump supporters find this tone to be refreshing and representative of the current view of the majority of the populace or “Main Street America.”

On October 12th, 2018 the previously Republican-held House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy sai, “President Trump’s election was a wake-up call to Washington.” McCarthy introduced “The Build the Wall, Enforce the Law Act of 2018” which is a US Congress bill that would fund Trump’s border wall and adhere to federal immigration laws.

This bill amends the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 to modify provisions relating to the enforcement of immigration laws. Specifically, the bill prohibits any individual (e.g., an employer) from restricting or interfering with the enforcement of the immigration laws by federal officials. It also denies states or localities (i.e., sanctuary jurisdictions) that fail to cooperate in the enforcement of the immigration laws eligibility for federal funds and law enforcement grants under the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968.

Kevin McCarthy said, “the American people want us to build the wall and enforce the law. Maintaining strong borders is one of the basic responsibilities of any nation. For too long, America has failed in this responsibility.”

Right news outlets reflect this urgency. Republican voters took this a step further with the private support of a GoFundMe campaign for the border wall that was made by an Iraqi War Veteran, Brian Kolfage. Kolfage encouraged voters of Trump to donate $80 a person to the wall, and if each did (63 million voted for Trump), then it would be fully funded. Kolfage began the campaign in December of 2018. By February the 20th of December more than $17 million had been raised. As of February 2019 it has reached over $20 million.

More recently the right’s narratives have included concern for the children of families that are being brought through treacherous climates and dangerous areas in order to illegally cross the border, much of which as a response to the left’s critiques of treatment of families at the border. The right believes that the families are irresponsibly putting the children’s lives at risk, and so should be discouraged from attempting the trek.


Narratives on the Left:

The media news outlets blame the shutdown on Trump and what they see as inhumane and unrealistic border security policy, which they also see as a continuation of racism and scapegoating of immigrants in order to energize their conservative base.

Representatives and media outlets are calling out what they see as hyperbole and a manufactured crisis they believe Trump is using to impose an unnecessarily cruel and racist immigration policy upon the US. Trump is perceived to be coercing the American populace by crafting a false narrative–grave danger or imminent threat on the border–which in turn justifies executive action and declaration of a National Emergency.

The left sees the right as using anecdotal stories of violent crime by immigrants as scare tactics, blowing the scale of the violence completely out of proportion with reality, with immigrants scapegoated for more fundamental economic and societal problems faced by the US today. The left sees this as a distraction from “real” or higher-priority problems, and show frustration with the right’s voter base for their perceived ignorance and gullibility. The left also cites research showing that immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than US citizens.

The left media also taunts Trump for repeatedly promising that Mexico would pay for the wall, and then reversing his promise after being elected. They push back on Trump’s contention that the wall will be paid for through the renegotiation of NAFTA with Mexico and Canada. This trade deal has not cleared US Congress and needs final approval from both Mexico and Canada.

Similar to the right’s concern for children and families, the left is also highly concerned about the children, but see the right (especially as directed by Donald Trump) as being overly cruel to the families and children, separating them and forcing them back to dangerous countries or left to die in the desert.

The left media news outlets recognize the momentum in their own policy views since the Democrats took the House in 2018. Because the Democrats now have a majority in the House of Representatives, the party sees a voter shift in support for more welcoming immigration policies, and to fight what they see as rampant racism from the right.  

Not only does the left see the need for a wall based on false pretenses, they see it as a colossal waste of money, which will not have a large impact on illegal immigration, and could be better spent on social programs or strengthening the United States, or high technology solutions rather than physical barriers. They also promote the narrative that the government shutdown itself is more detrimental to Americans than illegal immigration poses.

A tweet by Representative Adam Schiff, showing the left’s perspective of a false crisis being pushed by Trump to scare his base into supporting a wall.


Fact Checking the Narratives

What is the cost of the wall, and who would pay for it?

Cost estimates for a border wall have been as low as $4 billion (Donald Trump early estimate), and as high as $70 billion (Democratic Staff of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee). The Department of Homeland Security estimates the cost to be around $21.6 billion, and this is the most commonly cited figure. To cover around 1,000 miles to complete the border fence, this would run about $21 million per mile. Technological solutions such as Lidar barriers that would detect people and automatically alert authorities would run about $125,000 per mile, but in all fairness would not be the same type of deterrent as a physical barrier.

On the campaign trail Trump quoted estimates of the cost to build the wall, one being $12 billion, and another $18 million. According to an article published by Reuters in February of 2017, there was an internal report written by the Department of Homeland Security that estimated Trump’s wall at $21.6 billion with a timeline of 3.5 years to complete.

In Kevin McCarthy’s bill, “The Build the Wall, Enforce the Law Act of 2018” the cost of building was estimated at $23.4 billion with an added $1.6 billion from the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018.

Trump has in turn cited research by the Center for Immigration Studies (an organization seen as an anti-immigration think tank, as part of the “John Tanton Network” or “Empire of Organizations” fighting immigration reform) that a border wall could save taxpayers money in the long run by lowering crime rates and the cost of welfare for undocumented immigrants for ten years after its completion. The estimate was $64 billion in saved tax dollars and was disputed by some fact-checkers, claiming Trump had underestimated the cost of maintenance and actual building cost.

Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, told The New York Post: “The wall could pay for itself even if it only modestly reduced illegal crossings and drug smuggling,”

Trump also asserted Mexico would pay for the wall on his campaign trail. But in 2019 he clarified this, stating: “When during the campaign, I would say ‘Mexico is going to pay for it,’ …I never meant they’re gonna write out a check, I said they’re going to pay for it. They are. Mexico is paying for the wall indirectly, and when I said Mexico will pay for the wall in front of thousands and thousands of people, obviously they’re not gonna write a check. But they are paying for the wall indirectly many, many times over by the really great trade deal we just made with Mexico.”

Trump later qualified this claim, saying that his renegotiation of NAFTA would indirectly pay for the wall through economic growth and more tax revenues. Analysts have debated whether there would be an increase in revenue for US companies or federal government, and if so if it would pay for the wall somehow, but the funds would be coming from US companies and employees, not the Mexican government. According to Politico:


A modernized NAFTA could potentially grow the economy and increase overall tax revenues, but those would be paid by the increased output of U.S. companies and workers and not by the Mexican government…

The funds aren’t likely to be coming from tariff revenue. Most tariffs between the U.S. and Mexico were waived nearly 25 years ago through the original free-trade agreement. The new pact keeps most of those tariff reductions in place, which means not much money will be flowing into the Treasury.

The new trade deal does include rules that make it harder for auto companies to build vehicles or certain parts in Mexico and export them to the U.S. duty free. More auto companies, both American and foreign, might choose to pay the 2.5 percent tariff rather than complying with a new web of content requirements.

The result of more vehicles being charged tariffs could be more money in U.S. coffers, but those costs will likely be paid by importers in the U.S. and possibly U.S. consumers if dealers choose to pass on the added cost to the buyer.

White House strategic communications director Mercedes Schlapp acknowledgedon CNN on Wednesday that U.S. taxpayers would ultimately fund the wall.

Who is to blame for the shutdown?

The answer to this depends on who you ask, as blame is a perception of people with different information and perspectives. The last shutdown was in 2018 when Democrats caused a brief shutdown due to their opposition towards Trump’s stripping of the protected status of undocumented child immigrants. With this 2019 shutdown Trump is President but Democrats just won the House. One IPS poll gave a slight majority to blaming Trump. But the 1998-2015 trend in polling was to blame the opposing party to the President for the shutdown.

Is the border in crisis, and if so, what is the most effective solution?

Trump’s argument is contentious to the left. He purports that a “soft” border policy, including the lack of a continual, physical barrier, encourages illegal immigration which leads to a rise in crime rates and a greater burden upon the US economy. Trump’s proposal and budget line items to “secure the border” include funding to build the wall as well as increase technology, the number of immigration judges, border patrol agents and medical support. There is bipartisan support for much of this. However, the original argument that the border is in crisis and a wall is the primary answer is not agreed upon by both parties.


An infographic from the Department of Homeland Security, tracking refugee admissions and alien apprehensions.

In the year 2000 the number of people apprehended at the border was 1.6 million. During Trump’s time in office that number has fallen below 400,000. The following chart is from the Department of Homeland Security and represents the number of estimated unlawful entries into the United States between Ports of Entry (where walls or barriers do not exist). According to this report there was 69% decrease from 2006 to 2016.

On January 8th, 2019 Trump gave a televised speech in which he said that 90% of the heroin sold in America “floods across from the southern border.” It is true that Mexico has become a major supplier of heroin to the United States. However, according to the the Drug Enforcement Administration in a 2018 report, “A small percentage of all heroin seized by CBP along the land border was between Ports of Entry (POEs).” The problem is that the heroin is mostly smuggled in vehicles through legal ports of entry, where a wall already exists–or traffickers use tunnels, boats, drones or catapults to circumvent barriers. Therefore, the actual trafficking may not be hindered by the building of a continuous structure.

Some social media posts and public officials have even claimed that ISIS has been entering the US across the southern border. However, this is unsubstantiated, and found to be false by Politifact.

Other claims have stated that thousands of MS-13 gang members have been arrested at the border, but data from the Border Patrol show that the number is just over 100, which is below the peak of 2014. From an AP fact check by US News:

Texas Gov. Greg Abbot: “Stunningly, and disturbingly, there’s been an increase of more than 200 percent of MS-13 coming across the border,” Abbott said during a visit to National Guard troops at Weslaco, Texas on April 12.

THE FACTS: It’s true MS-13 apprehensions have risen after several years of decline. Abbott, a Republican, was speaking in the Rio Grande Valley, the busiest sector of the southern border, and his reference to the sharp increase was for that area. For that sector, the increase in MS-13 apprehensions is even greater than Abbott said — nearly 300 percent in the six months through March, according to Border Patrol data. But the numbers are small at 123 MS-13 arrests of the more than 66,000 apprehensions in that sector during that time. Nationwide, the Border Patrol says 181 of its arrests were MS-13 gang members during the same six-month period.


Until this year, apprehensions of MS-13 had declined gradually from 437 in 2014. If the current rate of MS-13 apprehensions continues another six months, the total number for the year would reverse that trend but wouldn’t top 2014.”

In Trump’s State of the Union Address in February of 2019 he used El Paso, Texas as an example of how “walls work.” A two-story corrugated metal fence that was built under the Bush administration reportedly curtailed illegal crossings by more than 89% over a five-year period.

Trump cited El Paso, TX as a strong case study for reducing crime through stronger border protection. This claim is refuted by Politifact using FBI data.

But immigration experts, including Randy Capps, the director of research for US programs at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, says that the wall is more of a symbol than a solution. “It’s easy to simplify around the wall and say a wall represents security.” He claims that the US asylum system is at the crux of the issue.

The deputy director of the Mexico Institute at Wilson Center, Christopher Wilson, said:

“Our border is not overwhelmed, but our asylum system is…The most pressing funding needs are therefore in the asylum system and possibly in foreign aid for Central America, rather than a border wall.”

Many immigrants cross the border illegally but seek asylum legally. These immigrants purposefully approach border agents instead of evade them so they may file for legal asylee status. The asylum system is so backlogged this results in a long waiting period. This lengthy waiting period has encouraged more immigration because there is promise of at least months of safety guaranteed to immigrants in America due to this waiting period.


Would a wall decrease illegal immigration? It has been effective in some places, such as Israel, which decreased immigration substantially using a border wall, according to Politifact:

The need for a physical barrier has been called into question by various parties. According to CNBC and other media outlets, there are companies such as Quanergy and Anduril who have been experimenting with cheaper and more effective electronic border solutions. In Del Rio, Texas there is a virtual wall prototype that provides electronic surveillance and is reportedly preferred by residents to a physical barrier.

Illegal Immigration and Crime

A major narrative of the right is that immigrants bring crime, and that a border wall will reduce this crime. The left refutes this, and sees it as fearmongering to energize the republican base. A popular catchphrase is “Build the wall, crime will fall!”, but could we actually expect crime to fall if we did build a wall, and if so what kind of crime?

Murder Rates

According to the director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, Jessica Vaughan, there is no official record-keeping of murders committed by undocumented immigrants. Therefore exact figures of murder rates are unknown. However, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reports the number of arrest and convictions for their Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), citing enforcement operations for people with 1,641 homicide convictions at some point in their lives – this does not mean illegal immigrants committed 1,641 homicides in 2018 or in the US, instead they are the lifetime records of the people arrested, and not necessarily committed in the US. For reference there were 19,362 total homicides in the US in 2018, according to the CDC.

Correlation Between Illegal Immigrants and Crime Rates


Overall the research on illegal immigration and crime is lacking. But according to a study conducted by the Libertarian Cato Institute in 2018 immigrants do not increase local crime rates and in fact are less likely to cause crime or be incarcerated than native-born residents.

“There is less research on illegal immigrant criminality, but what research there is shows that illegal immigrants have lower incarceration rates nationwide and in the state of Texas relative to native-born Americans, although they have the same rates of re-arrest in Los Angeles County. Consistent with those findings, immigration enforcement programs targeting illegal immigrant criminals have no effect on local crime rates, which indicates that they are about as crime prone as other residents.”

The journal Criminology conducted another study that took a look at crime rates at the population level. It asked a simple question: Do places with higher percentages of illegal immigrants have a higher rate of crime? According to this study the answer is no, in fact the violent crime rates are lower in places with higher concentrations of immigrants.

Illegal Immigration, Sexual Assault, and Human Trafficking

The journey of many miles through desert land is no doubt treacherous for the people who attempt it. On the issue of sexual assault and human trafficking on the border, the left and right can agree that it should be stopped without question. They both, however, use the issue to prove their own points – on the right that illegal immigration should be stopped, and on the left, that the Republican-led hard stance on immigration is leading to abuse of families, women and children.

A widely-reported figure from Amnesty International stated that 60% of women are sexually assaulted during their trip, but a fact checking investigation found that this was actually cited back many times through multiple sources citing earlier yet sources, and the base seemed to be an unsubstantiated figure from a 1995 biography.

Donald Trump stated in a speech that one in three women is sexually assaulted during this journey, which Politifact rated as mostly true, with estimates from a 2015 survey of 400 people (mostly men) being 31.4% of women experiencing sexual assault. The “half” rating was due to the small sample size not representative of what all immigrants face, and was taken somewhat out of context, but the number itself is not debated.


According to Polaris, a nonprofit organization that runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, and a partner of the Department of Homeland Security, human trafficking is rampant across the US-Mexico border, often due to the desperation situations that women are in. According to the group, they hope that a wall would make it more difficult for traffickers, but were unsure if it would:

Between Sept. 30, 2015 and Aug. 31, 2016, 508 human-trafficking victims were reported, according to Polaris’ data.Of those, the majority of victims were female adults of Mexican nationality.

Most people taken across the border — 49 percent — were trafficked for the purposes of labor trafficking, according to Polaris. Sex trafficking made up another 46 percent.

Polaris’ data also said the majority of traffickers were male adults of Mexican nationality. But, since the raw data is only a partial picture of the issue, the Department of Homeland Security was unable to comment on whether or not a border wall would notably curb human trafficking through the border.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Trump’s statements regarding human trafficking.

Laster said she wants people to be aware that traffickers aren’t just bringing people into the United States — they’re also taking people the other direction across the border into Central America.

“Nobody stops you going out. It’s really easy to get into Mexico, but coming back — the security is more difficult,” Laster said. She said crossing the border is a “walk through hell,” and if Trump’s border wall prevents the “rape and torture” of victims, it’s something she’ll support.

“I don’t doubt [traffickers] are going to find a way [around any wall], but I think it would make it more difficult for them,” Laster said. “I’m all for making it more difficult for them.”

This statement begs the question about whether the wall really would be the best way to stop or reduce human trafficking into the US, or if the money would be better spent on other programs.


Bradley Myles, chief executive of Polaris, said in a statement,

“Claims that a wall will stop vast amounts of human trafficking are not only inaccurate and misleading…they also harm our efforts to educate the public on the true nature of this crime.”

Another Polaris representative, Brandon Bouchard states:

“Of the callers into Polaris’ national hotline whose nationalities are known — about 14,000 — the breakdown from 2015 to mid-2018 is a near equal distribution between U.S. citizens/legal permanent residents and foreign nationals.

Of the foreigners, those from Mexico topped the list with more than 1,500, followed by the Philippines, Guatemala, China and Honduras.

The Counter-Trafficking Data Collaborative, described as a global data hub on human trafficking, drills down similar findings by state. For instance, in California, 61% of the victims in the data set are U.S.-born, 8% Mexican and 7% Chinese.

Large Rise in Drug Trafficking Overall Through Land and Maritime Ports of Entry

According to the Department of Homeland Security the Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act has directed them “to develop metrics … to measure the effectiveness of security between ports of entry, at ports of entry, in the maritime environment and to measure the effectiveness of the aviation assets and operations of Air and Marine Operations of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.”

This report elucidates the increase in drug trafficking through maritime routes vs. ports of entry and has calculated percentages up to the year 2016.


Fact Checking Resources:

What do you think about the narratives surrounding the border wall? Write your (respectful) comments below.