With illegal immigration way down, the promised border barricade and mass deportations look like a vote-getting scheme in search of a problem.
No one’s sure quite how seriously to take Donald Trump’s vow to barricade the southern border and deport millions of illegal immigrants if he’s elected president later this year. But most agree that such a project would be enormously expensive—in pesos or dollars—which raises the question of whether physical barriers and mass deportations are the most efficient ways to fix the problem.
Mr. Trump’s campaign website explains: “The cost of building a permanent border wall pales mightily in comparison to what American taxpayers spend every single year on dealing with the fallout of illegal immigration on their communities, schools and unemployment offices.” Mr. Trump has put the price at around $10 billion, while others say $25 billion to $40 billion is more plausible, but those are rounding errors in a $4 trillion federal budget.
However, when it comes to removing the estimated 11 million people living here illegally, costs skyrocket. Ben Gitis and Jacqueline Varas of American Action Forum have calculated that ridding the country of all illegals would take two decades and cost up to $600 billion. “Removing all undocumented immigrants in just two years, as Donald Trump has proposed, would require monumental expansions in U.S. immigration enforcement operations,” they wrote. “Most importantly, under both the 20-year and 2-year time frames, the U.S. economy would shrink by over $1 trillion.”
If Mr. Trump thinks such outlays and trade-offs are worth it, he should show us his cost-benefit analysis. Illegal immigration from Mexico peaked under President Clinton in 2000 and has been in sharp decline since. In many respects, Mr. Trump’s wall would be a solution in search of a problem. In 2014, 230,000 Mexicans were apprehended at the border, down from 1.6 million in 2000. Illegal border crossings today are at their lowest level in 45 years, and net migration from Mexico is zero or negative. According to the Pew Research Center, about 40% of the illegal population entered the country legally and overstayed—another problem that a wall won’t address.
Determining the fiscal consequences of immigration is difficult because all immigrants aren’t the same. Estimates will vary based on age at arrival, the number of offspring, the level of education, the set of skills, the availability of public benefits, the flexibility of the labor market and other factors. But economists do tend to agree that on balance immigration, including low-skill immigration, can help make workers more productive and is therefore a net plus.
“Nothing is more common than to have poverty-stricken immigrants become prosperous in a new country and to make that country more prosperous as well,” notes economist Thomas Sowell, who has written extensively on global migration patterns. Even Harvard’s George Borjas, an immigration skeptic, has acknowledged that “the world would be much richer if there were no national borders to interfere with the free movement of goods and people. By prohibiting the immigration of many persons, the United States inevitably shrinks the size of the world economic pie, reducing the economic opportunities that could be available to many persons in the source countries.”
Mr. Trump cites local expenditures on immigrants as a reason to seal the border, and it’s true that states and cities bear the upfront costs of providing public services such as education and health care. Yet illegal immigrants, many of whose wages are “on the books,” pay Medicare and Social Security taxes but won’t collect the benefits, allowing the federal government to come out ahead in those programs. Given that states with the fastest-growing immigrant populations also benefit from the subsequent increase in economic activity, more revenue sharing between Washington and the states would seem the wiser course of action.
In 2006 the Texas comptroller issued a report on how undocumented workers affect the state budget and economy. The study concluded that, even accounting for education and health-care costs, illegal immigrants in Texas generated more taxes and revenue than the state spends on them. “The absence of the estimated 1.4 million undocumented immigrants in Texas in fiscal 2005 would have been a loss to our Gross State Product of $17.7 billion,” the report said. “Also, the Comptroller’s office estimates that state revenues collected from undocumented immigrants exceed what the state spent on services, with the difference being $424.7 million.”
Most of the Trump wall presumably would run through Texas. And given that the Lone Star State is home to the country’s second-largest illegal-immigrant population, Mr. Trump’s deportation agents would spend a lot of time there as well. Part of Mr. Trump’s appeal is his unvarnished, tell-it-like-it-is manner. But on immigration he sounds like any other politician, telling voters what he thinks they want to hear, regardless of the reality. We can’t wall off the law of supply and demand or deport our way to prosperity.
Mr. Riley, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and Journal contributor, is the author of “Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed” (Encounter Books, 2014).