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No one knows what Trump’s wall would cost or if it would make any difference on border crossings. It may shut down the government, though.

REUTERS/Earnie Grafton
A plaque mounted to President Donald Trump's border wall in the El Centro Sector in Calexico, California.

Donald Trump’s big, beautiful wall on the U.S.-Mexico border is at risk of crumbling before it’s even built.

For over three years, Trump has promised to construct a massive wall spanning thousands of miles of the southern border, and he’s insisted that the government of Mexico would pay for it. That promise was at the heart of his victorious 2016 campaign, but in the past two years, the Trump administration has failed to secure funding from Mexico — and also Congress — to pay for the border wall.

Now, Democrats are weeks away from taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the new majority will almost certainly not approve any wall funding. The December 21 deadline to pass legislation funding the federal government, then, represents Trump and the GOP’s last, best shot at the wall — and the president is threatening to shut down the government if Congress does not send him a spending bill that appropriates $5 billion for the border wall.

That total is far short of the $20 billion which Trump has demanded for the wall in the past, but it’s a down payment that would give the president something to champion for his base as he heads into a daunting 2020 re-election campaign. If that falls short, he’d at least go down fighting: at an explosive Tuesday meeting with Capitol Hill’s top two Democrats, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, the president said he’d be “proud” to shut down the government over the wall.

The border wall remains broadly popular with the president’s supporters, including those in Congress, but it’s anathema to Democrats and their party base. Congressional Democratic leaders have grown less willing to compromise on the wall with control of the House within their grasp, and Schumer and Pelosi are offering Trump no more than $1.6 billion for “border security” measures in the year-end bill, but they won’t budge on the wall.

The last-ditch effort to build the wall — and the president’s embrace of a shutdown in order to make it happen — is unfolding as key details about the project remain muddled, and as public opinion swings away from the president.

Where’s wall, though?

The border wall has been a consistent Trump theme since he kicked off his presidential bid in June 2015, but Trump has not been consistent on key details, like how long the wall would be, what it would look like and what it would cost.

After suggesting the whole, 2,000-mile border might be walled, Trump said he’d build a 1,000-mile wall along the southern border. Since, he has scaled the length of the barrier down to “700 or 900” miles. Beyond that, he has said the wall would cost $4 billion; he’s also said it could cost $20 billion, a figure reportedly in line with internal estimates from the Department of Homeland Security. Trump has said the wall could be 35 feet tall, or 45 feet tall, or higher, and he’s given several different ways Mexico could pay for it, all of which have been soundly rejected by Mexico.

What is known: the wall would cover some stretch of border between the U.S. and Mexico, and it could include constructing new barriers and also improving existing barriers. Fixing existing walls is something the administration has found money to do, fueling Trump claims that the wall is being built already. About 650 miles of the border — particularly around what once were high-volume crossing areas in California — already have some wall or fence, but only 300 miles of fencing is designed to stop the movement of people, according to a USA Today investigation. Many of the roughly 1,350 miles of unfenced border are in remote areas with unforgiving geographical features, which even Trump has said makes a wall unnecessary in those areas.

The administration commissioned the construction of eight different wall prototypes, put on display near San Diego, which Trump inspected in February. But none of the designs have been officially selected. (In an August report, the Congressional Budget Office found significant design and engineering flaws with each prototype. The federal government spent $5 million total on the prototypes.)

The lack of clarity on the wall’s length and design not only make it difficult to put a price tag on the project, but it’s also prevented experts from assessing how effective it would be in doing what it’s supposed to do: prevent undocumented immigrants from crossing into the U.S. and stopping the flow of illicit items, like drugs, across the border.

After years of decreasing illegal border crossings, apprehensions of undocumented immigrants by U.S. officials at the border have been relatively high in recent months: in October and November, over 100,000 migrants were apprehended by the Border Patrol. But CBP statistics do not specify how many of those migrants were caught in attempts to cross the border, and how many of them were seeking asylum.

The practice of asylum-seeking, which is legal, is the current focus of the U.S. immigration debate. That’s largely due to the headline-grabbing “caravan” of migrants fleeing violence in Central America, who made their way to the border to apply for asylum at official ports of entry or to cross the border and begin the asylum process on the U.S. side.

According to Ana Pottratz Acosta, an immigration attorney who teaches law at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, asylum seekers account for a large share of the current uptick in border apprehensions reported by CBP. She said that other factors, like seasonal weather conditions, play a role in the uptick, too.

Pottratz Acosta is doubtful that a wall, which she calls symbolic, would do much to stem illegal border crossings. “I think we’re at a point where the border may be as secure as it’s going to get.” She expressed concern that, if the wall project goes forward, it would divert badly-needed resources elsewhere in the immigration system — like for additional officers to process the long backlog of asylum claims.

In a 2017 report, the Department of Homeland Security echoed that sentiment: “Available data indicate that the southwest land border is more difficult to illegally cross today than ever before,” federal officials wrote.

Who’s saving face?

Inconsistent as he may be regarding basic facts about the wall, Trump has been consistent this year in his willingness to risk a shutdown in order to get funding for the project. As early as July, Trump threatened to shut down the government if Congress does not send him a spending bill with $5 billion in funds for it.

The midterm elections made that demand much more urgent: With Democrats taking power in the House on January 3, the spending legislation, which appropriates funds for five federal agencies, is the last piece of must-pass legislation for the GOP-controlled Congress.

It’s now or never for congressional Republicans on the wall, but unanimous support in the House and Senate GOP for funding it is hardly a sure thing. There may be enough members of the party’s moderate and conservative wings — who oppose the wall as bad policy and/or a waste of taxpayer money — to sink the proposal in either chamber, or both.

In a statement to MinnPost, Rep. Tom Emmer, the 6th District Republican, indicated he’d side with the president. “Border security is paramount to the safety of our community here in central Minnesota as well as across the country,” he said. “Unfortunately Congress has gotten so far away from completing the budget process on time that we now find ourselves in the same situation we were in January, when the Democrats shut the government down over a deadline that did not exist,” Emmer said, referencing the short-lived January shutdown over the status of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

“I am hopeful we avoid a repeat of that misstep.”

Emmer’s two House Republican colleagues from Minnesota, Reps. Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen, were defeated in the November election. Neither responded to requests for comment about their position on wall funding, but in a November 28 tweet, Lewis accused Democrats of wanting “Schumer Shutdown 2.0” to stop the wall.

Republicans are outwardly expressing confidence they have enough votes within their own ranks to approve wall funding. To prove it, Republican leadership is considering putting stand-alone legislation on the wall to votes in the House and Senate, according to Politico.

But the broader GOP shakiness on the issue gives Democrats leverage to vote no on a package that includes more than they’d want to pay for the wall. Members of the soon-to-be-majority have been united in their opposition to the GOP proposal: “Real investments, smart investments in border security that are effective and humane have my support,” said 4th District Rep. Betty McCollum, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “But wasting $5 billion on an unnecessary wall so President Trump can save face is foolish and not going to happen.”

“Republicans control Congress and the White House – they will either negotiate and legislate or shut down the government,” McCollum said in a statement. “This is a Republican mess of their own making.”

In the Senate, DFL Sen. Tina Smith expressed hope that Trump and Congress could come to an agreement and avoid a shutdown. “Border security is an essential component of our national security, and I believe that rather than funding an ineffective and wasteful wall, a spending package could include practical, effective security improvements like detection and surveillance technology,” she said in a statement.

Congressional observers have pointed out that Democrats could call Trump’s bluff, and endure a shutdown — which would only be partial, since seven out of 12 appropriations bills have already passed — until they take power in January. (About 25 percent of the government would not get funded in a shutdown, affecting the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, the Department of Justice, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior, which operates national parks.)

Public polling on the wall suggests Americans may be more likely to place blame on Republicans if a shutdown happens. A new survey this week from PBS NewsHour/Marist College found that over two-thirds of Americans believe building the wall should not be a priority, and 57 percent want to see Trump compromise in order to avoid a shutdown. Two-thirds of Republicans polled, however, want to see Trump hold firm — even if it results in a shutdown.

Comments (30)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/12/2018 - 11:12 am.

    Re: the headline, of course the wall will make no difference on border crossing. Net migration is close to zero already.

    And when we hear rhetoric about Don Trump and “Promises Kept”, they need to be asked when Mexico is going to hand over the check for the wall.

    • Submitted by Greg Smith on 12/13/2018 - 01:42 pm.

      The wall would be meant to stop illegal immigration
      Using net migration to oppose is meaningless.

      • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/15/2018 - 02:17 pm.

        Advocates of Trump’s wall forget that boats and planes exist or that much illegal immigration is not from Latin America but from Asia or Eastern Europe and consists of people who quietly overstay their tourist visas after arriving on a commercial flight.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/15/2018 - 07:50 pm.

        To be clear, net migration across the border is basically at zero. Spending what conservatives like to call BILLIONS on a wall when we are not being inundated is foolish.

        What we need is a gueast worker program. We have a de facto one already.

  2. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/12/2018 - 11:54 am.

    Well, since it’s right on the border, and the contractors will be required to pay US prevailing wages, it shouldn’t be hard to recruit, you know…. Mexican labor.

    Just sayin’.

  3. Submitted by Marc Post on 12/12/2018 - 12:02 pm.

    It doesn’t matter how much it costs. Trump said Mexico will pay for it. Why is he even talking to Dems about it? He already has the funding secured by Mexico.

    And I never saw a wall that a ladder or a shovel couldn’t defeat.

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 12/16/2018 - 12:00 am.

      But it seems reasonable that you lock your car and home, even though there is not a door that can’t be broken down or a lock picked or cut off. The purpose is deterrence and is never foolproof. The hope is that the criminals find somewhere else to go instead of your car or home.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/12/2018 - 01:04 pm.

    Tom Emmer:“Border security is paramount to the safety of our community here in central Minnesota as well as across the country,”

    Absolutely. God forbid that Minnesota be inundated by hordes of polite, smiling Canadians.

    As for the southern border, Mr. Trump declared in his meeting with House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Schumer that he was willing to “own” a government shutdown over a border wall. Let him.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 12/13/2018 - 01:24 am.

      Ray, those Canucks are up there, sharpening their skates and getting ready to come down here and steal our stuff. Before you know, we’ll all be listening to Nickleback 24/7.

      • Submitted by Brian Gandt on 12/18/2018 - 08:47 am.

        Ian, I was rather sanguine about the Canadians until you mentioned Nickelback…I’d better grab my 12 ga and report for duty with the Kate Smith border patrol!

  5. Submitted by richard owens on 12/12/2018 - 03:04 pm.

    For some reason, we don’t seem to examine the actual details of this “Wall”, but get stuck arguing about the huge amount of money and the military ineffectiveness of guarding against pedestrian civilians along desolate (or even urban) stretches of fencing.

    The money alone is enough for reasonable people to ponder the Trump corruption already underway. 13.6 Million dollars to a (Republican?) contractor who hired TWO people so far since November, and has an additional $281 Million left to spend!!!!!!! (NPR today)

    The cost of “border protection” is already jaw-dropping. Look at the graphs if you don’t want to read of corrupting, senseless WASTE –

    Even more compelling an argument against this reactionary group-think idiocy is to to actually look at the border with the Rio Grande, its features and its obstacles. Barriers constructed here are IMPRACTICAL and DAMAGING.

    The border shifts with the river, creating meander scars and making new channels with each passing flood cycle. Historical movements of the river channel have created border disputes and no-man’s lands along the Texas Rio Grande for many many years.

    The barrier to keep out people cannot be built in the middle of the channel, or in Mexico, but instead will have to be built NORTH of the river, on American soil, taken with eminent domain and a thousand court battles.

    Such a location will block livestock and wildlife as well as humans, in places where access to the river is the main reason to go there.

    If the barrier causes flooding (it surely will), it will violate laws pertaining to the construction of any barrier that diverts water in times of flood and makes liable the builder for the flood damage.

    We have rivers here in MN with livestock fences in them, and believe me, one year’s flotsam and jetsam, logs and brush catch in the fence and the surrounding land floods as it becomes a damn.

    Cleanup of these piles of debris is perpetual and in hard to get to places.

    Somebody who is a Trump Republican needs to tell him. Forget it.

    Meanwhile, our replacement Americans from Latin America are needed more than ever for their willingness to take difficult or specialize farm jobs, strong work habits, peaceful nature, and their desire to make something of themselves for their families.

    The glaring need for more workers is wasted on racists, but not so much on needy employers. I hope we can begin to identify everyone and give them ALL a legal status so we can begin again to address real issues and not these campaign scare issues Republicans cannot resist.

    ICE itself has become a lawless gang harassing people and hurting people for no good reason.

  6. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 12/12/2018 - 03:31 pm.

    Trump voters – is this enough to convince you what a poor choice you made?

  7. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 12/12/2018 - 03:47 pm.

    Trump knows deep in his small heart that will never be the GOP candidate for POTUS in 2020. Those GOPers who think will not let this impostor continue to wreak havoc on an already demoralized party.

  8. Submitted by Paul John Martin on 12/13/2018 - 08:54 am.

    Common sense would say you’re right, Dennis. However, Trump’s approval ratings among GOP voters are still stubbornly high, and stable. Any GOP politicians who have dared to say the emperor has no clothes have found it ends their career.

    • Submitted by Marc Post on 12/13/2018 - 10:51 am.

      You’re right, Paul. It’s the Trump party now. They’ll double and triple down on him. He’s all they’ve got.

  9. Submitted by joe smith on 12/13/2018 - 11:33 am.

    I will try again. Walls work, ask Israel. Census bureau shows 63% of immigrants (both illegal and legal) are on some form of Government support (tax dollars). We pay 10’s of billions of dollars on this annually but claim a one time payment to build wall is wasteful. That makes no sense. We should keep illegal aliens out and have a better vetting system to make sure legal immigrants are contributing to our economy not taking tax dollars.
    This all adds up to a comprehensive immigration policy. Problem is neither party seems to want it.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/13/2018 - 04:54 pm.

      Problem is, it makes no sense.

      First, illegal aliens are not eligible for any kind of government assistance. I don’t care what you know, and what “everybody knows.” They are not eligible.

      Second, the figures you cite show that most of the cash benefits to non-natives take the form of the EITC. That means they are working. They are also likely working at low-paying jobs, so they are eligible for other benefits like SNAP or Section 8. The important point is they are working, and contributing labor to the economy. Immigration is a net positive for the US, even if all immigrants are not shady Russian oligarchs buying luxury apartments in Manhattan.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 12/14/2018 - 09:34 am.

        RB, read the census bureau report, it lays out how illegal aliens, who are the heads of households, get Government assistance. They,along with legal immigrants, use the welfare system more than natural born citizens. 63% of legal and illegal household are using tax dollars here in America. Read the census report (non partisan) and see the facts for yourself. Listening to the media tell you illegal aliens can’t get Government assistance is simply not the case.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/14/2018 - 03:16 pm.

          Illegals are eligible to receive benefits for their legal citizen children (the ones born here, who are as much legal US citizens as you or I). Federal benefits, except for emergency care paid for by Medicaid, may not be paid for the benefit of illegals.

          • Submitted by joe smith on 12/14/2018 - 08:12 pm.

            So illegal aliens do get welfare, I thought it was perfectly clear that illegal aliens did not get tax dollars. Does it bother you that 63% of illegal alien households get tax dollars? That number of 63% of both illegal and legal immigrants being on welfare, screams of merit based immigration policy.
            Amazing what you learn if you research a bit.

            • Submitted by richard owens on 12/15/2018 - 09:42 am.

              Worried about freebies and “illegals”? Losing our MONEY?

              Here’s what a true money-loving economist would be worried about (WaPo)

              “The birthrate fell for nearly every group of women of reproductive age in the U.S. in 2017, reflecting a sharp drop that saw the fewest newborns since 1987, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

              There were 3,853,472 births in the U.S. in 2017 — “down 2 percent from 2016 and the lowest number in 30 years,” the CDC said.

              The general fertility rate sank to a record low of 60.2 births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44 — a 3 percent drop from 2016, the CDC said in its tally of provisional data for the year.

              The results put the U.S. further away from a viable replacement rate – the standard for a generation being able to replicate its numbers.

              “The rate has generally been below replacement since 1971,” according to the report from CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.”


              Our country needs workers. Ever economist will tell you immigration boosts our economy. While Japan, China and many countries around the world are becoming cautionary tales of populations unable to grow enough to pay to care for the old and ill-equipped to import foreign workers, Americans should take note.

              The unmet needs for labor also stunt Household Formation- that data point that shows a thriving (or depressed) economy that relies on consumers. Sales taxes pay bills that won’t get paid when sales drop too low. Your taxes will have to go up if we don’t grow fast enough.

              I think the fear of newcomers is the fear that might in the future, kill off this great economy that helped so many before it got greedy and withdrawn if it is allowed to keep determining policy.

              I wish Joe, you knew the benefit is greater than the cost of new blood, almost all the time where economics is concerned. Don’t believe me, check out what economists say about birthrates, immigration and growth.

              • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/15/2018 - 02:14 pm.

                My late mother used to say that some people have their head made up–not their mind, their head. There’s a difference.

                The subject of immigration seems to prompt a lot of people to make up their heads, so that they are impervious to facts and keep repeating the lie that immigrants come here to get “free stuff, ” not to work like dogs at jobs that are dirty, dangerous, and debilitating.

                So what if we had no immigration?

                My professional life has concentrated on Japan, speaking of countries that don’t allow much immigration. For various reasons, their birth rate is below replacement level, and the graying of the country is visible on the streets of Tokyo, even more so in the small towns.

                The U.S. would be in a similar situation if it were not for immigration.

                Assimilating immigrants is not easy, but it’s worthwhile. People who are of Irish, German, Scandinavian, Eastern European, Jewish, Italian, or Chinese descent should be aware that their ancestors were once considered “undesirable aliens,” the people who were never going to assimilate, were never going to amount to anything, were refusing to learn English, brought crime and disease, had too many children, you name it.

                There was even talk that Catholic immigrants were the frontline troops of the Pope’s alleged plot to take over America. It sounds silly now, but those kinds of feelings persisted until the 1960 election, when I remember the adults around me talking about whether JFK was going to be more loyal to the U.S. or to the Vatican.

                • Submitted by joe smith on 12/15/2018 - 03:05 pm.

                  America doesn’t assimilate immigrants, they assimilate themselves. No one sent my grandparents to assimilation camp, they wanted to become Americans. No one is talking about not having immigrants come to America, it just has to be done legally and on a merit based system.

                  • Submitted by richard owens on 12/15/2018 - 05:01 pm.

                    The Iron Range is a beautiful example of assimilation, integration and Americanization of immigrants.

                    You must know your own history, don’t you?

                    The European ancestors who came to work the Iron Range became friends with nationalities they did not abide in the old country.

                    The same is happening today in the packing towns where South of the border immigrants came to process chickens, turkeys, beef and pork.

                    Immigrants are our future, like it or not.

                • Submitted by joe smith on 12/16/2018 - 10:14 am.

                  To sum up this conversation, everybody wants legal immigration, on that we can agree. It is a disservice to our country to have 63% of immigrants, both legal and illegal, getting welfare (our tax dollars). A merit based immigration policy with strong border protection solves this issue.
                  As far as immigrants coming here in 1918 versus 2018, there were no Government programs giving the 1918 immigrants money. They had to be sponsored, get a job or they starved. Everyone who equates the migrants coming to America from 100 years ago to today’s migrants is totally missing the mark.

                  • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/16/2018 - 03:34 pm.

                    You don’t know about the history of US immigration laws, do you?

                    In 1918, there was no immigration law. They did not have to be “sponsored.” They showed up, and if they didn’t have a communicable disease (a determination not made until they got to this country). Just about any non-Chinese person who immigrated in 1918 did so legally.

                  • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/17/2018 - 08:42 pm.

                    My Latvian grandfather would be considered an illegal immigrant today. He was part of the crew of a German ocean liner, and after making 5 Atlantic crossings, he simply jumped ship and spent his first night in America on a park bench in Hoboken, New Jersey. This was around 1910.

                    Incidentally, until 1965, there were NO restrictions on immigration from Western Hemisphere countries.

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/16/2018 - 03:26 pm.

              Amazing what you can assert when someone contradicts you.

              First, illegals do not receive direct cash benefits. It’s for their legal, US citizen, children. As much as you may hate the fact that the children of illegals are citizens, the fact remains that they are.

              Second, you originally said that it’s 63% of legal and illegal immigrants receiving welfare. Now, it’s 63% of illegals. Which is it?

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/16/2018 - 10:59 am.

    I’m make a few additional observations.

    First, just because YOU may not know something, doesn’t mean “nobody” knows, so it’s always best to avoid declarations like that.

    It is possible to calculate to the cost of Trump’s desired wall, and the effectiveness of the wall is also predictable. We have cost estimates, and we can evaluate effectiveness.

    We can predict the effectiveness of the wall but we have to sort out it’s real function. If the function of the wall is simply to stop people from walking across the border, it can be effective in that regard. However, the effectiveness in other scenarios is extremely dubious.

    I”m surprised for instance that no one here has commented on the absurdity of conflating “security” with immigration? Immigrants documented or otherwise are simply not a legitimate “security” issue, therefore stemming the flow of immigrants is simply not a function of national security. You can stop people walking across the border, but that doesn’t make anyone safer or more secure.

    Trump likes to conflate the issues but Trump is liar. In his recent exchange with Pelosi and Shumer Trump kept claiming that: “We have to have security at the border!” As if the nation with the largest defense budget in the history of the planet has no security and is somehow defenseless without his wall.

    Walls are passive restraints, they only stop those who do not try to circumvent them. Terrorists, drug smugglers, and human trafficers will not be stopped by Trump’s wall, no matter how much it costs.

    To the extent that Trump’s wall stops immigrants at the border, it provides no “security” whatsoever because immigrants have never been a security threat.

    So you CAN predict how effective a wall be, but you have to decide what it’s actual mission or function is.

    Stepping back and looking at the issue of undocumented immigrants from a rational evidence based perspective, we can see that this was a manufactured crises of our own making. The primary reason we have the numbers of undocumented immigrants we have, is simply because we’ve made documented entry into the country so difficult and expensive. It’s not an economic or security problem, it’s literally a document problem. If we want to decide our document problem is a serious problem, we would simply make documentation more affordable and easier… building walls can’t “solve” that problem.

    If the problem is drug and human trafficking, or terrorist infiltration, a wall may move the problem somewhere else at best, but the more you spend on it the less you spend on effective responses.

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