Monday, January 02, 2006

The cost of securing our southern border

A piece for Political Animal by Steve Benen prompted me to do a bit of back-of-the envelope math on the costs of constructing an effective physical barrier on the southern border of the United States. My conclusion is that the price tag would approach $1 trillion over ten years. The reason for such a high figure is that a border, even a walled-one, is only as good as the army manning it. And that's exactly what we're looking at if we're truly talking about making our southern border impassable -- a sizable standing "army" of border guards. Probably at minimum 200,000 personnel are needed for such a task.

I assure readers that such a figure is hardly an exaggeration. The latest numbers I've seen suggest we currently employ something like 10,000 agents for the entire southern border. We might as well leave it unguarded. Insuring a genuinely secure border with Mexico effectively amounts to installing a significant, permanent military presence.

Remember, nobody works a 168-hour week, so recruiting a border guard of 200,000 would still leave us with only a few dozen agents per mile at peak times -- probably considerably less than that when you consider that a certain percentage of any recruitment drive will go toward staffing the extra, necessary administrative positions. Moreover, politics (and indeed common sense, given the times we live in) would necessitate at least some bolstering of our border with Canada -- a border more than twice as long as that with Mexico.

So again, the numbers I'm suggesting aren't unrealistic, and may well lie toward the low end of what is likely to be effective. Think of what it would cost to train all those people. It can cost upwards of $250k to train some US military personnel. No doubt the per head charge wouldn't be quite so high for border guards, but it must surely be in the tens of thousands. You've obviously got to pay them once they're on staff, and provide benefits. And, of course, you've got to start the whole process over when an agent leaves or is dismissed. Then there's the cost of new facilities. And there's the physical costs of bolstering the border itself. All those constructions costs. All the high tech devices. Two thousand miles worth -- a major engineering project. Plus holding pens. Plus equipment.

I doubt the country can afford it, but even if it could, it's highly doubtful the votes could be found for ripping a whole in the budget large enough to accommodate what would amount to an additional armed service plus a 2,000-mile, Israeli-quality defensive wall.

As I've written before, without comprehensive reform of immigration law -- reform encompassing a significant degree of decriminalization -- illegal immigrants will continue to be a part of the fabric of American life. An emphasis solely on border policing and security tactics can never succeed.

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