As of April 25 President Trump seems to have backed off from his threat to demand that the April government spending bill include funding for his border wall. But there’s still plenty of controversy over the cost of the proposed wall. Trump himself has given all sorts of estimates for the construction, ranging from $4 billion to $12 billion. A leaked Department of Homeland Security put the number at $21.6 billion, while a group of Democratic staffers in the Senate have come up with a $66.9 billion price tag. All these estimates seem to overlook the factor Robert Frost pointed out 98 years ago: walls require maintenance. So how much would it cost to maintain the Great Wall of Trump?
Here’s what we say in The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, Chapter 9, “Enforcement: Is It a Solution?”
In November 2005 DHS launched the Secure Border Initiative (SBI), claiming it would “secure America’s borders and reduce illegal migration” by extending the existing fences to a total of 661 miles, about one-third of the southwestern border’s 1,951 miles. The work was basically completed in February 2012.
The 651 miles of new fencing cost an average of $3.7 million a mile to build, suggesting that the expense of erecting similar fencing along the entire border would be about $7.4 billion. But this leaves out the money required for maintenance. An outside contractor estimated that the total cost of building and maintaining the current 651 miles of fence would be $6.5 billion over twenty years — so the bill to taxpayers for a fence along the entire border for twenty years would be $19.5 billion.
Even this may be too low. The costs are expected to be much higher in rugged terrain or in areas where the government needs to buy more of the land; much of the current fencing is on land the government already owns. Moreover, the current fence isn’t the sort of expensive double-wall barrier many politicians call for. Back in 1999 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated that maintaining a double-wall fence would cost from $16.4 million to $70 million per mile over a 25-year period, with $32.8 billion to $140 billion in maintenance alone for this type of fence along the entire border.
[We’re occasionally posting excerpts from the new edition of our book which seem relevant to the current situation. The updated and expanded edition is due out on May 22. You can pre-order here or from your favorite bookseller.]