President Trump’s renewed push, in his chaotic first 100 days, for a gigantic border wall with Mexico violates our “democratic” values. But the sadder fact about his proposal is that its moral shortcomings, which are historic in scope, actually pale in comparison to its practical implications, should it proceed. Plainly put: The proposed wall is simply an atrocious idea on paper, even if you strip away the repugnant ideologies and fear driving it.
In stark business terms: This is a “bad deal.” And it’s an especially bad one—coming from the self-proclaimed master of the “Art of the Deal”—for Texas. We share a 1,989-mile border with Mexico; of that tract, 1,254 miles of it is in the great state of Texas. Now let’s put aside for the moment the construction budget numbers being thrown around ($14 billion), since at this point they have a largely fictitious, pulled-out-of-their-ass feel to them. Fourteen billion dollars for a “big beautiful wall” 2,000 miles long? That number is about as credible as a diploma from Trump University. And it may be why the border wall push was immediately followed up a day later by a proposed 20% tariff on Mexico goods (like groceries, sold at your local Costco, which would grossly impact the poor and middle class). That appears to be the president’s plan for how he’ll get Mexico to pay for the wall: by spiking prices for Mexican goods and food north of the border. A classic bait and switch.
But a wall of this size is not a political abstraction. It is a massive physical object, a huge planning and construction project. And if you think a border wall is a brutally simple undertaking (as a construction typology, it ain’t the Guggenheim Bilbao), then you probably aren’t familiar with the nature of the Texas-Mexico border. Only about 100 miles of that divide even involves a fence (which would be relatively cheap to reinforce). For more than 1,100 miles—roughly the equivalent of the flying distance between New York City and Miami—the border between Mexico and Texas is the Rio Grande River.
Building a wall that somehow navigated the river and the border would be fiendishly difficult and ultimately a clumsy act of engineering. Edward Mazria, founder of Architecture 2030 and a brilliant strategic thinker, explains: “A border wall and access road would have to be built on the U.S. side of the river, outside the floodplain. Because the Rio Grande twists and snakes through the region, even more dramatically in places than the Mississippi, the wall in some locations would be miles from the river, and not follow the actual border.”
The river has been dammed in several places and diverted for agriculture. So, in a sense, it is not a single river, but a series of different river conditions. Those would inevitably complicate the construction of a monolithic wall. In fact, a giant wall does not seem even remotely practical. But let’s take the president at his word. He wants to deliver on one of his signature campaign promises and build a physical wall separating the United States and Mexico. What are the implications of that?
They’re bad for us (the United States of America) and terrible for our fellow citizens in Texas. “The wall would cut the entire state of Texas off from the Rio Grande River and essentially cede access to the river and its reservoirs, and all of the land from the river to the wall, to Mexico,” Mazria says. “How much land might that be? If the average width of land from the river to the wall were one mile, it would equal an area roughly the size of Rhode Island. And this would happen in a hot, semi-arid region, expected to get hotter and drier with climate change, where water is a precious resource.” That sounds to me like a huge land and resource giveaway.
The wall is likely have catastrophic environmental consequences as well. “It would disrupt animal migration corridors along the Rio Grande border, isolate animal populations, fragment and decimate wildlife habitats, and ultimately threaten one of the most biodiverse areas in the United States,” Mazria says.
This president appears ready to wage war on environmentalists, starting with the EPA, so those complaints are likely to fall on deaf ears. Still, it’s possible to put the enormity of this folly into a business context (the only one his administration seems to understand). According to a report (PDF) by Texas A&M, prepared for the state of Texas, wildlife tourism accounted for an economic impact of just over $300 million in 2011. The proposed wall would wreak havoc on these businesses up and down the river, on both sides of the border.
It would also put to an end to the biggest economic driver of all: daily shopping. Mayor Jim Darling of McAllen, Texas, estimates that Mexican nationals spend more than $1.3 billion annually in his community alone. Multiply that by dozens and dozens of towns along the entire 2,000-mile length of the border, and you have a number that starts to approach the cost of the project itself. Over time, the long-term, negative impact of the wall would easily outstrip several times over the initial cost of building it. In the immortal words of the president, that’s a “big loser.”
Yes, to us, the wall is indeed racist, xenophobic, and driven by irrational fears. But to some of the more hard-headed Americans, including a lot of the president’s supporters, the proposed wall may be something even worse: a boondoggle of epic proportions.