On the day he met with congressional leaders to discuss the budget stalemate, President Donald Trump repeated several false and misleading claims about the Southwest border and the wall he wants to build:
- Trump tweeted that “Mexico is paying for the Wall” through the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. But, as we wrote last month, economists told us there are not enough new benefits to the U.S. in the new trade agreement — which has yet to be ratified by Congress — to pay for the wall.
- In the same tweet, Trump falsely claimed that “Much of the Wall has already been renovated or built.” Very little new fencing has been constructed under Trump, and none of it is the type he promised during the campaign.
- At a cabinet meeting, Trump claimed the wall “probably would pay for itself in a month or two because we lose pretty close to $250 billion on illegal immigration.” There is no support for that figure, which is double another disputed estimate from a conservative group. Plus, such figures are for immigrants already living in the country illegally.
- The president also repeated his claim that the wall is needed to “halt [the] deadly inflow of drugs,” even though experts — including those within his administration — say the vast majority of illicit drugs from Mexico escapes undetected in cars and trucks traveling through legal ports of entry.
Mexico Is Not Paying
Trump met on Jan. 2 with congressional leaders to discuss a partial government shutdown that started at midnight on Dec. 21. House Republicans amended the Senate-approved version of a continuing budget resolution, which covers seven appropriations bills for fiscal year 2019, to add more than $5 billion for the president’s border wall, at Trump’s request.
Democrats have refused to support the president’s demand, resulting in a stalemate that shuttered parts of the federal government.
Prior to his meeting, Trump tweeted about the shutdown and discussed it at a cabinet meeting.
In his morning tweet, Trump continued to insist that he is keeping his campaign promise to have Mexico pay for a border wall “through the new USMCA Trade Deal.”
Mexico is paying for the Wall through the new USMCA Trade Deal. Much of the Wall has already been fully renovated or built. We have done a lot of work. $5.6 Billion Dollars that House has approved is very little in comparison to the benefits of National Security. Quick payback!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2019
But as we wrote on Dec. 14, there is nothing in the USMCA spelling out that Mexico will pay for any border wall. The president’s argument is that Mexico will pay “indirectly” because of benefits that accrue to the U.S. through the new trade agreement. But economists told us there are not enough new benefits to the U.S. in the new trade agreement to pay for the wall.
“Even if we accept conceptually the argument that government revenue attributable to the revised trade agreement constitutes ‘Mexico paying for the wall,’ there are no plausible assumptions of USMCA’s impact that would see government revenue increase by $25 billion,” said Geoffrey Gertz, a fellow in the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution and a research associate at the Global Economic Governance Programme at the University of Oxford.
“Ultimately USMCA is very similar to NAFTA, and so we shouldn’t expect any substantial economic shifts from the new agreement,” Gertz told us via email. “It’s difficult to argue that that NAFTA was ‘anti-USA’ and ‘very costly’ but that USMCA will save us lots of money, because there’s not a huge difference between the two agreements.”
Kent Smetters, a professor of business economics and public policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, told us none of the concessions won by U.S. negotiators amounts to enough to offset the cost of a border wall.
“Relative to NAFTA, the Mexican government would not nearly lose enough tariff revenue that could be constituted as paying for the wall, at least the wall as previously envisioned by the Administration; nor would the U.S. government revenue increase enough based on a dynamic score,” said Smetters, who was an economist at the Congressional Budget Office in the 1990s. “In fact, the additional revenue to U.S. relative to NAFTA would, optimistically, not cover annual maintenance and improvements of the wall much less the original build.”
Is ‘Much of the Wall’ Already Built?
The president also inflated the progress of wall construction to date when he tweeted that “Much of the Wall has already been fully renovated or built.”
According to Customs and Border Protection, the fiscal year 2017 border security program included:
- San Diego Primary Replacement Project (14 miles). So far, 9 miles of the project have been completed, and the rest remains on schedule to be completed in May 2019.
- El Paso Primary Fence Replacement Project (4 miles). So far, 2 miles have been completed, with the remaining scheduled to be completed in late April 2019.
- El Paso Vehicle Fence Replacement Project (20 miles): Complete.
- El Centro Primary Fence Replacement Project (2.2 miles): Complete.
- Rio Grande Valley Gates (35 gates): In progress.
That is almost all replacement of existing fencing, and the new barriers are not the type of concrete barriers Trump talked about during the campaign and are not like any of the wall prototypes the president unveiled early last year. For more on this, see our story “Has the Border Wall Begun?“
Moreover, the projects listed above are just a fraction of the CBP’s request early last year for 722 miles of new and replacement fencing at 17 of its top priority locations along the border. CBP estimated the cost of that fencing — 316 miles of new barriers and 407 miles of replacement or secondary fencing — at $18 billion over 10 years, though a report from the Government Accountability Office in July warned it would likely cost more than that.
So the fencing constructed to date along the border is just a fraction of what Trump was ultimately seeking.
Congress last year approved $1.6 billion to replace existing barriers and add some fencing in new areas. In December, CBP officials told us it was in the process of building these FY18-funded projects:
- 25 miles of new levee wall in the Rio Grande Valley
- 8-12 miles of Bollard Wall also in the Rio Grande Valley
- 14 miles of secondary wall in San Diego (most of it replacing existing wall)
- 48 miles of pedestrian replacement wall in other areas (multiple sectors)
But those sections are in the works, so it would be inaccurate for the president to include them among the projects “already” finished. Even if included, however, those in-the-works sections still represent far fewer miles than what the Trump administration previously identified as needed.
To end the shutdown, Trump has demanded Democrats agree to the House-approved spending plan that would add $5.7 billion for border barriers. Democrats support a plan that includes $1.3 billion for border security. Last summer, though, Democrats supported a measure that would provide $1.6 billion for border security, including 65 miles of new pedestrian fencing, though not any of the types of wall previously proposed by Trump.
Fuzzy Math on the Wall
In a Jan. 2 cabinet meeting, Trump claimed that the wall would “save money” and “probably would pay for itself in a month or two because we lose pretty close to $250 billion on illegal immigration.” We don’t know the source for the president’s figure, which is more than double a questionable figure he cited during the 2016 campaign.
Other studies have estimated a modest cost of illegal immigration for state and local governments, and a net positive gain for the federal budget. More important, these estimates — even if they were right — are for immigrants living illegally in the United States; the wall wouldn’t cause these immigrants to be deported.
In late August 2016, Trump claimed that illegal immigration cost “more than $113 billion a year,” an estimate from the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform. As we wrote then, that estimate was for costs only — FAIR said the net cost, factoring in tax payments from immigrants living in the country illegally, was $99 billion. It included the cost of public education and health care, such as through Medicaid, for the U.S.-born children of these immigrants, but it didn’t include tax payments by those children once they became adults. The estimate also included federal costs for immigration enforcement and prosecution.
FAIR has since updated the figure to $116 billion net. But the libertarian Cato Institute has disputed that, calling the estimate “fatally flawed.” Alex Nowrasteh, a senior immigration policy analyst at Cato, wrote in September 2017 that “[m]erely using the correct numbers” on tax rates, the illegal immigrant population and the impact on property values would lower the net cost to $3.3 billion to $15.6 billion.
FAIR had used an estimate of 12.5 million immigrants in the country illegally. The latest estimate from the Pew Research Center is 10.7 million unauthorized immigrants in 2016, down from the peak of 12.2 million in 2007.
But again, the wall or other border security wouldn’t do anything about immigrants who are already living in the country illegally. Also, a growing proportion of those immigrants came to the U.S. legally and overstayed the time limits on their visas. The Department of Homeland Security said in a February 2018 press release that “visa overstays account for roughly 40 percent of all illegal immigration in the United States.”
The wall wouldn’t affect visa overstays, either.
Among the other estimates of the cost of illegal immigration: A 2007 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office concluded that the net impact on state and local budgets was “most likely modest,” and a 1997 report by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences found that the long-run fiscal impact of most immigrants, regardless of legal status, would be “strongly positive at the federal level.”
In March 2018, Trump cited a report by the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates low immigration, to claim the wall would pay for itself. But CIS estimated a savings of $12 billion to $15 billion over the average lifetime of illegal border-crossers that could be stopped by a wall over the next decade.
The report extrapolated data from another report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. But several of the authors of the NAS report say the data were misused by CIS. For more, see our March story “Will Trump’s Wall Pay for Itself?”
Will the Wall Stop Heroin Smuggling?
At the cabinet meeting, Trump also repeated his claim that the wall is needed to “halt [the] deadly inflow of drugs,” even though experts — including those within his administration — say the vast majority of heroin from Mexico escapes undetected in cars and trucks traveling through legal ports of entry.
Trump, Jan. 2: Every week, 300 Americans are killed by heroin, the vast majority of which comes through … across our Southern border. … Unless we’re going to have physical barriers, it’s never going to be able to be stopped. Too much money is being made.
Trump is right that about 300 Americans on average die of heroin overdoses every week. There were an estimated 15,482 heroin overdoses in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
He is also right that the majority of heroin comes across the Southern border. The 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment, issued in October by the Drug Enforcement Administration, says: “Heroin from Mexico accounted for 86 percent of the heroin by weight analyzed through the HSP in 2016.” The Heroin Signature Program, or HSP, analyzes seized drugs to determine geographic origins of heroin.
But experts, including those within his own administration, say the vast majority of the illegal heroin enters the U.S. through legal ports of entry.
The 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment says the Southwest border “remains the primary entry point for heroin into the United States.” But it says “the majority of the [heroin] flow” comes through legal ports of entry in privately owned vehicles and tractor-trailers.
When we first wrote about this subject in August 2017, Stephen D. Morris, a Middle Tennessee State University political science professor whose research has largely focused on Mexico, told us, “The wall will not do very much to stop drugs.” Similarly, Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told us, “The wall won’t stop the flow of drugs into the United States.”