By Everard Meade
President-elect Donald Trump’s proposed border wall was the most powerful symbol of his campaign. If he wants to turn it into a powerful positive legacy, he needs to pivot away from immigration politics and towards one of his other priorities: infrastructure.
As a policy matter, the wall is a red herring. The crisis it purports to address is nonexistent. Undocumented immigration is at a 40-year low; migration from Mexico has been net negative since 2009 and net zero since 2005. A majority of recent undocumented immigrants entered legally at more than 300 ports and airports and then overstayed their visas, rather than attempting to cross searing deserts and impenetrable mountain ranges.
Those who are desperate enough to attempt a wilderness crossing — more than ten thousand of whom have died since the construction of our current border walls in 1994 — will turn to equally dangerous alternatives, like the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Coast. It’s already happening in southern Mexico, to say nothing of the Mediterranean, and the moral burden is heavy indeed.
More relevant to Trump’s vision, the border wall does not meet the most basic tests for any infrastructure project. Even if the U.S. were somehow able to cover the estimated $25 billion initial capital investment to build the wall with something other than long-term debt, it would cost billions to staff and maintain, and without the promise of an offset from the kind of multiplier effect or efficiency savings that rail and highway projects produce. Some security contractors and other well-connected firms would benefit but at the expense of the broader economy, the same kind of corrupt shell-game that Trump criticized in his campaign.
There is a better option, and one that could stir the better angels of our nature.
President-elect Trump has lambasted the shameful state of our airports and transportation hubs, and he is right. They are overcrowded, dysfunctional, and frankly, ugly. Let’s apply that thinking to all of our ports.
Consider the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the busiest land border crossing in the world. The most diverse array of people from all over the world enter the United States here — migrants, but also students, tourists, business travelers, investors, and diplomats. And yet, for decades it has felt more like entering a prison camp than a great nation. Temporary concrete barriers, scaffolding, and painted plywood herded interminable lines into a dark and dirty facility that wore on everyone, including the agents who staffed it. A $750 million reconstruction project is just starting to bear fruit at San Ysidro — more automobile lanes, sleek pedestrian bridges, and even large scale public art projects are underway.
If the public thinks that the border is a chaotic and degraded place, it’s in part because most of our ports of entry are chaotic and degraded. Our ports — land, air, and sea — are where we touch the world, and most of them stink. This is a real border crisis, and one we can fix together.
Why shouldn’t our international ports look and feel more like Grand Central Station in New York or the Liege-Guillemins station in Belgium? What happened to the ideal of building ports and hubs that celebrate the human endeavors they make possible? When did we settle for a series of impoverished strip malls, crammed together around ad hoc security cordons where well-connected contractors test travelers’ tolerance for claustrophobia and overpriced junk?
We don’t need a horizontal tower of babel visible from space, impeding commerce and shouldering future generations with debt.
But we most definitely could use world-class ports of entry — public spaces that attract tourists and investors, that inspire creativity and collaboration, that reinforce the dignity of the people who work in them and pass through them.
Need a glimpse of this alternative? Look at the Cross-Border Xpress here in San Diego, our terminal and bridge to the Tijuana airport – it’s beautiful, it’s secure, and it’s a commercial success. Our new western pedestrian crossing and the new truck crossing underway at Otay Mesa hint at broader opportunities.
And Mexico would pay. The above projects depend on cross-border collaboration, not just between the U.S. and Mexican governments, but between private businesses and civic leaders on both sides of the border. Mexico has a long-tradition of building spectacular public spaces, and like us, they desperately need a national project, something to catalyze economic growth, but also to give ordinary people a stake in the future of their country and its unique contribution to world history.
Demonizing its people and threatening to crush its economy is not the way to incentivize Mexico’s participation. Indeed, it gives elected officials in Mexico a convenient excuse for failing to collaborate on security, trade and immigration issues with the United States. Mexico has its populists, too, and the border wall could catalyze their Brexit moment.
In the end, it comes down to how we define “greatness.” We can make displays of brute force against the most vulnerable — undocumented immigrants brought here as children, refugees fleeing violence in Syria and Central America, cross-border families, religious minorities, etc. Some will get a psychological wage out of this, and some smaller number might even get a job in the short term. But it won’t create a better future or set a higher moral example.
Or, we can refocus our energy on making the ports and hubs connecting us to the rest of world truly great. Our partners will join us and our kids will thank us.
Mr. Trump, build that bridge. Make it beautiful.
Dr. Everard Meade is director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego´s Kroc School of Peace Studies.
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