The Central American migrant crisis is big news, and the
solution is big money. But is all that spending worth it? More
important, are there methods of border security that will deliver
the U.S. the most for its money?
Last week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry sent National Guard
troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, and Washington continues
to weigh the possibility of emergency funding to deal with
the influx of immigrants.
Since last October, more than 50,000 children have
attempted to enter the U.S. after fleeing countries
like Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. While
experts continue to debate the exact cause of the crisis -- some
cite drug-related violence, while others blame government policy
-- one thing is clear: It will likely be expensive. Current
Congressional funding proposals range from $659 million
to $2.7 billion, the
Los Angeles Times
But that's a drop in the bucket when compared to the long-term
cost of border security.
Tijuana, Baja California (right) and San Diego (left),
What's the total cost in dollars?
On the whole, border security is tightening. Illegal
arrivals hit a four-decade low last year, and total border
arrests are a third of what they were in 2005,
The Wall Street Journal
But that has come at a cost. Most estimate inspection,
patrol, and infrastructure set taxpayers back somewhere between
$12 billion and $18 billion per year. That's up about 50% from
the early 2000s, according to the
, which says spending has included "everything from 650 miles of
fencing to military aircraft, marine vessels, drones,
surveillance equipment, infrared camera towers and detention
More generally, border security costs totaled $90 billion
between 2002 and 2011, a Freedom of Information
Act request conducted by the Associated Press
shows. The news outlet reports that annual expenses vary from
drug-sniffing dogs -- $4,500 each -- to National Guard
troops -- about $91,000 per soldier.
So, what about that fence?
You only need to watch the opening scene of the Mel Gibson action
Get the Gringo
to understand the most visual aspect of border
security by far is the fencing. In reality, though,
it's much less comprehensive than Hollywood suggests.
Customs and Border Protection estimates almost 700 miles of
fence were built between 2006 and 2009 at a cost
of $2.4 billion. Given the U.S.-Mexico boundary is almost
2,000 miles, though, that leaves almost two-thirds of
the border uncovered. Completion of the fence -- some of
it through rougher, more expensive territory -- could
cost an additional $22.4 billion,
The New York Times
Which companies stand to gain?
The list of private companies involved in border security is
extensive. IT firm
, which Bloomberg Government
brought in more than $100 million from Customs and Border
Protection in 2012, likely made even more in 2013. As
The Wall Street Journal
reports, the company was awarded a data-centric border security
contract worth up to $460 million over the next
In a good year,
can bring in nine-figure revenues by supplying aircraft
and related technology to law enforcement. Competitor
, meanwhile, has been involved in an array of projects in the
past. Between 2006 and 2011, it booked $1.4
billion for developing a Secure Border Initiative Network that
later proved too difficult to build, Bloomberg
Beyond traditional surveillance and fencing, there are other
players. The government awarded
$62 million for uniforms in 2012, according to the outlet
During that time, Chenega and
took in an average of $86 million for maintenance, it says. And
more visibly, drone manufacturer General Atomics can make up
to $443 million by expanding the border security drone
fleet in the next few years.
What about the economic effects?
The economic effects of border security -- and more broadly, a
restrictive immigration policy -- are less transparent. On
one side of the aisle, a subset of economists
believes immigrants positively impact the American economy.
Of course, many believe the opposite.
The net effect may be non-existent. Benjamin Powell
recently explained the issue on The Huffington Post: "Some
studies find negative impacts, some find positive impacts, but
they are all small and clustered around zero," he writes. "That
means that, although there are some upfront tax costs of these
migrant children, they won't impoverish taxpayers over the long
Existing research shows that on average, immigrants'
productivity, and tax contributions later in life appear to
cancel out the cost of school and welfare. In fact, if an influx
of child migrants was large enough, their resulting contributions
to Social Security could -- in theory -- shore
up the entitlement program.
What's more, about 30% of immigrants return to their home
countries "before they can collect entitlements," a new Cato
Institute working paper points out. This, it
says, "contributes mightily to making long-run immigrant
Social Security contributions a net positive under most
estimates." The Heritage Foundation
reports Social Security insolvency could come as early
as 2024, if no policy changes are made.
Given the variety of options at the U.S.'s disposal, from
drones to more ground agents, there's no telling exactly how high
the price tag for border security will run in the future. A 2007
study from the Congressional Research Service estimates when
maintenance is accounted for, border fencing could
cost taxpayers up to $49 billion over the next two
But the point is this: The current migrant crisis
and its likely cost is trivial when compared to overall border
security. While lawmakers and the American public continue to
debate how many millions should be allocated to Texas,
the most prudent move, financially speaking, may be to
reconsider the billions that are spent on securing the
U.S.-Mexico border each year.
Monitoring technology might offer a more efficient fix than
hundreds of miles of archaic fencing. Or, more
government funding could be devoted to address what Vox
calls "push factors" -- most notably the violence
that's forcing many Central Americans to head
Regardless of the solution, it's worth contemplating a
proactive way to manage immigration. Building a fence is
as reactive as it gets. And, put simply, the costs are
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originally appeared on Fool.com.
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