Israel’s border security is the inspiration for the US’s southern border security solutions. Our security doesn’t involve surrounding the whole country with 35-foot-tall concrete slabs. We built smart fences with layered security. Only 5% of the security barrier in the West Bank built to stop terrorism consists of very tall concrete slabs.
Here I’ll focus on the border fence built between Egypt and Israel to stop the flow of unauthorized migration from Africa.
The February 2017 US Senate report (you can read it here) compares the efficiency and efficacy of Israel’s border security to that of the already existing southern US border solutions. Israel’s fence is better by far.
- 150 miles of fence cost US$415 million
- Yearly maintenance cost is US$58 thousand per mile
- It was built in 2 years and the physical structure is made of rebar, barbed wire, and concrete buried underground
- It’s about 15 feet tall
- There was a 10-mile section that was easier to breach so they raised that section to 25 feet
Does Israel’s fence “work”? Yes. From tens of thousands of migrants coming through the border, last year fewer than 20 came through.
But here’s what the security fence didn’t do:
- Write a formal immigration policy for Israel (it never occurred to anyone that non-Jewish people would want to live in a Jewish state, so there are guidelines but no formal policy for people who fall outside the definition provided by the Law of Return)
- Deal with the tens of thousands of migrants already in Israel
- Deal with security or trafficking at airports, maritime ports, or any other points of entry not covered by the fence
If the US followed Israel’s plan, here’s what should happen:
- The US southern border needs about 13 of Israel’s fences (all things being equal), so it should cost US$5.4 billion. This doesn’t take into account terrain differences, proper oversight, consistency, eminent domain issues, etc. Even if you round up for other factors, let’s say US$10 billion
- It should cost $112 million dollars per year for maintenance
The US already has 650 miles of fence.
- The lower estimate given by the Senate report says it cost $2.3 billion (though another report says over the years it has been $7 billion). At US prices, Israel’s 150-mile fence would have cost US$530 million (or up to $1.6 billion)
- Maintenance today on the US fence is US$77,000 annually per mile (or almost US$20,000 more per mile than Israel’s)
In short, the existing US fence was more expensive to build and is more expensive to maintain. But somehow it’s not effective. If the US builds a new fence using a plan based on anything other than Israel’s fence, it will be a case of throwing good money after bad.
Israel’s fence deals with a specific issue: unauthorized African migration, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan.
The US southern border fence claims it will deal with two specific issues: immigration and crime. So I checked a few statistics.
- In 2016, Mexicans accounted for 26% of immigrants in the US (11.6 million)
- In 2016, more immigrants came from China and India than Mexico
- In 2016, 1.2 million people legally immigrated to the US, 618,000 were new arrivals, the rest were change of status (meaning they were already in the US)
- There are 11.4 million “unauthorized immigrants” already residing in the US, 7.9 million of those are from Mexico or Central America (estimated numbers) [The Pew Research Center quoted below has similar numbers]
- In 2016, there were 416,000 apprehensions at the southern border (there were fewer than 400,000 in 2018)
- In 2017, an estimated 700,000 people entered the US legally, but overstayed their visas
- The Pew Research Center reports that “unauthorized” immigration is at its lowest level in a decade
- Fewer Mexicans are attempting to come in, but more Central Americans are stopped at the US border
- “Unauthorized” immigrants are more likely to have lived in the US for more than 10 years
- Most drugs are confiscated at legal ports of entry (as opposed to open border areas)
- It’s hard to find statistics on human trafficking, but the National Human Trafficking Hotline states that 5,147 cases were reported in the US in 2018 and it appears that just as many US citizens as foreign nationals are victims. There’s no reference to border crossings. (In Israel, the human trafficking was coming from the former Soviet Union, so border fences had no effect whatsoever. Also, the victims were lied to and thus came voluntarily, so would not have been flagged at airports or other points of entry)
- It appears that arms trafficking is a US export, not an import (legal or otherwise)
So if the border security “works,” it will stop approximately 400,000 people from entering the US via the southern border. It will do nothing about visa overstayers, nothing about “unauthorized” immigrants already residing in the US, nothing about immigration policy, nothing against any kind of trafficking (most likely), nothing for any other border sector, airport, or maritime port, and nothing about immigration from any other region than Mexico and Central America. It will also probably be over budget and improperly and expensively maintained. In addition, those who might have come via the southern border will likely find alternate routes.
Trump’s US border wall is a Golden Calf. Some will bow down and genuflect to its glittery greatness, and it might even make some people feel better. But like a statue, no matter how much you pray to it, it won’t actually do much.