The LA Times ran an editorial piece late last week by Colin Hanna, proprietor of the website weneedafence.com, making the economic case that putting a physical fence along the southern border would be a cheaper option than creating a “virtual fence” using technology and an expanded Border Patrol:
To the extent that a virtual fence could be deployed, it would require at least 150,000 border agents â€” four shifts of 15 patrol agents per mile plus support personnel â€” to effectively apprehend the illegal aliens detected by cameras, motion sensors, drones and heat sensors. This is extremely impractical and cost prohibitive; we currently have only 11,000 active border agents.
The virtual fence option would only track â€” not prevent â€” illegal immigrants from entering the country. Even if we could apprehend a great number of them, that would put into motion an expensive deportation process, with taxpayers footing the bill.
The construction of a secure physical barrier along the southern border of the U.S. is an absolutely necessary component to any truly comprehensive immigration reform bill.
The estimate of a need for 150,000 agents with a virtual fence is a bit of hyperbole, but other than that, Hanna’s logic is sound. A comprehensive US-Mexico border fence should cost somewhere around $6 billion ($3 million/mile) with competitive bidding, using the Israeli wall as a comparable project in terms of price. (It shouldn’t have to cost as much as the San Diego border fence, given that the terrain that is much more rural and flat. If it does, then something’s wrong). Let’s assume it would then require $250 million/year in maintenance.
On the other side of the balance sheet, DHS has requested $2.4 billion for “Border Security between the Points-of-Entry” in FY 2007, most of which is for the Border Patrol – a 50% increase from FY 2005. This increase follows a decision by Congress in 2004 to authorize a doubling of the size of the Border Patrol over five years; after completing this process, the Border Patrol’s budget will have increased by at least $1.7 billion/year.
But if the government built a fence, it likely would no longer have a rationale to double the size of the Border Patrol, and this $1.7 billion/year increase could be rolled back and used to offset the new costs of a fence. The Border Patrol would still be needed to interdict people trying to jump or circumvent the fence, but it would no longer require large budget increases. Netting out other relevant factors, the payback period on a border fence is therefore approx. four years.
I still have a visceral dislike of the idea of a border fence, and I think any bill that includes a comprehensive fence needs to also include some kind of temporary worker program. But I have to admit that from an fiscal perspective, it’s quite likely that a fence would be a cost-saving response to the challenge of southern border security.