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A Potential Border Wall Compromise

Summary:
President Trump recently backed off his demand for billion in funding for his border wall, likely averting a government shutdown around Christmas.  However, the political debate over funding for border wall will merely reemerge in the New Year.  Besides new court decisions regarding DACA, there is little to break this deadlock.  Some of the suggestions below offer additional avenues on which to negotiate.   One of President Trump’s persistent claims is that the wall will secure the border and he recently implied that Border Patrol agents are substitutes for such a barrier.  In that case, I have a suggestion for Congressional Democrats who will be negotiating with the President over the wall in the next several years:  If you must fund the wall in exchange for the DREAM Act or DACA,

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President Trump recently backed off his demand for $5 billion in funding for his border wall, likely averting a government shutdown around Christmas.  However, the political debate over funding for border wall will merely reemerge in the New Year.  Besides new court decisions regarding DACA, there is little to break this deadlock.  Some of the suggestions below offer additional avenues on which to negotiate.  

One of President Trump’s persistent claims is that the wall will secure the border and he recently implied that Border Patrol agents are substitutes for such a barrier.  In that case, I have a suggestion for Congressional Democrats who will be negotiating with the President over the wall in the next several years:  If you must fund the wall in exchange for the DREAM Act or DACA, have Border Patrol pay for it.

This idea is simple in concept – just fire Border Patrol agents and use their saved salaries to fund the construction of the border wall.  As of the middle of 2018, the 19,338 Border Patrol agents had an average annual salary of $61,064.  Altogether, they were paid about $1.18 billion in 2018.  The savings from firing all of them in one year wouldn’t come close to funding the $25 billion or so to build the entire border wall and would only go a small portion of the way toward President Trump’s more modest $5 billion request, but it’s a start.

Of course, the government should not fire all the Border Patrol agents.  Some are necessary to patrol the border even if Congress liberalizes the immigration system.  But this is Washington, DC, and politics being what it is, we all must compromise.  If Congress instead fired half of all Border Patrol agents and instituted a policy of no new net hiring, that would free up $590.4 million per year for the construction of a border wall.  In 8 years and 5 months, about $5 billion in savings could be diverted to the wall.

Firing half of all Border Patrol agents might be too drastic for Congress, even though that would only reduce the number of agents down to about the level it was in 2000.  Another solution would be to cut Border Patrol pay by a quarter, cap their salaries, keep the same number of Border Patrol agents, and use the saved salaries to pay for the wall.  Enough money would be accumulated to pay for the $5 billion portion of the wall over the next 16 years and 11 months.     

There is yet another way to partially pay for the wall by shrinking Border Patrol.  Each mile of the wall will cost about $17,280,000 to construct according to recent DHS estimates and about $864,353 per mile in annual maintenance afterward.  At about 8.5 agents per mile along the Mexican border, on average, the salaries or wages of Border Patrol would have to be reduced by more than 100 percent to even maintain the new wall.  That’s obviously a non-starter … besides being impossible.  So how about Border Patrol pay for 1 percent of the construction costs and 10 percent of the annual maintenance costs by reducing their staff? 

Paying for 1 percent of the border wall construction by firing Border Patrol agents could be accomplished by reducing their numbers by 1,637 initially for only 3 years.  For the second and third years after the wall was constructed and maintenance costs were incurred, the Border Patrol would have about 3,954 fewer agents or be 20 percent smaller.  To fund maintenance after year threes, the permanent staff reduction would be about 2,317 Border Patrol agents or about 12 percent of their total current numbers.  If the cuts are entirely concentrated along the Mexican border, that would be a 14 percent cut in the numbers patrolling that border.    

If the above-proposed deals are still too complicated or extreme, here is my final compromise suggestion: Fire one Border Patrol agent for each mile of the wall that is built.  The $5 billion that Trump wanted for the wall would only pay for about 289 miles out of the current 1,637 unfenced border miles.  Firing 289 Border Patrol agents and preventing the hiring of replacements would only pay for about 0.4 percent of the cost of constructing the border wall and 7 percent of the annual maintenance afterward, but it’s a start.  It’s also easy to understand and explain.  Such a reduction might also motivate the administration and Border Patrol to only support building a wall in areas where they think it will most reduce unlawful crossings.    

President Trump has argued that the border wall will secure the border.  I doubt that is true, but I’m willing to take him at his word if he’s willing to shrink Border Patrol in exchange for funding the wall.  Since the wall will secure the border, that means we would need fewer Border Patrol agents.  Reducing the number of Border Patrol agents by one for each additional mile of the wall built would drop their numbers by about 1.5 percent and reduce the number of agents per mile along the Mexican border from about 8.5 today to 8.4 after the 289 miles are built. 

Alex Nowrasteh
He is an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. His popular publications have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, and elsewhere. His academic publications have appeared in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, the Fletcher Security Review, and Public Choice.

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