border wall
Credit: Tomas Castelazo/Wikimedia Commons

In a recent trip to the southwest U.S., I found enthusiasm for Trump’s proposed border wall to be decidedly tepid. Having recently surveyed law enforcement officials, business owners, ranchers, researchers, environmentalists and border residents, the Arizona Star found that “It’s tough to find anyone living along the borderlands — even those who agree with Trump that the international line is not secure — who thinks a wall is the solution. Instead, many border residents want fencing that makes sense for their area, agents and surveillance technology closer to the border, and a way for migrants to come here legally and work.”

Since Donald Trump’s election as president, illegal border crossings have fallen by nearly 75 percent, according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP). His hard line pronouncements and actions against immigrants appear to have had an effect. But illegal border crossings have been on the wane for some time. The U.S. Border Patrol arrests two-thirds fewer undocumented aliens today compared to a decade ago. And more Mexicans are leaving the U.S. than trying to enter it. The urgency of a major clampdown on illegal immigration therefore has to be questioned.

In a recent Marketplace poll, 57 percent of respondents said that a border wall would harm the economy, and around 60 percent said immigrants do the jobs that Americans don’t want to do. The Wall Street Journal couldn’t find a single member of Congress representing a district bordering Mexico that supported funding the border wall.

Gee, with all that and almost zilch likelihood of getting $1.4 billion for Trump’s wall from Congress by this Friday’s budget deadline, do you think the White House might be reading the political tea leaves right this time? Concluding that going to the mat with the Democrats (not to mention quite a few Republicans) and risking a government shutdown might actually not be worth it? In any case, the administration has decided wisely to remove funding for the wall from the 2017 budget.

The White House’s Minister of Spin, Kellyanne Conway, explained to Fox News that “Building that wall and having it funded remains an important priority to him…But we also know that that can happen later this year and into next year.”

Or never. With deteriorating infrastructure crying out for resources and so many other demands for federal funds, the odds of Trump’s wall ever being built in robust form appear pretty slim. And “getting Mexico to pay for the wall” is like emperor Qin Shi Huang bellowing that those feisty Mongol barbarians are going to send cash to construct the Great Wall of China. Trump’s hallucinatory politics has hit the Great Wall of Reality.

There are smarter, cheaper and more realistic ways to limit illegal immigration that have curiously received little attention in the media. Under President Reagan, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), also known as the Simpson–Mazzoli Act. The culmination of five-years of drawn-out negotiations and compromise between Republicans and Democrats, the 1986 legislation laid out a highly pragmatic solution for stemming the influx of undocumented workers.

It consisted of three legs: improved border security and first-ever penalties on employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers; a temporary worker program for agricultural workers (H2A visas); and “legalization,” i.e., amnesty with a path toward eventual citizenship.

The trouble was it was neither fully funded nor fully implemented, thereby hobbling its effectiveness. The number of unauthorized immigrants burgeoned, from an estimated 5 million in 1986 to over 11 million today.

Twenty years after IRCA’s enactment, its sponsors, former senators Alan Simpson and Romano Mazzoli, looked back at their legislation’s failings. Their key conclusion was that the government “allocated funding and personnel resources more generously to the task of securing the border than to enforcing IRCA in the workplace.” In other words, emphasis was put on building physical barriers and rounding up illegal entrants versus cracking down on the employers who hired them.

The law granted residency status to 2.7 million immigrants, including one million farm workers. And the H2A temporary worker program provided a legal route for foreign agricultural workers to work seasonally in the U.S. IRCA constituted the largest legalization program in U.S. history.

The law’s key failing was in the watered down sanctions against employers forced by the business community. Fines began at only $3,200 per worker, and topped out at $16,000 per worker. As a result, employer compliance was much lower compared with other workplace laws and regulations.

Employer sanctions have been largely ineffective because some employers “see little risk in noncompliance and competitive advantages in hiring a cheaper and more compliant labor force,” according to a 2013 analysis by the Migration Policy Institute. “Bringing criminal charges against high-level managers of businesses that persistently violate the law is widely believed to operate as an effective deterrent against violating workplace laws,” the report concludes.

What happens when you crack down seriously on employers of undocumented workers? Under Obama, the number of actions against employers shot up and arrests of immigrants went down. And monetary penalties also were raised. Under Obama, the number of fines increased twelvefold and their dollar value rose sixteenfold. The number of those arrested for violating the law fell by about two-thirds. Nonetheless, the bottom line is that the population of illegal immigrants changed little in numbers.

IRCA deserves a fresh look and revision. In addition to taking a closer look at how to make employer sanctions more effective, the electronic records-checking system, E-Verify, needs to be strengthened and made compulsory, as called for by many in the business community. Legislation to make this happen failed in 2013. Congress needs to have another go at it.

Meantime, the Trump administration is placing its efforts to counter undocumented immigration on the two least effective and most resource-intensive measures: rounding up migrants and building a 2000-mile wall costing tens of billions of dollars. It is a simplistic and costly approach with populist appeal, but will ultimately prove ineffective in the long term. Illegal immigration is a factor of economic supply and demand. Going after the latter (employers who break the law) will stem the influx of the former (undocumented workers). Assuming a high physical barrier will do the trick presupposes poor Central Americans are much like the barbarian hordes of ancient times. They are not. They are ordinary people in search of a better life.

French philosopher Voltaire called the Great Wall of China, “a monument to fear.” Pandering to fear is Trump’s specialty. And his boondoggle of a wall is nothing less than a monument to American fears.

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Follow James on Twitter @JamesLBruno. James Bruno is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.