For the first time, Donald Trump has disclosed that his proposed wall on the border with Mexico — which has become one of the centerpieces of his campaign — would cost about $8 billion. If so, it would be the biggest waste of money in recent history, even if it were paid for in Mexican pesos.
"The wall is probably $8 billion, which is a tiny fraction of the money that we lose with Mexico," Trump told MSNBC on Tuesday, after months of refusing to estimate how much his wall proposal would cost.
"It's a very simple calculation," Trump said. He explained that the border is 2,000 miles long, "and of the 2,000, we don't need 2,000, we need a thousand, because we have natural barriers."
Asked how he would pay for the wall, Trump repeated his claim that he would get Mexico to pay for it. Pressed on how he would get Mexico to pay for it, he responded simply, "You tell 'em, 'You're gonna pay for it.'"
Needless to say, there was a collective explosion of laughter from the Mexican side of the border.
When I called former Mexican President Vicente Fox to ask about Trump's proposed wall, he responded, "He's crazy!"
He added that Trump would trigger a nationalistic counter-reaction in Mexico, isolate the United States from one of its biggest trading partners and hurt the U.S. economy. "He's a false messiah who says things that people like to hear, but that are irresponsible," he said.
There are at least five reasons why Trump's border wall would be, to use one of Trump's favorite terms, stupid.
First, there is no serious study showing that there is currently an avalanche of undocumented immigrants to this country.
On the contrary, the Pew Research Center and the Center for Migration Studies of New York, based on U.S. Census figures, say that the overall number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. has fallen from a record 12 million in 2007 to 10.9 million today.
Second, about 40 percent of migrants who enter the U.S. illegally don't do it by crossing the Mexican border, but come in by plane and overstay their visas, U.S. officials say. A wall across the border would not stop those who come by air.
Third, the number of undocumented Mexicans moving to the United States is unlikely to increase in the future for demographic reasons.
While Mexico had a birthrate of more than six children per woman in the 1960s, the birth rate has plummeted to 2.2 children per woman today. In other words, the pool of Mexican young people, who are the most likely to migrate, has shrunk.
Fourth, a wall along part of the border would push potential migrants to cross through more remote — and dangerous — border areas, raise the fees of people smugglers, and ensure that large numbers of undocumented people stay in the United States.
Many Mexican men who now come to the United States to do seasonal work in farms and return to Mexico in the winters would find it too hard, and expensive, to keep circulating between the two countries. They would stay here, and — in the absence of massive numbers of newcomers — increase the number of undocumented residents here.
Fifth, Trump's proposed wall, along with his statements depicting most Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, his vows to renegotiate the NAFTA free trade deal with Mexico and his calls for the deportation of 11 million undocumented people would almost certainly trigger a nationalistic, anti-American reaction in Mexico, the rest of Latin America and much of the world.
This may be dismissed as irrelevant by many Trump followers, but a trade war with Mexico would hurt the United States, too. Mexico and Canada are the two largest U.S. export markets, and U.S. exports to its two neighbors support more than 3 million American jobs, according to figures from the U.S. Trade Representative.
My opinion: Like most demagogues, Trump is playing on people's ignorance and xenophobic instincts to present himself as a new messiah. But, for the reasons stated above, his proposed wall across the border would be a monumental waste of money, a symbol of isolationism and a recipe for America's decline as a global power.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.