In November of 1989, the Socialist Unity Party, the Communist leaders of the East German state, announced that citizens of East Berlin were free to cross the border into the West, and the wall that had divided Berlin came crumbling to the ground. To many observers, this action symbolized the dawn of a new period of globalization, migration, and interconnection of nations—the world could now be united in an era of peace.

In reality, more walls have gone up since the event than ever before.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the number of border walls between nations has more than quadrupled. According to Elisabeth Valet, a researcher at the University of Quebec, there are more than 65 walls currently standing or under construction. Unlike the Berlin Wall, which was meant to keep people in, most of these walls were built to keep people out by deterring illegal immigration, stopping the flow of contraband, or protecting citizens from crimes. While many were shocked by US President Donald Trump’s plans to build a border wall, a wall is by no means uncommon among both developing and developed nations. Countries such as Hungary, Britain, Bulgaria, Norway, Turkey, and Myanmar have all built walls on their borders, raising the question: would a wall along the US-Mexico border be successful?

According to Trump, such a border wall would be instrumental in stopping illegal immigration and thwarting drug cartels—a claim that has proven contentious among many experts. This article will examine three border walls in Israel, Egypt, and Spain that were erected for those same purposes; it will then show that a US-Mexico border wall could be effective, but not at the cost of its high price tag.

Israel’s Southern Immigration Border

While Israel’s border wall along the Gaza Strip often receives much media attention, its southern border wall, which was constructed to stop the flow of African immigrants from places like Eritrea and Sudan, has been relatively ignored  by the media. Construction on the wall began in 2010 and finished in 2013, costing US$400 million for the relatively small 150-mile wall (the US-Mexico border wall, for comparison, would be at least 1300 miles long). The wall—which is more of a fence—is made of steel and barbed wire, and stands surrounded by unending hills of desert sand and brush. The sight is broken only by the occasional guard tower jutting above the wall.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has praised Trump’s idea for a wall as a “great idea” and a “great success,” claiming on Twitter that his own wall “has stopped all illegal immigration.” While Israel’s wall has definitely  not stopped all illegal immigration, it has assisted in cutting it down significantly. According to statistics published by Israel’s Ministry of the Interior, 17,000 African immigrants entered the state illegally in 2011. However, in 2013, after the completion of the wall, the number fell to a mere 43.

While there is a clear correlation between the construction of the wall and the decrease in immigration, experts claim that the border wall has only partially contributed to the decrease, and that other measures enacted by the Israeli government have also been of immense importance. Rather than merely focusing on making it harder for immigrants to enter the country, Israel has also made it less desirable for immigrants that make it across the wall to stay and work. For example, Israel has passed two laws targeting immigrants— one prohibiting immigrants from transferring money out of the country and another forcing employers to deposit 20 percent of an immigrant employee’s salary into a bank account which can only be withdrawn upon exit of the country.

Laws such as these have made it harder for immigrants to send money back to their families in their countries of origin, which in some cases had been used to pay for the smuggling of their families into Israel. These measures, when combined with the increased difficulty of entering Israel, have contributed greatly to the reduction of immigration.

Though the wall in Israel has been successful, would a wall on the US-Mexico border prove just as effective in achieving its intended goal? While the wall could be successful, there are many obstacles that the United States would face that Israel did not. First of all, the Israeli border wall was surrounded by a vast desert, while the terrain surrounding the US wall would vary. The desert provides a natural barrier to immigration, as shown by the fact that most immigration to Israel only occurred on days when the weather was optimal for desert crossing. In addition, human smugglers in Mexico have proven themselves very capable at bypassing existing barriers along the US-Mexico border, often using power tools to cut through and infiltrate the existing US fence be fore US Border Patrol units can respond. This would not be a problem if the US-Mexico wall were as small as the Israeli wall, which would make it easier to patrol and respond to security breaches. The proposed US wall, however, would be almost ten times as long, making patrolling difficult. Finally, President Trump has not announced any policies similar to those of Israel that would limit the desirability of immigration to the United States, limiting the effectiveness of the wall.

Only if the United States were to vastly increase the size of its Border Patrol and draft immigration policies similar to those adopted by Israel could the border wall potentially be effective. However, the cost of the increase in Border Patrol and potential economic losses due to immigration employment policies may prove to be undesirable for the United States in the long run; the tradeoff may be too great.

Egypt’s Steel Barrier with Gaza

Moving west of Israel to the other side of the Gaza Strip, Egypt has also erected  a massive steel barricade with Gaza. Unlike the Israeli wall, which is more of a fence, the Egyptian barrier is definitely a wall; the barrier is made of bombproof, super strength steel which cannot be cut or melted, and extends an astounding 20 meters underground. In fact, the Egyptian wall is one of the few that can be delineated from space.

While the Israeli wall was built to impede immigration, the Egyptian wall  was built to stop the smuggling of contraband into Egypt, and to stop the smuggling of weapons, explosives, and goods that are unattainable domestically to the Palestinians. Since the beginning of the barricade, Hamas smugglers have dug tunnels under the desert into Egypt in order to smuggle the aforementioned items into Gaza. The Egyptian government responded by creating an underground wall to block the tunnels while simultaneously keeping all plans for the wall secret to conceal its construction from Hamas. As a result, the wall has cut off hundreds of tunnels closer to the surface and forced the Palestinians to dig deeper and deeper. During construction of the wall, many underground tunnels collapsed, sometimes killing or trapping smugglers.

The Egyptian wall has not stopped all smuggling completely, but it has forced Hamas to go to greater length in order to move goods. Proponents of the US-Mexico wall have claimed that it would help to fight drug smuggling by the Mexican cartels, and the Egyptian wall has certainly shown some success in that respect. In addition, Mexican cartels have also created networks of tunnels that they use for smuggling across the border in a manner similar to Hamas. The Trump administration, however, has not released plans for the proposed wall to extend underground—a flaw which would limit the success of the wall and keep it from emulating that of Egypt. However, the replacement of the current steel US fence with a much more durable and harder to compromise concrete wall may help stop smugglers from breaching the walls with power tools. Regardless, the cartels will still have many methods of smuggling drugs into the United States, including by boats in the Gulf of Mexico.

If the United States wanted to increase the efficacy of the wall, it would have to extend the wall underground, which would greatly increase the already exorbitant cost of constructing the wall—potentially doubling or tripling the estimated US$10 billion expense. This may prove too costly. Without this expense, however, the net reduction in drug smuggling would be limited.  

Spain’s Fence with Africa

Moving even farther west from Egypt, one runs into the border fence of Spain—a 7-mile steel structure that blocks immigration from Morocco. In 2014, 2,100 immigrants successfully crossed from Morocco into Spain, but the fence reduced this number substantially to approximately 100 in 2015. More importantly, however, the fence has greatly discouraged people from even attempting to illegally cross into Spain. In 2014, approximately 19,000 people attempted to cross into Spain. That number diminished to approximately 3,700 in 2015. It appears that the greatest role the fence has played is in convincing immigrants not to even attempt to enter Spain, which has greatly reduced illegal immigration rates.

When the fence was first built, pictures were widely circulated in the media of immigrants sitting on top of the fence, and helicopters were often found patrolling. However, the Spanish government later installed wire mesh and sensors on the wall which made it impossible for people to get a grip on the wall to climb, and which alerted soldiers when someone touched the wall. Now, the wall has faded from the media spotlight, and the leader of a local council has remarked that immigration “isn’t a problem anymore.”

The fence, however, has forced many immigrants to risk their lives swimming around it in the cold waters of the Mediterranean. According to one Red Cross employee, she treats an average of 10 immigrants for hypothermia during warm weather and potentially ten times that during colder weather. This same problem has already surfaced along the US border, where immigrants will often take riskier routes through deserts or mountains in order to avoid the Border Patrol, often putting their lives in great danger.

While a US-Mexico border wall could potentially reduce immigration by discouraging immigrants from attempting to cross in the first place, as happened in Spain, it could also encourage immigrants to seek out riskier immigration routes which could increase crossing fatalities. The United States would have to keep this potential loss of life in mind as they construct the wall, and decide if it is worth the lives of these people.

The Proposed US-Mexico Wall: Would It Succeed?

In order for the US-Mexico border wall to be as successful as those of Israel, Egypt, and Spain, many changes to the proposal would have to be made. First, the United States would have to greatly increase the size of its Border Patrol in order to respond to breaches in the wall efficiently, given its immense length. Secondly, if it hopes to impede the work of the Mexican drug cartels, the United States would have to extend the wall underground to cut off smuggling tunnels.

More importantly, the government must realize that a wall alone will not accomplish all of the Trump administration’s immigration goals. Such a wall would have to be accompanied by effective legislation that could be oriented either towards making it less desirable for immigrants to work in the United States, or towards making the path to citizenship easier. The former follows the style of Israel, which was successful, but may be undesirable for the United States due to the substantial amount that immigrants contribute to the economy. If the United States were to discourage immigrants from working in the country, the economy could potentially suffer a large blow. The latter policy orientation shows more promise in decreasing the number of illegal crossings. If the US immigration system were more streamlined, and the process of applying for a work visa or permanent residency was quicker and easier, then illegal immigration would not be as great a problem, since these immigrants would have no reason to try to cross illegally. Regardless, the wall alone would not be an effective solution; effective legislation, whatever that may entail, must accompany it.

In the end, the wall would be very expensive, a larger project than the walls of all three countries in this analysis combined. In addition, if the government were to enact all of these suggestions to increase the effectiveness of the wall, the price would increase to an exorbitant level. The potential loss of life due to more dangerous migration routes must also not be ignored, and the United States must decide whether this loss of life is worth a reduction in illegal immigration. Perhaps the government should try legislative solutions before building the wall, as this would be far less costly and would not result in an increase in mortality. Immigration reform—whether aimed at making work in the United States less desirable to potential immigrants, or aimed at making work in the United States easier—would prove to be a far more levelheaded first measure than the construction of a continent-wide wall.