A comment on border walls

By Lorenzo

This is based on a comment I made here.

The success of Israel and Hungary in putting up border barriers has been cited as evidence in favour of President Trump’s proposed Mexican border wall.

West Bank barrier

A counter-argument raised against such citing is that those walls are much smaller than the Trump proposal. It is true that the US-Mexican border is 3,201km long, while Israel has 1,004km of border barriers (708km on West Bank, 245km on Egypt border and 51km on Gaza border) and the Hungarian border barriers are 523km (175km on Serbian border and 348km on Croatian border)–actually, slightly less if one includes natural barriers.

What is missing in this simple comparison is relative populations. Israel has 1,004 km of border wall with a population of 8.5m, so 8,500 people per km of wall.

Hungary has 523km of border wall with a population of 9.8m, so 18,700 people per km of wall.

Hungarian border barrier

The US-Mexico border is 3,201km long and the US has a population of 325.7m, which would be 101,800 people per km of wall.

Given that Americans are also, on average, richer than Israelis and Hungarians, the proposed Mexican border barrier is, in fact, “smaller” with respect to population and GDP than either the Israeli or Hungarian cases.


Another argument sometimes mounted against border barriers or border enforcement is that a significant amount of illegal immigration comes from visa overstayers and other people who have legally entered for one purpose but extend their stay beyond their legal entitlement. While this is true, it is no argument against border barriers, which can (as the Israel and Hungarian cases demonstrate) be very effective in stopping illegal border crossings. That they do not also stop overstaying merely tells us that such barriers are not a complete solution to all illegal immigration.

It is also reasonable to regard the two types of illegal immigration differently simply because the overstayers have at least passed some level of entry scrutiny. Moreover, it is a bit difficult to do things such as various forms of infrastructure when you don’t even know how many folk are in the country. (And the notion that the social infrastructure of being a successful country is infinitely flexible, so can deal with any level of inflow of any type, strikes me as just nuts.)

Incorporating or denigrating

The Australian and Canadian experiences suggest quite strongly that effective efforts against illegal immigration can actually help the pro-immigration cause because it does not make ordinary voters feel they have no say. Making voters feel helpless and ignored is not good for politics in general and the politics of immigration in particular. While de-legitimising considering the downsides from migration helps along the process of spectacularly screwing up migration policy.

Design proposal for Mexican border barrier.

Of course, if your main operative concern regarding immigration is to show how righteous you are, then making the “unrighteous” feel helpless and ignored, indeed, rubbing their noses in how much their views (and votes) don’t count, may be much of the attraction in the first place. (The term undocumented migrants is a nicely Orwellian way of saying “and your votes shouldn’t count”, though it is only part of the use of language to promote voter irrelevance on migration matters.)

But that sort of moralising arrogance, and contempt towards fellow citizens, is not helpful; however strong and appealing it may be among “progressive” folk. It helps give support for the very populist politics that they so deride; but even that can also be a good outcome for them, as it “confirms” their contempt for their fellow citizens which has become so much an integral part of contemporary “progressive” politics.

Far from comparative size stopping the successful Israeli and Hungarian border barriers being evidence for a Mexican border wall, the Mexican border wall is (relative to population and GDP) actually as “smaller” proposal than either.


ADDENDA: An unusually sensible piece on The Wall.

An amusing post about the success of physical barriers.

The latest poll is from 2012, but includes previous polls and suggests strong support for enforcing laws against illegal immigration.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]


  1. I am and will always
    Posted January 27, 2018 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    What illegal immigration are you talking about?

  2. Posted January 27, 2018 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    @1 Either entry across border without visa, etc or overstaying after legal entry. Depending on estimates there are somewhere between 11m and 22m illegal immigrants in the US.

  3. conrad
    Posted January 29, 2018 at 4:47 am | Permalink

    I’ll bet it doesn’t change much. I think part of the problem is that the illegal immigrants are essential for many places — Cheap nannies, fruit pickers, cleaners, low-level service people, etc. . The other problem is that in Israel and Hungary, the immigrants coming are more culturally different than the US. In the US most people coming across the border are not unlike many you would find on the other side, so people have more sympathy for them. So, apart from politics (which will constantly change), I doubt there will be any long term impetus to be really serious about keeping things working, unlike Israel and Hungary. This would probably be even less so if some of the countries which people are leaving from become better places to live, as happened with Mexico and isn’t impossible to see for most other places where the immigrants are largely coming from. So there will be less people coming and less people that care. That will amount to one big crumbling wall.

  4. Posted January 30, 2018 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    [email protected] All reasonable points. One of the problems in all this is once there is a large number of illegal immigrants, the problems become much more toxic, because of the normal problems of illegality–you have, in effect, created a large black market in labour. I am dubious about how “essential” they are (we don’t have that many, for geographical reasons, and we manage). Convenient, certainly, which gets back to the problems of enforcement and politics.

  5. I am and will always
    Posted January 30, 2018 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    I was referring to Australia

  6. David J. H.
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

    Um, am i wrong in thinking that a considerable length of the “Border” between Mexico and the USA .. is in the middle of a RIVER ???

  7. Posted February 8, 2018 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    @5 . Same definition, but for obvious reasons we don’t have very many. Less than 70,000 apparently.

  8. Posted February 8, 2018 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    [email protected] . Absolutely. Hence the term wetbacks.

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