Other Opinions

Border wall won’t just happen by presidential decree

This editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Thursday:

President Donald Trump is now scrambling to honor the multiple campaign promises that he would execute on “day one” of his presidency. On day five, Trump signaled that action is afoot to build a border wall. Don’t expect dirt to fly anytime soon.

Existing law and serious budgetary considerations stand, well, like a wall blocking Trump’s path. Despite all his imperial pronouncements and confused interpretations of presidential powers, Trump has no authority on his own to make the border wall happen. He must work through Congress, and this process promises to be laborious.

Trump told ABC News on Wednesday that construction could begin “within months” and that American taxpayers would be “reimbursed” for the cost. He is dreaming.

The 1,900-mile border already has about 650 miles of porous fencing. The new Homeland Security secretary, John Kelly, has suggested the wall idea is simplistic. “A physical barrier will not do the job” of securing the border, he says, and a “layered defense” is required. That necessarily entails lots more money.

Experts say the barrier alone could exceed $4 million per mile, depending on the terrain and materials used. Trump’s own cost estimate is $10 billion to $12 billion. Other estimates put it closer to $25 billion.

Even Trump’s staunchest defenders in Congress are unlikely to approve an expenditure of that magnitude without extensive study and debate. And since Trump acknowledges up front that the precise revenue source to pay for the wall is still undetermined, skepticism on Capitol Hill will be fierce as Republicans try to honor their pledges to bring federal expenditures and debts under control.

Trump says Mexico will pay. That’s flat-out delusional, and Mexico’s president has said as much. Trump has suggested that an estimated $27 billion in annual remittances sent to Mexico by people living in the United States could be used as payment. Such a move would be of dubious legality since it involves seizing private funds.

Banks and wire companies like Western Union would likely raise significant objections, especially if they’re asked to police the immigration status of the person sending the remittance. Again, Congress would need to approve the seizures, and that’s not happening anytime soon.

One proposal is to impose tariffs on Mexican goods. Unfortunately, the North American Free Trade Agreement stands in the way. Trump would have to abrogate the accord, and that cannot be done without congressional approval.

In addition, existing state and federal environmental laws regulate construction that interferes with animal habitats and the flow of water resources. Environmental treaties with Mexico, which also carry the force of law, must be reworked.

In Trump’s mind, perhaps, border walls can materialize merely by presidential decree. But his neophyte administration will soon learn that democracy and the rule of law form their own layered defense against unchecked presidential power.

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