By Josh Leach on January 15, 2019
We are now in day 25 of the longest government shutdown in history, and thousands of federal workers are going without their paychecks. Why? Because President Donald Trump is demanding $5.7 billion of taxpayer funds for a costly, ineffective, unpopular, ecologically destructive border wall—one that would be built, moreover, by using federal “eminent domain” powers to seize the property of private individuals and churches.
Instead of dwelling on the reasons why this is plainly a bad idea, however, which may be obvious by now, we thought we’d offer five better things our government could do with $5.7 billion.
1. Support 50+ communities threatened by climate change.
The small Alaska Native village of Newtok was one of the more than 30 communities represented at the recent First Peoples’ Convening on Climate-Forced Displacement, hosted by UUSC and our partners. Like the other activists at the convening, the inhabitants of Newtok are facing the loss and destruction of their homeland through slow-onset effects of catastrophic climate change. As a result, Newtok has asked federal emergency management services to support their effort to relocate with dignity.
The Army Corps of Engineers has estimated the cost of relocating Newtok’s essential infrastructure at between $80 million to $130 million. While this amount is far beyond the community’s means on their own, it is small change compared to Trump’s demands for the border wall. The federal government could fully fund the safe and self-determined relocation of more than 50 communities like Newtok for the price tag of Trump’s one $5.7 billion “wall.”
2. Fully fund the UN Refugee agency for a year—and then some!
The annual expenditures for the entire UN High Commissioner for Refugees in recent years has hovered around $3 to 4 billion. That’s the total cost per year of operating the UN agency that serves the entire population of nearly 70 million people around the world who have been forcibly displaced from their homes, including the more than 700,000 Rohingya forced into exile by the Burmese military’s targeted genocide.
Trump has recently referred to the situation at the southern U.S. border as a “humanitarian crisis.” If he were serious about helping people forced to flee their homes by violence or creating safe pathways for refugees to seek protection, the U.S. government could cover the entire year’s expenses of the UN Refugee agency —and then some—for the price of one border wall.
Failing that, the United States could cover—for this price—the UN’s entire humanitarian joint response plan for the Rohingya refugee crisis more than five times over.
3. Process more than 6 million refugee children through the former CAM program.
Trump administration officials have repeatedly stated that asylum-seeking families and children should only apply for asylum at official ports of entry—despite the fact that U.S. law explicitly allows people to apply for asylum regardless of how they entered the country. If the administration were serious about opening pathways that don’t require unauthorized border crossings, however, they might not have terminated the Central American Minors (CAM) program, which previously allowed some children to apply for refugee status in the United States from within their home countries.
In a 2016 report, U.S. refugee resettlement agencies told UUSC staff they received only about $900 through this program for each person they admitted. Dividing the $5.7 billion price tag of the border wall by this amount, we estimate the administration could have funded the processing of more than 6,300,000 applicants to the CAM program (though there were never anywhere close to that many people applying) for the amount it is planning to spend on a 234-mile-long block of steel.
4. Resettle 380,000 refugees in the United States through the Refugee Admissions Program.
During the Obama administration, the U.S. State Department estimated the funds it would need to process and resettle 110,000 refugees at roughly $1.5 billion. At this rate, the U.S. government could resettle more than three times that number of refugees for the amount of money the Trump administration proposes to spend this year on its border wall.
Instead of wasting taxpayer dollars on a project that even many Border Patrol agents previously rejected, in short, the administration could be helping nearly 400,000 people who have fled violence and persecution rebuild their lives in the United States.
5. Address any number of other crying needs in our society…
Repeatedly, Donald Trump has promoted demonstrably false claims about undocumented immigrants receiving more in public benefits than U.S. citizens, using these myths to buttress his administration’s recent effort to exclude immigrants who fall below a certain income threshold.
If Trump were really worried about the solvency of social programs, however, rather than just scapegoating and stigmatizing immigrants, he might not be directing $5.7 billion in taxpayer funds away from these programs, where the money is sorely needed.
In fiscal year 2017, the average recipient of the federal food stamps program received just $126 per month. This means that for the price of Trump’s wall, about 45 million low income Americans could eat for a month—a larger number of people than the program currently serves.
In short, Trump’s border wall wouldn’t just be a waste—it would be a tragedy: taking resources away from programs where they can save lives and enrich our society, and directing them to something that the American people do not want or need. Coupled with the rollbacks to the legal rights of asylum-seekers that Trump is now trying to push through Congress by means of the shutdown, it is clear the administration is holding the country hostage to a list of increasingly extreme demands.
Before another 25 days, or even one more day of shutdown goes by, let’s agree to spend our public treasure on programs that improve people’s lives and strengthen human rights, rather than more border militarization that would harm us all.
Photo Credit: iStock – mj0007