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Illustration by Michael Austin

How to Build a Wall

​One of U.S. President Donald Trump’s biggest campaign promises was to build a continuous wall along the southern border of the United States to keep out illegal immigrants and criminals—and it appears he is going to stick by that promise. Just days after his inauguration, Trump began meeting with national security officials about building the wall and threatened to cancel meetings with Mexican leaders if they would not pay for its construction.

Since then, Mexico has made it clear that it will not pay for the construction of the wall—which could cost up to $20 billion. Despite the financial uncertainty and fierce backlash from experts and politicians questioning the effectiveness of a border wall, the new administration is moving forward with its plans, issuing requests for proposals (RFPs) from contractors and requesting $1 billion to begin construction along the border. Several government oversight agencies, including the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General (OIG), have issued reports on existing security challenges along the border.

While most of the discussion regarding the wall deals with funding concerns and overarching border policy, there have been fewer conversations about how an 18-foot-high, 2,000-mile-long wall between the United States and Mexico would change border communities and the relationship between the two countries. 

This lack of perspective isn’t unusual, according to Erik Lee, executive director of the North American Research Partnership. “In general, the further people are from the U.S.-Mexico border, the more afraid of it they are,” Lee says. “There’s an inverse relationship here.”

The concept of a border wall isn’t new and has, at times, been considered a bipartisan issue. Between 2007 and 2015, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency spent $2.4 billion on deploying tactical infrastructure along the border, including about 650 miles of fencing along strategic areas, including San Diego, California, and El Paso, Texas. Experts are revisiting the impacts of the existing walls to better understand the effects a continuous wall might have on the border. However, in attempts to quantify what programs have been successful, researchers have found that CBP lacks trustworthy measures of effectiveness of its security efforts due to “unreliable and incomplete data.”

A recent OIG report assessing border security between ports of entry notes that CBP uses the number of apprehensions along the border as an indicator of the volume of illegal immigration. The report notes that the data interpretation may be misleading. “It is OIG opinion that fewer apprehensions indicate more success in programs and security measures, but CBP has not used this standard,” the report states. 

OIG listed several technological efforts used to boost security at the border. Researchers found that inconsistent management and a lack of assessment led to the discontinuation of the programs because their success could not be proven. 

“CBP does not measure the effectiveness of its programs and operations well; therefore, it continues to invest in programs and act without the benefit of the feedback needed to help ensure it uses resources wisely and improves border security,” the report states. 

The GAO came to a similar conclusion in its recent report, Additional Actions Needed to Better Assess Fencing’s Contributions to Operations and Provide Guidance for Identifying Capability Gaps. In assessing the CBP’s use of fencing along the border, GAO notes that the agency collected data but had not developed metrics to determine whether operations were effective. 

“Developing metrics to assess the contributions of fencing to border security operations could better position CBP to make resource allocation decisions with the best information available to inform competing mission priorities and investments,” the GAO report notes. 

The OIG did report that strategic fencing, such as along a rural Arizona stretch of land where smugglers often cross, significantly decreased illegal alien and narcotic smuggling, according to intelligence officials. However, GAO points out that better data analytics could determine whether the fencing truly deters such activity or merely diverts illegal entrants to other unprotected areas along the border.  

“CBP collects data that could help provide insight into how border fencing contributes to border security operations, including the location of illegal entries,” according to the GAO report. “However, CBP has not developed metrics that systematically use these, among other data it collects, to assess the contributions of border fencing to its mission.”

Lee, who studies how policies affect trade and security between the United States and Mexico, agrees that strategically placed tactical infrastructure has reduced the number of border crossings, particularly in urban areas. However, he notes that policymakers should also consider the infrastructure’s wider impact on the community and how that affects security.

“The number of crossings in urban areas is way down, and that’s quite helpful from a municipal perspective,” he explains. “What mayors are also trying to do is implement cross-border economic development programs. The wall, like it or not, influences the overall business environment in these communities.”

The on-the-ground reality of the wall would be “jarring” both to border communities and to relations between the two countries, Lee notes. The physical constraints alone will be exceedingly complex.

The initial RFP solicited ideas for a solid concrete wall at least 18 feet tall and descending at least six feet underground, with anti-climbing features. A second RFP asks for a wall with similar features as well as a “see-through component” instead of concrete. Hundreds of proposals have been submitted, and many companies have taken full advantage of the RFPs’ nebulous wording. Submissions include a 20-foot-tall wire mesh fence, a fortress-like wall reminiscent of China’s Great Wall, and a multilayered plan including a fence, sensors, a railroad, and a 100-foot-deep trench filled with nuclear waste. 

Lee says the RFPs—especially those that would limit situational awareness—are “dead giveaways” that there is a lack of understanding surrounding the operational realities of border security.

The 2,000 miles of border slated to be built upon runs through desert, mountains, the Rio Grande river, and privately owned land, including portions of a Texas university. In a recent interview, U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke asked how a wall could be built along the Rio Grande without ceding land to Mexico. “We’re not going to put it on our side and cede the river to Mexico. And we’re probably not going to put it in the middle of the river,” he noted.

And it appears the administration is planning on using eminent domain laws to take hold of privately owned land along the border. A portion of Trump’s 2018 budget proposal “supports the addition of 20 attorneys to pursue federal efforts to obtain the land and holdings necessary to secure the Southwest border and another 20 attorneys and support staff for immigration litigation assistance.”

Lee points out that the United States and Mexico have worked hard to ensure that existing infrastructure is not too in­va­sive and meets both countries’ needs. 

“This is coming at a high point in U.S.-Mexico cooperation on border management,” Lee explains. “A lot has happened to improve the way the United States and Mexico manage their shared border. A lot of that has happened on the environmental front in terms of discussions over water and the river. This kind of new phase of the United States’ border wall really hit those discussions square on.”

A continuous wall presents infrastructure and staffing challenges. There are currently about 654 miles of fencing along the southwest border, and the GAO report found that CBP is struggling to sustain the existing infrastructure. Roads and other infrastructure owned by entities other than CBP have proved especially difficult to maintain; officials told the GAO that securing agreements that provide for the maintenance of these roads is a long and complicated process. “Sector officials stated that in instances where portions of a single road have different owners, CBP must enter into separate agreements with each owner,” the report states. These types of multi-owner areas along the border—and the complications that come with them—will increase with the construction of the wall.

Using the CBP’s existing budget to invest in new technology while maintaining the current infrastructure has proved to be a challenge as well, according to the report. Lee agrees that it’s hard to talk about building a multibillion-dollar wall without addressing current infrastructure concerns along the border. 

“In the budget outline, there is no additional money for port of entry construction or staffing at ports of entry, which is a longtime complaint of border communities,” he explains. “The infrastructure processes and staffing that allow legitimate trade and commerce across the U.S.-Mexico border are way behind the level of investment.” He also notes that many ports of entry are not fully staffed, and the wall would require more manpower to surveil. 

“CBP risks investing in expensive technology and infrastructure that is neither justified nor useful in accomplishing its mission,” the OIG report concludes. “Today, the Southwest border is still porous, and questions remain as to whether CBP’s significant investments have resulted in better security.”