Donald Trump vow to have Mexico pay for border wall backfires
In another political time, without President Trump in office, a debate over border fencing would probably look very different.
Border Patrol agents would identify the places where additional barriers are needed, Homeland Security would ask for the money, Congress would approve it and the government would spend it on the most modern designs, said Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America.
It could be wrapped in with a package that boosts immigration judges and expands security at border crossings, where all sides agree things have become overstretched.
But Mr. Trump’s campaign promises of a massive wall running much of the border, paid for by Mexico with its height increasing a foot every time Mexican politician squealed has upended all that.
Democrats, who over the last couple years have voted for more than $1 billion in border fencing, now say they won’t back a penny more.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, has turned the wall into the sacred cow of budget negotiations, saying the $5 billion he wants to spend over the next year is key to stopping drugs, blocking gang members and terrorists and cutting into an illegal immigration problem that past administrations have struggled to grasp.
Both sides say they’re following the advice of experts.
One expert, Chris Judd, spent years with the Border Patrol building and patching border fences in Arizona, and he says there’s no question in his mind that walls work.
They funnel would-be crossers to certain areas, and they gave agents a chance to catch people once they did cross, blocking their ability to run back into Mexico to avoid capture.
“Anybody who has any thought in their mind, any concern over border security, a fence is critical for us to be able to properly secure the border. We have to gave an actual barrier there to allow us to do our job,” he told The Washington Times. “The barrier’s huge.”
He said history bears that out. In places where barriers were erected, they’ve seen border apprehensions tumble.
Mr. Isacson, the expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, says that may be true for populated areas, where the goal is to prevent people from being able to enter and quickly vanish into neighborhoods or be picked up by smugglers.
But he said with the exception of some areas in southern Texas, the government has already covered all the border cities.
He said there are some places where agents can point to that fencing is needed, but Mr. Trump has swamped that conversation.
“In a more reasonable political moment Border Patrol agents with decades of experience could point to a map and say, ‘Boy it would really help me to have fencing in this area,’ and we would have a discussion about that,” Mr. Isacson said.
He added, “I never heard a Border Patrol agent say we need a 30-foot concrete wall.”
Mr. Trump’s own vision of what the wall should be has changed dramatically over the last three years.
During the campaign he signaled his interest in a sea-to-sea impenetrable concrete barrier, to be built at bargain-basement rates.
In 2017, he said he was interested in perhaps just 700 to 900 miles of new construction, and tasked Homeland Security with testing eight models, including four made of concrete.
Border Patrol agents said master-climbers attempted to scale the test models, and experts tried to cut through them. They were also evaluated for ease of construction and utility on the border.
In the end, none of the new designs tested well enough to displace the same bollard-style fencing that the Border Patrol has been using for years, according to a follow-up study by the Government Accountability Office.
Mr. Judd said during his years on fence duty agents got to know what worked and what didn’t. Old “landing mat” fence, which was solid, was easily punctured “a matter of 10 minutes, max” and given that agents couldn’t see through into Mexico, those on the other side were able to stage and wait for their chances.
The agency’s border camera heat sensors could even detect where people were lighting up torches on the Mexican side to cut through, but there wasn’t a lot agents could do about it, he said.
Some cartels would cut enormous sections, fix them with hinges for speedy access and use clay putty to disguise the cuts from agents checking the fence.
Wire mesh, another type of fencing, was see-through, but also easy to cut, Mr. Judd said.
The best option was the concrete-filled steel bollards that the Border Patrol still relies on today. He said it gave visibility into Mexico and was much tougher to breach. And if the steel bollards were filled with concrete it was almost unbreachable.
“In my opinion, hands-down, the best.”
Mr. Trump, after waffling, appears to have come around, saying in recent days he’s willing to accept steel bollard construction if it will get Democrats on board.
Normally that should be an easy sell.
Congress over the last two years has already approved 122 miles of new and replacement barriers along the border, including dozens of miles of bollard-style fencing.
More than 150 Democrats voted for that money.
Recently, though, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared all fencing “an immorality” and said she wouldn’t approve any new money.
Experts said the drugs Mr. Trump warns of are actually mostly coming through border crossings, while the number of terrorists is far less than the administration would have the public believe.
And Democrats said more walls push illegal immigrants into more remote areas, where the journey is tougher and the chances of injury or death are higher. That argument is particularly resonant now, after the deaths of Felipe Gomez Alonzo and Jakelin Caal, two Guatemalan children, in Border Patrol custody last month.
“This idea of a wall would not have prevented Felipe or Jakelin. The wall only pushes people out to more treacherous dangerous crossings creating even more death,” Rep. Nanette Barragan, California Democrat, said during a visit to the border this week.
What Democrats do support in terms of enhanced border security is less clear.
Several say they would accept fencing, but not Mr. Trump’s wall. Others say more drones and sensors are enough, along with better drug detection at the border ports of entry.
Agent Judd said that won’t cut it.
“Ground sensors, UAVs things like that are great, but there’s no substitute for agents on the border, and that barrier is what allows us to be able to patrol those areas and see where people may have crossed,” he said.
Cost is another hindrance for Mr. Trump’s plans particularly since he’s struggled on his campaign promise to force Mexico to pay.
And the president’s promise of cut-rate construction has not materialized.
The $5 billion he has requested for his next round of fence-building would construct 215 miles of new and replacement barriers, which works out to $23.3 million per mile.
Between 2007 and 2015 the government added more than 500 miles of fence and vehicle barrier at $4.3 million per mile.
Homeland Security officials bristled at the comparison, saying some of the new fencing is going in tougher terrain, and what they’re building now is a more complete border “system.”
“Each mile is different,” an official said.