WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — President Donald Trump traveled to McAllen, Texas Thursday to visit a sector of the southern border that officials say is not sufficiently protected by physical barriers, but some expert say the administration’s focus on walls and fences is addressing a symptom of the forces driving illegal immigration rather than the root causes.
The current partial government shutdown is the result of a standoff between Trump and congressional Democrats over $5.7 billion that would fund construction of new barriers across just over 10 percent of the 2,000-mile southern border, mostly in the Rio Grande Valley area where apprehensions have spiked in recent years.
More than one-third of the border is already protected by some sort of barrier, much of it built after Congress passed legislation to fund fencing over a decade ago. The Trump administration has argued much of this fencing is inadequate and needs to be replaced or repaired.
“Fences are symbolic,” said Kenneth Madsen, an associate professor of geography at Ohio State University who has extensively studied existing and proposed border barriers. “It’s a symbol by politicians to say, ‘We’re doing something’ You have something tangible you can point to and say, ‘Look.’”
The Secure Fence Act of 2006 was intended to give Customs and Border Patrol operational control of the border. The legislation identified several specific stretches of the border to be fenced off:
In 2008, appropriations legislation called for barriers to be built along at least 700 miles of the border “where fencing would be most practical and effective.” At the time, DHS estimated that could encompass up to 850 miles.
Ultimately, just over 650 miles of fencing, including about 300 miles of vehicle barriers and 350 miles of pedestrian barriers, were built. Then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano argued that fulfilled the requirements of the 2008 appropriations.
The barriers constructed under the Secure Fence Act covered about 80 percent of the California and Arizona sections of the border, as well as parts of New Mexico and Texas, with a patchwork of fortified pedestrian fences and bollards intended to prevent vehicles from crossing.
According to Madsen, the areas chosen for the original fencing were a combination of the most necessary locations, those that did not present severe legal or logistical challenges, and eventually some less essential stretches just trying to meet the mileage required by law.
Much of the currently unfenced land is either onerous terrain where few attempt to cross and the topography makes construction impractical or private property that the government would need to buy or seize through eminent domain.
“Some of that is just steep, rugged terrain where it would be very expensive and not make much difference,” said Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America.
In 2010, Acting CBP Deputy Commissioner David Aguilar told a House committee, “The Border Patrol has determined after extensive study that only 652 miles—not 700-miles—of fencing is operationally necessary to secure the southwest border.”
Current Homeland Security officials clearly disagree with that assessment. In a Border Security Improvement Plan submitted to Congress in January 2018, DHS identified an additional 316 miles of primary barriers and 407 miles of replacement or secondary barriers that it concluded need to be built to ensure control of the border.
A DHS spokesperson said Thursday the border security plan is “law enforcement sensitive” and has not been made public. Some details were leaked to reporters at the time, though.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the report specified 17 top priority areas for new and replacement barriers, which would bring the total amount of borderland fortified by walls or fences to 970 miles by 2027. The total cost of the project was estimated at $18 billion over 10 years.
In its original fiscal year 2019 budget request, the White House sought $1.6 billion for 65 miles of new border wall systems in the Rio Grande Valley area of Texas. That investment was determined to “have the greatest impact on gaining and maintaining operational control of the border in the RGV Sector,” according to DHS budget documents.
The president’s current demand for $5.7 billion would allow DHS to cover the top 10 priorities identified in the Border Security Improvement Plan, totaling 215 miles of walls. This includes:
DHS did not provide additional information on the specific stretches of land this would cover or how much would be new barriers rather than replacements for existing fencing.
The Rio Grande sector has consistently been the one where the most apprehensions of undocumented immigrants have occurred in recent years, including more than 20,000 people in November 2018. The El Paso sector saw the second largest number of apprehensions that month, mostly due to a 1,866 percent increase in family units caught.
According to Isacson, there are populated areas in the Rio Grande Valley sector where Border Patrol officials have called for more barriers, and they might be effective there if the government got permission to build them.
“That is a rational discussion we could all be having, and one of the most controversial parts of that discussion is that’s mostly private property there,” he said.
Congress appropriated smaller amounts of money in 2017 and 2018 for border security barriers, and lawmakers placed restrictions on how the funds could be used. As a result, the money has mainly gone to replacing and strengthening existing stretches of fencing using previously-approved designs.
The Trump administration has commissioned several new prototypes for walls constructed from concrete and other materials. The request for those proposal included several conditions to prevent breaching, scaling, and digging while remaining cost-effective to construct, maintain, and repair.
Democrats say the situation at the border is not nearly as dire as Trump says, and a wall would not rectify the problems that do exist.
“Besides what the President’s own terrible policies have created, there is simply NO emergency at the border. A wall is not the solution to the crime and tragedy he describes. A wall will not stop the flow of illegal drugs he talks about, which overwhelmingly come through legal ports of entry. A wall is ineffective and a waste of taxpayer dollars,” said Adam Comis, spokesman for House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., in a statement Thursday.
Again, Trump administration officials disagree with that assessment.
“Look, they built the border wall in San Diego, numbers went down tremendously,” then-Acting ICE Director Thomas Homan said at a December 2017 news conference. “They built in El Paso they went down. They built in certain parts of Arizona it went down. Every place they built a wall barrier, it has decreased significantly the illegal crossings. Why would we not want to build a wall? What is the cost of national security and public safety? Why not make that investment?”
In a 2017 case study, a Border Patrol official found border arrests in the Yuma sector plummeted by 94 percent from 138,00 to 8,300 between 2005 and 2008 due to the construction of vehicle fencing and the addition of more Border Patrol agents. In 2016, arrests in Yuma were up to 14,000 but still far below the pre-fencing peak.
“Specifically, the fence slowed down illegal border crossers so agents would have more time to make apprehensions, which allowed the sector to inflict consequences on those who broke the law,” the official wrote.
Madsen agreed the barriers appear to have reduced illegal traffic through the areas where they were built, but he is not convinced they discouraged people from crossing the border illegally somewhere else. It may have just made it more dangerous for them to do it.
“You cut off the likely most obvious means by which people enter the United States, but you also then drove people into depending more on the services of smugglers to get through these more rural, remote areas,” he said.
Experts say barriers have proven most effective in areas with low “vanishing times,” defined by CBP as “the distance between the border and the point where an illegal border crosser could blend into the local populace.” These are primary populous urban areas where migrants could quickly reach cities or towns. In the desert or the mountains, it matters less.
“In those areas, you run across the border and where are you five minutes later? You’re still in the wilderness,” Isacson said.
Walls have decreased illegal traffic in some sectors, but smugglers and migrants have found ways through or around them. Attorneys with the Congressional Research Service wrote in 2009:
In the limited urban areas where border fencing has been constructed, it has typically reduced apprehensions. However, there is also strong indication that the fencing, combined with added enforcement, has re-routed illegal immigrants to other less fortified areas of the border. Additionally, in the limited areas where fencing has been erected, there have been numerous breaches of the border fencing and a number of tunnels discovered crossing underneath the fencing.
President Trump and allies in Congress have increasingly cited the safety risk migrants take when they travel up through Central America to the U.S., and they argue knowledge that a wall is waiting for them would deter them from making the trip at all.
“I don’t care if you call it fencing, I don’t care if you call it a barrier, I don’t care if you call it a wall, a steel wall, a concrete wall, I’m OK with any of that,” said Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill., “but you need to have some type of deterrent measure to keep people from coming into this country.”
Isacson is skeptical it would be that simple because the people currently trying to enter the U.S. illegally are often fleeing violence in their home country, and they want to be taken into custody so they can legally apply for asylum.
“It might deter single adult economic migrants,” he said, noting that their apprehension levels are already at the lowest since the late 1960s. “Somebody with kids or somebody who doesn’t feel safe in their country, they want to get caught.”