Nelson Balido: Five facts about the U.S.-Mexico wall (that are Lost in Rhetoric)

One of the hallmarks of GOP nominee Donald Trump’s platform is a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Using natural barriers where feasible, his plan is to build a 35 foot to 40 foot wall 1,000 miles long. While the idea has been much discussed on the campaign trail, from a border security perspective, the details and implications have been insufficiently debated. Setting the rhetoric aside, there are many aspects to a border wall that Americans need to know.

It took President Obama more than a year to pass the disastrous Affordable Care Act. Funding the wall would be just as contentious.

— Nelson Balido

Here are five facts stand out that voters should understand:

1. Illegal border crossings will continue. There is a perception that if the wall is high and long enough, it will be insurmountable. But a wall of any size only pushes smugglers and others to dig deeper tunnels or build taller ladders. We know this from experience. When the current 18-foot fence was installed in McAllen, Texas, Border Patrol officers began collecting 19-foot ladders in such number that station supervisors said to stop bringing them in.

Rather than an impenetrable bulwark, a wall is a force multiplier. Like ground sensors, radar, cameras, and the existing 650 miles of fencing along the border, a wall gives Border Patrol additional time to respond to an attempted crossing. As former Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Ralph Basham wrote in 2009, “All it really does is buy you time where a crosser could otherwise quickly escape or assimilate. None of the fencing is impenetrable. People will eventually dig under it or cut through it or go over it, but it gives you enough time to respond and apprehend them.”

2. Don’t mess with Texas. A continuous wall would cross private land, where the government needs permission to build. It is ultimately not up to the president nor the Congress to dictate what a citizen does with their land, short of seizing it citing eminent domain. The 2006 Secure Fence Act appropriated funds to build the current fence and patrol roads, and because border lands in Arizona, New Mexico and California are mostly federally owned, the existing 650 miles of fence in those states is nearly continuous. In Texas, however, much of the land along the border is privately owned, and as the government found during construction, many of those land owners do not want a fence on their property.

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The previous fence building led to hundreds of private property lawsuits, which would certainly recur with Trump’s border wall project. By consequence, the project could degrade the critical relationships between Border Patrol and citizens. By law, land owners cannot restrict the Border Patrol from patrolling their property within 25 miles of the border; however, land owners could conceivably fence off the roads that lead to their property, restricting the kinds of vehicles Border Patrol can use in some areas or simply reduce them to walking. Creating a wall over the opposition of local residents sets up a number of scenarios that would make Border Patrol’s job harder.

3. $12 Billion won’t cut it. Trump has estimated at different times that the wall will cost between $8 billion and $12 billion. It will almost certainly cost more. The current (incomplete) fence cost $7 billion. The Government Accountability Office reported in 2009 that finishing the fence with the current design would cost $5.1 billion, and maintaining the existing fence will cost $6.5 billion over 20 years. The current fence is made up largely of thick metal plates topped with razor wire. While details are slim, the wall Trump proposes is imagined to be more robust. One engineering estimate for a continuous wall design would require 12.6 million cubic yards of concrete (three times the Hoover Dam) and 5 billion pounds of steel. That volume of material plus costs for labor, safety equipment, heavy machinery, surveying, geological studies, excavation and more could cost some $25 billion. And since the Obama administration called for $274 million for fence maintenance in the 2015 budget request, it stands to reason that upkeep of Trump’s wall could average $600 million or more per year, or at least $12 billion over 20 years. Those billions of dollars have to come from somewhere, and we still need more agents on the border with better weapons, better communications equipment, and as-yet-nonexistent technology to address the increasing use of drones by drug cartels.

4. Mexico won’t pay for it. Trump continues to say Mexico will fund the wall, but the proposals he has put forward to force Mexico to pay are unlikely to yield the full $12 billion he claims they will, much less the $25 billion the wall actually requires. As a threat to get Mexico to pony up, Trump proposes to impound remittances from illegal wages, increase visa fees, increase fees on border crossing cards and increase fees at ports of entry, as well as possible tariffs and reductions in foreign aid.

The thing is, these are not strong incentives for Mexico to pay. A good portion of remittances come from legal Mexican aliens and U.S. citizens, visa and border card fees will impact citizen costs and not Mexican tax revenue, and tariffs hurt U.S. consumers as much (if not more) than Mexican exporters. More than that, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto told Trump in person that Mexico would not pay, and the Mexican Treasury Secretary Luis Videgaray concurred that Mexican taxes “would never be used in any scenario to pay for a project of this nature.” By the way, if Mexico was to pay for the wall, will they own it?  Are we going to sell land back to Mexico? I think not.

5. Enter, the Legislature. Even if Mexico paid for the wall, those funds would still need to be appropriated by Congress. That would lead to a protracted, highly politicized fight with wall opponents using every option to frustrate, prevent and stall votes on wall funding. Imagine filibusters, arcane procedural rules and endless lobbying to prevent any congressional movement. The National Review’s conservative writer Jim Geraghty notes, “Until all of these obstacles were overcome — until funding was procured from Mexico, the Congress gave its approval, and the courts signed off — construction of the wall couldn’t even begin.”

It took President Obama more than a year to pass the disastrous Affordable Care Act. Funding the wall would be just as contentious. Meanwhile, it took more than three years from the time President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fence Act to when the fence stretched from San Diego, CA, to Yuma, AZ. Using that as a metric for the time needed to build Trump’s wall, the project could not be completed during his first term.

Keep in mind, the wall or fence today is anywhere from 3 feet to 300 feet (and in some cases even farther) from the actual border line. That means even if a person was on the other side of the fence, they are technically on U.S. soil, and by law, we would have to go to the other side and arrest them. So are we actually keeping them out, or does a continuous wall just become the new de facto U.S. southern border?

As Americans head to the polls, voters should be aware that for anyone to complete a wall within a first term, they will need to seize private property to build a wall twice as fast and half as cheap as all estimates available. And even if they do, it won’t stop illegal border crossings.