WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Astrid Galvan)

8 May 2020 | Commentary

COVID-19 Brings the Waste Behind Trump’s Border Wall Into Focus


Stand with us in this essential fight to protect human rights on both sides of the border by joining the Beyond the Wall campaign.

The Trump administration has seized upon the COVID-19 pandemic to enact an anti-immigration agenda so extreme that it is further endangering people and spreading the virus. The spread is occurring through frequent deportation flights, mass detention of migrants held in ICE facilities, and policies like “Remain in Mexico” that force asylum seekers to wait for their U.S. immigraiton hearings in dangerous Mexican border towns. 

Also ongoing, despite pandemic concerns, is 24-hour construction of the USD$18.4 billion border wall. Currently, several lawsuits are challenging wall construction, filed by environmental groups, Texan landowners, and Democrats in the House of Representatives. As these lawsuits move through the courts, the Trump administration has fast-tracked building the wall. 

The Trump administration’s doubling-down on border wall construction in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is costly and dangerous. Here are six points explaining why: 

1.) There are so many more urgent ways to spend this money.

President Trump’s four-year wall-building budget is an estimated $18.467 billion. To put that number into context, the initial emergency response to the COVID-19 outbreak was $8 billion

The $18 billion will reportedly be used to build a total of 885 miles of new border fencing by 2022. That comes out to a cost of approximately $21 million per mile. (Add another half-million per mile if Trump succeeds in getting the wall painted black).

For every mile of border wall, the U.S government could instead pay for 850 basic ventilators (at $25,000 per model), 3.6 million N95 masks (at $5.75 per mask), or 37.5 million ounces of hand sanitizer (at $0.56 per ounce)—enough to fill 26 11,000-gallon gasoline tanker trucks.

2.) Border wall construction is creating new hotspots for COVID-19 transmission.

Soon after President Trump declared a national emergency over COVID-19 on March 13, his administration committed to building over 150 miles of the wall in California, Arizona, and New Mexico, complementing other ongoing construction sites in Texas. This brought a new influx of work crews to the border, working at a frenetic pace, living in close quarters, and falling short in following social distancing measures as they travel back and forth from their home communities. 

Health specialists are worried that all this increases the risk of spreading the virus. Building the wall goes against the quarantine policies recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as noted by a coalition of Members of Congress, who are asking that wall construction stop during the pandemic. As WOLA has previously observed, “The possibility of these workers introducing COVID-19 to these towns, and taking it back to their home states, rises sharply every day that wall-building continues.”

Some border communities have spoken out against the federal government’s business-as-usual attitude to building the wall during the pandemic, citing concerns over public health risks. Civil society groups in New Mexico have asked the state’s governor and congressional representatives to halt the influx of out-of-state workers. Additionally, a coalition of over 100 organizations that work on border issues urged the Justice Department, Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense to immediately end all border wall construction, stating, “In the border communities we represent, your agencies’ actions are quite literally endangering the lives of border residents.”

3.) Border wall construction is occurring in direct violation of the will of the U.S. Congress.

Even though Congress has constitutional power to appropriate money, three out of every four dollars spent on wall construction right now were not approved by Congress. In late 2018 and early 2019, Trump forced a long government shutdown in a failed attempt to convince Congress to appropriate border wall money. After giving in, he declared a “national emergency”—one that Congress clearly doesn’t agree exists—to use special authority to transfer funds into border-wall building from other government accounts, in this case the Department of Defense budget.

This is the basis of the lawsuit filed by Democrats in the House of Representatives, in a case that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit heard on April 28. The House is arguing that no emergency exists giving the president the authority to divert funds from the military and the Department of Defense, bypassing Congress. It’s unclear when the court of appeals will issue a ruling in the case. 

The Trump administration’s seizure of border wall money against the will of Congress is troubling not only for the terrible precedent it sets for what is an abuse of executive power: there is a disturbing lack of transparency around where exactly the diverted funds came from. What Department of Defense projects have been put on hold in order to redirect $3.6 billion towards wall-building? Though we have seen some reprogramming announcements, no one really knows

4.) Border walls don’t make any difference outside of densely populated areas.

As WOLA has previously observed:

A barrier can slow down a border-crosser for several minutes. In densely populated areas, these few minutes can make a big difference in terms of preventing migrants from blending in with the local population, disappearing down side streets, or hiding in buildings…

But in rural areas, where it takes more time for authorities to respond and where there are longer “vanishing times,” this advantage disappears. A wall may slow someone down for the 10-15 minutes it takes to climb over, but those 10-15 minutes barely impact a border crosser’s head start in rural border areas.

Recent research also shows little evidence that walls make a difference in citizen security along the border. According to a report by libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, overall “construction of border fencing has no appreciable effects on either property or violent crime rates.”

5.) Wall construction is having devastating effects on fragile desert ecosystems and Indigenous culture.

Most of the current border wall construction is taking place on land that is rich in biodiversity, environmentally fragile, and sacred to Indigenous people. 

There is a long list of environmental and other legislation that would normally prohibit construction in this region. However, the Trump administration is using part of a 2005 law, the Real ID Act, to push aside at least 48 federal laws and plow ahead with wall-building.   

The result is an “ecological disaster in the making,” with dozens of endangered animal species placed in further peril, and wildlife refuge areas and protected plants like the saguaro cactus destroyed. Meanwhile, Native American leaders have decried the destruction of cultural and historical sites, as work crews blast their way through ancient burial sites with dynamite. 

6.) Building the wall isn’t meant to protect public health or improve border security—it’s all about politics.

The border wall won’t stop COVID-19. It will do little to impact drug trafficking or migration flows. What the wall does is allow President Trump to falsely claim he kept one of the signature promises of his 2016 campaign—to have Mexico pay for a border wall—as the November presidential elections approach. 

The drive to erect as much fencing and barriers as possible before November means workers are laboring overnight, at great overtime cost. Wall construction is exacerbating damage to the environment and to Native American communities. It sets a dangerous precedent for abuse of executive authority. It is creating new hotspots for COVID-19 transmission, and wasting funds that could instead be used to save lives during an unprecedented global pandemic.

Every day that construction continues on what is essentially a desert monument to President Trump’s 2016 campaign is an unconscionable waste of resources. The building must cease immediately.

Stand with us in this essential fight to protect human rights on both sides of the border:

Join the Beyond the Wall Campaign