We’re now about 70 days into the Trump administration, and reality is beginning to set in about one of the new President’s signature campaign promises: a “big, beautiful wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border.
First, it’s now evident to nearly everyone that Mexico isn’t going to pay for the wall construction. Asked in early March whether Mexico will pay, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) was succinct: “Uh, no.” Other proposals to raise indirect revenue from the U.S.-Mexico relationship are also losing momentum, as none is feasible or desirable.
Second, as the administration has begun asking Congress to make a down payment on initial wall construction, it’s becoming evident that the project will cost more than originally thought. Though U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) warns that “any estimates of the total border wall cost are premature,” here is a range of estimated dollar amounts culled from U.S. media:
DHS has issued two requests for proposals (RFPs) inviting private contractors to submit border wall prototype designs. Between 200 and 850 have expressed interest online; 20 of them will be invited to Washington to make detailed presentations, and some will build 10-by-10-foot mockups in San Diego in June or July.
The government has two designs in mind: “concrete” and “other.” While President Trump has voiced a preference for a tall concrete wall, Border Patrol agents and other officials say they prefer a fence that allows them “to have visibility on what’s happening on the other side.”
The RFP has much to say, though, about the concrete design. It specifies that it should be:
The wall’s actual length is a mystery. Sen. McCaskill states that CBP staff estimated “1,827 miles of the border could contain a physical barrier.” As the entire U.S.-Mexico border is about 1,970 miles long, this would imply building a wall or fence along nearly all of the 1,200 miles of Texas’ river border that currently has no man-made barrier separating it from Mexico. This would be tremendously expensive: the Rio Grande River winds wildly through floodplains, and most Texas borderland is privately owned, in many cases for generations, which means building there would require massive land purchases and eminent domain challenges.
A border-spanning wall is unpopular in Texas, where Republican Governor Greg Abbott and Republican Rep. Will Hurd, whose west-Texas district spans 800 border miles, both oppose construction in Big Bend National Park, which comprises 118 miles of border. The Border Patrol’s union—the National Border Patrol Council, which endorsed Donald Trump during the 2016 primaries—has also shown no enthusiasm for a wall stretching across every border mile. Union President Brandon Judd has said several times, most recently in a March 22 Senate committee hearing, that “We don’t need a great wall of the United States. We do not need 2,000 miles of border wall.” Judd said he did support “a wall in strategic locations,” but warned that fencing “can be defeated,” explaining to the senators that he has spent time finding holes in the fence.
For its part, DHS reports that Border Patrol is currently assessing “priority areas” like “El Paso, Texas, Tucson, Arizona, and El Centro, California… where [they] will replace areas where the fence or old brittle landing-mat fencing are no longer effective.”
So for now, we don’t know what the wall will be made of, whether it will be a wall or a fence, or even a ballpark estimate of how much of it might actually be built. Currently, 353 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border is walled off with “pedestrian fencing”—meaning it is meant to stop someone on foot—some of which may be slated for renovation. Another 300 miles have “vehicle fencing,” low fences or spaced barriers that can stop a vehicle but are easily crossed on foot. (See this detailed map and narrative of the wall from the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal News.)
What is clear is that most drugs are trafficked through the border sectors along the coasts, plus a flow of marijuana through Arizona. Migrants are passing mostly through south Texas or Arizona, while everywhere else on the border is as quiet as it has been in decades, with migration down to early 1970s levels.
With its brief March 16 budget requests to Congress, the White House gave a first indication of how it expects to pay for border wall construction. There are two requests in play right now: a supplemental budget request for the remainder of fiscal year 2017, and a new budget request for 2018.
Congress never passed a 2017 budget last year, so the federal government is operating near 2016 levels until April 28. By that date—which was chosen because it is the last weekday before Trump’s 100th day in office—Congress must pass a budget for the remainder of fiscal year 2017, which ends on September 30. If it fails to do so, the government will shut down.
On March 16, the White House sent Congress a package of proposed budget increases and cuts [PDF] for the remainder of 2017. It proposes $2.987 billion in new money for DHS. Much of this would go toward hiring 5,000 new Border Patrol agents, 500 new CBP Air and Marine agents, and 10,000 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, purchasing new border technologies and non-wall infrastructure, increasing Border Patrol and ICE operations, and other items. But $999 million of it would go for the “planning, design, and construction of the first installment of the border wall,” and another $18 million would go to “project management, oversight, and support for the border wall.”
CNN obtained a DHS budget justification document offering a bit more detail about that $999 million for wall construction. This amount, the document reveals, “would cover just 48 miles of new wall.”
The money will fund 14 miles of new border wall in San Diego, 28 miles of new levee wall barriers and six miles of new border wall in the Rio Grande Valley region and 14 miles of replacement fencing in San Diego. The fencing would likely include concrete elements, a source familiar with the plans told CNN.
This adds up to 62 miles of wall, or a cost of $16.1 million per mile.
For fiscal year 2018, which starts on October 1, the White House wants “$2.6 billion in high-priority tactical infrastructure and border security technology, including funding to plan, design, and construct a physical wall along the southern border.”
The so-called “skinny budget” request document [PDF], issued on March 16, doesn’t offer more detail than that. We should start seeing more in about a month. We know from Sen. McCaskill’s March 28 press release, though, that her staff’s CBP briefers cited “approximately $2.6 billion to construct fewer than 75 miles of new border wall.”
The White House’s January 25 executive order on border security ordered DHS to “identify” and “allocate” any money in its existing 2017 budget that could be used for wall-building. On February 21, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly reported that “CBP has identified funding to begin immediate construction.”
It turns out, though, that the amount of cash on hand that CBP “identified” was only $20 million, taken from a fence project in Arizona and a delayed project to install cameras on trucks. A Homeland Security document obtained by Reuters indicates that this “would be enough to cover a handful of contracts for wall prototypes, but not enough to begin construction of an actual barrier.”
No building will happen, then, unless Congress appropriates the requested funds. And right now, the 2017 appropriation, which must pass by April 28 to avoid a government shutdown, looks unlikely to include border wall money.
Democrats have made known that they are willing to force a shutdown if the 2017 bill includes funds for a border wall. A wall-building provision “is truly a poison pill,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said in a floor speech, “and we would urge our colleagues not to allow the President to include this in a must-pass bill that avoids shutdown of the government.” Though they are in the minority, Democrats in the Senate have the power to force a shutdown: 60 votes are needed to break a filibuster (that is, to allow debate to go forward) on a budget bill. This would require 8 Democrats to break ranks, which is very unlikely.
For their part, Republican leaders may not insist on border wall language in the 2017 bill because they have their own questions and misgivings. Some examples:
These legislators are also probably eyeing polls showing strong and consistent majorities of Americans opposed to building a border wall. A February Pew Research Center survey found 35 percent of Americans in favor of, and 62 percent opposed to, building a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexican border. (It also found Republican support dropping the closer the respondent is to the actual border.) A March CNN-ORC poll got a very similar result—39 percent in favor and 61 percent against—as did a late-January Gallup poll: 38 percent in favor and 60 percent against. Numbers like these deflate political will to cut into other programs to pay for a border wall.
Politics are unpredictable—especially lately—and a lot could change between now and April 28. But at the moment, it looks improbable that Congress will green-light the White House’s initial $999 million border wall request for the remainder of 2017. If it does not, the debate will shift to the 2018 budget request.
We don’t expect to see details of that request at least until late April; all we know for now is that the border wall portion is $2.6 billion. Once it is submitted, congressional Appropriations Committees will get to work on it during the summer, and—at least, if 2017 ends up looking at all like a normal year—the House and Senate will pass their versions in the fall.
When this process begins, WOLA looks forward to a debate over whether or not fences or walls are a waste of money. We believe that, in nearly all cases, they are neither effective nor worth the price tag.
A “big, beautiful wall” is a dramatic symbol. It’s not just expensive, it carries a steep diplomatic cost because of the hostile message it sends to Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Hundreds or even thousands of miles of wall might be worth that financial and relational cost if they made Americans appreciably safer. But they don’t.
A wall slows down a border crosser for several minutes. That may make a difference in a densely populated zone or a high-traffic area. If law-enforcement officers with years of experience in such a region were to say “a barrier in this specific area would make our job easier,” that would deserve serious consideration.
But most densely populated areas already have walls or fences. Most of what’s left are more rural areas, where responders can’t arrive quickly. Here, building a wall just reduces a border crosser’s already-large head start by several minutes.
The cost-effectiveness drops even further when CBP data show apprehensions of undocumented migrants near 45-year lows. A large portion of these apprehensions are Central American children and families fleeing violence and seeking protection, which is their legal right.
While the number of undocumented migrants has dropped, it is true that seizures of illicit drugs have not (except for marijuana, for which seizures have declined since at least 2013). But unlike marijuana, which is large and bulky, most drugs don’t transit the areas where a wall would be built. Heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy, and fentanyl pass through the legal openings in the wall: the ports of entry through which over 115,000 people on foot, and over 240,000 vehicles and cargo containers, passed daily in 2016.
These drugs are small in volume. Heroin is a scourge, but it is a compact scourge. When he commanded U.S. Southern Command, Secretary Kelly estimated that all heroin consumed in the United States in a year totals “40-50 tons, we think.” That’s enough to fit into less than two cargo containers. Fentanyl is even smaller: the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reports that a lethal dose of powdered fentanyl is too small even to cover Abraham Lincoln’s head on a penny. Imagine products this small scattered among more than 130 million vehicles, containers, and bodies over the course of a year. A wall does nothing to prevent this traffic.
There is much that the Trump administration and Congress can do to address the opioid crisis, especially by expanding access to overdose reversal drugs, such as naloxone, and by expanding access to quality treatment, including proven substitution therapies involving drugs like methadone or buprenorphine. In his February speech to Congress, President Trump pledged to “expand treatment for those who have become so badly addicted.” Those are the urgent, life-saving, investments that should be made, and it would be tragic to leave them funded below their optimal level in order to pay for a border wall.
As WOLA has argued, and will continue to argue whenever Congress is asked to lay out billions of dollars for a massive border wall-building project, the Trump administration’s signature proposal promises little or no real benefit for U.S. taxpayers’ money. Realities at the border do not warrant a massive expenditure of money and international goodwill. A secure border is best achieved through smarter, less dramatic means than large-scale wall-building, and WOLA looks forward to discussing them.