‘And there, my friends,” declared our guide, gesturing out at a sprawling mountain view, “is where we will soon see The Great Wall of Trump.”
Everyone laughed. Then we stared. We were in West Texas, high in the Chinati Mountains — yes, Virginia, there are mountains in Texas — and it was hard to imagine a giant wall smack dab in the middle of that fantastic view. But there it was, in the thick of rugged desert beauty few Americans trek out to see: a gigantic, imaginary line, primed, if our enthusiastic president gets his wish, for a “big, beautiful wall.”
On my trip last week to the Texas border, Trump Wall jokes abounded, some tinged with wizened gallows humor. How could they not? On Sunday, the White House released its initial “border-wall requirements” to Fox News, and they seemed, to be charitable, a bit unrealistic: In addition to being “30 feet high” and “difficult to climb or cut through,” you see, the wall must also “look good from the U.S. side.”
If you didn’t chortle at that last aesthetic requirement, you either have a heart of stone or have never actually seen a government-built 30-foot wall.
When it comes to addressing our nation’s immigration problems — and, to be sure, there are many — it seems, alas, that we’re content to debate in cartoonish terms. It’s one thing to contemplate an all-inclusive border wall in the abstract, as many Americans far from the border do; it’s quite another to actually go where the rubber will hit the road. And for more than 1,000 miles of the U.S.–Mexican border, that road turns out to be a river.
Here things get goofy: Where will the river portion of the wall go? On the Texan side of the Rio Grande, effectively blocking off river access and views? Down the middle of the river, just to be fair? Right through a hidden gem of a national park, which borders two massive Mexican conservation tracts and boasts daunting natural boundaries on either side?
The answer to that last question, at least according to a recent Department of Homeland Security report, is yes. Big Bend National Park, a Texas treasure and one of the most remote national parks in the continental U.S., hosts about 118 miles of the Rio Grande — and, therefore, 118 miles of the Mexican border. It’s not easy to get to Big Bend, and to get out, visitors must pass through Border Patrol checkpoints on north–south roads. The DHS report, which prices the wall at $21.6 billion, slates Big Bend for the second phase of its construction.
Texas’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, has publicly opposed a wall in Big Bend, as has the area’s Republican congressman, Will Hurd.
Texas’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, has publicly opposed a wall in Big Bend, as has the area’s Republican congressman, Will Hurd. Big Bend’s wild, dry, imposing terrain poses its own natural barrier: In 2016, Big Bend had the fewest illegal border crossings “of any sector along the Texas border,” according to the Austin American-Statesman.
Taking in the views of Big Bend, with its wild, scenic, and sharp-edged mix of desert, mountains, and river — the idea of a wall seems implausible. But when it comes down to fulfilling Trump’s biggest presidential-campaign promise, political expediency may make the park, far-flung and generally little known, a target.
“The biggest challenge to Trump’s timeline is going to be the fact that Texas, where there are currently 110 miles of wall on our 1,200-mile border, is almost entirely private property,” the Sierra Club’s Scott Nicol told the Statesman. “Land-condemnation suits will take years, but Big Bend National Park and some remaining tracts of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge down here are federally owned.”
Eminent-domain battles over private land, in other words, are neither pretty nor popular. If push comes to shove, building on federal lands such as Big Bend might quickly become the path of least political resistance. We’ve already seen phase one of the wall’s cynical politics — the muddy question of who will pay for it — fly off into the winds and down the memory hole. What surprises, it seems fair to ask, will come next?
Whatever their feelings about Trump’s stances on immigration, it seems unlikely that most Americans would object to practical, non-wall measures to beef up border security in Texas’s biggest national park. But Trump promised a big, impenetrable, and somehow mysteriously beautiful wall. Whether we’ll get a symbolic, ineffective, and park-marring wall instead remains to be seen.