The ‘Wall’ Continues to Be Built . . . Slowly

Construction crews install a new bollard wall on the U.S.-Mexican border in El Paso, Texas, September 26, 2018. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)
Mile by mile, 18-foot bollard fencing goes up — but is it ‘big and beautiful’?

Congress is preparing for one last spending fight with Republicans controlling the House. Senate Republicans are aiming for an additional $5 billion for a border wall, while House Republicans are hoping for as much as $25 billion.

There are two not-quite-accurate claims about President Trump’s vision of a wall on the southern border. The first is that nothing’s been done, or that Trump’s vision of a border wall remains mythical. The other is that the “wall” — or at least the 32-foot-high concrete barrier that Trump described early in his presidency — is being built.

What is more accurate is to say that under previously passed legislation, U.S. Customs and Border Protection continues to pay contractors to replace sections of spotty or insufficient fencing with 18-foot-tall bollard walls – tall steel bars with gaps in between them so that Border Patrol officers can see what’s going on on the other side.

In May, Chief Patrol Agent Aaron A. Hull of the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector described the advantages to the bollard walls. “The current fence and the mesh that we have here further east is a deterrent to illegal entry; the problem is it’s easy to breach, it’s easy to scale, and it’s expensive and time-consuming for us to repair,” Hull said at a press briefing announcing the start of the Santa Teresa wall project in New Mexico. “The wall that we’re replacing this fencing with is going to be durable. It’s going to be here for a long time. It’s going to be harder to get over, harder to get through, harder to get underneath. It’s going to have a five-foot anti-scaling plate at the top, which is going to make it very hard for entrance — even if you can get to the top.”

In late September, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced that work had begun in Texas on replacing a four-mile section of existing chain-link and expanded-metal fence beginning just west of the Paso Del Norte international crossing and extending east to the Fonseca Road area. An 18-foot-high steel bollard wall will be constructed in its place. The construction project is expected to be completed in late April 2019. The project is estimated to cost $22 million.

At the beginning of the month, CBP and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded a contract to construct approximately six miles of a levee wall system along the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas. The plan will build a reinforced-concrete levee wall to the height of the existing levee, install 18-feet-tall steel bollards atop the concrete wall, and remove vegetation along a 150-foot enforcement zone. When completed, the enforcement zone will also include new detection technology, lighting, video surveillance, and an all-weather patrol road parallel to the levee wall.

Finally, on Wednesday, CBP and the Corps awarded a contract to construct another approximately eight miles of levee-wall system in five segments located south of Alamo, Donna, Weslaco, Progreso, and Mercedes, Texas. Similar 18-foot steel bollard fencing will be installed atop the levees. This project is estimated to cost $167 million.

In October, the U.S. Border Patrol completed construction on a little more than two miles of new border wall near downtown Calexico, Calif., roughly 120 miles east of San Diego. Workers recently completed 20 miles of border barrier in Santa Teresa, N.M., and six and a half miles of barrier has been upgraded along the San Diego–Tijuana border.

The total length of the U.S.–Mexico border is 1,954 miles; as of February 2017, 705 miles have at least one of four kinds of barriers — pedestrian, secondary, tertiary, and vehicle. Regions near cities and communities get more anti-personnel fencing; more rural areas get more anti-vehicle fencing.

It’s fair to debate whether the bollard walls are close enough to what President Trump promised and described on the campaign trail. Before and shortly after he was elected president, Trump said the southern border needed 1,000 miles of wall, and on several occasions Trump insisted, “It’s not a fence. It’s a wall.”

Whether or not the public perceives the new structures as the president’s wall, the upgraded barrier in Calexico featured a plaque declaring, “This plaque was installed on October 26, 2018 to commemorate the completion of the first section of President Trump’s border wall.”

It remains to be seen whether the new fencing will make a significant change in the number of individuals attempting to cross the border illegally. Shortly after President Trump took office, the number of apprehensions on the Southwest border by the CBP dropped dramatically – from 58,000 in December 2016 to 15,798 in April 2017. But the numbers of apprehensions steadily increased, month by month.

According to Border Patrol data, the agency apprehended about 416,000 individuals in fiscal 2017, a significant drop from the previous year’s 553,000. But in the following year, the total rose back up to 521,000. October was the first month of fiscal 2019, and the agency caught 60,745 individuals — not the worst ever, but high by the standards of the past five years. The recidivism rate — the percentage of individuals apprehended more than one time by the Border Patrol within a fiscal year — declined slightly from 2016 to 2017, from 12 percent to 10 percent.

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