The 2006 Secure Fence Act prompted the U.S. to build barriers along a 653-mile stretch of border dividing California and Arizona with Mexico to deter immigrants and drug smugglers.
Much of the fence is a slatted-metal barrier, 18 to 30 feet high. But because of budget concerns, it also consists of vehicles barriers and single-layer pedestrian fencing, not double-layer fencing cited in the law.
Drug smugglers responded by building 148 tunnels — including some multimillion-dollar lighted and well-ventilated “supertunnels” — under the border.
The Los Angeles Times reports U.S. and Mexican authorities systematically closed tunnels, only to have smugglers re-open them.
The Department of Homeland Security spent $8.7 million to fill the tunnels on the U.S. side with concrete. Mexico just closed openings because of cost. The drug traffickers simply rerouted passageways. An estimated 20 tunnels are still in operation.
Which creates concerns President-elect Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the 1,989-mile border with Mexico will be the modern-day Maginot Line, the 943-mile barrier the French built in the 1930s along its borders with Germany, Luxembourg and Switzerland to thwart a Nazi invasion.
Instead, the Nazis breached its weakest link in the Ardennes Forest, a site the French deemed impenetrable, and circumvented it in Belgium.
The current border fence cost $2.4 billion. U.S. Customs and Border Protection estimates expanding the fencing across the entire border would cost $11.3 billion.
Trump originally said his wall only would cost $8 billion — considered an extrapolation of Israel’s 420-mile West Bank wall (concrete and wire) — but has revised it to $10 billion to $12 billion.
Trump said it needs to be only 1,000 miles “because of natural barriers.” Supporters, according to one memo, want “the entire 1,989 miles planned for rapid build.”
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates a 1,000-mile wall, 50-feet high (Trump has used 35-40 feet), would cost $38 billion.
In addition, the consulting firm Alliance Bernstein cites “huge topographical challenges” ranging from barren desert to rugged mountains to river floodplains, and roads needed to access remote sites.
Congress is expected to use the Secure Fence Act to seek budget appropriations. Trump, though, maintains Mexico will pay for it. “It's an easy decision for Mexico: make a one-time payment of $5-10 billion to ensure that $24 billion (remittances home from Mexicans working in the U.S.) continues to flow into their country year after year,” he wrote in a memo. “We have the leverage, so Mexico will back down.”
He discounted stories to the contrary: “Dishonest media says Mexico won’t be paying for the wall if they pay a little later so the wall can be built more quickly. Media is fake!”
Barriers are making a comeback as nations try to deter immigrants — as well as use them for defensive purposes.
Hungary constructed a 108-mile fence to bar Syrian immigrants. Britain is constructing a barrier in the port of Calais, France, to prevent immigrants from slipping in through the channel tunnel.
Kenya is planning a 440-mile wall along its border with Somalia to keep out Shabab militia terrorists. Globally, 45 walls exist between countries, according to a University of Quebec researcher.
Despite anecdotes to the contrary, illegal immigration into the U.S. has slowed. According to a study in the Journal on Migration and Human Security, more immigrants overstay their visas than breach the border. Border Patrol officers apprehended 331,000 people crossing the border in fiscal 2015 — less than one-fifth the total in 2000.
The Obama administration deported a record two million, focusing its efforts on those who committed felonies, but looking the other way on misdemeanor violations.
Trump’s wall would, no doubt, would deter border breaches, although the more resourceful would enter by tunnels, sea and air. A residual benefit for Trump and his supporters — as is happening in Europe — is the effort to maintain national “character.”
In 1970, the foreign-born U.S. population, according to Census Bureau figures, was 9.6 million (4.7 percent). By 2014, it soared to 42.4 million (13.3 percent) — 28 percent from Mexico.
Of the foreign-born immigrants, an estimated 11 million are in the country illegally.
In 2014, the other immigrants were from, in order, India, China and the Philippines (5 percent each); El Salvador, Vietnam, Cuba, and Korea (3 percent each); and the Dominican Republic and Guatemala (2 percent each).
Prior to the 1960s, most immigrants were European.
Congress must decide whether a huge outlay for Trump’s wall is warranted when known breaches of the border are declining and costs may far surpass any amount Mexico would pay, if anything.
In addition, Trump is proposing a massive infrastructure plan to fix “inner cities, and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals,” plus a substantive tax cut.
For Republicans lamenting the nation’s $19 trillion debt, the wall will be a test of priorities.