Ahem, Want a Wall Fact or Two?

Terry H. Schwadron

Dec. 13, 2018

Television pundits and late-night comedians can’t seem to get enough of the raucous, unsatisfying meeting on Tuesday between President Trump and Democratic congressional leaders over threats to partially shut the government unless Democrats join in approving $5 billion in this year’s budget towards building a border Wall.

Well, it was both a bizarre and comedic chance for organized yelling at one another rather than anything that resembled government negotiation on a shared goal.

At the end of the day, we’re still left with the president cherry-picking selected facts to support his sloganeering, and the seeming amused churlishness of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at getting Trump to take responsibility for calling for the government shutdown.

Trump said he is “proud to shut down the government” in the name of border security, declaring: “I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down.” Then, yesterday, Trump said a deadly shooting attack in France shows the need for the border wall — even though the suspect accused of spraying gunfire at a Christmas market in the city of Strasbourg on Tuesday is a French native, not an immigrant.But meanwhile, what of the wall itself?

The would-be fictions thrown about by the president as fact mixed with the legitimate definitional confusion over what constitutes Wall from fence, barbed wire from computerized satellite watchfulness, and differing views over what constitutes effectiveness in Wall-building altogether. Instead, it was televised theater, a chance for opponents to mount word games without any seeming interest in resolving the outstanding issues.

As a result, it is more than like that a whole lot of federal employees will be sidelined from their jobs during Christmas week — all for little practical gain. At one point, Trump argued that the existing sections of Wall had proved effective in keeping out terrorists, drug dealers and sick people looking for health handouts while absolutely no new Wall sections have been built.

In case you are one of those people who has chosen to stay away from any detail about the Wall propoals, here are a few insights into the debate:

Here’s Vox: “What became clear in Tuesday’s Oval Office fiasco is that President Donald Trump doesn’t want the wall. . . The difference between the $1.3 billion in wall funding Trump has and the $5 billion in wall funding Trump wants is $3.7 billion — peanuts in the context of the $4 trillion federal budget.”

Even the $5 billion that Trump is demanding isn’t actually enough to build the wall. Estimates of the total cost range from about $20 billion to $70 billion. Securing funding at either level would require a much bigger deal, with much more significant concessions from Trump. “Trump isn’t offering a deal, and he isn’t constructing the kind of process where anyone might offer him a deal. Instead, he’s looking for a photo op. He’s looking for a clip of himself he can see played, and praised, on Fox & Friends. Trump has a tendency to view his presidency as a reality television show where what’s important are storylines, confrontations, and plot twists. What he made yesterday was good television. But good television is about the fight, not the deal.”

Okay. But Fox News pointed out that the Department of Homeland Security under Obama made similar claims about border crossings. Quoting from the agency’s own arguments, Fox said, “On average last year, DHS prevented 10 individuals tied to terror — known or suspected terrorists — each day from traveling or attempting to travel to the United States.”Added to this number are the 17,000 criminals and 3,000 special interest aliens that U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended in 2017, according to a memo by Obama’s Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.

Neverrtheless, a poll released by NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist on Tuesday showed that most Americans — including more than a quarter of Republicans — think it’s more important for Trump to keep the government open than it is to force funding for the wall.

Some 60% of Americans oppose building a wall along the border with Mexico, according to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted Sept. 21 to 26, while 37% support it. Opposition to the wall was up 5 percentage points since the election. Support varied greatly by party, with 77% of Republicans, 33% of Independents and only 7% of Democrats in favor of construction. Similar results come from CBS News poll in August that found 61% of registered voters opposed building a border wall. A July poll from conservative-leaning Rasmussen Reports found 56% of likely voters opposed a border wall.

What about effectiveness?

Bloomberg delved into the effectiveness of border walls in general. While fencing certainly contributed to fewer apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border, it is likely that several factors led to the drop, said Bloomberg. New border fencing often coincided with an increase in border patrol agents in the area. Apprehensions fell by half after the recession that ran from 2007 to 2009, when fewer economic opportunities in the U.S. may have deterred would-be migrants.

It’s clear that reinforcement is not without limitations.

Border agents told the New York Times that they found at least one tunnel a month from 2007 to 2010 as more fencing went up. Also, a Wall wouldn’t deter asylum seekers, who present themselves to border agents at legal ports of entry and currently make up a large number of those apprehended at the border. Nor would it stop immigrants who fly into the country and overstay legal visas. The Department of Homeland Security said almost 530,000 people overstayed in fiscal 2015, about 200,000 more than were apprehended at the border that same year.

The New York Times reportedon the visit of Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary, to Calexico, Calif., in late October to tour what she called the completion of the “first section” of Mr. Trump’s border wall — a 2.2-mile renovation project in the El Centro sector that began in February. In Texas, another project in the El Paso sector to replace 20 miles of vehicle barriers with pedestrian barriers was also completed in October. These projects did not lead to significant declines in border crossings, according to the data. Monthly border apprehensions in both El Centro and El Paso increased from November 2017 to November 2018, the first month after replacement projects were completed.

According to The Times, the numbers that Trump cited appear to refer — misleadingly — to an overall decline in border apprehensions since the barriers were first erected in the 1990s. For example, the news outlet said, border apprehensions decreased by 91 percent in the San Diego sector from the 1994 fiscal year, right after the original fencing was completed, to the 2018 fiscal year. But, according to the Congressional Research Service, “the primary fence, by itself, did not have a discernible impact on the influx of unauthorized aliens coming across the border in San Diego.” Instead, a combination of additional staffing and new technology is what proved effective — in addition to the fencing. Over all, border crossings have been declining for nearly two decades because of a variety of factors that include, but are certainly not limited to, fences or barriers at the border.

The Rand Institute saidin 2016 that a border wall would be a wasteful endeavor, even if the sentiments that motivated it could be justified. Like numerous walls throughout history, the proposed border wall would probably be undermined by tunnelers. The strongest evidence for this is the fact that tunnels have already been used to bypass existing fences on the border, particularly between homes or warehouses on opposite sides of the border. Others use existing underground infrastructure, such as storm drains, to facilitate movements at greater distances. These tunnels appear to be used exclusively for smuggling drugs, rather than people.

Tunneling does, after all, defeat the effectiveness of walls.

In general, said Rand, fences and walls do not prevent people from crossing boundaries; they merely slow them down. Existing fences along densely populated parts of the U.S.-Mexican border enable the Border Patrol to observe and stop people trying to get past them. Along most of the length of the border, natural obstacles including deserts, mountains and rivers already serve to slow down prospective crossers. The addition of a wall in remote country would represent a minor additional obstacle to be climbed. While networks of sensors along the wall could facilitate response by the Border Patrol, such networks could be deployed independently of a wall.

On the other hand, a 1,950-mile sensor network would be expensive, with or without a wall: It would need to be continuously maintained in remote, often harsh environments, and would be subject to vandalism. Such networks also generate false alarms due to wildlife movements and algorithmic errors. More Border Patrol agents and civil servants would be needed both to monitor the network and to respond to the alarms it would generate.

It all makes you wish that the two sides could agree on looking at the same scorecard to determine their winners.



Journalist, musician, community volunteer