President Trump is leaving the White House having failed to keep one of his biggest campaign promises: to build 1,000 miles of border wall for $4 billion and get Mexico to pay for it.
Trump is wrapping up his four years in office with a final trip to the southern border Tuesday, where he is expected to tout his accomplishment of putting up a wall. However, he will not have much to point to. The president will stop in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where, despite more migrants being arrested here over the past decade than any other of the nine border regions, just a dozen miles of wall has been put up along the 320 riverfront miles of border under Trump.
Seven hundred and thirty eight miles have been funded for $15.5 billion and, of that, more than 450 miles have been installed on the U.S.-Mexico border since the Trump took office in January 2017. The question whether Trump fulfilled his campaign promise to erect fencing on half the 2,000-mile border is complicated but, at face value, can be answered with a resounding "no."
The wall was a leading issue in the 2016 presidential election. On many occasions as a candidate, Trump vowed to build 1,000 miles of it for $4 billion as part of an effort to woo voters concerned by illegal immigration. Trump's campaign promise, which vastly understated what it would cost, will not be met even if President-elect Joe Biden allows the unfinished wall projects to be finished.
The new barriers are far superior to the flimsy, short fences that they replaced and can hardly be called "replacement." Yet even if the administration had achieved its timeline of completing 738 miles by Jan. 20, just 281 miles of the 738 miles is new in the sense that it will go in previously unsecured areas of the border, far short of what Trump once described as "very easy" to achieve.
Border wall projects have been undertaken in all four states that border Mexico, from the Gulf Coast of Texas to the Pacific coast of California. To date, more than 450 miles of wall have gone up in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.
Customs and Border Protection, which oversees federal law enforcement operations at the borders, determined where the funding would be spent. It differentiated in border wall that is just one wall and border wall that is "secondary," or an additional wall behind the first so that if people do get over it, they face another obstacle to get around.
The majority of completed wall has been in places where the Department of Homeland Security deemed existing barriers needed to be replaced, often in populated areas where people who ran across the border could quickly blend into communities. The unsecured areas are remote spots, often with no access to roads on either side of the border.
Of the 450 miles put up under Trump, 47 are new primary wall, and 351 miles have been in place of outdated models, such as vehicle barriers and shorter barriers. The remaining 54 miles were of backup wall, 21 replacing old backup wall and 33 miles for new backup wall.
The remaining approximate 275 miles of funded wall is either under construction or not yet ready to go up. More than 240 miles of the 278 will be for wall in never-before-fenced areas of the border.
History of wall construction
Border wall construction is nothing new. Projects took off in the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton approved a Border Patrol hiring surge and infrastructure. A decade later, during the George W. Bush administration, Congress approved the Secure Fence Act, which funded more than 650 miles of barrier. Half of those 650 miles of barrier were short fences just tall enough to block vehicles from driving across rural parts of the border, while the other half was tall enough to prevent people from illegally walking over. Border wall projects continued, albeit at far slower rates, under the Obama administration.
The Trump administration began a lengthy prototype phase in 2017 to test out four concrete and four nonconcrete barriers. Elements of the eight designs were incorporated into the final design.
The wall that CBP decided to build ranges from 18 to 30 feet above the ground and is rooted in a concrete bed to keep it stable and to prevent shallow tunnels. It is slatted, which Border Patrol agents preferred because it allows them to see what is going on beyond the barrier, but the beams are close enough that people cannot pass through it. The slats are filled with rebar and cement to prevent efforts to cut through it easily, and anti-climb steel plates sit atop the slatted portion to make scaling the fence difficult.
The border wall "system," as homeland security officials refer to it, includes the physical barrier, a host of technology options, paved and gravel roads, and lighting.
How and where the wall was funded
Trump entered office in an ideal situation with a Republican-majority House and Senate, yet failed to acquire the billions of dollars in funding needed for such an extravagant project. In President Barack Obama's final appropriations year, Congress made available $341 million for 40 miles of replacement wall in San Diego and El Centro, California, and El Paso, Texas — all of which have been completed. The three regions are among nine that the Border Patrol divides the border by.
In fiscal 2018, the White House quadrupled its wall funding. Congress gave Trump $1.375 billion for 78 miles, but there was a catch: Congress decided how the administration could spend the money. Lawmakers approved it for new and replacement wall in the Rio Grande Valley, various regions of California, and Yuma, Arizona. Fifty-five miles have been completed.
Trump then asked for $18 billion in late 2018 but was denied, prompting a 35-day government shutdown over his refusal to accept a far lower amount of funding. Unsuccessful, Trump declared a national emergency at the border, which allowed him to take more than $10.5 billion in 2019 and 2020 from funding that Congress had appropriated for the Treasury and Defense departments and redirect that toward border wall projects. He received $1.375 billion from Congress in 2019 and redirected $601 million from the Treasury Forfeiture Fund for new wall in the Rio Grande Valley, which is where Border Patrol reports the highest number of illegal immigrant arrests nationwide. A dozen miles have been finished to date from those projects, and it is where Trump will visit Tuesday to tout his accomplishments on the border.
The remaining $9.9 billion was taken from the Pentagon — $6.3 billion in counternarcotics funds and $3.6 billion in military construction funds. The military construction money went toward a 175-mile portion of primary and secondary fence in San Diego, El Centro, Yuma, El Paso, and Laredo, Texas, of which 86 miles is finished.
The counternarcotics money went toward two projects. The first was replacing 129 miles of border wall in El Paso; Tucson; and El Centro — all but 1 mile has been completed. The second project went to new and replacement primary and secondary walls in all four border states — 118 miles of the 162-mile project are complete.
Congress gave CBP another $1.375 billion in 2020 for new wall near Laredo. Construction has not started and is pending until the land can be acquired.
Where the wall was built
Approximately 110 miles of 30-foot wall have gone up to the east and west of El Paso, including where barbed wire fence was the only barrier in remote spots of New Mexico where buses would drop off hundreds of migrants at a time during the 2018-2019 humanitarian crisis. An 18-foot mesh fence built during the Obama years in Sunland Park, New Mexico, is slated to be replaced. It is located in one of the busiest areas for the arrest of illegal immigrants on the border. Mexican highways run close to remote sections of the border, making it a prime spot to drop off migrants. Although the mesh fence is fairly tall, it is easily cut by smugglers almost every night, which is why it will be replaced.
In western Arizona, roughly 130 miles of new wall have gone up, including almost 40 miles that are duplicate fencing. The top Border Patrol official in Yuma told the Washington Examiner during a visit this fall that he believes the tall wall prevents people from attempting to climb over compared to the shorter models they have had through the years. Ground sensors, cameras, and radars make the physical barrier even stronger because agents can remotely monitor activity by the wall in place of agents.
A double-layer wall comprising 18-foot and 30-foot barrier was put up in San Diego so that if someone gets over the first wall, he or she cannot immediately disappear into a populated area. San Diego sits across from Tijuana, a densely populated city. The new walls here stretch thousands of feet into the mountains 15 miles from the ocean. Border officials told the Washington Examiner during a recent tour that the barriers have forced smugglers out to sea, underground, or into the skies.
Wall progress in southeastern Texas has been slower than in other regions along the border, with just a dozen miles completed despite the region being the top area nationwide for illegal immigration activity. Another 100 miles are set to go up, which would be in addition to an existing 55 miles of barrier. Border Patrol agents in the valley are responsible for 277 miles of largely overgrown brush that runs along the international boundary river. Southeastern Texas is the only place where the wall doubles as a levee system.
Despite the lack of new barriers, Trump has applauded his administration for building more border wall. His 2020 campaign made the border wall its primary messaging at his first rally, debuting the slogan "Finish the Wall" at a campaign rally in El Paso in January 2019. At one point during his speech, the crowd began cheering, "Build that wall." Trump responded, "Now, you really mean 'finish that wall' because we've built a lot of it," though he did not share numbers with the thousands of people in attendance.
Builders have put up more border wall during the coronavirus pandemic than at any similar block of time in the nearly three and a half years the president has been in office. However, a Government Accountability Office report in July 2018 blasted CBP for proceeding on the wall without key information on cost and how previous barrier and technology introductions have helped.
The Trump administration did not install a single mile of wall in a previously unfenced part of the border in its first 30 months in office, instead focusing on replacement projects. The delays in getting started were due to a number of reasons, including poor planning early on, problems acquiring private and public land, and funding shortages.
A senior administration official previously told the Washington Examiner that Border Patrol and the Army Corps of Engineers moved faster on replacement projects than ones in unfenced areas because the approval process for environmental and zoning permits was less extensive than areas of the border with no barrier.
"One of the reasons they're prioritizing the replacement of the barrier is there's no issue with acquiring the land," said Theresa Cardinal Brown, immigration and cross-border director for the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former senior official at both CBP and the DHS. The intense competitive bidding process likely took longer than Trump expected, she said.
Sen. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican, said the Army Corps should have been "fired" because it "wasted taxpayer funds and been egregiously slow in constructing physical barriers."
A second senior official blamed Democrats in Congress for their "unprecedented obstruction" in blocking funding for additional projects the White House has tried to move on.
However, a former senior DHS official told the Washington Examiner that DHS Secretaries John Kelly and Kirstjen Nielsen dropped the baton early and criticized House and Senate Republicans for not working with Trump to boost funding while they had control of Congress during his first two years in office.
"There was an opportunity to add money to the [continuing resolution] right when Trump took office, as well as the first appropriations request by the administration — both severely missed opportunities made even worse by lack of even trying to present a clear and concise strategy to the Hill," the same official said.