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Trump’s wall: How long will it take to build, and at what cost?

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An explainer on the practicalities of a U.S.-Mexico border wall

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images


Like many of President Donald J. Trump’s policy pronouncements, his key campaign promise, the Mexican border wall, entered the world via an all-caps tweet on August 5, 2014. And like his initial long-shot bid for the White House, it now appears that this symbol of Trump’s America-first foreign policy platform is grinding toward reality.

Momentum for the wall began as soon as Trump appeared on Fox & Friends in January 2015 and ramped up throughout the primaries (competing candidates tried to outdo each other over how quickly they’d enact such a massive construction project). “Build that wall!” became a unifying chant during Trump rallies leading up to the general election on November 8.

And this January, this “big, beautiful wall,” as our real estate mogul-turned-president fondly calls it, took the first step toward becoming U.S. government policy, as the president signed an executive order calling for the creation of “a contiguous, physical wall or other similarly secure, contiguous, and impassable physical barrier.”

The Department of Homeland Security is set to announce, “on or after March 8, 2017,” a formal request for proposals for the barrier’s design and construction.

A view of the U.S.-Mexico border line in Nogales, northwestern Mexico.
Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images

If previous wall-building adventures are any guide, Trump may want to stick to skyscrapers. The current build-the-wall crusade is neither novel nor particularly well informed by the history of previous border containment efforts. Leaving aside the many moral questions the wall raises, experts say that a 2,000-mile infrastructure project presents vast challenges in terms of labor, cost, geography, and effectiveness.

Efforts to block our southern neighbors have been part of American political discourse for more than a century, since the specter of Pancho Villa and his revolutionaries loomed over border towns in the early 20th century. These efforts have met with mixed success.

San Diego, which has always been one of the U.S.-Mexico border’s busiest crossing points, put up early fencing in 1910. In 1924, the Treasury Department floated a proposal to erect an 8-foot-high fence along 160 miles of the California-Mexico boundary line, but the fence was never constructed. In 1925, El Paso proposed a "hog tight, horse high, and bootlegger-proof barbed-wire fence, possibly electrically charged” to stop the flow of cheap booze during Prohibition.

Border towns and localities have strung up their own walls and barriers, and numerous administrations have built watchtowers, gates, and secure ports of entry. In the late 1970s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service proposed a series of barbed wire-topped 12-foot structures near urban crossings that were insensitively labeled the “Tortilla Curtain” by the press (the plan was scaled back after news reports zeroed in on contractors describing how the sharp razor wire would cut off the fingers and toes of climbers).

The U.S.-Mexico border fence separating the beaches is seen at Border Field State Park in San Diego, California.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

In a post-9/11 era of economic anxiety and Minutemen patrolling the borders, scattered fencing no longer sufficed. Consider the border blockades suggested by Republican presidential candidates in 2012: Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann pledged to build a double-fenced border wall from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico. Herman Cain went further, arguing that a 20-foot-tall, electrified barrier topped in barbed wire was what we needed.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, the incoming energy secretary for the Trump administration, was perhaps the only candidate in the 2012 race with extensive knowledge of the sprawling southern border, and he took a different approach. He suggested a more complex combination of fencing, surveillance technology, and “boots on the ground.” A border-length fence, he said, would require up to 15 years and $30 billion, and wouldn’t be “cost-effective.”

While past attempts to secure the border with technology have proven to be mirages and money pits (a notable example being the Boeing-led effort to build a cutting-edge border security system in 2005, which flamed out after the company spent more than $1 billion to construct just 53 miles of fencing, sensors, and radar), a technological solution would likely cost a fraction of what a solid barrier would.

Aerial view of the land split by the U.S.-Mexico border.
Courtesy of Google Images

And as Perry’s rejection of a full-length physical barrier demonstrates, the closer politicians get to the border, the more they think the idea of a solid wall is foolish. Texas politicians familiar with the everyday workings of the border—and who have numerous constituents who would be forced to sell portions of their land to make way for the wall—don’t mince words.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX 28th District) called the wall “a 14th-century solution to a 21st-century problem,” and Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX 23rd District), whose district runs along 800 miles of border, says a wall would be “the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border.”

Rep. Filemon Vela (D-TX 34th District) said in an open letter about the wall idea that Trump could “shove it up his ass.” “He’s not going to build a wall. The people in my district will line up on the border. He’ll see a human chain the likes of which he’s never seen.” (In Arizona, leaders of the Tohono O’odham Nation, which controls vast swaths of border territory, have called for Standing Rock-like protests if the wall comes to pass.)

Even retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, the new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, who will be in charge of constructing Trump’s wall, has said “a physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job.”

Trump has repeatedly said he’s committed to a physical wall that will protect the entire border, but it’s unlikely he’ll create a new barrier along the full 2,000 miles, since hundreds of miles of fencing already exist.

Thanks to the 2006 Secure Fences Act, a Bush-era initiative, roughly 653 miles have already been covered in different sections, with a hodgepodge of fencing and barriers, including chain link, post-and-rail fences, and concrete vehicle barriers easily sidestepped by anyone on foot. This somewhat porous potpourri of structures was initially envisioned as 700 miles of strategically placed sections of double-fencing; the ways it fell short offer many lessons about the risks of such projects.

Like Trump’s current plan, Bush’s wall was pushed forward in 2006 as a security imperative, billed as an overdue correction to our dangerous, exposed border. Politicians and advocates whipped constituents and Congress into a frenzy: Phone lines were jammed in the House and Senate, and some citizens even mailed bricks to their representatives, symbolizing support for the barrier.

Then-Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama said the fence was a top priority, arguing in a debate that “we do not have operational control of the border.” (He would later argue that building a wall has “biblical backing.”)

Congress approved the measure to build a tactical security fence with comfortable margins, as well as a $1.2 billion Homeland Security funding bill to cover costs. (Then-Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both voted yes.) But the fencing project quickly became a source of controversy, cost overruns, and embarrassing mistakes.

After receiving congressional authorization, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff realized he would have to obtain numerous environmental waivers to build such a massive project and negotiate with local property owners, including tribal landowners.

Dismissing protocol as a matter of national security, Chertoff used his power to waive 36 separate laws to build the fence, including the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. (In 2008, a tribal leader testified that when he went to observe fence construction on his tribe’s land, fragments of human remains from grave sites were found in the machinery.)

“Criminal activity at the border does not stop for endless debate or protracted litigation,” Chertoff later said in a statement. Landowners and localities, including the Texas Border Coalition, an organization of mayors, county commissioners, and economists who filed a federal lawsuit against the construction, would continue to fight him over land seizure and eminent domain issues.

Aerial view of the land split by the U.S.-Mexico border.
Courtesy of Google Images

Even more damaging to the mission of erecting a safe and secure Mexican border wall were a series of mistakes during construction. The HBO documentary La Barda (The Fence) highlights a few, including a stretch built six feet into Mexican territory that needed to be torn down and rebuilt for millions of dollars.

Another portion, built near the banks of the Rio Grande, needed to be erected away from the curving natural border, creating a no man’s land between the two countries. Improper drainage near Nogales, Mexico, created a 20-foot pool of water that flooded numerous border-adjacent homes and businesses. The DHS would end up spending $44 million on extra steel it didn’t need.

All of these delays and mistakes added up. According to a fact sheet from the lobbying group Taxpayers for Common Sense, costs ballooned from initial estimates of $431,000 per mile to $4.5 million a mile for primary fencing and $1.6 million for vehicle barriers. In some rough terrain, the cost per mile topped $12 million.

By 2011, the Department of Homeland Security cancelled the plan, citing cost overruns and expenses. When Congress later tried to pass a law to fund completion of the fence based on the 2006 mandate, they discovered the cost of finishing would be more than the Border Patrol’s entire annual budget.

During a 2015 Senate hearing on the subject, Ronald Vitiello, deputy chief of border patrol for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, admitted that "It's a lot more expensive than we expected when we started, and it was much more difficult." Since Secure Fences was passed in 2006, the country has spent $2.3 billion on border fortifications and fencing.

Trump has at times wavered about the grandiosity and final shape of his wall, suggesting that some areas could be covered by fencing and that areas with rough terrain wouldn’t need additional fencing beyond preexisting natural barriers. But the baseline estimate of 1,000 miles of a big, beautiful wall made out of concrete and steel would dwarf any project he, or any other developer, has previously undertaken. The New Yorker reported that a 30-foot-tall structure would require three times the amount of concrete in the Hoover Dam, along with 5 billion pounds of steel for reinforcement.

A section of the border fence in Nogales, Arizona, on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Aside from the cost of materials, consider the scope of the planning process (which the executive order says shall be completed within 180 days). The process should start with extensive surveying to figure out how to build on such vastly different terrain, from dry deserts and steep mountains to forests and rivers. Experts interviewed by Smithsonian Magazine believe planning alone could take years—certainly longer than one presidential term.

Engineers have to figure out how to anchor slabs of concrete and steel reinforcement in soil and bedrock, including the sulfur-heavy Trans-Pecos soils in southwest Texas that would quickly corrode building materials. After the order, with its brief analysis period, was signed, science writer Mika McKinnon tweeted: “About that wall: Everyone knows that large construction requires EXTENSIVE geotech investigation & design, yes? Earth doesn't forgive sloppy.”

Once construction—which the DHS has stated will take two years—actually starts, the wall has the potential to be an environmental disaster. The Institute for Sustainable Energy and the Environment at University of Bath estimates that 7.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide will be emitted from concrete alone: the same volume of emissions released by 823,654 occupied homes over the course of a year.

The wall will also cross habitats used by 111 endangered species, 108 species of migratory birds, four wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries, and a number of protected wetlands, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Report.

The irony is that at least one local group will benefit during the wall’s construction: Mexicans. During the building process, a good portion of payments may flow to Mexican workers and construction companies. Jose Garza of the Workers Defense Project, a labor support organization in Texas, told the New York Times that, due to the demographics of the local construction workforce, “a significant bit” of the workforce will likely be undocumented.

In addition, CEMEX, the Mexican-owned concrete conglomerate, owns plants all across the border, including U.S.-based subsidiaries, that could bid for the job. Builders could opt for non-local suppliers, but trucking cement and heavy stone long distances would eventually become cost prohibitive.

Trump, who has estimated in the past that the wall will cost $10 billion to $12 billion, recently tweeted that once he gets involved in negotiations, "price will come WAY DOWN!" But few of the cost estimates floating around include big line items such as hiring additional border patrol agents or paying for private property.

Some reports suggest the price is already rising: A recent Department of Homeland Security internal analysis, obtained by Reuters, estimates a $21.6 billion price tag for construction of the wall. High-end independent estimates place the cost at up to $40 billion.

And ever since Press Secretary Sean Spicer backed off a proposed plan for a 20 percent border tax, the exact method of payment has been in doubt. Republicans may place funding for the wall in a must-pass spending bill in April, or pass it as part of the 2018 appropriations bill for Homeland Security.

Aerial view of the land split by the U.S.-Mexico border.
Courtesy of Google Images

A recent Wall Street Journal article explored some of the extensive, costly eminent domain issues involved in obtaining private property. Years after the Secure Fences Act started fence-building en masse, the U.S. government still only owns 100 miles of the 1,254-mile Texas-Mexico border and, as of December 2016, 120 cases involving eminent-domain seizure for the fence were still tied up in federal court.

None of these estimates factor in the cost of maintenance for such a titanic structure, and that cost may be one of the lasting legacies of the project. The Congressional Budget Office estimated annual maintenance costs of Secure Fence-style fencing will be roughly 15 percent of construction costs. At that rate, the cost of upkeep means we’ll basically be rebuilding the wall every seven years.

The construction of the wall presents immense logistical and financial challenges. And once it’s built, this physical structure will not only alter the nature of our border, but may prove itself a barrier to solving the problems it was designed to resolve.

The wall as Trump has described it seems to ignore the current state of bilateral relations and border traffic. Mexico is the United States’ third-largest trading partner, with $500 billion in goods crossing the border every year.

A study compiling data from U.S. Customs and various state tourism agencies found that 6 million U.S. jobs depend on trade with Mexico. Our southern neighbor has also proven itself to be pretty cooperative: U.S.-Mexican counternarcotics programs date back to the 1930s, and the two nations have signed 53 treaties that deal with law enforcement alone.

A worn gate marks the boundary near the U.S.-Mexico border in Presidio, Texas.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

It’s true that the South Rio Grande Valley has become a very popular drug-smuggling route, but that’s because smugglers associated with cartels have numerous nearby ports of entry to choose—they're far more likely to use official crossings than to find their own. According to testimony by U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske from last March, “The majority of any heroin that we seize is not between the ports of entry, it’s smuggled through the ports of entry.”

Forget El Chapo tunnels or drug catapults: Most drugs are hidden in passenger vehicles or shipments of legal goods and sent through official border crossings, Kerlikowske went on to say. An expensive new wall, in effect, just blocks off areas smugglers are least likely to use.

How about illegal immigration? The population of people who have entered the country illegally peaked at 12.2 million in 2007, just before the economy crashed, and has decreased since then, in large part due to the recession and its outsized impact on the construction industry.

As border enforcement has become increasingly stringent since the mid-1980s, according to an article in the Atlantic, male Mexican migrants have had a harder time crossing back and forth, turning what was once a seasonal flow of laborers into more permanent residents, who, faced with the growing difficulty of getting home, increasingly bring their families along.

A popular song, “Juala de Oro” (“Cage of Gold”), provides a perfect metaphor for the difficult choices a Mexican migrant has to make. Erecting a permanent wall would force more difficult choices.

Editor: Sara Polsky