Costly fence on US-Mexico border is effective – only in hurting nature

In addition to sinking $1 billion into the failed "virtual fence," the US government has spent $2.6 billion for 650 miles of solid border. This wall doesn’t deter people – but it does defy the laws that protect the land.

Last month, the Obama administration finally pulled the plug on the "virtual fence" that was supposed to line the border between the United States and Mexico with cameras and radar towers. After sinking more than $1 billion into the scheme, the Department of Homeland Security determined that it was a complete failure. Mark Borkowski, executive director of the electronic fence program at DHS, summed it up by saying, "It was a great idea, but it didn't work."

The physical border wall has been just as much a failure as its "virtual" cousin, but on the same day that the virtual fence's demise was announced, construction crews were planting 18-foot-tall steel posts for a new stretch of wall alongside the Rio Grande in Brownsville, Texas. And in Congress, longtime wall proponents are expected to renew calls for hundreds of additional miles of border walls, with American taxpayers picking up the multibillion-dollar tab.

Before most of the border walls were built, Randy Hill, then the border patrol chief for Del Rio Sector in Texas, predicted that walls "will slow down illegal crossers by minutes." Not stop anyone, just slow them down by "minutes." Border patrol spokesperson Mike Scioli said: "The border fence is a speed bump in the desert."

As a recent YouTube video of two young women climbing the border wall in under 20 seconds demonstrates, the assertion that walls slow crossers by minutes is probably too generous.

Nearly 650 miles of solid border wall have already been built, at a cost of $2.6 billion, plus millions more for upkeep and repairs. Unlike the virtual fence, which was scrutinized for a year before being shut down, a recent Government Accountability Office report found that "CBP [Customs and Border Protection] has not assessed the effect of [physical] fencing on border security."

Extensive environmental damage

The damages that border walls cause to the environment, however, are easy to see.

Border walls have severely affected rivers, streams, and wetlands. To build walls in the Otay Mountain Wilderness Area, south of San Diego, DHS dynamited 530,000 cubic yards of rock from mountainsides and dumped the waste into the Tijuana River. In Arizona, border walls have acted as dams across washes and streams in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, leading to severe erosion and flooding.

Though humans have no trouble climbing walls, most animals are stopped in their tracks. Walls fragment their habitats, separating them from food, water, and mates needed to maintain a healthy population. Border walls built in New Mexico's Playas Valley block the movement of one of the last wild herds of bison, whose range straddles the US-Mexican border. In Texas, the walls that slice through the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge have fragmented habitat that is critical for the survival of endangered ocelots, a beautiful, secretive cat.

For any other project, these would be violations of the Wilderness Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and a host of other federal laws. But the border wall is above the law. Realizing that building walls through federally protected wilderness areas and wildlife refuges would be tremendously destructive, Congress passed the REAL ID Act, which allows the secretary of Homeland Security to waive laws to build border walls. No one else, not even the president, has this power.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff waived 36 federal laws. In addition to environmental laws, he swept aside the Farmland Protection Policy Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The only reason for Secretary Chertoff to waive those laws is that he knew that border walls would violate them.

In our current political discourse, the border is not a real place, with flesh-and-blood residents and living ecosystems that our nation's laws were meant to protect. Instead it has become a blank screen upon which the nation's fears of drugs, poverty, and terrorism can be projected. FBI statistics may show that El Paso, Texas, was the safest big city in the US last year, but the fear of spillover overwhelms the facts on the ground in the American imagination.

Facts, not fear

We need to explore a range of measures that address the root causes of immigration and drug use, based on complex facts rather than simple fear.

It is time for the same scrutiny that was applied to the virtual fence to be trained on the solid one. The Obama administration should ignore political posturing and empty "build the danged fence" rhetoric – and conduct a simple cost-benefit analysis.

On the cost side of the spreadsheet: more than $4 billion in taxpayers' money; hundreds of land condemnation lawsuits; tremendous environmental damage; the nation's laws rendered impotent.

On the benefit side... anything? Can border walls be shown to have provided any concrete benefit that justifies their tremendous costs?

At a time when Congress is proposing deep cuts to federal spending, can we really afford a $2.6 billion speed bump?

Scott Nicol is co-chair of the Sierra Club's Borderlands Team. He lives in McAllen, Texas. For more information about the border wall’s environmental impacts, visit

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