Trump's wall on the border: Will it work?

Ranchers and other residents along the US-Mexico border weigh in on what a wall would look like, how much it would cost, and whether it will stop illegal immigration.

John Ladd, a cattle rancher in southern Arizona, believes putting more agents along the border is the best way to keep smugglers and migrants out.

The US border fence with Mexico runs for a couple miles on both sides of the international crossing here. The rust-colored fence is 18 feet tall and constructed of steel tubes filled with concrete. As you ride west in a Border Patrol truck, it looks like an imposing enough barrier to stop unauthorized immigrants and drug smugglers. Then, suddenly, the road ends. So does the fence.

It is about a quarter-mile hike to reach the top of a ridge west of the fence. There, among the cactuses and the mesquite, lie several small clearings where it appears people have been sleeping. Discarded food cans litter the area, and a tangle of wire runs through the middle of it.

Welcome to the other US-Mexican border – the one without a barrier. 

The border here looks easy enough for anyone to cross. Donald Trump wants to change that. To address the problem, the Republican presidential candidate makes a bold pledge. “We will build a great wall along the southern border,” he says. “And Mexico will pay for the wall.”

As if on cue, the crowds at his rallies respond with a now familiar mantra: “Build that wall.... Build that wall.... Build that wall....”

A Donald Trump supporter flexes his muscles with the words ‘Build the Wall!’ written on them as the Republican presidential candidate speaks at a rally in Plattsburgh, N.Y.

In a presidential election campaign unlike any in US history, Trump’s Wall looms large. At this point it is merely a proposal, yet the very idea of it has split the American public, offended Mexico, alienated American Latinos, and drawn a razor-sharp contrast between Mr. Trump and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton on the thorny issue of illegal immigration.

In a larger sense, Trump’s Wall is an ultimatum for the hemisphere and perhaps for the world – that it is time for the most powerful and richest country on earth to turn its generosity inward.

“There is only one core issue in the immigration debate, and that issue is the well-being of the American people,” Trump says. 

“Under a Trump administration, it’s called America first.”

But beneath all the rhetoric on both sides of the issue, practical questions loom: Could a wall actually be built? How much would it cost? And, most important, would it really keep people out?

The US government has erected an 18-foot-tall fence on the international border near Sasabe, Ariz. though smugglers can easily breach the barrier by either climbing over it or walking around it.

The US-Mexican border extends 1,954 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. It bisects at least 10 significant urban areas. It slices through remote mountains, rangelands, and deserts in California, Arizona, and New Mexico, and it follows the Rio Grande along the southern edge of Texas.

There are two great ironies about the Trump Wall debate. First, a wall is not a new idea. One (of sorts) already exists in various pieces along 353 miles of the border.

Second, the closer one travels to the boundary between the United States and Mexico, the more people reject the idea of a wall. “He is a crazy man,” says Georgina Murdura, a shoe-store clerk in Douglas, Ariz.

A few blocks away from her shop, a rust-colored 18-foot fence with thick steel posts already divides the US border town from its sprawling Mexican counterpart, Agua Prieta, just a few yards away. “It is normal to divide countries,” Ms. Murdura says, acknowledging the existing fence, “but not the way that Trump wants it – not that way.”

In May, Arizona’s Cronkite News, Univision, and The Dallas Morning News conducted a poll of people living on both sides of the border. They asked: Should the US build a wall between Mexico and the US in an effort to secure the border? Seventy-two percent of respondents in border cities on the US side were opposed to the idea. On the Mexican side, 86 percent rejected a wall.

In part, such opposition reflects a shared sense of community along the border, a region neither exclusively American nor exclusively Mexican, with related families living on both sides and a long tradition of cross-border movement.

To some critics, Trump’s wall proposal is a dog whistle meant to draw support from racists and nativist voters. These critics view Trump’s rhetoric as part of a shameful pattern in US history in which each new wave of immigrants has been set up as a scapegoat to be blamed for crime and economic woes. 

The US should be building bridges to other nations and cultures and embracing those fleeing violence rather than building walls to shut them out, these analysts say.

But others believe a barrier could be an effective bulwark. “I think a wall would only help,” says Bobby Holden, special agent in charge of the Las Cruces/Doña Ana County Metro Narcotics Agency in New Mexico. He says that despite claims by some that the border is secure, the price of methamphetamine smuggled from Mexico has never been cheaper. “Until we as a society are willing to commit to securing the border, a wall is a first step,” he says. “It’s a start.”

Many, too, see the Trump Wall as an effective piece of political symbolism – a way for Trump to concisely communicate his opposition to what he views as the permissive immigration policies of the Obama administration. They are policies, he says, that have encouraged unauthorized immigrants – including thousands of unaccompanied children – to make the dangerous journey to the US with the expectation that once they arrive they will somehow be grandfathered in to receive their own piece of the American dream.

To Trump and many of his supporters, President Obama’s policies are an abdication of American sovereign power – the inherent authority of a country to decide for itself who is allowed to enter, who is allowed to stay, and ultimately who is allowed to become a citizen. “It’s our right, as a sovereign nation, to choose immigrants that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish and love us,” Trump told a rally in Phoenix in August detailing his hard-line approach to illegal immigration.

The centerpiece of that approach is the Trump Wall. Trump’s initial plan was to build a kind of US version of the Great Wall of China along the entire southern border. That proposal was scaled back. Now he is talking about a 30- to 40-foot concrete barrier extending along 1,000 miles of the border.

It would still be a massive project. He says his wall will include a system of ground sensors to detect tunneling. In addition it will include towers, aerial surveillance, and extra Border Patrol agents. 

Trump estimates the cost of his wall at $10 billion to $12 billion. Others suggest the project might cost as much as $15 billion to $25 billion.

But cost may not be Trump’s most important consideration, since according to him, the US won’t be paying for it.

A US worker welds a section of the US-Mexican border fence at Sunland Park, N.M., opposite the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez.

The US isn’t the only country considering the utility of walls. Much of Europe is busy stringing razor wire and erecting fences in the face of the refugee crisis stemming from Syria and North Africa. 

In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia built a 600-mile high-tech security corridor complete with a double fence and patrol road along its border with Iraq. That border fronts on territory now controlled by the Islamic State group.

Turkey is building a 559-mile wall on its border with sections of IS-occupied Syria. Perhaps the best-known security barrier in recent years is the 420-mile wall Israel built to prevent Palestinian militants in the West Bank from carrying out suicide bombings inside Israel. The 24-foot-high wall is highly controversial, but even critics have acknowledged that it has led to a sharp reduction in suicide attacks. 

Historically, walls have not been a high priority along America’s southwest border. Other than wire fences, the first substantial border structure was built in the 1990s between Tijuana and San Diego.

During the George W. Bush administration in 2006, Congress approved a plan to build 700 miles of double fencing on the border with lighting and a patrol road. The project eventually produced 36 miles of double fencing – most of it south of San Diego. 

Contractors also built 317 miles of single fencing (ranging in height from 10 feet to more than 20 feet), with sections located in high-
priority urban areas and across known smuggling corridors. In addition, the project provided 300 miles of anti-vehicle structures to prevent smugglers from simply driving across the border in remote areas. These waist-high barriers, however, are easily crossed on foot.

Beyond these projects, 1,301 miles of the US-Mexican border remain fenceless or protected by a single barbed-wire fence, analysts say. 

For a smuggler to defeat this level of protection requires the ability to step between two strands of barbed wire, or wield a $9 pair of wire cutters. But it doesn’t necessarily mean the individual won’t be spotted by the Border Patrol and apprehended.

•     •     •

John Ladd runs a 16,000-acre cattle ranch near Naco, Ariz. It’s been in his family since the late 1800s. Mr. Ladd shares 10 miles of border with Mexico. So you might expect he’d be a big fan of Trump’s border wall proposal. He isn’t.

“If you patrol the border properly, you don’t need a wall,” says Ladd, who fully looks the part of an Arizona cattle rancher with his drooping mustache and bone-white cowboy hat. A wall can help, Ladd acknowledges, but it is boots on the ground that get the job done. His recommendation is to position Border Patrol agents a mile apart along the entire length of the international boundary. Do that and no one gets through, he says.

Ladd knows what he’s talking about. For decades all that existed between his ranch and Mexico was a six-foot-tall, seven-strand barbed-wire fence. It was erected in the 1930s and maintained by the US government in part to prevent diseased Mexican cattle from infecting American livestock. 

That was before illegal immigration and drug smuggling became major issues on the border. By the late 1990s, Ladd was struggling to keep the wire fence intact in the face of relentless incursions.

“It got to the point where you’d start in the morning at Naco and go west, and by the time you reached the river [11 miles away] it was already cut [again],” he says. “They would cut the wire, drive over it, run over it, stomp it, whatever.”

For the past 10 years, the border at Ladd’s ranch has featured an array of different fences tested and constructed by the US government. They range from 10-foot-high steel panels recycled from Vietnam landing zones, to 14-foot mesh sections, to a more robust bollard-style 18-foot fence with smooth steel plates across the top to impede climbers. Ladd says the bollard fence is 90 percent effective.

In some ways, Ladd may qualify as one of the nation’s foremost experts on how a fence system stands up to a determined cadre of smugglers, because he’s seen it all.

During a tour of his sprawling ranch, he points out where someone has made a U-shaped cut in a section of steel mesh fence. He calls it a “doggy door.” 

Ladd moves down the line to a different section of fence. At one point, he says, the smugglers used chop saws to slice a hole in the mesh fence large enough for a pickup truck. The fence has been repaired, but evidence of the once-gaping hole is still clearly visible.

“If Trump ever came out here,” Ladd says, “I’d take him to this fence and I’d ask him, what do you think now?” 

Ladd says a powerful saw could be used to do the same thing to Trump’s proposed concrete wall.

Even the robust, 18-foot bollard-style fence has its flaws. Ladd drives down a hill to a low-lying place where the fence dips into a ravine. The fence is equipped with floodgates that can be opened to allow surges of water and debris to flow through so they don’t damage the barrier.

The problem is that the Border Patrol keeps the floodgates wide open for the entire rainy season, from June through September. In theory, a Border Patrol agent is to be stationed near the opening to deter or catch intruders. Ladd says the gates are frequently left unguarded.

Tim Foley, founder of Arizona Border Recon, a group of armed volunteers who look for smugglers and migrants along the border, checks a motion sensor camera set up along a smuggling route.

Tim Foley is another wall skeptic who nonetheless supports Trump’s secure-the-border stance. He runs a group called Arizona Border Recon. It is an organization of ex-military and law enforcement officials who volunteer for armed civilian patrols along remote areas of the border west of Nogales, Ariz. When they encounter drug smugglers or migrants, they notify the Border Patrol.

In the process of conducting these operations, Mr. Foley says he’s developed expertise about the smugglers, their tactics, and their preferred routes. He calls the 18-foot fence at Sasabe a “media” fence. That’s because it is featured in many news reports about border security but in reality is just a facade.

“I’m 57 years old and smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, but with 40 pounds of gear it takes me less than 10 seconds to get up and over that fence,” Foley says.

“Everybody says, ‘Oh Trump’s going to build a wall.’ Great. So Trump builds a 20-foot wall,” Foley says. “Guess what. Home Depot sells a 22-foot ladder.”

Foley, who lives in Sasabe, is asked about the end of the Sasabe fence and the top of the ridge to the west. “I call that the KOA up there,” he says with a laugh, referring to the smugglers’ campsite.

Foley and Ladd essentially make the same point: A border wall or border fence alone offers no real protection. It can be cut or climbed, tunneled under or walked around. It is the men and women assigned to guard the border – with or without a wall – that make it secure or not.

Border Patrol officials say their strategy in using fences is partly to defend the international line along the border. But it is also to divert smugglers and migrants from crossing the border in urban areas where they can melt into their surroundings in a matter of minutes. Border fences are used to divert them into more remote areas where it is easier for agents to detect and apprehend them. 

To accomplish this mission, the Border Patrol is increasingly relying on an array of interconnected surveillance and detection systems. High-tech cameras, radar units, and other sensors are mounted on drones, aerostat blimps, surveillance towers, and truck-mounted telescoping masts. They have also deployed some 11,800 ground sensors. According to government reports, their ground sensors have been less than reliable.

Arizona resident Glenn Spencer believes he has a solution that could be a game changer for the Border Patrol. Mr. Spencer is a longtime advocate for strict border enforcement. He runs a group called American Border Patrol from his 104-acre ranch on the US-Mexican border near the San Pedro River.

“When I first moved here this was the Wild West,” he says. The Mexican cartel was using his property and the adjacent river valley as a kind of superhighway for smuggling drugs and migrants.

The 18-foot-high fence the government put up on the south side of his ranch 10 years ago has helped, he says, but the river valley is still vulnerable to smugglers on foot. 

A Texas warden stands next to a .30-caliber gun as he patrols the Rio Grande on the US-Mexican border.

Drawing on his past experience running a seismic oil exploration technology company in Montana, Spencer says he has developed a system of ground sensors that does more than just detect the presence of people walking: It will pinpoint and track their location. He says the system can be connected to a low-cost drone with a camera that can immediately fly to the area and take video footage of the suspected intruders.  

“To me this is the future of border security,” says Spencer, who along with his partners holds a patent on the technology. “It is a beautiful concept, and low cost.”

The border fence along his property cost the government between $3 million and $6 million per mile to construct, depending on the terrain. Spencer says his network of sensors could be installed along the border for about $100,000 a mile – without the drone and camera.

The system would also work in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas where fences have been rejected by property owners or blocked by treaties and litigation. And it would give the Border Patrol for the first time an accurate count of the total number of people actually crossing the border illegally each year, he says.

•     •     •

History offers examples of effective border security. The Berlin Wall was only 12 feet tall with a smooth pipe at the top to foil climbing attempts. But what made it a formidable obstacle was the wide “death strip” adjacent to the primary barrier. It included anti-vehicle obstructions, soft sand, barbed wire, attack dogs, watchtowers, and soldiers under orders to shoot on sight.

Someone showing up at the Berlin Wall with a 13-foot ladder would likely not have gotten close enough to the wall to use it. Although the Berlin Wall was portrayed as a protection from intrusions from the West, it had been, of course, constructed to prevent people from fleeing East Germany. By some estimates, 5,000 people made it across to the West, while 138 died trying.

This is not what American society is about, says Juanita Molina, a migrant rights activist and executive director of the Tucson, Ariz.-based group Humane Borders. “At one point Mr. Trump was talking about creating standards that would be similar to that of the Berlin Wall,” she says. “Would we want that?”

Sister Norma Pimentel is the director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. Her organization provides help in South Texas for thousands of mothers, fathers, and children fleeing gang violence and death threats in Central America. They are arriving in the US every day in large numbers.

She does not believe that building a wall is an acceptable way to address their plight. “This is America – one America,” she says referring to North America, Central America, and South America together. “We are trying to ignore the problem and simply say, it is not my problem. Let’s put up a wall, let’s deport them,” she says, her voice rising. “Who cares that deporting them means sending them to their death sentences.”

Some analysts say talk of building the Trump Wall is all just political theater. “The border is already as secure as you are ever going to get it,” says Douglas Massey, a sociology professor at Princeton University and co-director of the Mexican Migration Project.

In fact, Professor Massey says, the wave of illegal migration from Mexico ended in 2008. Net migration to the US from Mexico has been zero or negative for the past eight years, he says, referring to the number of people coming into the US compared with the number going from the US into Mexico.

“So why would you want to build a wall now?” Massey asks. “The number of people caught on the border is actually at its lowest point since 1972.” 

The reason, he says, is largely demographics. The birthrate in Mexico in the 1960s was six or seven children per woman. There were not enough jobs in Mexico to employ all those young people so they sneaked into the US without legal authorization and found work.

In the 1970s, the Mexican government established a family-planning program. In addition, the Mexican economy improved significantly. Today, the birthrate is 2.2 children per woman, and there are many more decent jobs in Mexico. What that means for the US is that the significant demographic pressures that triggered massive illegal immigration no longer exist in Mexico.

They do exist, however, in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Unlike Mexico, illegal migration from those countries is on the rise. But Massey says their overall populations are relatively small – ranging from 5 million to 18 million – nowhere close to the 130 million Mexicans.

“We are not buying ourselves any security, and fences are not going to stop drug smugglers and terrorists – they are more sophisticated,” he says. “And they aren’t going to stop immigrants, really.”

•     •     •

In the mid-afternoon sun, the ridge west of the Sasabe border fence is a heat-singed anvil of cactuses and rock, the kind of unforgiving terrain only a rattlesnake would enjoy. For a news reporter and a Border Patrol agent, the hike down the ridge is only slightly easier than the route taken up. But the view is worth it.

To the west, the fence line stretches out like a rust-colored ribbon slicing across the valley until it ends partway up the slope of a mountain a few miles to the east. From here, the trouble with fences and walls seems evident: Smugglers can simply walk around them, and maybe no one will be watching. But as the reporter draws closer to the fence, the agent’s radio crackles to life. 

“Sasabe west agents. I’ve got a visual on two bodies near the west side of the Sasabe border fence.”

It is the operator of a high-powered camera mounted on a nearby surveillance tower. He’s issued the equivalent of an all-points bulletin over the Border Patrol’s radio system. The alarm has been sounded, and the intruders are ... us. 

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