A brief history of the U.S. border wall

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Caitlin Dickson
·Reporter
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U.S. Border Patrol agents drive along the border fence near Naco, Arizona. (Photo: Ross D. Franklin/AP)

The battle over sealing off the United States’ borders may have been reignited by some Republican presidential candidates, but the issue is hardly new. Amid the big promises of building a barrier between the U.S. and other countries, there’s been little mention that we’ve tried this before — and even less about why we stopped. 

Wisconsin Governor and 2016 GOP presidential hopeful Scott Walker said over the weekend that he wouldn’t rule out the idea of building a fence between the U.S. and Canada, telling NBC’s Chuck Todd that voters in New Hampshire have “raised some legitimate concerns” about security along the country’s 5,525-mile northern border. “So that is a legitimate issue for us to look at,” he said. 

Walker, whose stance on immigration has shifted drastically over the past couple of years, appeared to be upping the ante with his Canada comments, reflecting increased pressure — undoubtedly instigated by Donald Trump — within the Republican primary field for candidates to be tough on border security. 

Just two years ago, Walker expressed support for creating a path to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. and said of plans to build a wall along the Mexican border, “I don’t know that you need any of that if you had a better, saner way to let people into the country in the first place.” But last week, the Wisconsin governor said that his forthcoming immigration plan was similar to the one fellow Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump recently announced, which focuses heavily on enforcement and promises to erect a wall across the southern border with Mexico.

The idea of securing the country’s borders makes sense to a lot of people. According to an August Rasmussen poll, 51 percent of all likely voters favor building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. But a quick look back at not-so-distant history might give some voters pause. 

Construction for the first iteration of the so-called “Border Wall” began in 1993, along the literal line in the sand between San Diego and Tijuana. Thirteen years and $39 million dollars later — when President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fence Act in October 2006, calling for 700 miles of double-layer fencing along the southwest border — 14 miles of the original fencing had been completed.  The Department of Homeland Security expected that the remaining 3.5 miles would cost another $35 million. 

Not long after Bush signed the Secure Fence Act, the Department of Homeland Security argued that it would be impossible to construct the same type of fencing across the border’s diverse terrain. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) proposed an amendment to allow leeway for DHS to determine where it made sense to construct the high-tech “fencing, physical barriers, roads, lighting, cameras, and sensors” that the act called for, and where it didn’t. 

“Border patrol agents reported that coyotes and drug runners were altering their route as fencing was deployed, so the amendment gives our agents discretion to locate the fence where necessary to achieve operational control of our border,” said Hutchison at the time

The amendment passed in December 2007 as part of a spending proposal that included $1.2 billion for fence construction. Prior to the amendment’s passage, a DHS spokesperson told the Arizona Republic, “there should be no uncertainty about our commitment to the goal of roughly 670 miles of fencing by the end of 2008.” 

Fast-forward three years. As of 2011, the Department of Homeland Security had reportedly erected 350 miles of pedestrian fencing at an estimated $6.5 million per mile, and about 299 miles of vehicle barriers that cost approximately $1.7 million per mile. The result: 649 miles’ worth of very expensive fencing scattered in disconnected pieces along the southwest border.   

The same year, the Obama administration announced it was cutting funding for a “virtual wall” project President Bush had also initiated in 2005. The ambitious initiative, to supplant the physical fencing with mobile surveillance and unmanned drones across the entire 2,000-mile border, was originally predicted to cost over $7 billion. But after $1 billion was spent on a pilot program in Arizona that yielded only 53 miles of virtual surveillance, then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered a review of the program and ultimately deemed that it “does not meet current standards for viability and cost effectiveness.”

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to meet our border technology needs,” Napolitano said at the time. 

There’s no question that — logistics aside — building a wall that spans the entire U.S.-Mexico border is a costly undertaking, to say the least. And while Donald Trump says he plans to use his negotiating skills to make Mexico foot the bill, the costs of a border wall aren’t just financial. 

Hard numbers on attempted border crossers are hard to come by. But statistics show that, in the years since the first pieces of the border wall were erected, while illegal migration from Mexico hasn’t slowed, migrant deaths have been on the rise. According to the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights organization, the number of border crossing fatalities in 2012 was almost twice what it was in 1998.

“A big reason is tightened U.S. border security, which has led people to attempt the crossing in ever more remote, treacherous, and risky border zones — often, desert wildernesses very far from population centers,” wrote WOLA researchers Adam Isacson and Maureen Meyer in 2013. 

Environmental advocates argue that the construction of high-tech fencing has already taken a significant toll on wildlife near the border. In 2008, Congress approved the Department of Homeland Security’s right to circumvent more than 30 environmental laws in a push to have 670 miles of fencing constructed by the end of that year. 

That mission was not accomplished but, wrote Scott Nicol, co-chair of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Team, in a 2011 Christian Science Monitor op-ed, “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,” Nicol wrote. “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.”

Fences, says Nicol, also seem to do a better job of restricting the movement of animals than people. 

“Walls fragment their habitats, separating them from food, water, and mates needed to maintain a healthy population,” Nicol wrote. “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.” 

Ultimately, though, the real measure of a border wall’s potential effect is whether the results outweigh the financial, environmental, and even human costs.

Last week, during a speech at the Citadel military academy in South Carolina, Scott Walker said, “You see, Islamic extremists and other terrorists are most likely using the same trails into our homeland as the drug cartels, the weapons smugglers and the human traffickers.“ 

But if Walker is concerned about terrorists following the path of drug smugglers into the U.S., he might want to shift his focus from the borderland to just below the surface.

In 2010, the New York Times wrote that “over the last four years, at least 51 unauthorized tunnels, or more than one a month, have been found” in Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, sister cities on either side of the U.S.-Mexican frontier and home to one of the biggest stretches of border fencing. 

Earlier this year, in response to rumblings of new border wall plans, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California Laura Duffy said, “Drug smugglers will try anything to move their product — even scuba diving in an underwater tunnel. The ingenuity of the smugglers is matched only by our determination to thwart it, as we have done in this case.” 

Though tunnels have proven more popular for drug smuggling than migrating, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) noted in a 2013 interview with Forbes that there are plenty of ways to enter the U.S. illegally that don’t involve walking across the border.

“Simply stated, a fence is a 14th-century solution to a 21st-century problem,” Cuellar said. “According to Homeland Security, 40 percent of all undocumented aliens came here legally on some type of work or student visa. They just never went back home. Of the other 60 percent, many were brought in by smuggling operations.”

Those who wax tough about cracking down on illegal immigration, he added, would be wise to experience life on the border for themselves first.

“It is troubling that some politicians pontificate on sealing a border when they live 1,200 miles away and have not spent an adequate amount of time to visit and understand the terrain or the local dynamics,” he said.