By Scott Nicol
On the day that Barak Obama takes the oath of office workers will be pouring concrete and welding steel to extend the border wall. Today, walls slice through 378 miles of our borderlands. The Secure Fence Act calls for roughly double that amount. As president, it will be up to Obama to decide whether the costs, in terms of billions of dollars spent and homes, farms, communities, and wildlife refuges torn apart, is justified. He recently said that with two foreign wars, hundreds of billions of dollars pledged to the financial bailout, and trillions of dollars in national debt, projects that “bleed billions of dollars” without benefiting the nation will have to be cut. The border wall should top that list.
All of the imagined benefits of the border wall flow from the assumption that if walls are built they will stop illegal traffic from entering the U.S. Some politicians claim that building 700 miles of wall along our 1,933 mile long southern border, while ignoring the 3,987 mile long northern border and 12,479 miles of coastline, will somehow allow the Department of Homeland Security to realize the Secure Fence Act’s goal, to “achieve and maintain operational control over the entire international land and maritime borders of the United States.”
In fact, the Border Patrol’s own statistics show that border walls have not brought about a decrease in illegal entries. The border patrol uses the number of border crossers apprehended in a given sector to gauge the overall number of attempted crossings. Apprehensions dropped dramatically between 2005, the year before the Secure Fence Act was passed, and 2007, the year after. But the decrease did not occur in areas where border walls had been built. On the contrary, the greatest reductions in apprehensions, which according to the Border Patrol would indicate a successful strategy for stopping undocumented immigration, were seen in sectors that did not have walls. Texas’ Rio Grande Valley sector saw a 45.3% decrease in apprehensions, bringing them to a 15 year low. The Del Rio sector saw a 66.5% decrease. Neither sector had an inch of border wall before 2008. In sectors such as Tucson, which saw walls built shortly after the passage of the Secure Fence Act, the reduction in apprehensions began before any cement was poured. The areas that saw an increase in crossings were California’s San Diego and El Centro sectors, both of which have had border walls for over a decade. At the same time that the unwalled border witnessed dramatic decreases in crossings, heavily fortified San Diego saw a 20.1% increase.
Long before the Secure Fence Act was written it was clear that border walls did not reduce the number of people entering the United States. In looking at the number of crossers apprehended by the Border Patrol between 1992 and 2004, when walls were being erected in the San Diego sector, the Congressional Research Service found that there was no change. They concluded that, “While the increased enforcement in the San Diego sector has resulted in a shift in migration patterns for unauthorized aliens, it does not appear to have decreased the overall number of apprehensions made each year by USBP agents.” Would-be immigrants were not stopped by the border wall; they simply went around it.
Two months before the passage of the Secure Fence Act, Wayne Cornelius, Director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California-San Diego told the House Judiciary Committee that,
“tightened border enforcement since 1993 has not stopped nor even discouraged unauthorized migrants from entering the United States. Even if apprehended, the vast majority (92-97%) keep trying until they succeed. Neither the higher probability of being apprehended by the Border Patrol, nor the sharply increased danger of clandestine entry through deserts and mountainous terrain, has discouraged potential migrants from leaving home.”
The assertion that more walls will allow the U.S. to “secure” its southern border is therefore false. Spokespersons for the Border Patrol tend to describe them much more modestly. Del Rio, Texas, Border Patrol Chief Randy Hill said, “We're going to see steel barriers erected on the borders where U.S. and Mexican cities adjoin. These will slow down illegal crossers by minutes.” He says nothing about stopping crossers, or allowing the Border Patrol to “achieve and maintain operational control” of the border, but only slowing crossers down by “minutes.” As Border Patrol spokesperson Mike Scioli said, “The border fence is a speed bump in the desert.”
The false sense of security that the border wall brings comes with a real price tag. In 2007 the Congressional Research Service estimated that the border wall could cost as much as $49 billion to build and maintain. Since then the costs of construction have risen dramatically. Between February and October of 2008, the Army Corps of Engineers reported that the cost of building border walls had increased by 88%, from an average of $3.5 million per mile to $7.5 million per mile. The cost of building vehicle barriers on the border increased by 48%, to $2.8 million per mile. Some sections of border wall are particularly expensive: the walls that are being inserted into the levees in South Texas are averaging $12 million per mile; in California, a 3.5 mile section that involves filling a canyon with 2.5 million yards of earth torn from adjacent mountains so that the wall will not have to dip down into it will cost taxpayers $57 million. In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security asked Congress to allocate an additional $400 million for border wall construction, because the $2.7 billion already spent was not enough to finish out the year.
Arizona governor Janet Napolitano has been named as President-elect Obama’s choice for Secretary of Homeland Security. From her first day on the job she must embody the “change” that Barak Obama campaigned on. Napolitano must have the courage to speak truthfully to the American people, to admit that we are not safer for having built hundreds of miles of border wall, and our national security will not be enhanced by building another mile or one hundred miles or even one thousand miles. She should restore the rule of law on the border by rescinding the waivers of 36 federal laws that Michael Chertoff issued in order to build border walls. Thanks to last year’s Omnibus spending bill, she will have the authority to either double the current length of the border wall or immediately halt construction. Chertoff has used these powers to condemn private property, decimate wildlife corridors, and build mile upon mile of useless border wall. Napolitano should shift the Department of Homeland Security’s funds and priorities away from empty gestures and political grandstanding, and bring an end to the border wall.