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What’s the Best Way to Secure the Border?

To the right lies Tijuana, Baja California, and on the left is San Diego, California. The building in the foreground on the San Diego side is a sewage treatment plant built to clean the Tijuana River.

Photo: Sgt. Gordon Hyde/Wikipedia

The best way to secure America’s southern border is a wall. Sorry, I meant a fence. Or is it more border patrol agents? Or more technology?

If you watched the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee discuss border security last week, you might be confused too.

Prompted by President Trump’s January 25 executive order calling for “the immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border,” the committee met twice to figure out how to fulfill Trump’s presidential campaign promise of a “big, beautiful” wall.

Will we really build a Great Wall of America along the Rio Grande? “This is not a fence we’re talking about. It’s a WALL,” Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) said in a written statement—the bolding and italics hers.

While senators from both sides of the aisle, former Customs and Border Protection officials, and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly all voiced support for greater border security, most seem certain that a border wall—or is it a fence?—is not a silver bullet for national security.

“Fencing is not a panacea,” Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) said in his opening remarks, expressing a sentiment that many would echo during the hearings. “We need a layered approach to border security, one that includes technology, manpower, a commitment to the rule of law, and the elimination of incentives for illegal immigration,” he explained.

With a skyrocketing price tag (currently estimated at $70 billion, according to Senator McCaskill), the additional cost of acquiring land along the border, concerns about environmental protection, and the existence of ladders and tunnels (long-time foes of walls, as one security expert testified), fulfilling the President’s executive order might not be as easy as pouring some concrete.

In fact, Secretary Kelly admits that he’s not planning on implementing the President’s vision of a wall spanning the entire U.S.-Mexico border. Fences and walls already cover hundreds of miles of the border—are more than 1,300 miles of additional physical barriers needed?

“It’s unlikely that we will build a wall or physical barrier from sea to shining sea,” Kelly testified.

The senators had plenty of questions for Kelly and the other witnesses (“What will that wall look like? How much is it going to cost? Exactly how is Mexico going to reimburse American taxpayers for the billions of dollars they are already being asked to spend on the wall?”), and Kelly seemed to take McCaskill’s request that he “speak truth to this administration and to the President” to heart and admitted that he didn’t have all the answers.

“There’s no way I can give the Committee an estimate of how much [the wall] will cost,” he said. “I don’t know what it will be made of. I don’t know how high it will be. I don’t know if it’s going to have solar panels on its side and how it’s going to be painted. No idea.”

Before spending tens of billions of taxpayer dollars, it makes sense to first figure out how to best secure the border. Physical barriers—at least on their own—may not actually address the systemic issues. As Senator Johnson remarked, “America’s insatiable demand for drugs is one root cause, perhaps THE root cause preventing the achievement of a secure border.” [Emphasis his.]

At any rate, there’s no dearth of proposals for how to secure the border, including this particularly creative one: Pittsburgh-based Clayton Industries has pitched the idea of a 100-foot- deep trench of radioactive waste, backed up by a 30-foot wall, to deter border crossers.

"It essentially sends the message: 'Hey immigrants from Mexico and Central America. If you want to try to take a risk and find a better life in the United States, take your kid through a nuclear waste dump.' That’s what we’re talking about,” the Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin told Public Radio International. Really, what could go wrong?

By: Mia Steinle
Investigator, POGO

Mia Steinle, Investigator Mia Steinle is an investigator for the Project On Government Oversight and the civil society coordinator for the U.S. Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. Her work focuses on government management of the oil, gas, and mining industries.

Topics: National Security

Related Content: Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection

Authors: Mia Steinle

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