On July 27, 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a $790 billion dollar national security funding bill for FY2018. The bill is known as the “Make America Secure Appropriations Act” and passed with a vote of 235-192. The bill also contains approximately $1.6 billion as a down payment for the construction of a physical barrier on the U.S.-Mexico border. However, it is unlikely it will pass in the Senate, where the rules call for three-fifths support (60 votes) to pass almost all legislation.
For context, the entire U.S.-Mexico border spans 1,954 miles. Six hundred and fifty-four miles of current vehicle and pedestrian fencing already exists as of May 2015. The current request of $1.6 billion would fund only 74 miles of additional fencing. The project is most likely to cost approximately $21.2 million per mile, according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) analysis — or an estimated $28 billion for the part of the U.S.-Mexico border that still lacks a barrier. Moreover, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has not assessed the effective contribution that additional border fencing would make to overall border security operations, nor has it developed metrics for such an assessment, although it does collect data that could provide that insight.
Aside from the massive cost to continue to construct a physical barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border, several other factors must be taken into account to the continued construction of the wall. An important issue is land ownership along the U.S.-Mexico border. Federal and tribal lands make up 632 miles (33 percent of the total border), while private and state-owned lands make up the remaining 67 percent — with most of the private land located in Texas. This private land consists of homes, farms, ranches, golf courses, and private property, whose ownership dates back to Spanish land grants. Almost 400 condemnation cases emerged after the 2006 Secure Fence Act signed by President George W. Bush, with nearly all cases in Texas. About 90 cases remain unresolved to this day. Acquiring land from non-federal owners is a “costly and time-consuming process requiring negotiations and sometimes condemnation,” according to a Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General report. In total, the U.S. government has spent at least $78 million to acquire the land, and an estimated $21 million for the remaining cases. It is expected that the current administration will face similar problems, and it is difficult to estimate the costs of negotiated sales of the territory required, adding to the total cost of the wall.
Constructing a wall would also pose a challenge through tribal lands. The Tohono O’odham reservation, which shares 62 miles along the international border, has coordinated closely with border security agencies, but believes a continuous wall on tribal lands would impact their environment, culture, and history. In the prior construction of the border fence, indigenous communities along the Texas-Mexico border such as the Lipan Apache, Kickapoo and Tigua (Ysleta del Sur) were not consulted in the planning and construction activities.
The environment is another great concern for people on both sides of the border, especially relating to flooding and the migration of several animal species. On August 1, 2017, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would waive certain laws, regulations, and other legal requirements in order to proceed with the construction of a barrier near San Diego. Environmental impact studies would be avoided under this waiver.
Ultimately, most of these decisions are made and set in the national capitals, usually without meaningful consultation of border residents — the people who are most affected by those decisions. A cross-border poll in 14 cities along the U.S.-Mexico found that residents recognize a community dependency with their sister cities and significantly oppose the construction of a wall; 72 percent of those polled on the U.S. side and 86 percent on the Mexican side expressed opposition to building a wall in an effort to secure the border.
A physical barrier will not be able to fix all the problems relating to undocumented immigration. Visa overstays, in particular, are a growing issue, outnumbering undocumented border crossers by half a million since 2007. A wall does not fix the true problem — the need for a comprehensive immigration debate and reform. Lastly, if the United States does invest in the continuing construction and maintenance of fencing along the southwest border, then a publicly available and thorough evaluation of the impact of barriers to security and their strategic location should be conducted with significant input and consultation from border communities and tribes who live along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Pamela Lizette Cruz is the research analyst for the Baker Institute Mexico Center. Her current research interests include cross-border governance, border security, institutional development and social justice.
Manuel A. Gutierrez is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Arizona State University.
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