President Donald Trump is about to learn that he can’t just tweet his Mexican wall into existence. As I learned during my two years at the Department of Homeland Security, building the fence – let alone a 20-foot-high wall – is a difficult, complex, expensive and nuanced undertaking. Of course, dealing with nuances and complexities do not appear to be priorities for Trump.
In 2009 and 2010, as counsel for Secretary Janet Napolitano at DHS, one of my primary responsibilities was the completion of the Mexican border fence that began during the George W. Bush administration. In that job, I visited the construction along the border many times, participated in innumerable meetings with supporters and opponents alike, fielded calls from angry members of Congress and their staff, and participated in town halls and meetings with ranchers, environmentalists, and Indian nations. Did we build the 100-plus additional miles of fence that we promised? Yes. Was it easy, fast or cheap, and did it achieve remarkable results? No.
It took about six years between the Bush and Obama administrations to build the approximately 700 miles of fence that currently exist. A great deal of planning and thought went into where and how it was built. The fence is currently located in the areas we knew illegal immigrants used this most: in and around urban areas like San Diego, Nogales, El Paso as well as other, more remote parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico and small parts of Texas.
The Trump executive order doesn’t say where along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico his wall is going to go. It is already built in all of the obvious and important areas. The executive order doesn’t say whether it will be a fence or a true concrete wall as Trump has said from time to time. Is it going to replace the existing fence or go on new lands?
Much of the currently unfenced land does not belong to the federal government. In Arizona, about 75 miles of border goes right through the middle of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Trump can’t just stomp his foot and take that land. He either needs to negotiate a deal with the Nation – something we were never successful in doing – or get Congress to pass a law over the Nation’s objection. In Texas, much of the unfenced area runs through private land. Building there will be a slow and very expensive condemnation process.
Trump’s proposed wall also carries many other problems, especially for Arizona. Right now, it looks like he is going to start a trade war with Mexico over the wall. Mexico is overwhelmingly Arizona’s biggest trading partner. Arizona is going to be one of the biggest losers in that war.
There are also significant environmental concerns. At the DHS, we spent enormous effort to design and build the fence with minimal disruption to wildlife movement on the border. Trump’s wall does not reflect any of those concerns. Likewise, when the wall impacts rivers that we share with Mexico – like the San Pedro in Arizona or the Rio Grande in Texas – our current treaties with Mexico mandate joint agreement before any construction can take place. How do we think that is going to go?
What problem are we solving? The wall will do little or nothing to reduce illegal drug trade because the vast bulk of those drugs come in by air, by sea, through tunnels or legal ports of entry. Likewise, the wall does nothing to address the largest problem – those who are here illegally because they overstay their visas.
Finally, there’s the cost. The current consensus figure is about $25 billion. Even Trump acknowledges he will need “huge” new appropriations. Unless he’s going use deficit spending, where’s that money coming from? Will we take it from cyber security programs? Will we use money that’s earmarked for finding foreigners who overstay their visas? That’s a much larger problem than the 115,000 or so who illegally cross the Mexican border now.
Trump’s wall would likely fail any serious benefit-cost analysis. Let’s hope Senators McCain and Flake will look long and hard at weighing the costs of a trade war against the very modest decrease in illegal entries resulting from Trump’s wall.
Andy Gordon is a shareholder with Coppersmith Brockelman in Phoenix. His practice areas include election and political law. He previously served as counsel to the generalcCounsel at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.