Standing in front of tall concrete bollards along a remote section of the U.S.-Mexico border last week, Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake surveyed the end of a segment of border fence built during the Trump administration.
As governor, she told a pair of Border Patrol union leaders and a correspondent for the conservative channel Right Side Broadcasting Network, she would finish the job.
“I really am a big believer, we need to start building this wall immediately,” she said.
Matt Salmon has made similar promises. “When I get elected governor,” Salmon said during a panel discussion earlier this year, “the first press conference I do is with a post-hole digger on the border, because if the feds aren’t going to do it, we’ll get it done.”
Seizing on one of the most potent and polarizing symbols in national politics, some GOP candidates for Arizona governor are promising to finish the wall along Arizona’s border with Mexico. But it’s an idea that could be both complicated and costly.
“Immigration is the top issue in the state of Arizona for Republicans by a significant margin and has been for an extended period of time, so it’s not surprising that these Republican candidates are trying to find ways to address that issue and appear tough on immigration,” said Paul Bentz, a pollster at the GOP firm HighGround. “Hardline stances like cracking down on illegal immigration, deporting immigrants and building a wall work very well among Republican primary audiences.”
In addition to Lake and Salmon, Karrin Taylor Robson said in an emailed statement that “a completed wall is at the heart of a secure border.” Taylor Robson, however, stopped short of saying she’d build it herself, instead saying that “it will be my priority as Governor to work with the federal government – this administration or the next – to complete this critical job.”
For Lake’s competitors, Bentz said, talking about building the wall is a way to align themselves with former President Trump – who remains a popular figure among GOP primary voters – while dancing around the fact that he endorsed their opponent.
But there would be some seriously thorny details for a governor trying to continue border wall construction without the help of President Joe Biden, who campaigned on the promise that “there will not be another foot of wall constructed in my administration.”
Biden ordered a stop to wall construction in the first week of his presidency, though the Department of Homeland Security indicated this week that it plans to do more work to “clos(e) small gaps that remain open from prior construction activities.”
Millions per mile
The first challenge for the state would be getting the cash together. Trump redirected several billion dollars from the Department of Defense to fund wall-building projects. For comparison, Arizona’s entire state budget for 2022 was nearly $13 billion.
In Arizona, contracts procured through the Department of Defense totaled almost 200 miles of fence and were set to cost more than $4 billion, according to information provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (Additional contracts were procured through U.S. Customs and Border Protection.) The largest and most expensive of the projects came in at $30 million per mile, while the least expensive was a comparatively affordable $9 million per mile.
Measuring exactly how much land along Arizona’s southern border is not currently covered by border fencing turns out to be complicated – neither U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers nor the Arizona State Land Department were able to give a straightforward measurement. But there’s plenty of it, including in areas where wall was planned, but not completed, during Trump’s presidency.
Vast stretches of the borderlands remain untouched in areas like the Pajarito Wilderness, west of Nogales. In other areas such as Guadalupe Canyon, near Douglas, construction crews blasted routes through the mountains, but didn’t complete the wall installation.
Taking a big chunk of funding out of the state budget to put in a bollard fence would require cooperation from legislators, but former would-be wall-builders in Arizona have also proposed another option – private funding.
In 2011 Steve Smith, then a Republican state senator from Maricopa, sponsored a bill that created a fund to accept private donations for a wall. The effort didn’t lead to any new border wall, however, and wrapped up six years later after spending about $275,000 in donations on cameras.
Salmon, for his part, suggested yet another solution. In a statement that seemed to echo Trump’s “Mexico-will-pay-for-it” approach, he said he would build the wall and then “hand-deliver a bill to Joe Biden.”
Beyond the budget math, the state would need permission to put up a wall in many places. Most, though not all, of Arizona’s border is covered by the Roosevelt Reservation, which means the federal government has rights to a 60-foot strip of land running along the border.
The state of Arizona has no such power, so without federal approval, the state would face limited options for locating new fencing.
That’s something Lake seemed to tacitly acknowledge in a statement to the Arizona Capitol Times that said: “We must immediately put up a wall where we can, including state land and even on private land with owners who are willing to cooperate and save our state.”
In Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott has gone ahead with state-funded wall construction, more parcels along the border are privately-owned, creating the possibility of working with landowners who want a wall or seizing land through eminent domain for the purpose of wall-building.
But parcel maps published by the Land Department show there’s little state or private land along Arizona’s border. Instead, large swaths are part of national forest or tribal land. The Tohono O’Odham Nation alone has 62 miles abutting the U.S.-Mexico border and the tribe has voiced its opposition to putting up a bollard-style fence on the land.
So, with the Biden administration’s position on wall construction, a future GOP governor would have to hope for a new occupant in the White House if they’re hoping to put new fencing on federally controlled land.
What’s more, as happened during the Trump presidency, a state effort to build the border wall would likely generate legal challenges. Marcela Taracena, a spokeswoman for the ACLU of Arizona, said that if a future governor tries to build more border wall, legal organizations would likely investigate avenues to block it.
The ghost of Arizona SB1070 anti-immigration law passed in 2010 could also come into play, said Ilya Somin, a law professor George Mason University.
A 2012 ruling in United States v. Arizona, which gutted the main provisions of SB1070, hinged on the principle that the federal government gets to set immigration policy and states can’t enact laws that interfere with that power. Somin said the federal government could argue that a state constructing its own border wall represented interference with federal immigration policy.
Besides the practical complications of construction, the border wall has drawn criticism from Democratic politicians and progressive groups, including immigration advocates and environmental activists.
Taracena said the border wall isn’t an effective deterrent to migration and has created environmental damage and invited costly legal battles.
“I think often, a lot of folks use it as a way to continue to vilify migrants,” she said.
Still, candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination said they have other plans for border and immigration issues, but didn’t directly criticize the wall proposal.
“We need to be smart about our investments in border security and make our border strong, secure, and high-tech,” Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said in an emailed statement. “It is crucial that our elected leaders in the federal government step up and do their part to reform our immigration system to reduce the flow of illegal immigration.”
Marco Lopez, who’s from Nogales and worked for the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration, said border issues require “solutions, not partisan brinkmanship and photo-ops.” “We need comprehensive immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers, and we also need more resources at the border in manpower, infrastructure, and technology to secure it, and judicial resources to better process asylum cases,” he said in a statement.
Bentz, the pollster, said that the eventual Republican nominee for governor will likely temper their rhetoric on the wall and related issues during the general election.
“I don’t suspect that immigration will be as big of an issue once the August 2 primary is over,” he said.