In the final weeks of his presidency, President Donald Trump has returned to the signature issue that brought him to the White House — his pledge to build “a beautiful, gorgeous, big wall” on the southern border. On two separate occasions, Trump has said he is “completing the wall, like I said I would” and that it is “almost finished.”
To be sure, the Trump administration has built hundreds of miles of border fencing, more than under any other president in American history. But by the end of Trump’s term in January, the length of fencing will be well short of what Trump promised repeatedly during the campaign or what his administration initially proposed when he took office.
Border experts say construction crews won’t come close to even finishing the work that is currently funded.
Most of the wall constructed to date has been replacement for existing dilapidated or inadequate fencing, despite earlier plans to build new barriers where none existed before. In 2018, an administration official testified that his agency would build 316 miles of new pedestrian barriers “in addition to what is there now.” But to date only about 40 miles of such new fencing have been built.
Other border experts warn not to minimize the impact of the replacement fencing. In some cases, the new barriers erected replaced fencing made from Vietnam-era landing mats. U.S. Customs and Border Protection also has replaced nearly 200 miles of vehicle barriers — the type that people could walk right through — with 30-foot-high steel bollards, lighting and other technology.
But whether the wall is “almost finished” is another question. Part of the difficulty of measuring that is the ambiguity around what a completed wall would look like. Trump has constantly moved the goal posts on how long the wall should be, and no master plan for the project has ever been publicly released.
Those who have tracked the construction closely say fencing mostly has been built where there was least resistance, where the federal government already owned the land — particularly in Arizona and New Mexico. Far less has been built in areas of Texas, especially, where private landowners have fought condemnation of their land in the courts.
What has resulted, border experts say, is a patchwork of fencing. Nonetheless, with no publicly shared benchmarks for “completion” of the wall, Trump has declared near-victory.
“You know, we’re completing the wall, like I said I would,” Trump said in an interview on Fox News on Nov. 29. “Everyone said, you would never be able to do it.”
According to a CBP status report, the U.S. has constructed 438 miles of “border wall system” under Trump, as of Dec. 18. Most of that, 365 miles of it, as we said, is replacement for primary or secondary fencing that was dilapidated or of outdated design. In addition, 40 miles of new primary wall and 33 miles of secondary wall have been built in locations where there were no barriers before.
So the footprint of the wall is 40 miles longer than it was before Trump took office.
CBP says it has funding in place to construct another 241 miles of fencing where there were no barriers before. But border experts say most of that is not going to get built.
According to CBP updates, in the last three months about 31 miles of new wall have been constructed in areas where there was no barrier before. At that rate, and assuming Biden immediately puts a halt to all new wall construction as promised, the administration will complete less than a quarter of the new miles for which it has funding — and that will be well short of the new miles of wall Trump had originally promised.
What did Trump promise?
Although the 2016 Republican platform stated, “The border wall must cover the entirety of the southern border and must be sufficient to stop both vehicular and pedestrian traffic,” that’s not actually what Trump talked about during the campaign.
At the time, Trump consistently talked about needing 1,000 miles of wall. Here are just a few examples over a 10-month period during the campaign:
“Here, we actually need 1,000 because we have natural barriers. So we need 1,000.” — Trump during the third Republican primary debate, on Oct. 28, 2015.
“Now, it’s 2,000 miles but we need 1,000 miles of wall. Nothing. It’s nothing. I will have the most gorgeous wall you’ve ever seen. Someday, when I’m gone they’ll name it the Trump wall.” — Trump during a campaign speech in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on April 21, 2016.
“We have 2,000 miles [of border] of which we really need 1,000 miles [of wall] because you have a lot of natural barriers — lot of natural barriers. So you need 1,000. — Trump at a rally in Abingdon, Virginia, on Aug. 10, 2016.
Given that Trump inherited about 650 miles of barriers, that would mean building another 350 miles (in addition to any replacement fencing).
But once Trump was elected, he began to move the goal posts — from 1,000 miles to 900 to 800 to 700 and even less.
“And remember this, it’s a 2,000 mile border, but you don’t need 2,000 miles of wall because you have a lot of natural barriers. You have mountains. You have some rivers that are violent and vicious. You have some areas that are so far away that you don’t really have people crossing. So you don’t need that. But you’ll need anywhere from 700 to 900 miles.” — Trump in a July 12, 2017, interview.
“But we need to have a wall that’s about 800 miles — 700 to 800 miles of the 2,000-mile stretch. We have a lot of natural boundaries.” — Trump in remarks at the White House on April 3, 2018.
“We do not need 2,000 miles of concrete wall from sea to shining sea — we never did; we never proposed that; we never wanted that — because we have barriers at the border where natural structures are as good as anything that we can build,” Trump said in remarks from the White House on Jan. 25, 2019. “They’re already there. They’ve been there for millions of years. Our proposed structures will be in predetermined high-risk locations that have been specifically identified by the Border Patrol to stop illicit flows of people and drugs.”
But is the wall being built in “predetermined high-risk locations”?
What was the Trump administration’s plan?
In his executive order on border security issued on Jan. 25, 2017, just days after he was inaugurated, Trump called on the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to “produce a comprehensive study of the security of the southern border, to be completed within 180 days of this order, that shall include the current state of southern border security, all geophysical and topographical aspects of the southern border, the availability of Federal and State resources necessary to achieve complete operational control of the southern border, and a strategy to obtain and maintain complete operational control of the southern border.”
A July 2020 report from the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security said the report ultimately submitted by CBP — the Comprehensive Southern Border Study and Strategy — was four months late (after the 180 deadline imposed by the executive order). The IG said the plan was inadequate because CBP didn’t demonstrate it could acquire the land necessary to carry out its plan and the agency didn’t justify the priorities it set out in the plan.
Specifically, it states that CBP “did not conduct an Analysis of Alternatives to assess and select the most effective, appropriate, and affordable solutions to obtain operational control of the southern border as directed, but instead relied on prior outdated border solutions to identify materiel alternatives for meeting its mission requirement; and … did not use a sound, well-documented methodology to identify and prioritize investments in areas along the border that would best benefit from physical barriers.”
The CBP report was never released publicly.
During a congressional hearing on March 15, 2018, Rep. Martha McSally said that in late 2017, Congress asked CBP leadership “to provide Congress with a list of what they needed to adequately secure the border.”
In response, in early January 2018, CBP produced a document called “Critical CBP Requirements to Improve Border Security,” which was also never publicly released. According to CNN, which obtained the documents, CBP laid out a long-term vision for “about 864 miles of new wall and about 1,163 miles of replacement or secondary wall” and asked for $18 billion over 10 years to build 722 miles of border wall, including “about 316 new miles of primary structure and about 407 miles of replacement and secondary wall.”
At the March 15, 2018, committee hearing, Ronald D. Vitiello, acting deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, confirmed that the CBP document called for constructing 316 miles of new pedestrian fencing, “in addition to what is there now.” In other words, that was in addition to the 654 miles of existing border barriers.
Again, to date, 40 miles of new fencing have been constructed where there were no barriers before.
Where did construction take place?
There also have been questions raised about CBP’s methods for determining where new barriers should be located.
A Government Accountability Office report published in July 2019 found that CBP’s 2018 Border Security Improvement Plan “doesn’t explain how projects will address the highest priority security needs.”
The Center for Biological Diversity’s Laiken Jordahl, who opposes fencing construction, told us in a phone interview that the project always has been shrouded in secrecy, and CBP has not shared with the public any analysis of where it thinks a wall should be built for maximum impact.
“There’s never been any sort of strategic planning,” Jordahl said. “There certainly hasn’t been anything presented to the general public” about where CBP intends to build the wall and why. “From Day 1, it has never been about tactics. It has been a theatrical campaign from the beginning.”
Rather than building fencing in areas identified as being of the greatest need, he said, the Trump administration has done most of the construction in areas of least resistance.
“They are building where they can,” Jordahl said.
Much of the construction has been to replace dilapidated or inadequate fencing in New Mexico, Arizona and California, where the government owns the Roosevelt Easement, a 60-foot wide strip of land along the U.S.-Mexico border in those three states.
“He has completely changed the landscape of the Arizona and New Mexico border,” Jordahl said. “It has had absolutely disastrous environmental impacts.”
It has destroyed the habitat for animals like ocelots, pronghorns and javelinas, all of which need room to roam, Jordahl said. It has cut off the genetic interchange of gray wolves on either side of the border, threatening their survival. And it has hampered the ability of jaguars to recolonize in the U.S.
Scott Nicol, co-chairman of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands team, told us via email: “More miles have been completed there since there is no need to condemn private property, but the miles under construction are in the most rugged, technically challenging, and environmentally destructive locations.”
But Trump’s claim that the wall is “almost finished” is “absolutely not true, particularly in South Texas,” where large swaths of the borderlands are privately owned, Nicol said. In South Texas, Nicol said, “the need to acquire property on which to build the border wall has stymied construction” as landowners have tied up the government in the courts.
According to a GAO analysis issued in November, as of July 2020 the federal government had acquired 135 tracts of privately owned land, but was still working to acquire 991 additional tracts, almost all of them in the Rio Grande Valley and Laredo sectors in South Texas.
“So nothing has been built on any of those [unacquired] properties,” Nicol said.
“The construction that has occurred in the RGV sector (nothing has gone up in the Laredo sector yet) first targeted U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuge properties that are part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge system,” Nicol said. “That is tremendously environmentally destructive, but it does not translate into more than a mile or so of wall in multiple disconnected segments. There have also been some landowners whose property has been taken where walls have been built.”
“Contractors … have built on land as soon as the government acquires it, but due to the time it takes to condemn that means that only a fraction of these walls have been built,” Nicol said. “So, for example, the Southwest Valley Constructors contract is for 11.45 miles of wall, but they have only been able to build 2 or maybe 3 miles in 6 or 7 disconnected, relatively short spans. The same applies for the other contracts in Hidalgo County [Texas], which is in the middle of the RGV sector. Cameron County [Texas] has seen no construction, and Starr [County, Texas] has seen 3 or 4 miles total.”
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