Let's Have More Wall and Less Gold-Plating

By David North, April 20, 2017

After looking at the proposed building specifications for the proposed border wall, I am worried that we may spend too much money per mile, thus reducing its length.

We need more wall, and less gold-plating.

On a fundamental level, I prefer more wall to less wall, but feel that the billions spent on the extension of the wall might better be used on a series of well-planned and well-managed raids of illegal alien workplaces, the immediate deportation of the illegal workers found in those places, and the jailing of their employers — but this administration seems intent on building the wall, and my comments assume that it will happen, at least to some extent.

Similarly, my hope is that the administration will use one of many obvious ways to fund the wall with minimal impact on citizen taxpayers. There could be a fee of 2 percent or so on overseas wire transfers (i.e., remittances); there could be a simple dollar admission fee for those crossing the southern border legally; and there could be a ban on income tax refunds to those using Social Security numbers not issued to them. Each of these proposals could easily raise a couple of billion dollars a year — largely from non-citizens — and lessen GOP reluctance to fund the wall. But the thinly staffed Trump administration has not pressed for any of these proposals.

Given the assumption that a wall will be built, perhaps using taxpayer money, let's turn to the worrisome building specifications as outlined in a recent CNN report.

The article quotes from a Department of Homeland Security notice to would-be contractors:

"The wall design shall be physically imposing in height," Customs and Border Protection outlined. ... That means 30 feet tall, although the officials wrote that "design heights of at least 18 feet may be acceptable." ...

In addition the wall must resist attempts to penetrate through or under it. The request specifically mentions it must successfully endure at least 30 minutes — but ideally more than four hours — of attempts to bore through it with a "sledgehammer, car jack, pick axe, chisel, battery operated impact tools, battery operated cutting tools, Oxy/acetylene torch or other similar hand-held tools."

Elsewhere in the notice was a requirement that there be six feet of below-ground-level footing to discourage tunneling efforts.

Setting aside for the moment the stated need for a height of 30 feet — that's about as high as the top of the chimney of a two-story house — let's think a little about the purpose of such a wall. Part of it, of course, is symbolic; it is a useful symbol as it shows that we as a nation care about border enforcement. Any substantial wall meets that criteria.

But let's look a little more closely at the wall's utility as a barrier against illegal migration, and the specific threat scenarios involved. The general idea is to reduce substantially the number of people who manage to get from the south side of the wall to the north side.

I use the verb "reduce" deliberately because we know that no wall will completely cut off illicit migration. Further, as Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has told us, there will be no complete wall from "sea to Shining sea".

With this in mind, we should also note that such a wall need not meet the requirements of an external wall at a maximum security prison; we are not trying to prevent all attacks on the wall, we simply want to make the illicit journey north much more difficult and thus much more unlikely.

More specifically, any existing or proposed border wall faces four threat scenarios of vastly different dimensions. In order of declining significance, they are:

  • Illegal aliens will seek to go around the wall;
  • They will seek to go over it;
  • They may seek to go through it; and
  • A tiny number of illegals (but many more drug dealers) will try to go under it.

What do these threat scenarios tell us about the specs for such a wall?

Any substantial wall will cause illegals to seek to skirt it, a tactic that typically puts them face to face with the natural barriers of the Arizona and New Mexico deserts and mountains, particularly dangerous in the summer, or those of the Rio Grande, particularly worrisome at the time of the spring runoff (especially if you do not know how to swim).

Going Around. To deal with this, the most significant threat, one needs more walls over more miles, not incredibly strong walls. The walls need to be high enough to be significant, but not armored ones with six-foot foundations.

That should be obvious.

Going Over. Height clearly plays a role here; all else being equal a higher wall will discourage more over-the-wall efforts than a lower wall. The wall need not have either deep foundations or a stout ability to resist a pick axe to serve this purpose.

In this connection, I was reminded of the dismissive comments of that sometime phrase-maker, former Texas Governor Rick Perry; he said that building a 10-foot wall will only encourage the sale of 11-foot ladders.

With those thoughts in mind I wondered about the availability of, say, 36-foot extension ladders, which could be used with the 30-foot walls. It turns out that you can buy one for $314.85 from Lowes, a price that a coyote could pay easily.

I can easily visualize a people-smuggler — let's call him Claudio — approaching the fence from the south. He puts his $314.85 ladder into his pickup or all-terrain vehicle along with his half dozen clients; they drive to the fence in the middle of the night; Claudio extends the ladder, mounts it against the wall, and sends the first illegal up the ladder with a 30-foot rope ladder to be lowered on the other side the wall. Once all the illegals have gone over the wall and down again, Claudio climbs to the top, recovers the rope ladder, descends on the Mexican side, collapses the ladder, and drives away; it all can be done, silently, in the matter of 10 minutes or so.

There is an easy design fix to thwart Claudio's maneuver, which we will get to later; in the meantime, it is useful to note that his operation would not be foiled by either an armored wall, or one with a six-foot footing.

Going Through. One of the least likely scenarios is that an illegal alien will seek to break into the United States by creating a hole in the wall. This is unlikely because it is, by definition, a noisy process. Walking around the wall, climbing over it, and even the labor-intensive tunneling process are all silent activities. Making a hole in the wall is also only a rural option; it would not succeed in an urban area like San Diego or Nogales.

It would be useful to know what the Border Patrol's experience has been with assaults on solid cement walls, as opposed to some of the flimsier fencing arrangements along the southern border. I cannot believe that there has been much of it. A six-foot foundation, by the way, would not discourage anyone from making a hole in the wall above ground.

Further, there is a potential design element that would all but eliminate the prospect of piercing the wall except in the most remote areas. (See below.)

So why go to great expense to eliminate the rather unlikely event of wall-busting?

Going Under. There is, as a matter of fact, a lot of tunneling under the border, operations that the Border Patrol rarely notices until the tunnels begin to be used, as we have noted earlier. It does make sense, then, that tunnels in urban areas should have deep footings. On the other hand, it is unlikely that someone would dig a tunnel under a wall in the middle of the desert, or along our side of the Rio Grande. In the first instance, the smuggler needs concealed places, such as houses, to use as the cover at both ends of the tunnel, and such houses are rare in the desert. In the second, were the wall to be right along the river the tunnel would be flooded.

Tunnels, moreover, are usually used for drug smuggling rather than people smuggling, simply because of the economics. Further, there are walls in most urban areas along the border already, so that there are unlikely to be many new walls built in those areas. With most of the new wall to be in areas where tunnels are not a problem, there is no need for six-foot foundations (unless the very structure required it.)

In summary, it looks like the government will insist on a more sturdy wall than is needed, and this will reduce the length of the wall to be built.

Incidentally, as my colleague, Dan Cadman, has pointed out, we must make sure that only U.S. workers and U.S. material will be used in any wall construction project.

Before leaving the subject, let's talk about the specifics of wall location, a topic that I do not believe was touched on in the building specifications.

The Location of the Wall. It is a good idea to not build a border wall right on the border, unless it is in a city, where the costs of land acquisition would be prohibitive. The best location for a wall is some 20 or 30 feet on this side of the international boundary, so that there can be two sets of obstacles to the potential illegal immigrant, and, ideally, to follow the Israeli precedent, a road in between.

The first obstacle would be a relatively inexpensive chain-link fence with razor wire draped around it, which could be right at the border. Then there would be the road, and then there would be the wall itself, built within the United States.

The fence would serve several functions; it would impede many would-be crossers and would make it less easy for those seeking to conquer the wall to escape back to Mexico, as getting back over the fence would not be easy.

In the best of all possible worlds, those getting over the initial fence would set off brilliant, flashing lights and blaring alarms, making the failed attempt a memorable experience for the would-be illegals. The alarm system, I suspect, could be built into the razor wire so that if it were brushed aside or cut a circuit would be broken setting off the alarm system.

With a fence, as described, there would be few dangers of anyone having the time to break through the concrete wall, or being able to mount a tall ladder to get over the wall, thus Claudio's scheme would not work.

And with such a fence in place, there would be little need for the extremely secure construction and the ultra-deep footings that seem to be in the minds of some people in DHS.