Trump vs. Biden: The Wall

Two very different points of view – one constant, the other evolving

By Andrew R. Arthur on October 13, 2020
  • President Trump has been and remains interested in erecting barriers along approximately 1,000 miles of the Southwest border, where law-enforcement believes they are necessary.
  • He has fought for funding for those barriers, leading to a weeks-long government shutdown. And, he has bucked Congress – including members of his own party – to divert military funding to that task.
  • The Trump administration has, at last count, erected almost 350 miles of barriers – primarily tall bollard fencing – and is in the process of completing another 400 miles.
  • How much of that fencing has been erected in places where there were no barriers in the past, and how much of it instead replaces obsolete and ineffective fencing is unclear.
  • Former Vice President Biden opposes any additional barrier construction, and has vowed to stop it if elected.
  • While he has switched positions on this issue (having voted in the past for fencing, and as part of the prior administration assisted in erecting it), he does not believe those barriers are effective in stopping criminals from exploiting the border for their illicit purposes.

With the election less than four weeks away, I am analyzing the (largely very different) positions of Joe Biden and Donald Trump on what they would do as commander-in-chief with respect to immigration in the next four years. In my last post, I looked at the candidates' individual positions on the very broad issue of immigration enforcement generally. Today, I will look at a more concrete (or rather, concrete and reinforced steel) issue: the wall.


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Framing the Issue

It is a sign of how much Trump has influenced popular culture and political conversation that I don't actually have to explain "which wall". Even with that, however, the concept of a "wall" along the Southwest border is a misnomer (and likely a practical impossibility, given the fact that the border is about 1,954-miles long).

In reality, as I explained in reporting from the ground in Yuma, Ariz., parts of the border are fenced off by (truly inadequate) Vietnam-era landing mats, which are being replaced by bollard-style fencing, some of it open, other parts solid. There are also jersey walls in spots, chain-link fencing (partially reinforced with razor wire, near ports of entry), metal-mesh fencing, and (primarily in harder-to-reach areas) Normandy barriers. These are all terms of art, but I hope the pictures in that post are a helpful guide.

They all are really just barriers, and none of them will stop anyone who is bound and determined to get in. But, that is not the purpose of those barriers, as then-DHS spokesman Katie Waldman explained in early 2019:

The professionals on the border know that a wall system is intended not only to prevent entry, it is intended to defer and to increase the amount of time and effort it takes for one to enter so that we can respond with limited border patrol agents. Even a wall that is being breached is a valuable tool in that it allows us to respond to the attempted illegal entry.

Border Barriers as a Campaign Issue

The president made border barriers a key point of his 2016 campaign, and to a significant degree, his success with respect to his immigration policies has been measured (both within and outside the administration) by his ability to erect such barriers.

In case you want proof of the former assertion, you need look no further than DHS itself, which posts regular "Wall Construction Update[s]". Or, check the Twitter feed of Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott:

 

In fact, CBP has an entire webpage dedicated to what it rather inaptly describes as the "Border Wall System", and some individual or group (an apparent supporter of the president's) has an entire slickly constructed website dedicated to updates on the progress of those barriers. There is no identification on the latter website, and I have no idea who puts it together, so I withhold comment on its veracity or the motives of the webmaster(s), which I do not condone or endorse. I simply bring it up to show how closely the issue is tied to support for Trump.

The Secure Fence Act of 2006 and Congressional Funding

The president's campaign website states: "The Trump Administration has secured funding for approximately 445 miles of the total 722 miles of border wall requested." Note the modifier "has secured". He has requested more funding, but has (not for want of trying) had only limited success in this effort.

Five days after his inauguration, the White House issued Executive Order (EO) 13767, "Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements". In that EO, the president laid out his case for border barriers, and vowed to "take all appropriate steps" to plan, design, and build those barriers along the Southwest border, in order to achieve "complete operational control" of that border.

The term "operational control" of the Southwest border harkens back to the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which I played a role in drafting as a congressional staffer, and which I will discuss again further below.

That bill defined "operational control" as "the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband." As you can imagine, that goal is more aspirational than practical, but Congress was aiming high.

In the White House fact sheet for that bill, then-President George W. Bush explained that "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" – that is, an overhaul of the immigration system that would lead to some level of amnesty, which that fact sheet makes clear Bush heartily supported – required securing the border first.

Congress provided border barrier funding under CBP's "Border Security Fencing, Infrastructure, and Technology" (BSFIT) appropriation from FY 2007 through FY 2016. In the FY 2007 appropriation, more than $1.5 billion was allocated for BSFIT activities, of which $950 million was for "tactical infrastructure" ("TI" – that is barrier construction).

TI funding increased to more than $1.2 billion (most of which for procurement, construction, and improvements) in FY 2008, before dropping to $315.5 billion in FY 2009 (a sixth of which went to operations and support), $152 million in FY 2010 (two-thirds of which went to procurement and construction, with the rest going to operations and support), and $69 million in FY 2011 (of which only $14 million went to procurement and construction).

Between FY 2012 and FY 2015, TI funding was $50 million, none of which went to construction. Finally, in FY 2016, TI funding increased to $119 million, but only $4 million of that was for construction.

In FY 2017, Trump requested $999 million in supplemental wall funding to begin design and construction of barriers, and a Republican-controlled Congress responded by allocating $341 million. The next year, he asked for more than $1.5 billion, and Congress gave $1.375 billion.

In the FY 2019 request (made before Democrats had taken over the House of Representatives, which has original jurisdiction over appropriations), the administration originally asked for $1.6 billion, but then raised that to $5.7 billion during budget negotiations. After Democratic takeover of the lower chamber, Trump received, again, $1.375 billion, with significant restrictions on how that money could be spent. Congress appropriated the same amount for FY 2020 (when the administration had requested $5 billion).

Those numbers leave out the human element of those negotiations. Border-wall funding was the reason for the 2018-2019 government shutdown, largely as a result of the president's demand for the $5.7 billion requested for FY 2019 (for 215 miles of border construction), and House Democrats' refusal to fund that amount.

The president pared down that request to $2 billion in early February (which Democrats rejected), and eventually agreed to the lesser amount for 55 miles of construction on February 15, 2019. But, he was not done.

On that day, the president declared a national emergency at the southern border, which he has used to divert Department of Defense (DOD) funds to supplement congressional appropriations (an effort that has made it all the way to the Supreme Court at least once already). Congress passed legislation to end that reprogramming, only to have it vetoed by the president.

In December 2019, Congress passed another spending bill for 2020, again funding border barriers at their FY 2019 levels. Despite congressional objections to Trump's diversion of DOD funding for barrier construction, there are no restrictions in the FY 2020 budget that prevents the president from continuing the practice.

Trump's Position

As noted, border barriers were a key point of the president's successful 2016 campaign. Specifically, Trump promised to "build a great, great wall on our southern border" to prevent illegal entries. He has had only moderate success in doing so, largely because of the funding fights described above.

The specifics of Trump's proposal to erect those barriers was inconsistent during that campaign. He initially proposed a wall extending all the way across the Southwest border, but subsequently made it clear on numerous occasions since his election that a more limited effort would be appropriate.

Specifically, the president has called for barriers along 1,000 miles of that 1,954-mile boundary. Construction initially focused on replacing dilapidated or otherwise inadequate barriers that were already in place (for reference, as of October 2014, there was 653 miles of barriers – of one sort or another – in place), but new fencing has also been erected.

How much is new? DHS reports that (as of September 29), 341 miles of new barriers have been completed, 250 miles are under construction, and 157 miles are in the preconstruction process. That said, how much has been erected where there were no barriers before as opposed to replacement barriers, has been difficult to gauge.

But, as the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) has explained: "Framing the debate on barrier or wall building at the border using these extremes often does not capture the complexity of the situation, in terms of what CBP states the barriers can be expected to do and the realities of the terrain and geography of the border." The better question, according to CRS, is "whether placement of a barrier in a given location will have the desired effect on illicit cross-border flows."

Most of the recent construction has been 18- to 30-foot high reinforced bollard fencing, which, according to CRS, "poses a formidable barrier."

As noted, those barriers have been erected at U.S- taxpayer expense, despite the fact that Trump during the 2016 campaign famously vowed to make Mexico pay for those barriers.

That has not happened, and appears to be (extremely) unlikely to occur, but as my colleague Mark Krikorian has recently argued, Trump has instead more importantly persuaded Mexico to enforce its own southern border, thereby limiting the number of third-country nationals ("other than Mexicans" or "OTMs") seeking illegal entry into this country.

Biden's Position

Donald Trump has a unique ability to goad his political opponents into abandoning positions that they held in the past as relates to immigration. Nowhere is this clearer than on the issue of border barriers.

With respect to the former vice president, he is clearly on record as supporting barriers in the past.

Specifically, then-Senator Biden joined 79 of his colleagues (including his future boss, then-Senator Barack Obama) in voting in favor of Secure Fence Act of 2006, which as noted significantly expanded the construction of barriers along the Southwest border. He was not alone – 64 Democrats in the House did the same. In fact, the "Obama-Biden Administration" built 130 miles of the walls and fencing authorized by that legislation.

Now, the former senator has evolved to a different position, and absolutely opposes any new barrier construction. He explains on his campaign website: "Building a wall will do little to deter criminals and cartels seeking to exploit our borders." In lieu of that, Biden wants to: "Invest in better technology coupled with privacy protections at the border, both at and between ports of entry, including cameras, sensors, large-scale x-ray machines, and fixed towers."

As an aside, the "privacy protections at the border" part is a bit of a head-scratcher in an otherwise meticulously drafted position paper. Under the Fourth Amendment, persons generally have no reasonable expectation of privacy in a public place (which would describe almost all of the border), and no expectation of privacy crossing an international border, especially illegally. As the Supreme Court explained in 1977:

That searches made at the border, pursuant to the longstanding right of the sovereign to protect itself by stopping and examining persons and property crossing into this country, are reasonable simply by virtue of the fact that they occur at the border should, by now, require no extended demonstration.

That means that you (assuming you are a U.S. citizen, national, or lawful permanent resident) don't have a Fourth Amendment right to object to a search at a port of entry, either, so it would appear that the former vice president is proposing to impose such a requirement on CBP officers and agents in surveilling and questioning aliens at and between the ports. Someone may want to ask him about that.

In any event, the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force Recommendations (a separate Biden campaign document that was drafted in conjunction with progressive members of the Democratic Party) – which expands on other proposals on the candidate's website – does not provide anything new or different with respect to the candidate's position on barrier construction. Both call for an end to the national emergency that Trump declared in February 2019, and an end to diversion of DOD funding to pay for barriers. That is about it.

But, to be clear, Biden wants to scrap further construction of those barriers (going so far as to state in August: "There will not be another foot of wall constructed on my administration, No. 1 . . ."), and instead employ unspecified technology.

Analysis

I am in favor of additional technology at the border, and in particular surveillance cameras, lights, aerostats, and ground sensors. Each of these is a force-multiplier for the still-underfunded Border Patrol agents who protect that border, but none by itself is sufficient to stop the entry of illegal migrants and illicit drugs and other contraband without a physical barrier in the areas along the border where one is otherwise needed – specifically where there are no natural impediments to entry.

I concur with my colleague Dan Cadman on this point, who stated in January 2019:

How often have we heard politicians from both parties speak of "smart border security" and "layered defenses"? Translated into plain English, that means tens of billions of dollars for humans and technology – and yet they refuse to pony up $5 billion for a physical barrier that will do more to prevent illegal crossers than any type of technology on the market, short of lethal force technology which we all know and agree is a non-starter.

Biden asserts, however: "A wall is not a serious deterrent for sophisticated criminal organizations that employ border tunnels, semi-submersible vessels, and aerial technology to overcome physical barriers at the border – or even for individuals with a reciprocating saw."

Respectfully, the former vice president doesn't appear to understand what those barriers are for, nor does he apparently understand what that 18- to 30-foot bollard fencing actually looks like.

He uses the term "deterrent" above when I believe he means to say "impediment". If a barrier were not a "deterrent", a criminal organization ("sophisticated" or otherwise) would not go to the trouble and significant expense of digging tunnels, buying semi-submersible vessels, or employing "aerial technology" to conduct their business.

They would simply (and cheaply) drive their contraband across the border, as they did 2,700 times in 2005 in the Yuma sector before (somewhat ironically) the Obama-Biden administration completed the job of erecting barriers there (by FY 2010, such "drive-throughs" dropped to two). Say what you want about cartels – they are serious about the bottom line, and don't spend money if they don't have to.

And, it is a lot easier for CBP to detect and respond to tunnels, submersibles, and drones than it is to find a lone drug mule or vehicle in the middle of a vast desert. Basically, barriers raise the price and the risk of criminal activity.

Again, however, barriers don't stop incursions, but they help law-enforcement to better respond to them. As I explained In September 2019: "Barriers are a force-multiplier for the Border Patrol in all of its duties. They slow down migrants, ordinary criminals, terrorists, and drug-traffickers as they attempt to enter illegally, giving those agents more time to respond to incursions."

Which brings me to the "reciprocating saw" canard. Good luck making quick work of cutting through enough concrete-reinforced steel bollard fencing to get through quickly enough to avoid Border Patrol agents.

Thanks to the cameras, aerostats, and sensors that are used in conjunction with barriers, agents will likely know someone is schlepping a nine-pound piece of equipment to the fence long before they can make the first cut, and definitely before they could finish the job. Barriers are erected on the U.S. side of the border, meaning our hypothetical saw bearer would have to enter illegally to begin with, get to the fence, and finish work before he or she gets caught. It could happen, but likely won't.

That said, however, Trump could have and should do a better job of selling the need for those barriers to Americans who are not already in support of them. Most of those unconvinced voters will never go to the border and only know what they read in the media (most of which is misinformed on the issue and oppose Trump generally).

And, the president should provide more transparency on the question of how many miles of the barriers his administration has completed were built where there were none in the past, and how much of it upgrades pre-existing construction. CRS is correct in stating that this is not the question that should be asked, but it is the only point that many mildly interested in the issue want to know.

Plus, he should better explain why those replacement barriers are necessary. I have seen the old barriers, and know that they are insufficient to the point of worthless. But again, most Americans will never drive down access roads in the desert to check it out for themselves, and national media probably won't either.

Summary

President Trump has been and remains interested in erecting barriers along approximately 1,000 miles of the Southwest border, where law-enforcement believes they are necessary. He has fought for funding for those barriers, leading to a weeks-long government shutdown. And, he has bucked Congress – including members of his own party – to divert military funding to that task.

His administration has, at last count, erected almost 350 miles of barriers – primarily tall bollard fencing – and is in the process of completing another 400 miles. How much of that fencing has been erected in places where there were no barriers in the past, and how much of it instead replaces obsolete and ineffective fencing is unclear.

Former Vice President Biden opposes any additional barrier construction, and has vowed to stop it if elected. While he has switched positions on this issue (having voted in the past for fencing, and as part of the prior administration assisted in erecting it), he does not believe those barriers are effective in stopping criminals from exploiting the border for their illicit purposes.

Topics: Border Wall