Many will be familiar with President Donald Trump’s declaration to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, a decision that created a lot of controversy. What are the reasons for building this wall, and how much of it has been erected so far?
The border separating the United States and Mexico spans 1,954 miles or 3,145 kilometers and covers numerous terrains, including urban cities and deserts, which have facilitated large numbers of illegal crossings and drug trafficking incidents in the past, most notably through San Diego, California and El Paso, Texas. A steel fence that varies between 18 and 27 feet in height divides the two adjacent towns of Nogales, Arizona in the United States and Nogales, Sonora in Mexico. In the past few years, the number of people apprehended at the southwest border for illegal crossing has been steadily increasing. Of interesting note is that while the border separates Mexico and the United States, 80 percent of illegal crossers that were apprehended were not Mexican. With high fences blocking some of the urban areas, illegal crossers usually have to go by the routes that have no fence, bringing them through some fifty miles of rough terrain and deserts.
This fencing was first done by United States President George H. W. Bush and it initially spanned 14 miles along the border. Construction began in 1990 and was completed in 3 years. Over the next few years, more barriers were worked on under President Bill Clinton in an effort to curb drug trafficking over the border. Most of the barriers built in the 1990s were made out of leftover helicopter landing mats from the Vietnam War. The construction picked up again in the 2000s, namely in 2006, in which the Secure Fence Act funded 700 miles of the barrier to be constructed. While the bill was voted by the majority in the United States, the government of Mexico and some other Latin American countries opposed the act. The Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, was also among the opposition, stating that he believed the border should be more open and accommodating legal migration instead of being closed. However, the building of the fence carried on in January 2009. It was officially completed in 2015 under the presidency of Barack Obama. In addition to the base fence, the Customs and Border Protection also deployed extra layers of protective fencing for pedestrians.
The rationale for building a wall first came about due to the large number of illegal immigrants arriving to the United States from Mexico. Viewing the land up north as a golden opportunity, Mexicans often traveled across the border in search of new jobs and a new life. However, this was viewed in different perspectives in the United States. While it was deemed undesirable to the United States authorities, some in the United States believed that the Mexicans helped to sustain the labor force in the United States, especially when it came to low-skilled jobs. In an effort to curb illegal immigration, President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency in February 2019 over the rise in immigrants at the southern border of the United States.
President Trump is perhaps most famous for claiming that he would “build the wall and make Mexico pay for it” throughout his presidential campaign in 2016. Trump failed to get approval for the money he required to build the wall from Congress, but the state of emergency allowed him to redirect the monetary funds from other projects to the construction of this wall. Although two voting sessions have been carried out to end the state of emergency, less than two thirds support was achieved either time, which was not enough to call for action. On the whole, $9.8 billion in funding has been secured since January 2017 for the construction of about 509 miles of a new wall. The United States Customs and Border Protection expects to complete 450 miles of the new border wall system by the end of 2020.
There has been a long-standing debate regarding the construction of the wall and what it entails. While some, like the Trump administration, are for the building of the wall, others believe that the wall will not discourage illegal immigration or trafficking of contraband items at all. In fact, numerous books have been written on the effectiveness of such a wall or even border walls in general, arguing that regardless of how high or extensive a wall is built, those who wish to circumvent it will still find ways to do so. The placement of a wall may even result in a greater number of people feeling that they need to operate under the hood, as opposed to opening up the border to facilitate legal crossing. In spite of the opposition, the United States Customs and Border Protection Agency has regularly called for the construction of more physical barriers across the border.
Another controversy that arose regarding the construction of the wall was the division of tribal lands of three indigenous nations. On January 27, 2008, the official International Boundary obelisks of 1848 were reported to be removed for the purposes of constructing the steel barrier wall. The obelisks were moved about 70 feet south and placed onto the property of private landowners in Sonora, Mexico. This understandably caused opposition from both the landowners and a Native American human rights delegation in the United States.
Additionally, the barrier was slated to pass through the campus of the University of Texas at Brownville, dividing it into two parts. Students of the university raised protests against the proposal on the grounds that it would harm their school. Eventually, the university and the United States Department of Homeland Security reached an agreement to construct the wall adjacent to the campus, with the southern perimeter of the campus being part of a laboratory for testing security technology and infrastructure.
Part of the opposition against the Mexico-United States barrier concerns the increased number of migrant deaths after the main part of the fence was built. The number of migrant deaths around the border totaled around 5,000 between 1994 and 2007. From October 2003 to May 2004, there were three times the number of casualties sustained from attempts to cross the Sonoran Desert. Thousands of migrant bodies have been recovered in the southern Arizona desert, close to the border. The increase in the number of migrant deaths can be linked to the construction of the barrier, which likely caused the immigrants to attempt crossing the deserts where there were no fences, but which were of course also more dangerous. The United States Border Patrol Tucson Sector was able to save 443 illegal immigrants who had been abandoned by their smugglers, and would likely have succumbed to the desert. There have also been casualties from crossing the wall directly. In March 2020, a 19-year-old Guatemalan woman in her eighth month of pregnancy fell from the border wall and was pronounced dead, together with her child, in the hospital after attempts to save them had failed.
While we can see that the construction of the border wall carries a lot of controversy, the illegal smuggling of drugs and immigrants remains a real problem with no clear solution.