The Problem with "the Wall"

When Donald Trump began his presidential campaign with what was considered incendiary comments: “When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best... they're sending people that have lots of problems” and that he would complete the United States-Mexico border fence and “make Mexico pay for it.” 

After my five years with the U.S. Border Patrol stationed along the southwest border, I learned much regarding the efforts to solve the 2,000-mile-long border fence and illegal border crossing interface. The United States and Mexico share several significant natural barriers, hundreds of miles of treacherous open desert, from California to Texas, and several impenetrable and unscalable canyons of the Rio Grande River valley. When you exclude the impassable areas of the border as a conduit for illegal border crossings, you can focus on those areas that require additional man-made barriers and law enforcement deterrents.

During the mid-1990s, several efforts to restore the integrity and safety to the nation's busiest borders were enacted. Operation Gatekeeper was one of the first deterrent measures designed to halt illegal border crossings near San Diego, California. Operation Hold the Line deployed four hundred Border Patrol Agents every 100 yards from one side of El Paso to the other, in order to prevent illegal immigration. Operation Safeguard assigned more agents in the Tucson, Arizona Sector with a new fence constructed near Nogales. The effect of more Border Patrol Agents coupled with “strategic fencing” significantly reduced illegal entries as well as reduced the local crime rate.

During 2011, the Department of Homeland Security canceled the $1 billion Boeing project to build a technology-based “virtual fence” across the Southwest border -- primarily cameras and sensors on towers. When Mexican nationals used high-power rifles to attack the electronics atop the “virtual fence” the program was deemed ineffective and too costly.

Another element of the “virtual fence” was marketed as a high-tech solution, deploying mobile surveillance systems and unmanned drones. A recent DHS OIG report highlighted U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s "Unmanned Aircraft System Program Does Not Achieve Intended Results or Recognize All Costs of Operations". In fact, all of the unmanned systems purchased for the CBP Air have been loaned to the U.S. Coast Guard.

In my November 2011 Article, "$32,000 Per Illegal Alien?" I calculated the average cost of apprehending a single illegal alien using aviation assets, by type of aircraft. As the former director of the Border Patrols’ national aircraft maintenance program, I determined the average cost of apprehending a single illegal alien, using a fixed-wing aircraft was about $20; the cost of apprehending a single illegal alien using a $1M helicopter was almost $220. It was a shock to me that Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine had spent (at the time) over $240 million for several unmanned systems which were “credited with apprehending more than 7,500 people since they were deployed six years ago.” I asked the question, can it really be true the average cost to apprehend a single illegal alien using the CBP Air and Marine’s unarmed and unmanned aerial systems was $32,000 per illegal alien? After the failure of the “virtual fencing” strategy, the failure of “drones patrolling the border” wasn’t a total surprise to me, but, having those drones pushed to support the U.S. Coast Guard was.

That is because to move people or narcotics across the border illegal aliens and drug smugglers don’t cross the most inhospitable parts of deserts nor do they attempt to scale the unscalable canyon walls of the Rio Grande. That’s not where anyone needs to build a wall or erect fencing. Ask a Border Patrol Agent if and where “a wall” needs to be built; not a politician driven by a fifteen-second sound bite.

All across Europe countries are reintroducing border controls to counter the effect of Islamic refugees from North Africa and the Middle East. With new fencing and many more new border guards, the most adversely affected countries are beginning to see their efforts to stem the tide of refugees or the invasion of terrorists comingled with those seeking asylum or fleeing the effects of war in their home country. 

Virtual fencing strategies, whether towers on the ground or high-flying patrolling unmanned drones, don’t work for simple reasons -- they are inefficient, uneconomical, and grossly ineffective. Strategic blockade attempts -- difficult-to-breach-walls near ports of entry, such as the 14-mile wall from the Pacific Ocean to Otey Mesa in Southern California (and Operations Hold the Line and Safeguard) -- are efficient, economical, and very effective. They are only as good as the strength and height of the wall, as well as the significant deterrent of many law enforcement officers on the ground to apprehend those that think the road to success is to use a taller ladder to get over the man-made barrier.

A good wall or fencing strategy defeats halfhearted measures, such as the poor fencing efforts found in southern Arizona’s border towns. These inevitably fail to deter a border crosser primarily due to poor construction. For over 20 years, there has been numerous videographic evidence of border crossers negotiating porous and cheap expeditious fencing -- they go under, through, or over fencing that wouldn’t slow down an eight-year-old with a broken leg. Today, primarily in Arizona, New Mexico and in some European countries, poorly designed or maintained fencing are being overrun by illegal aliens and refugees, and can be found on television specials or on the Internet. Noteworthy and rarely, in these cases, are there sufficient border guards to ensure deterrence. A flimsy wall cannot hold back a horde.

To stop the flow requires a fundamental shift in ideology in policing illegal immigration. Strategic and impenetrable fencing augmented by more border control agents, in high-intensity drug trafficking areas, especially those focused on intercepting and preventing illegal entries at the border, have proven to be the correct solution in stemming the flow of illegals and contraband, and for Europe, undesirable refugees. Pictures of frustrated refugees on one side of a heavily protected and sturdy fence with numerous border guards on the other epitomizes the deterrent and collaborative effect of fencing and enforcement. If the cops go home, the illegals will defeat the fence. If the border agents are resilient and maintain their presence and vigilance, the refugees go somewhere else.

Policies focused on finding and deporting illegal immigrants who had already crossed the border have been negated by this administration and other Democratic administrations. There may be a few intrepid individuals that succeed in defeating Mother Nature’s barriers. I was in a Marine Corps Search and Rescue unit in Yuma, Arizona in the late 70s; it was not uncommon for us to find in the desert the remains of illegal border crossers. Some will always try their luck, to go around the border fence that stops in the middle of the desert. 

The Clinton administration withheld operations and maintenance funding for the Border Patrol as a way to remove Border Patrol agents from the field in order to facilitate greater illegal crossings. In 1995, President Clinton wouldn’t say, “Don’t do your job and look the other way.” We had Border Patrol agents who would buy gas with their own money to take a USBP vehicle to “go to work” and chase illegal aliens. My favorite anecdote was that it was so bad under the IN&S and President Clinton that some agents siphoned gas from the seized cars of drug smugglers so they could interdict and apprehend illegal aliens. At that time, the Border Patrol still apprehended a million illegal aliens annually -- and deported them -- while reporting at least two million illegal aliens “got away.”

The Obama administration has told U.S. Border Patrol Agents to not do their job, to not interdict illegal aliens crossing the border, that if they didn’t like the policy that they could find another line of work. This policy obviously and effectively removes border guards from the strategic fencing in those cities and ports of entry, as well as those who would patrol the border. Any fencing was rendered immaterial by the direction of the president to stand down. Also, the policy has effectively grounded every Border Patrol pilot. 

The presidential candidates have recently advocated for up to 20,000 additional Border Patrol Agents in addition to “a Southern wall” or more robust strategic fencing. A headline: "Border Crime Taking a Toll on Residents in Southwest New Mexico, Arizona". “Residents have said state Highway 80 has become a favorite for Mexican cartel drug runners who manage to navigate out of the Peloncillo Mountains along the Arizona-New Mexico border. They want an even more increased presence from the U.S. Border Patrol.”

America needs several walls along the Southwest border as well as a policy of enforcing the immigration laws already on the books.  When the Border Patrol is able to do their jobs, they apprehended and deported a million illegal aliens annually; actions that weren’t hard or unreasonable. It’s the law. 

Ask a Border Patrol Agent where “a wall” needs to be built and how to prevent illegal immigration -- not a politician.

Mark A. Hewitt was with the U.S. Border Patrol for five years.  He recounts some of his experiences with the Border Patrol in his espionage thrillers, Special Access and Shoot Down.  

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