Desert on the Mexican / US border

How to build Trump’s ‘Wall’

Image credit: Diomedia

We take a look at what it would actually take - and cost - if the Republican candidate won the presidential election and got to build his ‘Mexico Wall’

Republican Donald Trump declared that he would “build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall,” back in June 2015, when he announced his candidacy for President of the USA. Since then, many have been puzzled as to how he would actually do it. Earlier this year, in an interview with US television network MSNBC, Trump said that his wall would cost around $8bn, explaining that it was a “very simple calculation.

“What we’re doing is we have 2,000 miles, right? 2,000 miles. It’s long, but not 13,000 miles like they have in China [The Great Wall of China].

“Of the 2,000, we don’t need 2,000, we need 1,000 because we have natural barriers… and I’m taking it price per square foot and a price per square, you know, per mile,” he said in his inimitable style.

Trump also said that the wall would most likely be around 35 to 40 feet high [10-12m] and would be a ‘real wall’ that “actually looks good, you know, as good as a wall is going to look.”

Putting all potential xenophobia aside (Trump’s threats toward the Mexican people and essentially blackmailing the Mexican government to fund the costs of this new border venture), how feasible is this plan to build the wall?

Christopher Wilson is deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where he leads the Institute’s research on regional economic integration and US-Mexico border affairs. He believes that Trump’s wall isn’t actually that unfeasible, but says “the starting point for any conversation has to be that we already have a ‘wall’. There’s nearly 700 miles of fence along the US-Mexico border, so the idea that you could build a couple hundred more miles of it is hardly unrealistic.”

“If you want to improve border security, there are lots of other ways you could spend your dollars and get a much higher return on your investment, especially at this point.”

Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

However, Wilson reckons that the proposed wall is not the most effective use of money: “If you want to improve border security, there are lots of other ways you could spend your dollars and get a much higher return on your investment, especially at this point.”

Wilson suggests ports of entry at the existing border, which are the initial crossing points, as the best place for investment. “A large portion of unauthorised migration happens here, so we can simultaneously get improvements in border security and efficiency - which is a big issue - by investing in infrastructure and technology there.”

He says there are staff shortages at the ports of entry and crossing points and “this means that lanes aren’t open all the time and there are fewer inspections during busy times of day. It also means there are not enough in-depth inspections, which are vital, especially when it comes to drug smuggling.”

Wilson believes that fencing and walls are more of a tactical tool, rather than a strategic one. He explains: “What I mean by this is that fencing or walls can drive migration flows from city centres (which can lead to crime and make people feel unsafe) to areas outside of a city where it happens to be more dangerous for the migrants themselves.

“You can be successful at shifting flows by the use of walls, but they have to be in conjunction with border patrols travelling back and forth and monitoring along the border, and the use of technology. It has to be a package of things to be useful.

“You can’t expect that simply building a wall across the entire US-Mexico border will stop migration, it’s just completely unrealistic and only a partial solution.”

Wrong side of the wall

In an interview with The Washington Post last year, Trump claimed that “building a wall is easy, and it can be done inexpensively.

“It’s not even a difficult project if you know what you’re doing. And no one knows what they’re doing like I do.”

Trump added that a wall “would be very effective” in deterring unlawful migration and that seismic and other equipment could spot and prevent underground tunnels. “A wall is better than fencing, and it’s much more powerful,” he said. “It’s more secure. It’s taller.”

Wilson disagrees, commenting that people will go over, under and through the crossing points. There are already a huge number of tunnels underneath the California and Arizona borders. “You build a 20-foot wall; someone builds a 21-foot ladder. It’s just the nature of the challenge,” he quips.

There may also be many secondary issues when you’re building a wall like the one Trump envisions. There are environmental concerns like flooding, or debris getting caught along the wall, creating a block for water and for wildlife.

“Also, there are land ownership issues. Most of the area is private, active ranch land, where ranchers are out there trying to move their animals on a daily basis. You obviously can’t build the wall on the border itself, so you would have to build it on US territory. That means that parts of the US end up on the wrong side of the wall, so you have to install gates,” Wilson adds.

“You could be making enemies with the local populations, which are actually your best source of intelligence. Having a good relationship with them, having them call you when they see something, is incredibly important.”

There is another argument to let Trump build the wall, so people can feel safer. “If there are border security costs of four or five or six billion dollars, maybe it’s worth it, if that’s what it takes to have a rational immigration system again and get beyond this demagoguery,” Wilson remarks.

Learning from the past

Back in 2006, the US Department of Homeland Security initiated a programme called SBInet, an integrated system of personnel, infrastructure, technology and rapid response to secure the northern and southern land borders of the United States.

Although it was cancelled in 2011, Wilson likens this programme to the idea of building a virtual wall - something that many of Trump’s advisers, including Republican John Fleming, have suggested.

“Between drones, personnel, detection devices and the ability to respond when people do cross certain barriers, our capabilities are very good. I just want a practical barrier to protect our borders.”

John Fleming, Republican party advisor

During an interview with US news site The Advocate in September, Fleming stated that “we need some sort of barrier, whether it’s a physical one or a virtual one. In some areas that are mountainous, it probably wouldn’t be practical to have a physical wall. We could probably have a virtual wall for the entire length.

“Between drones, personnel, detection devices and the ability to respond when people do cross certain barriers, our capabilities are very good. I just want a practical barrier to protect our borders.” 

Wilson adds that “a virtual wall would essentially mean deploying more of what is already present on the border: more cameras (some with infra-red), land-based radar, air-based radar, ground-sensors along the border that pick up vibrations, drones and aircraft, all that sort of network of technology which is linked to and monitored by command-and-control centres.”

Another good investment would be in border communications technology, as border patrol agents sometimes operate in remote, mountainous or difficult terrain. Unfortunately, building technology that consistently works and links agents back to command posts and intelligence centres is difficult.

“There are big lessons we have learned about technology, especially through the SBInet program,” Wilson comments.

“Finding technology that is proven to be effective and is already used is much better than trying to make your own technology just for the border. A lot of effective things have come from Israel or US military, which are then adapted to be used along the fencing.” 

Learning from experience has led to SBinet’s successor, the Integrated Fixed Towers (IFT) system, which has radar and day and night cameras along the border, giving a clearer picture to border agents to what is and isn’t a false alarm.

John Lawson, US Customs and Border Protection acting section chief said to Popular Mechanics in January: “It’s very difficult terrain to deploy technology in, and that’s one of the benefits that we’re anticipating. This system is going to be a lot more rugged than a lot of the previous things we’ve deployed.” So far, it has been rather effective.

Wilson concludes that “the most likely scenario of what would be built would look much like what’s already been built. There were engineering companies hired, security experts involved, it’s been tried, there’s on-the-ground experience with it and we have essentially figured out what does and doesn’t work at this point.

“Dreaming up some completely different type of fencing or wall that is feasible to build and cost-effective in any sort of a way will be very challenging to do.”

Dreaming up the wall

What if Trump wins the election and wants to build this giant, solid structure? What on earth will it be like? And how much will it cost?

According to Bernstein Research report ‘Bernstein Materials Blast: who would profit from the Trump Wall?’ by Phil Rosenberg, Nick Timpson and Alexandra Schegel, the US Government Accountability Office said the ‘easiest’ parts of the existing fence cost around $2.8-$3.9m per mile. This means Trump’s cost estimate of around $10bn is very wrong, indeed - it could actually cost as much as $25bn.

Practically, concrete is the most cost-effective, imposing and strong barrier and would be the best material for the wall according to Rosenberg, Timpson and Schegel.

“As ludicrous as The Trump Wall project sounds (to us at least), it represents a huge opportunity for those companies involved in its construction.”

Rosenberg, Timpson and Schegel statement

High temperatures at the US border means that pouring concrete into place there would be ineffective. Precast panels, which are set elsewhere and transported to the site, will probably be used. Steel pillars would support the panels.

They write that “planning and land acquisition would take one to two years with a further two years for construction itself…the impact on demand for materials would occur from 2018 at the earliest.”

In the report, the researchers made a base case for the wall as 1,000 miles-long, 40ft (12m) high (plus 7ft (2m) below ground to stop tunnelling) and a thickness of 10 inches (25cm). Additionally, there would be a 5ft (1.5m) wide and 1ft (30cm) deep concrete strip foundation along the entire length. 

Therefore, the researchers calculate that the Trump Wall would require 7.1 million m³ of concrete at over $700m and the volume of concrete would need around 2.4 million tonnes of cement at approximately $240m. This doesn’t even factor in labour costs and transportation of the panels.

“As ludicrous as The Trump Wall project sounds (to us at least), it represents a huge opportunity for those companies involved in its construction,” Rosenberg, Timpson and Schegel write. “If The Wall does go ahead, it will almost certainly be built from concrete.

“What is less clear at this stage is whether US- or Mexico-based suppliers will benefit. In fact, despite arguments about which government will pay for construction, the large quantities of materials required may necessitate procurement from both sides of the border.”

Trump will build his wall if he wins. The question is whether people will break through a physical wall, or a virtual one.

An infographic depicting Trump's Wall

Trump's Wall infographic

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