Mexico border wall: As Trump demands $5.7bn in federal funding, will the proposed barrier ever be built?

President insists US faces 'a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul' over illegal immigration

Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 09 January 2019 18:09 GMT
President Trump makes televised plea for border wall funding as he declared there is 'a humanitarian crisis'

Donald Trump has reiterated his demand for $5.7bn (£4.4bn) in federal funding to build his proposed Mexican border wall as the US government shutdown continues.

Making his first-ever prime time address from the Oval Office on Tuesday, the president insisted the country was facing a “humanitarian and security crisis” as a result of unchecked illegal immigration on its southern border.

“How much more American blood must be shed before Congress does its job?” he asked, alluding to murders he alleges have been carried out by undocumented asylum seekers arriving from Latin America, painting a dark picture of gang violence, drug smuggling and human trafficking.

The US government is approaching the end of its third week of inactivity as a result of the impasse, with Democrats refusing to budge on the issue, an embarrassment for Mr Trump given that the wall was one of the flagship policies of his 2016 election campaign.

The president has so far stopped short of declaring a national emergency, which would allow him to redirect financing to what promises to be a colossal infrastructure project stretching from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico without congressional approval.

What are the Democrats saying?

“The president has chosen fear. We want to start with the facts,” said Nancy Pelosi, Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, during a party political broadcast rebutting Mr Trump’s address.

“The fact is, President Trump has chosen to hold hostage critical services for the health, safety and well-being of the American people and withhold the paychecks of 800,000 innocent workers across the nation, many of them veterans.”

Ms Pelsoi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said they supported stronger national security measures but “sharply disagreed” with Mr Trump on how to achieve it.

The former pointed out the House had passed a bipartisan bill to reopen government on 3 January only for the president to block it to serve his “obsession with forcing American taxpayers to waste billions of dollars on an expensive and ineffective wall, a wall he always promised Mexico would pay for”.

Rowing back on a headline campaign pledge, President Trump is now saying Mexico will pay “indirectly” through trade deals, the country’s government having angrily refused to contribute to the cost of construction.

Is the US immigration crisis real?

Donald Trump first announced his intention to build a wall when he confirmed his run for the presidency at Trump Tower in Manhattan on June 2015.

In doing so, he told his audience of well-wishers: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

He pressed the theme throughout his campaign and, as president, has repeatedly sought to portray the situation on the southern border as a crisis, sending in the National Guard last April and leaping on the migrant caravan journeying across Mexico from Honduras to scare up right-wing votes on behalf of Texas senator Ted Cruz during the midterm elections.

Having taken to Twitter to allege the convoy of impoverished refugees contained “Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” on 22 October, the president was challenged on the legitimacy of his claim by the White House press lobby and was forced to concede: “There’s no proof of anything. There’s no proof of anything. But they could very well be.”

Following Mr Cruz’s re-election on 7 November and the end of the midterms, President Trump suddenly lost interest in the caravan – at least for a few weeks.

The real estate mogul’s latest address revives the tactic of employing inflammatory rhetoric to play on American fears of “bad hombres” and a lawless Mexico brought to its knees by cut-throat cartel violence that threatens to spill over into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

In his response to the president’s latest address, Mr Schumer accused Mr Trump of using “the backdrop of the Oval Office to manufacture a crisis, stoke fear and divert attention from the turmoil in his administration”.

Another contrary voice, more surprisingly, came from Fox News, the president’s favourite broadcaster, with anchor Shep Smith critical of Mr Trump’s apparent fear-mongering to justify the wall, brutally picking apart his claims.

“The government statistics show there is less violent crime by the undocumented immigrant population than by the general population,” he said, moments after the address.

“He talked about drugs crossings at the border, but government statistics show much of the heroin actually comes not over the unguarded border, but through ports of call.

“He talked about undocumented crossings over the past months. In fact the number of undocumented crossings over the southern border have been steadily down the past 10 years and the government reports there is more outward traffic than inward traffic.”

As Mr Smith deftly demonstrated, President Trump’s claims against a people devastated by the War on Drugs are as exaggerated as they are easily debunked.

Meanwhile, the separation of migrant children from their parents at US checkpoints as a by-product of the president’s “zero tolerance” immgiration policy, masterminded by adviser Stephen Miller, arguably represents the real crisis on the southern border.

What would Donald Trump’s border wall actually look like?

Since 14 August 2014, when Donald Trump first mentioned his big idea in a pithy, all-caps tweet (“SECURE THE BORDER! BUILD THE WALL!”), his language surrounding it has been vague and erratic, even by his standards.

Talking up his credentials as a master-builder, Mr Trump told interviewer Jorge Ramos in August 2015 that it would be “easy” to raise a wall along the 1,954-mile border: “What’s more complicated is building a building that’s 95 storeys tall.”

He subsequently told a campaign rally in Virginia in December 2015 it would be made of concrete, then added solar panels for the good folk of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in June 2017, before surprising reporters gathered at the steps of Air Force One with the news it would be “steel with openings” a month later.

A barbed wire border wall in Tijuana, Mexico (AP)

Regularly contradicting himself about whether it would even be a wall or more of a “fence”, he tweeted on New Year’s Eve 2018: “An all concrete Wall was NEVER ABANDONED, as has been reported by the media. Some areas will be all concrete but the experts at Border Patrol prefer a Wall that is see through (thereby making it possible to see what is happening on both sides). Makes sense to me!”

But, by 6 January, he had changed his mind again: ”We are now planning a Steel Barrier rather than concrete. It is both stronger & less obtrusive. Good solution, and made in the U.S.A.”

Should President Trump use emergency powers to force through funds for the wall’s construction as a result of the shutdown, he would undoubtedly face a litany of legal challenges, giving courts the opportunity to push back against his authority.

Would a border wall actually bolster national security?

Another of the president’s claims about his “big, beautiful wall”, made during a speech in the White House’s Rose Garden on 8 January, is that it was such a sound idea several ex-presidents had considered erecting a similar structure themselves and had told him privately they regretted not doing so.

Right on cue, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama all issued statements via their spokespeople denying ever having discussed the policy with him.

“A nation ringed by walls would only imprison itself,” Mr Obama told the UN in September 2016.

As for whether a wall would be an effective barrier to illegal immigration in the first place, UC Berkeley’s professor emeritus of city and regional planning Michael Dear thinks not, telling Politico the president’s obsession with the border and deportation orders threatens to make life tougher for the country’s already overwhelmed immigration courts.

Professor Dear points to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data suggesting the main source of illegal immigration into the US is people staying on after their visas have expired - not desperate refugees risking their lives to by-pass armed checkpoints – and that most heading north do so in search of a better life and honest work and are not drug lords or terrorists.

According to DHS figures, just 170,000 entered the US illegally in 2015, actually a huge drop on the 1.7m who made the crossing unauthorised in 2005.

Professor Dear agrees with Shep Smith that drug trafficking (intended to meet American demand) is primarily conducted through ports whose routines and procedural vulnerabilities the cartels continue to exploit.

Furthermore, as Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke has pointed out, the regular flooding of the Rio Grande, America’s fourth-largest river, would necessitate the compulsory purchase of huge swathes of land out of its way, owned by private citizens, Native American tribes and the state itself, creating long corridors of wasteland along the river’s edge and disrupting important wildlife corridors.

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A wall, therefore, would appear to represent little advance on current checkpoints and stand as one of the costliest white elephants in history.

Even the 30 foot by 30 foot concrete prototypes - commissioned from construction firms Caddell, Fisher Sand and Gravel, Texas Sterling and WG Yates and Sons – will cost $500,000 to put together.

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