Francis Wilkinson: Trump’s wall settles into a strange, costly afterlife

From the commentary: The (Trump) wall is largely ineffective as policy. ... It’s a silent scream of fear and loathing directed at the people on the other side.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with members of the US Customs and Border Patrol as he tours the border wall between the United States and Mexico in Calexico, California on April 5, 2019.
US President Donald Trump speaks with members of the US Customs and Border Patrol as he tours the border wall between the United States and Mexico in Calexico, California on April 5, 2019.
(Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Donald Trump’s signature border wall is morphing in strange and costly ways — even as it seems to play little role in stemming illegal migration.

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Texas Governor Greg Abbott has been busy spending state money — in hundred-million-dollar chunks — to erect his own political statement on the Texas-Mexico border. Abbott’s wall, which the Texas Observer calls a “colossal waste of money,” has generated contracts for GOP campaign donors and a talking point for Abbott’s political future. But Abbott’s wall is running into some of the same difficulties that plagued Trump’s wall. As USA Today reported in 2017, 4,900 privately owned land parcels in Texas "sit within 500 feet of the border." Thus, building a wall provides annuities for an army of lawyers as well as for construction firms. The Texas Observer estimates that at its current rate, completing the state wall would cost around $17 billion.

In Congress, Representative Clay Higgins of Louisiana, a leading Republican defender of those who overran the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, just introduced the Finish The Wall Act. The legislation is largely self-explanatory. It’s designed to complete the Trump wall and stop the “horror” that President Joe Biden is “forcing on America.”

Meanwhile, in Arizona, before leaving office in January, Governor Doug Ducey agreed to remove the shipping-container wall that had transformed parts of Arizona’s southern border into a linear junkyard. The state’s taxpayers will spend about $76 million or so to remove the eyesores, which is a bargain compared with the roughly $95 million that they spent to install them in the first place.

Each of these barriers, state and federal, has something in common beyond the waste of public money and the hazards they pose to wildlife: Each can be surmounted by a ladder, a technology that is many thousands of years old and widely available in Mexico. Smugglers with a taste for more elaborate gear can deploy an inexpensive power saw to get through. The Washington Post reported last year that traffickers had done exactly that — 3,272 times in the preceding three years. Some of the openings they created were large enough to drive a vehicle through. Occasionally, authorities find a tunnel that enables passage beneath the wall.


If you’re young and athletic, you can climb freestyle. But in places where the height of the wall was raised to 30 feet, some migrants have been getting injured or even dying, according to Mexican consulate data provided to Border Report. Carlos González Gutiérrez, Mexico’s Consul General in San Diego, told Border Report that the higher wall hasn’t deterred migrants but has led to hundreds of cases of bruises, fractures and lacerations as well as spinal cord or brain injuries. Hospitalizations from falls have increased.

The correlation between the wall and deterrence is shaky at best. “In fiscal year 2022,” states a report by the Cato Institute, a libertarian, pro-immigration think tank, “the border wall was breached 4,101 times — more than 11 times per day. This was far more than the number of breaches in any of the prior six years and double the number of breaches for fiscal year 2016 before any of the Trump wall was built.”

It's a paradox, isn’t it? Apparently, the more wall you build, the more it is breached for illegal access. Sometimes the breaches are cosmetically repaired by the same smugglers who created them, so that the opening can be used over and over.

All of which raises the question of why so many Republican politicians, and the voters who elect them, are so enamored of this costly symbol of failure and futility. After all, the same data that I quoted above are available to governors and members of Congress. And it’s not as if champions of the wall are recalling the glory of some ancient ruined rampart. For most of American history there was barely a border, let alone a wall, between the US and Mexico.

“Even after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established the international boundary, the dividing line remained loosely marked, haphazardly maintained and casually observed,” writes Michael Dear in “Why Walls Won’t Work.”

The tensions and complexities of 21st-century migration surely demand a less casual approach to the border. But that doesn’t explain why so many have rallied around the notion of a wall — often against their own better judgment — instead of more effective responses. When Senators Krysten Sinema and Thom Tillis recently offered a modest proposal that included money for migrant processing centers at the border and badly needed immigration courts, one result of which would almost certainly be speedier expulsions of migrants from the US, the idea was promptly killed. Yet Trump’s wall lives on.

Perhaps the wall has an emotional resonance that no courts or processing centers can match. The wall is largely ineffective as policy. But it’s very effective as an assertion of values. It’s a silent scream of fear and loathing directed at the people on the other side. In which case maybe the wall is not a costly, colossal failure. It’s therapy.


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Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. politics and policy. This commentary is the columnist's opinion. Send feedback to:

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