Border agents don’t want an opaque, precast concrete wall. Financially, the wall is unlikely to be built without immigrant labor. And historically, large-scale border walls don’t keep people out as much as signal that an empire is caving in. Here’s why Donald Trump’s proposed U.S./Mexico border wall isn’t just a moral failure, but a practical one.
In 180 A.D., Emperor Hadrian’s wall, a 73-mile long collection of stones and turf along the Scottish border, suffered an invasion from the tribes it was built to keep out. [Border walls] tend to be more useful as a political statement than as a defensive mechanism, even against the deadThe invaders breached the turret-lined wall and, according to Cassius Dio’s Historia Romana, “killed a general and the troops he had with him.” It's not the first time such a wall has failed to live up to expectations: although border walls do eventually become great ruin-porn tourist attractions, they tend to be more useful as a political statement than as a defensive mechanism, even against the dead. Smaller-scale walls, like the ones used to fortify the Crimean city of Caffa in 1346, prompted innovative barbarians to catapult plague-infected corpses over the top. Throughout history, border walls have often served as the tangible last stand of a political entity that is in the process of collapse, as the Berlin Wall colorfully demonstrated less than 30 years ago.
But what’s especially ironic about the border wall proposed by Donald Trump is that it will probably not be able to be built in Trump’s ideal budgetary range without the immigrant labor its backers are so desperate to circumvent. For one thing, the legal licensing requirements add he was saying that his estimates were anywhere from $8 to $50 billion dollarsconsiderable time and expense to the work of assembling a crew for the proposed 40-foot high, 2000-mile long project. As the chief economist of the Associated General Contractors of America Ken Simonson explains, “A significant issue with the labor is, because this would be a federal project, it would be subject to a level of vetting that private owners don’t usually require. Contractors generally have to show that they have followed prescribed procedures in determining that someone is a legal worker. If there are any locations that involve military bases or other secure facilities, then people have to have a security clearance, which is time consuming and expensive and rules out a lot of construction workers.”
In terms of the actual construction cost, Simonson explains that “I talked to my counterpart at the national precast concrete association after hearing a suggestion that the wall would be made out of precast panels that would be trucked, or even flown, into the location. This was opposed to the extreme logistical difficulty of getting the raw materials to the site and then pouring concrete onsite. At the time, he was saying that his estimates were anywhere from $8 to $50 billion dollars. There is so much uncertainty about what the specifications of the wall would be, and whether it would really cover the entire 2,000 miles, including the various types of wall and fence that are already in place, and whether it would be necessary to build it through desert areas and national parks and Native American lands, which would present various legal hurdles.” the border patrol doesn’t like it because they can’t see through it
Although Trump is unkind to reporters who describe the wall as a fence, this description is not a slight but rather a reality-based depiction of the way things are. According to Michael Corey, who has spent time reporting from the border in Texas, Arizona, and California for Reveal News, the structure along the border is “a series of fences that were built at different times and for different reasons. The stereotypical border fence is the ‘90s Clinton-era corrugated metal, which is actually surplus army helicopter landing mats. That’s the closest we ever got to a wall just because it doesn’t have holes in it. But that type was probably about eight to ten feet high, depending on where they installed it. In some places in Texas, where they build really tall single steel bollards in lines, those can be 20-plus feet tall. And then you have vehicle fence, which is often little steel girders that may or may not have cross pieces on them, and those vary from three feet tall to six feet tall. But you can climb over those.”
That there are currently portions of fence, and not solid wall, is purposeful; a solid wall does not meet the needs of virtually any of the stakeholders involved. Corey notes that border guards don’t want an opaque, precast concrete wall because it makes patrolling far more difficult. “One of the biggest problems with the old landing mat fence is that the border patrol doesn’t like it because they can’t see through it. They can’t see what’s going on the other side. So, one of the big objections to a precast concrete wall is that the border patrol doesn’t like it for security reasons.” Trump seems set on transforming a nation that was once given a statue symbolizing liberty into one that erects a costly symbol of intolerance
And then there are the legal and geographical problems to which Ken Simonson alluded. As Corey explains, “In Texas, a lot of the land where they built the fence was private, so they had to take on eminent domain suits. Most of those succeeded. Ultimately, if the government wants to take it, they’ll probably take it. But the big problem in Texas is in the few places where they didn’t built a couple of segments, they were going to have huge flooding issues because of the Rio Grande. The border is wherever the center of the Rio Grande is, which moves all the time. The treaty we have with Mexico says you can’t change the floodplain, you can’t build in the floodplain, and you can’t mess up the flow of the river. So that’s why they didn’t build some of those segments. The hydrology didn’t change between the Obama administration and now.”
What has changed between the Obama administration and now is the political hunger for such a project. While Simonson is skeptical that the U.S. Congress will ultimately approve the wall without a more specific set of design criteria, Trump seems set on transforming a nation that was once given a statue symbolizing liberty into one that erects a costly symbol of intolerance. Architecturally speaking, the notion of closed borders, let alone a literal concrete blockage, is anathema to a profession that thrives on collaboration and diversity of thought. As Michael Corey muses, “The wider purpose of the fence in my personal opinion is that it looks good: if you look at a continental map of the U.S and the line that’s drawn on there, that’s what the line is for. It’s a symbol more than anything. You look like you’re doing something.”
Julia Ingalls is primarily an essayist. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Slate, Salon, Dwell, Guernica, The LA Weekly, The Nervous Breakdown, Forth, Trop, and 89.9 KCRW. She's into it.