Todd J. Gillman, Dallas News, March 30, 2018
The administration is aiming to construct a wall along roughly half the U.S.-Mexico border, the nation’s Border Patrol chief said Friday — a thousand-mile barrier that could fall well short of what President Donald Trump has demanded.
Congress has rebuffed Trump’s demand for $25 billion for wall construction. The budget that Trump grudgingly signed a week ago includes $1.6 billion for border security, enough for just about 33 miles of new barrier plus about twice that much of replacement fencing.
Ronald Vitiello, chief of the Border Patrol and acting deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said a thousand miles of barrier “will make a major dent” in the nation’s security challenges. But in a briefing with reporters, he conceded that he’s not sure Trump has signed off on that target.
Roughly 654 miles of the border is already fenced, out of 1,954 miles. Most of that was built under the 2006 Secure Fence Act, signed by President George W. Bush.
Trump was so unhappy about the sum Congress provided for border security in the $1.3 trillion spending deal that he threatened a veto, raising the specter of a government shutdown. He relented within hours and signed the measure last Friday.
Vitiello said Friday that $25 billion would be enough to replace or upgrade existing fencing, and add about 300 miles of new pedestrian barrier. Vehicle barrier accounts for 300 miles of current fencing. The rest is higher and intended to keep out individuals.
The spending deal Trump signed into law March 23 includes provisions that chafe the president. The 2,232-page bill explicitly limits wall construction to “operationally effective designs” deployed by March 2017 — effectively ruling out the prototypes he just inspected.
“We’re still considering what it means,” Vitiello said.
Still, he said, the prototypes have been useful in providing lessons for future designs.
“We learned about what it takes to breach some of that structure,” he said. “They were cut on and beat on and climbed on and dug into.”
The law also bans construction in the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Hidalgo County — a win for environmentalists who have warned that roads and fences would destroy an important ecosystem.
“It’s definitely a hiccup and it’s going to be dealt with,” Homeland Security Department press secretary Tyler Houlton told reporters Thursday. “We’re looking at regulatory changes. We need the ability to build the wall.”
As the Los Angeles Times has reported, the Calexico project involves bollards — posts placed close enough together to prevent people from passing through, but leaving enough space for Border Patrol agents to see the other side. Federal authorities had long referred to similar but shorter construction in the area as fencing.
“30 feet — that’s a wall in my mind,” Houlton said. “The wall will change operationally … because different areas have different needs … but it’s definitely a wall.”
Visiting the Cleveland area Thursday, Trump kept up the drumbeat for a wall.
“Drugs are flowing across borders. We need walls. We started building our wall. I’m so proud of it. We started. We started. We have $1.6 billion, and we’ve already started,” he said. “You saw the pictures yesterday. I said, `What a thing of beauty.’ ”
And he dismissed carping about the shortage of funds, and speculation that he has tried to narrow the scope of the project or back down from his campaign vow in the face of fierce resistance in Congress, from both parties.
“People said, `Oh, has he given up on the wall?’ No, I never give up. We have $1.6 billion toward the wall, and we’ve done the planning. And you saw those beautiful pictures, and the wall looks good. It’s properly designed,” Trump said, though it was unclear what design he was referring to, since no design has been finalized or announced. “We are building a really state-of-the-art, very, very efficient — have to be able to see through; it makes a lot of sense. You have to be able to see who is on the other side.”
Contractors have built eight wall prototypes near San Diego, using specifications that include resistance to climbing, blasting and cutting. Trump inspected the samples on March 13 during his first presidential visit to California.
The funds Congress has authorized for 2018 provide enough to build about 100 miles of fence or wall: 14 miles of replacement wall in San Diego, plus another 14 miles of secondary fencing; 20 new miles around Santa Teresa, N.M. just west of El Paso, with groundbreaking early in April; 4 miles of new fencing in El Paso; 25 miles of leveewall in Hidalgo County; and 8 miles of new “border wall system” in Starr County, including fencing, roads and lighting.