Blog: Border Wall-Effective, Or Is More Needed for Border Security?

February 13th, 2017

by Jonathan Lim, CHHS Extern

On January 26, 2017, the President signed an executive order for the construction of a wall on the United States-Mexico border. The President deviated from one of his most controversial campaign promises when he admitted that the American taxpayer, and not Mexico, would pay for the wall (although he claims that Mexico will reimburse the wall later). Some estimate that the cost of an actual wall would be around $25 billion.

Even before this admission, the President’s now confirmed nominee to head the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), retired Gen. John F. Kelly, gave a practical appraisal of the challenges of securing a border, saying “a physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job—it has to be a layered defense.” What are the suggested “layers” that border experts are suggesting, and would they be more cost-effective than an actual wall? This blog explores the importance of combining high tech and “low tech” solutions, human resources, and functional international relationships in creating a secure border.

Modern surveillance technology must augment a physical barrier in order for the barrier to be effective. To this end, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have been using sensors, radar, aircraft, and tethered aerostats to watch the border since 2003. CBP has a plan to augment this existing technology with its Integrated Fixed Towers Program, which it estimates will cost $145 million when completed. The Towers Program will synergize with existing surveillance to enhance the Border Patrol’s capabilities.

The CBP recognizes that a physical barrier will not accomplish much without people behind it. It has already implemented an aggressive hiring policy, with a goal of hiring 1,700 new agents this year. The Cato Institute has noted that, “at a basic level, a wall or fence can never stop illegal immigration because a wall or fence cannot apprehend anyone.” This is why investment in the CBP’s numbers and surveillance abilities are crucial.

In addition to the aforementioned high tech border surveillance solutions, a critical low tech barrier would also help the CBP with its goal: the simple fence. Granted, even where border fences already exist, determined persons have either climbed over or tunneled under, but the same has been and would arguably be true for a walled area. A fence is not only less costly, but allows Border Patrol agents to see through the other side. With all the technology at the CBP’s disposal, the human actors may be the difference in halting and deterring illicit activity at the border, and giving them clear visibility of any unauthorized attempts to cross the border makes them more effective. Fortunately, the new executive order allows for this more frugal alternative. It states that a “‘wall’ shall mean a contiguous physical wall or other similarly secure, contiguous and impassable physical barrier“. This definition of a wall does not actually preclude fencing.

Finally, Gen. Kelly and border authorities are not ignoring the relational aspect of border security. Gen. Kelly emphasized that good relationships with Mexican authorities is also important in securing the Southern Border. He acknowledged that this is especially true when it comes to more organized forms of illicit cross-border activity, such as drug trafficking. The powerful forces that run drug cartels might hardly skip a beat with a wall, but a well-trained, well-equipped U.S.-Mexican law enforcement cooperative effort can make a difference.

The United States can both secure the border and remain cost-efficient. No static barrier can be effective without the right people and technology to enforce it, and the country’s financial resources might be better spent in that realm.


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