Editor, IFSEC Global

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Adam Bannister was Editor of IFSEC Global from 2014 through to November 2019. Adam is also a former Managing Editor at Dynamis Online Media Group.
September 2, 2016

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Donald Trump’s “big, beautiful, powerful wall”: everything you need to know

Donald Trump likes big things – and the bigger the better.

Big buildings, big bank balances, big crowds, big poll numbers (“I have the biggest crowds, and I have the biggest polls”), big hands even (“my hands are normal. Slightly large, actually. In fact, I buy a slightly smaller than large glove, OK?”).

What that says about his personality we can leave to psychologists, but his proclivity for bigness has manifested big time in the most emblematic promise of his US presidential election campaign: the construction of a “big, beautiful, powerful wall” along the US-Mexico border.

One of [my ] supporters got up and he said: “Mr Trump, you have strong hands. You have good-sized hands […] “My hands are fine. You know, my hands are normal. Slightly large, actually. In fact, I buy a slightly smaller than large glove, OK? No, but I did this because everybody was saying to me: “Oh, your hands are very nice. They are normal.” […] One of the things he [Marco Rubio] said was: “He has small hands and therefore, you know what that means, he has small something else.” […] I would say 25, 30 people would tell me … every time I’d shake people’s hand: “Oh, you have nice hands.” Why shouldn’t I? […] I even held up my hands, and said: “Look, take a look at that hand” … And by saying that, I solved the problem. Nobody questions.” Everyone held my hand. I said: look. Take a look at that hand.” Donald J Trump answers a question from the Washington Post about allegations that he has small hands. The full answer is much longer than this.

As campaign promises go, a giant wall is a simpler one to grasp than Obamacare or quantitative easing…

Yes. Everyone knows what a wall is, what it looks like and what it’s for: keeping people off your property. The simplicity of this message has made it a potent battle cry for the real-estate mogul turned reality TV star turned US presidential hopeful.

The US-Mexican border is the most frequently crossed international boundary in the world, with hundreds of thousands of Mexicans attempting to cross illegally every year, making immigration a divisive topic during the 2016 presidential election campaign.

A metaphor for his central message – that globalisation and free trade have hollowed out American industry and hemorrhaged jobs overseas – the wall is lauded by Trump supporters as a way to keep out drugs, undocumented immigrants or even cheap imports.

“We’re going to build a wall, don’t you worry about it. We’re going to build a wall. We’re going to build the wall, and Mexico is going to pay for the wall, 100 percent. And it’s going to be a big wall. It’s going to be a real wall. It’s going to be as beautiful as a wall can be, but it’s going to be a wall.” Donald J Trump uses the word ‘wall’ eight times in five sentences at a rally Wednesday in Tampa

Americans were once pleased to witness the demolition of a great wall:

Trump is insistent that the wall will secure the entire southern border.

The entire southern border – is that even financially feasible?

You’d have to ask Mexico how their balance sheet is looking as they’re footing the bill – according to Trump, at any rate – for a project with little apparent benefit to them. In a two-page memo sent to to The Washington Post in March 2016, the Trump team outlined their strategy for strong-arming their vastly poorer neighbour into paying for wall.

Mercifully for Mexico, Trump – who has been dogged by accusations of underpaying or failing to pay suppliers throughout his real estate career – has promised to “build it very inexpensively”. He claims the total cost will reach between $10-12 billion, though the existing 650 miles of fencing has already cost the government more than $7 billion and a Washington Post study estimated the cost at around $25 billion.

Not quite up there with Ronald Reagan’s ill-fated ‘Star Wars project‘, the wall is nevertheless still quite an undertaking. Spanning 1,989 miles (3,201 km) the US-Mexico border is the 10th longest land border in the world (the Canada–US border is the longest, so Canadians can rest easy that they won’t be ghettoised any time soon).

Trump claims, however, that a 1,000 miles long will suffice, with natural barriers plugging the gaps.

Trump’s wall will certainly cover a shorter distance than the fence that will eventually separate India and Bangladesh. Started in 1989 the Indo-Bangladesh barrier is still incomplete 27 years later. The world’s longest physical border partition is being built along the 4,096-kilometer (2,545-mile)-long international border between the countries.

Standing at just under three metres high and topped with barbed wire, it’s also more of a fence than a wall – which would surely elicit a snort of derision from Trump.

You call that a wall? This is a wall.

A wall running the entire length of the border could cost as little as $851 million, according to GlobalSecurity.org. However, this would get you a mere, bog-standard 10-foot prison chain link fence topped by razor wire – surely not enough for the man behind Trump Tower. The fence could be electrified for another $362 million, while a 12-foot tall, two-foot-thick concrete wall painted on both sides could be yours for $2 billion.

A wall probably implies the use of concrete and structural engineer Ali F Rhuzkan has estimated that a 1,900-mile wall would require about 339 million cubic feet of concrete – three times more than the Hoover Dam.

Trump is not alone in wanting to stiffen security at the southern border. His former rival for the Republican nomination, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, was equally strident on the issue. Proposing the completion of a partially constructed barrier that already exists and tripling the number of US border agents, he took a slightly different approach, however.

What security measures are taken at present along the US-Mexico border?

No one could accuse the federal government of starving the border security efforts of funds. Growing during both the Bush and Obama administrations the budget for customs and border protection has ballooned by 75% to $10.7bn in a decade.

Billions have been spent on drones and sensors, while the number of border patrol agents has nearly doubled in 10 years to more than 18,000.

And a physical barrier actually already exists, albeit it doesn’t cover anywhere near the full border. A 21ft (6.4m) by 6ft (1.8m) fence already runs from San Diego to Arizona, with a 5000 psi (345 bar; 352 kg/cm²)  concrete wall picking up the baton until Texas.

The 651 miles of fencing comprises 299 miles worth of vehicle barriers and 352 miles of pedestrian fence. Pedestrian fence is favoured in urban areas and adjacent to ports of entry, while vehicle fencing is located in more remote areas.

It’s a patchwork of different fences and barriers, with materials, height and depth varying wildly depending on the topography and nature of the threat identified by the DHS.

In 2006 the DHS launched the Secure Border Initiative (SBI), a multibillion-dollar programme with both high tech and not so high tech components. The SBInet component saw the deployment of radars, sensors, and cameras, while SBI tactical infrastructure (TI) saw the erection of fencing, roads, and lighting.

Could they build a wall big and robust enough to be impassable?

No – even if it towered beyond the Earth’s atmosphere and into space. And that’s because of tunnels.

Drugs, weapons, and immigrants are already smuggled through more than 40 tunnels on US borders.

One tunnel running from San Diego to Tijuana was like something out of Breaking Bad. It was half a mile long, 60 to 80 feet deep and 8 feet tall. It had a concrete floor. It was wired for electricity. It had drainage. Drugs could emerge at the California end through a hatch in a small office within an unremarkable modern warehouse.

Two men scale the border fence into Mexico near Douglas, Arizona, 2009

Two men scale the border fence into Mexico near Douglas, Arizona, 2009

But existing security measures must surely be failing to prompt such a dramatic project?

On the contrary: illegal immigration flows have actually fallen to their lowest level in at least two decades.

“It used to be that you could literally sit at a bar in Tijuana, Mexico, look across the border into San Diego, wait for the border patrol to drive in the other direction and make a run for it,’’ Steve Atkiss, a partner at Command Consulting Group, told Bloomberg. “It’s much more difficult and expensive now.”

Illegal trips across the border are much more arduous and expensive thanks to these measures. Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the US immigration program at the Migration Policy Institute suggests that improved security, not the economy, is behind the fall. “Every month or quarter that the economy continues to improve and unauthorizsd immigration doesn’t pick up supports the theory that border security is a bigger factor,’’ he told the Washington Post.

However, some studies have found little correlation between border security spending and illegal migration. Princeton University sociologist Douglas S Massey has said the falling numbers of immigrants have “nothing to do with border enforcement” and could be attributed to demographic changes in Mexico, particularly the fact that women are having fewer children.

What exactly will the wall look like?

No one is exactly sure because Mr Trump has been characteristically vague in detail (Details so far: he is going to build a wall. A great wall. Mexico will pay for it.)

What we do know is the current, incomplete border partitions are called border fences, while ‘The Donald’ wants to build a wall. So what’s the difference? Let us turn to the Oxford English Dictionary for clues:

Fence: A barrier, railing, or other upright structure, typically of wood or wire, enclosing an area of ground to prevent or control access or escape.

Wall: A continuous vertical brick or stone structure that encloses or divides an area of land.

Hope that clears things up.

The 2016 Republican platform has offered another clue, though, saying that the wall “must be sufficient to stop both vehicular and pedestrian traffic.”

We’re talking a pretty sturdy wall then, though perhaps this toblerone-shaped anti-vehicle device might have sufficed.

Then again, former Texas Governor Rick Perry recently suggested that Trump’s wall would actually be “a digital wall.”

wall fence field

Walls versus fences: Which is better?


Wait – a digital wall?

Yes, and several other Republicans close to the Trump campaign have echoed this suggestion that the wall will not, in fact, be something built from concrete and other non-digital materials.

There have actually been several ill-fated attempts to create a virtual wall, which essentially means a combination of sensors, surveillance cameras and yes, human border patrol guards, rather than some sort of digital forcefield like the one depicted in Stephen King’s Under the Dome.

In fact, surely a virtual, hermetically sealed dome is really the answer to America’s problems. For once, Donald J Trump is not thinking big enough.

But Tom Jawetz, vice president of immigration policy at the Hillary-Clinton-friendly Center for American Progress, told Bloomberg that this combination already exists and is actually quite effective: “The virtual wall is a concept that has been around for a number of years and, frankly, describes what we already have. Between the sensors embedded in the ground, the tethered aerostats overhead and the manned and unmanned aircraft flying through the border region we have a good sense within a fairly short period of time of when people are crossing and where they’re heading.”

Trump’s campaign have doubled down though, insisting that the wall will be definitely be physical.

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