“Build the Wall! Build the Wall!”
For more than a year, this chant, repeated at dozens of rallies across the country, has become the fundamental promise of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. While his other policy proposals may come and go, sometimes on the same day, Trump has steadfastly promoted the idea that erecting a “big, beautiful” wall along the border with Mexico—and forcing Mexico to pay for it—will help cure all manner of our country’s ills, from stagnant wages and overburdened public services to violent crime and Islamic terrorism.
Though Trump doesn’t offer much in the way of specifics about his wall, his inspiration for it is quite clear — the imposing, 25-foot-high concrete and razor wire “separation barrier” that Israel has built through the occupied West Bank. “People say you can’t really do that,” Trump told a New Hampshire audience in September 2015. “You ask Israel whether a wall works. A wall properly done, a Trump wall works.” Challenged at a Republican debate in November, Trump once again invoked Israel: “If you don’t think walls work, all you have to do is ask Israel.”
Ready and willing to reciprocate Trump’s praise is the Israeli border security industry that built those border walls and fences. “The Israeli Company That Fenced in Gaza Eyes Trump’s Mexico Wall,” a Bloomberg headline last month declared. The story profiled Magal Security Systems, an Israeli defense firm that has played an integral role in securing 80 percent of that country’s borders and is currently modernizing the border fence around Gaza. In the story, Magal’s CEO, Saar Koursh, offered up his unsolicited border security assistance to Trump should he be elected. “We’ve done it in the past and we would definitely want to do it,” he said.
But Trump’s wall is an optical illusion sustained by voters’ fear of narcotics traffickers and Islamic terrorists breaching America’s southern border. As an engineering project, its costs could exceed the administration’s budget request for the entire Department of Homeland Security; and as a means of curbing illegal immigration, it would likely create more problems than it solves. Even the Israeli companies that want to build the wall admit that.
Israeli companies began constructing the West Bank wall that Trump admires in 2002 during the Second Intifada. It consists of more than 600 miles of border walls and fences, with another 170 miles planned to fully ring the nation’s land borders. The most controversial of these projects, the massive “separation barrier,” snakes throughout the occupied West Bank. Israelis hail the wall as having brought peace after years of terror attacks. “Israel has been very successful with our border protection solutions both in stopping illegal immigration and terrorist activities like on our southern border and other borders like Gaza,” Magal’s CEO Koursh boasted last month. But Palestinians denounce the barrier as an “apartheid wall” that illegally cuts them off from their land and the rest of the world.
A section of Israel’s separation barrier is seen between the West Bank village of Abu Dis, on the right of wall, and Jerusalem. Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2007. (AP Images)
As the demand for border walls to keep out illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers has mushroomed during the last two decades, an entire security industry has grown up around them. While it includes the biggest defense contractors in the world—among them, familiar US companies like Boeing, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics as well as Finmeccanica (Italy), Safran SA (France), and BAE (UK)—the Israeli companies that built its wall are at the forefront.
Magal exemplifies Israel’s growing role in exporting border security technology to the rest of the world. It boasts an extensive list of clients across Europe and Asia as well as numerous high-profile facilities here in the US, like the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Now a public company, Magal began decades ago as a branch of Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI), the large, Israeli government-owned defense firm. IAI took in nearly $4 billion in revenue in 2014 and has subsidiaries in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the US, and is itself a player in selling border security technology solutions abroad. Elbit Systems, another major Israeli security contractor, also spun out of a partnership with the Israeli government in the 1960s. Elbit has leveraged its border security projects in the West Bank and on Israel’s Syrian border.
“Border business was down, but then came ISIS and the Syrian conflict,” Magal’s Koursh said recently “The world is changing and borders are coming back big-time.” Not coincidentally, in the past five years, the stock prices of both Magal and Elbit, which trade on Nasdaq, have skyrocketed nearly 90 percent and 150 percent, respectively. IAI, still a private company, plans on going public next year having just filed for an IPO in early September. And the Israeli government, which will remain a majority shareholder in IAI, has assumed a major role in boosting the industry around the world.
Earlier this summer, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led a five-day business junket through east Africa. Among his entourage’s prime targets: a 425-mile, $15.2-billion border fence that Kenya has begun building to staunch the flow of Al Shabaab terrorist incursions from neighboring Somalia. If completed, Kenya’s barrier would be among the longest border fences in the world. While in Nairobi, Magal’s Koursh pitched his company for the project by speaking of the “commonality” between the two countries regarding terrorism and border security concerns. “Anybody can give you a very nice Powerpoint,” he boasted, “but few can show you such a complex project as Gaza that is constantly battle-tested.”
If Israeli companies were to win a contract to build the Trump wall, it would be their biggest project yet. But it wouldn’t be their first project on the American border with Mexico. As American efforts at border security stalled, the American government began calling on Israeli companies for help.
In the United States, the push for border walls began in the early 1990s. In response to the steep rise of illegal immigration into southern California, construction began in late 1994 on a 14-mile fence between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico as part of Operation Gatekeeper. (That same year, California passed Proposition 187, a tough new law that stripped undocumented immigrants of rights to many state services. The law was eventually ruled unconstitutional.)
Border patrol apprehensions in southern California did drop significantly as a result—from 100,000 in 1994 down to 5,000 by 2005—and similar, short-distance fences went up near Nogales, Arizona and El Paso, Texas around the same time. To close the unsecured border gaps, the federal government spent $429 million on two successive ‘virtual fence’ surveillance efforts—the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System (ISIS) and America’s Shield. Both of these efforts were eventually abandoned, however, as too fragile and unreliable.
In the decade after the first fence went up, Border Patrol apprehensions, a proxy for illegal immigration trends, increased from 1 million in 1995 to 1.6 million in 2000 before falling back to just over 1 million in 2005. Increasingly, immigrants closed off from previous crossing points near major cities were choosing the unforgiving southern Arizona desert as an alternative—with often-fatal consequences. Between 1994 and 2005, the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office (based in Tucson) recorded a 1700 percent increase in annual migrant deaths from undocumented border crossings. One running estimate of migrant deaths in southern Arizona had reached 3,600 by 2006, although the figure could be much higher.
“When easier [border crossing] routes are closed, people don’t stop coming, they just go much more dangerous ways,” said Reece Jones, an associate professor of geography at the University of Hawaii-Manoa who studies the politics of borders and migration. His new book Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move, out next month, examines more closely the fatal implications of hardened border security impulses. “That’s why we see the continuous uptick in the number of people that have died trying to immigrate.”
In 2005, the surveillance failures and continued high rates of undocumented crossings prompted the Bush administration to launch the “Secure Border Initiative.” This project called for $3.6 billion in new funding to pay for an order of magnitude increase in the length of pedestrian and vehicle fencing—from 78 miles to nearly 700—and to install a “virtual fence” of sensors and monitors along the rest of the border. Thousands more Border Patrol agents were to be hired as well. (By the end of the Bush administration, the total number of CBP agents had more than doubled jumped to 20,000 from 2001.) Congress eventually passed the Secure Fence Act of 2006 on strongly bipartisan 80–19 Senate vote (then Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton voted for it, John Kerry opposed it). For its now third attempt at creating a ‘virtual fence’ surveillance component—this time called SBINet—the DHS awarded Boeing an $860-million contract.
But from the outset, SBINet too was plagued with problems. As its cost spiraled upward past $1 billion, the Obama administration stopped work on the project in 2010. A subsequent GAO report found the program was chronically mismanaged (or not managed at all) and Boeing could never document it was meeting performance standards. In 2011, SBINet was cancelled. In its place, DHS began a new, $700-million pilot program called the Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan, which placed a greater emphasis on unmanned aerial drones. But that program didn’t work either. A scathing 2014 DHS Inspector General report concluded: “We see no evidence that the drones contribute to a more secure border, and there is no reason to invest additional taxpayer funds at this time.”
After all these costly project failures, the DHS turned to the Israeli company Elbit two years ago. Now a $3-billion a year defense conglomerate, Elbit has had a presence on the US-Mexico border for more than a decade—in 2004, it was the first security firm to fly drones there. What probably helps Elbit’s American subsidiary win a contract here are the well-connected members on its board of directors. These include the retired chairman of Honeywell Aerospace, a former US Under Secretary of Defense, a former US Under Secretary of the Army, and the four former US generals.
Two years ago, Elbit won a $145-million contract to install a high-tech, ‘virtual fence’ along a portion of the US-Mexico border, beating out US competitors like General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. Its plan was modeled on the border solutions the company installed in Israel. Elbit’s contract marks the fourth time such a project has been tried on the US-Mexico border, and the series of futile efforts that preceded it is emblematic of the stops and starts, successes and failures of the broader US border policy over the years.
The sheer size and rugged terrain of the US-Mexico border presents a vastly more complex security and logistical challenge than anything confronted by Israel. But that hasn’t stopped Elbit and other Israeli security companies from trying to export their wares to the US. To help facilitate this, a border business pipeline now exists to further help them get a foothold in the US border market. The US-Israel Business Initiative, a core program of the US Chamber of Commerce, has partnered with Global Advantage, a University of Arizona business-networking incubator located in Tucson, Arizona, to provide companies a “soft landing” on the border. But building Trump’s wall would provide logistical challenges well beyond any that these companies have faced.
The Mexico-U.S. border has mountains, desert, and beaches — it would be a challenge to construct a wall across this changing landscape, most of which is in remote locations without major roads. Top: flikr.com Bill Morrow, Bottom: flikr.com messicanbeer.
So how would Trump’s wall differ from—and avoid the pitfalls of—past border security efforts? What few details he has offered up inspire little confidence. The height of his proposed wall varies from 25 to 50 feet and sometimes higher (it changes from speech to speech), which at the upper end of the range would create substantial engineering difficulties and still wouldn’t prevent tunneling underneath. The length is somewhat murky too. Though roughly 1,300 miles of the nearly 2,000-mile US-Mexico border remain open, Trump has occasionally conceded he would only wall off 1,000 miles because “natural barriers” protect the rest.
As for the actual cost, Trump claims it could be built for between $4 and $12 billion, although $8 billion is his most common estimate. He may have gotten this estimate by taking the construction costs of Israel’s West Bank barrier and then extrapolating the Israeli figure onto the longer American border, which comes to $7.99 billion. Still, construction on the remote US-Mexico border would be much more difficult. To complete the existing 650 miles of pedestrian and vehicle border fences, for example, the DHS spent $7 billion, and that involved lighter, cheaper materials constructed on easily accessible terrain.
In its analysis of the $8-billion estimate, the Washington Post Fact Checker gave Trump Four Pinocchios for seriously low-balling the costs. One private construction firm cited by the Post put the price of a 40-foot high wall along half the US-Mexico border at $15 to $25 billion. Other estimates ran as high as $42 billion. One engineer, examining the material needs, projected that a 25-foot-high, 1,000-mile wall would require a staggering 2.5-billion pounds of rebar steel—enough to build several aircraft carriers—and roughly one-and-a-half times as much concrete as the Hoover Dam.
What’s more, Trump’s insistence that “I know how to build walls” suggests he would rely heavily, if not exclusively, on private contractors for the wall’s construction. But a 2009 GAO analysis found the per-mile border fence cost when using private contractors was more than 80 percent higher than when using the military or Border Patrol. Add to that the extra costs to maintain and guard Trump’s massive wall and the long-term price tag could easily double to anywhere from $30 to $80 billion. By way of comparison, Obama’s total DHS budget request for fiscal year 2017 was $40.6 billion, with the Customs and Border Protection portion coming to $17 billion.
Trump dismisses cost arguments with the canard that Mexico will pay for the wall. The notion that Mexico would willingly pay for the wall is, by all accounts, absurd. Mexico’s current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, reportedly said as much to Trump in person last month. Two of Mexico’s former presidents—both from a party in opposition to Peña Nieto’s—have said the same: Felipe Calderon called the idea of a wall “stupid” and “completely useless” adding that Mexico will not provide a “single cent”; Vincente Fox put it even more bluntly: Mexico is “not going to pay for that fucking wall.”
Trump has countered by saying he will compel Mexico into making a “one-time payment of $5–10 billion” through one of the following tactics: rewriting the Patriot Act to tax the $24 billion in annual remittances sent back to Mexico by immigrants in the US; leveraging that nation’s $50-billion trade deficit with the US by imposing new tariffs on goods imported from Mexico; or instituting a “small increase” on the fees for visas and border crossing cards. All of these respective policy ideas are fundamentally flawed, however.
First of all, there are numerous alternative ways to send money abroad, and experts have questioned the act of targeting ordinary wire transfer remittances via a counter-terrorism bill as legally dubious. (Of note: the campaign’s online policy memo on paying for the wall erroneously cites a non-existent section of the Patriot Act for amendment.) Likewise, any new tariff regime on Mexican goods wouldn’t fall upon the Mexican government. Instead, these levies would be paid by the importing companies—many of them headquartered in the US—which could then pass the costs on to the American public. Finally, to raise an extra $8 billion—Trump’s unrealistic, lowball figure—by increasing fees on the 11-million non-immigrant visas and border-crossing cards issued each year would require charging an additional $730 each. That translates to a roughly 300 percent one-year increase over the most common fees of $160 and $190, respectively. Even spreading out the cost over 10 years would necessitate a roughly 40 percent hike from the current application fee, hardly a “small increase.”
The fact is Trump’s wall is purely a populist ploy more than any kind of effective illegal immigration deterrent. It would cost tens of billions more than he claims, be funded wholly by US taxpayers, and mostly succeed in making illegal border crossings more deadly rather than less numerous. What’s more, building Trump’s wall would likely cannibalize needed funding that could go toward addressing visa overstays, which is how nearly half of unauthorized immigrants enter the country now, and toward creating a rigorous e-verify system to crack down on unscrupulous employers. And it’s not just Trump critics who are saying this.
Even the Israeli security companies eager for work on the US-Mexico border acknowledge the counterproductive nature of what Trump is proposing. In a recent interview with The Intercept, Magal spokesman Hagai Katz said that erecting a physical barrier along the length of the border wouldn’t be much of a deterrent. “If you’re in open spaces, which is more like a desert in a way, not a lot of vegetation, and no nearby cities, then you know putting a fence for thousands of kilometers or miles, it just doesn’t make sense,” Katz explained. Elbit CFO Joseph Gaspar also minimized the effectiveness of a fence or security barrier in achieving border security earlier this summer. “All the other things are significantly more important than the physical wall,” he told the Financial Times.
Palestinians climb a ladder to cross Israel’s separation barrier into Jerusalem, in the West Bank town of Aram, Friday Aug. 13, 2010. (AP Images)
Though Trump has been endorsed by the National Border Patrol Council, within the Border Patrol community, there’s resistance to his plan for a wall. In April, the release of an internal Border Patrol study revealed that the agency had no interest in a 1,000-mile wall as a border solution. Instead, it recommended building just 23 more miles of border fence, at a cost of about $92 million, and fielding better radios and more effective aerial drones to monitor the open sections of the border.
But optics typically takes precedence over reality and domestic over foreign policy when it comes the pursuit of border walls, explains Elisabeth Vallet, a geopolitics professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal and co-editor of In Borders Fences and Walls: State of Insecurity. “The image of a fortified border becomes more important than its actual effectiveness. Its true purpose is to maintain a sense of security and identity,” she said. And once the emotionally loaded concepts of security and identity enter into a political debate about borders, it can become almost impossible for elected officials to stop the momentum.
This is particularly true when building and maintaining border security can translate into thousands of jobs for voting-age constituents and billion of dollars for campaign-contributing corporations. It’s highly likely Trump’s “big, beautiful wall” will never be built, but it is also highly likely that the bunkered Israeli security mindset that animates the idea behind Trump’s wall will continue apace along the US-Mexico border.
This is the sobering new normal. American politicians will continue a vicious cycle of overspending precious resources to build walls whose utter inadequacy only spurs calls for new walls.. No border will ever be perfectly secure, after all, and every wall has an end somewhere. The smartest move for the United States may be as difficult as it is simple: Don’t build the wall.