Last September, 73-year-old Juan Vargas was hospitalized with the coronavirus at Laredo Medical Center in south Texas, and it was not looking good. “We all thought he was going to die,” says his son Jerry. “We were getting ready for basically that.”
To avoid a potential legal quagmire if things turned for the worse, the elder Vargas signed an agreement with the federal government that the family had been fighting for over a year: Juan agreed to allow the Army Corps of Engineers right of entry to their ranch on the U.S.-Mexico border, paving the way for the construction of President Trump’s wall. The family didn’t immediately expect much to come of it. Engineers said they would only sample the soil and remove some light brush, and with their neighbors suing the administration over the plan to build on their property, it wouldn’t make sense to put in heavy work only to stop after a few acres. (Plots on the border in south Texas are long and skinny, designed to cram in as many tracts with Rio Grande access as possible.) Plus, the virus that put Juan Vargas in the hospital had made Trump’s electoral prospects and the future of his wall an open question.
Vargas eventually recovered, to the point that he can even hunt and fish again on the family ranch. While out tracking white-tailed deer in January, he noticed that a bulldozer had removed mesquite trees and demolished a 40-foot cliff near the river to make way for a road. “It looked like they used dynamite,” his son recalls, “but it was a dozer who knew what he was doing.”
The demolition on the Vargas ranch two months after Trump’s electoral loss is consistent with reports from other landowners and environmental advocates who have described an uptick in contractor activity along the vast southern border after November 3. And though President Joe Biden’s swath of day-one executive orders included a 60-day pause on all wall construction — and ended the national emergency that Trump declared so he could reroute billions of dollars in Pentagon funding toward the effort — the cleanup is just beginning. As Vargas puts it, “They’re gone and now we’re left with this.”
The new administration has inherited a much larger quagmire, involving expensive outstanding contracts, hundreds of miles of unfinished construction, and frustrated parties all along the border. Overseeing an alphabet soup of government agencies involved in the undertaking, President Biden must now figure out which option is the least bad.
Finishing the thing is out of the question. In his executive order, Biden said a wall spanning “the entire southern border is not a serious policy solution.” But neither is a complete undoing; in July, Biden said he would not take down the wall, an endeavor that would cost billions as he fights for funding for pandemic relief. Installing a hodgepodge of “smart security” technology paid for with reallocated wall cash, together with limited barrier removal in sensitive areas, appears to be the most likely outcome. But that half measure will be expensive, and will require maintenance costs for the steel that stays in the ground. Even doing nothing at all will hurt the purse thanks to contract cancellations. One Army Corps estimate from December suggests that if no more work is done and no panels are taken down, taxpayers will still eat another $700 million on “demobilization” fees.
Less than a month into his administration, President Biden has taken some steps toward reforming an immigration system that his predecessor made as inhospitable as possible for the migrants navigating it. Though the suspension of policies like “Remain in Mexico” and a pause on hostile Immigration and Customs Enforcement tactics have had immediate effects, the steel on the border is proving a more durable policy obstacle.
As of December 2020, only 40 new miles of steel barriers had been placed at the southern border during Trump’s time in office. It’s a number that’s drawn some mockery, as it’s far from the “great, great wall on our southern border” that Trump promised when he launched his primary campaign. However, it does not account for another 412 miles of so-called “replacement fencing” that he managed to secure. The term is an understatement. Trump’s steel “fencing” ranges from 18 to 30 feet high and features rust-colored slats installed close enough together to stop any large mammal without access to power tools from squeezing through. It serves as a “replacement” for much smaller structures — mesh fences to stop pedestrians; low, easy-to-climb Normandy barriers designed to halt anything on wheels. For all its logistical flaws, once the panels are in the ground they are quite permanent, which is reflected, in part, by the project’s $15 billion price tag to date.
But the structure was never the right solution to stop the large-scale drug trafficking and undocumented migration it was meant to curtail. The year before Trump won the election, the Drug Enforcement Agency wrote in its annual assessment of the narcotics trade that cartels “transport the bulk of their drugs over the Southwest border through ports of entry … using passenger vehicles or tractor trailers.” That phenomenon held steady in the Trump years: According to U.S. Customs data for the first 11 months of fiscal year 2018, 90 percent of heroin, 88 percent of cocaine, 87 percent of methamphetamine, and 80 percent of fentanyl seized on the border was confiscated at legal crossing points. And in February 2020, the Congressional Research Service reported that when smugglers ran up against the wall, they responded by simply going around it, or changing “concealment techniques to move illicit drugs more effectively” through ports of entry.
As for the campaign promise that a wall would stop undocumented border crossings, there were over 70,000 detentions in October and November of 2020, the highest totals for those two months in over a decade. Texas representative Henry Cuellar also notes that the wall built in his state has potentially increased the opportunities for migrants to apply for asylum in the United States — despite the last administration’s open disdain for the process. “When they put the fence in, they don’t follow the curves of the river,” explains Cuellar, who represents Texas’s 28th District, which includes a long sweep of the Rio Grande. Going in a “straight line from point A to point B” can create a no-man’s-land of up to half a mile, where border agents have to monitor both sides of the wall. With this additional zone to patrol, Cuellar says that “all migrants have to do is get to the river bank — that’s U.S. territory — at which point you can ask for asylum on credible fear.”
Getting through the barrier itself may be even easier. Though the wall’s anti-climb plate at the top stops animals from getting over, it can be summited by groups with simple rope ladders. Smugglers have also reportedly cut through its steel barriers with reciprocating saws, a widely available tool that costs about $100. In some areas, wall construction has actually made the border more friendly to entry. In the rugged Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona, contractors blew up mountain cliffs to cut switchback roads for the wall, only to run out of time before getting the slats in the ground.
Now that the Biden administration has inherited this problem-ridden project, an unruly accounting process is underway in Washington. The Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Homeland Security are looking to split roughly in half the $3.3 billion in total funds remaining for the wall: Around $1.6 billion will reportedly be under DHS authority, while the remainder of the funds, which Trump secured via his 2019 declaration of emergency, will return to the Department of Defense and the Treasury. From there, DHS and OMB must figure out which resources it can reroute and which contracts it can legally cancel outright — and what to do with another 270,000 tons of unused steel bollards that can be cut through in minutes with a tool purchased at Home Depot. The option with the most support involves mass terminations of convenience, in which the government eats the cost for services already rendered and additional charges for canceling contracts. If the administration prioritizes savings above all else, a total end to wall construction could save taxpayers some $2.6 billion, according to a recent Army Corps of Engineers estimate.
Amid this process, which has a deadline of just 60 days, the Office of Management and Budget is facing a challenge unique to the Trump way of doing things, as the agency must determine the legality of the last administration’s rushed contract process. “This will be more complicated than it usually would be and than it should be,” said Shaun Donovan, the OMB director under President Obama, and a current candidate for New York City mayor. “If the actions by the Trump administration were illegal, that obviously requires additional steps to pull back money.”
Once the money is all in place, Biden will most likely keep some of it on the border. In the Army Corps estimate, engineers also outlined an option that would allow Biden to bulk up technology for border infrastructure, including cameras and sensors, for around $500 million. Such a plan would be consistent with what the White House has called a “smart security” approach — and his campaign’s criticism of Trump for failing to “invest in smarter border technology.”
That strategy would also be supported by Representative Cuellar, a vocal opponent of Trump’s wall who has pushed to stop or limit its encroachment since the project began four years ago. As vice-chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security, he has encouraged DHS to reroute some of the Trump wall money for cameras and other monitoring systems. “A wall is like playing defense on the one-yard line,” he says. “It’s better to play on the 20-yard line.”
Though more “smart wall” features may be on the way, the Trump-approved panels already in place could undermine future security efforts. In addition to requiring Border Patrol agents to guard both sides of the barrier in some areas, the wall could dampen the effectiveness of radar, a tool relied on by law enforcement for decades to get a sense of where remote crossings are taking place. “What is radar?” asks Myles Traphagen, an ecologist recording the effects of Trump’s wall on wildlife in Arizona and California. “It likes metal.”
First working on the border studying grassland restoration 25 years ago, Traphagen is now there in part to witness an unplanned federal experiment in what happens when critical migratory paths are cut off. Already, field cameras have observed a 90 percent decline in large-animal traffic in the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, including deer, javelina, and mountain lions. “These animals need a tremendous amount of territory to obtain food and water,” he says, “and on the driest year on record, they need to travel even further.” To mitigate the harm caused to the stunning and biodiverse regions along the border, a coalition of environmental groups have laid out immediate steps for restoration, including opening gates at waterways and taking down the wall in wildlife corridors to allow for migration.
The natural conditions that create invaluable habitats along the border will also impact the wall as the years go by. Though the Washington Post reported last year that “lawmakers and congressional staffers from both parties” had not been briefed about potential upkeep costs, experts say they could rise into the billions. And while proper maintenance requires working with the environment — like the seasonal opening of gates in remote flood zones to reduce erosion — in February Traphagen observed gates welded shut at the San Pedro River in the Sky Islands region of the Sonoran desert. “Are they going to send somebody down with a torch?” he asks, of inevitable flash-flooding. “It’s been particularly difficult to watch this being destroyed with such little regard for the permanent impact,” he adds.
That lack of care was particularly egregious under President Trump, who provided waivers allowing contractors to bypass the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, and Endangered Species Act in the initial rush to build in 2017. But short-term thinking has been a dominant trend in federal policy at the border for decades now — including the Obama administration’s decision to finish the work of the 2006 Secure Fence Act, despite campaign promises to review its environmental impacts. Due to the ingenuity and desperation of those crossing, border barriers were clearly a sloppy and incomplete fix for the nation’s bevy of immigration-policy problems years before Trump took office. Because of the steel he put in the ground, they will remain a mess through the Biden years, and almost certainly beyond.