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By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
One of the biggest challenges in border fence construction is maximizing its effectiveness while keeping costs down. Several different types of border fence have been in place for decades along the U.S.-Mexico border, with mixed results. And while the steel bollard-style fencing has more or less become the new and improved standard for border fence construction, President Trump’s micromanaging approach to the style and design is potentially driving costs up — and courting a considerable amount of controversy for the potential physical impact on northbound migrants.
Drug Smugglers and Illegal Immigrants
Since the Secure Fence Act of 2006 laid out the requirement for 700 miles of border fencing between the United States and Mexico, the primary goal and concern of construction has been its effectiveness in deterring drug smugglers and illegal immigrants. However, President Trump has thrown a wrench into construction plans, claiming that the existing fence is ugly, according to one administration official who spoke with the Washington Post. He has also stated that he wants the new fence sections to be painted black in order to make it scalding hot to the touch, and that they should be topped with spikes. The president has reportedly described in graphic terms the potential injuries that border-crossing individuals might receive as a result.
Hotel Construction vs. Border Fence Construction
Trump has repeatedly claimed that he wants new sections of border fence to be constructed as quickly and cheaply as possible. However, his micromanaging approach to small little details in fence design continuously threatens to drive up construction costs, and is frustrating many involved in the construction process. This is a holdover from Trump’s days in hotel construction and design, where he wanted to be involved in decisions like the type of marble and brass used in his hotel lobbies.
Physically Imposing; Aesthetically Pleasing
The main problem is that the president’s preferences and instructions are changing regularly, which are leaving both engineers and aides confused, according to current and former administration officials. The Post reported that Trump has repeatedly summoned the head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, to impart his views on the various properties, demanding that the structure be physically imposing, but also aesthetically pleasing.
Trump has also been pushing Semonite to consider North Dakota-based contractor Fisher Industries to build new fence sections. Fisher is a GOP donor and has a poor track record in border fence construction.
David Lapan, a former Homeland Security official who worked at DHS during the border fence prototype construction project in San Diego, has criticized Trump’s decision-making process. “Building high rises in New York City is not the same as putting up a barrier at the border,” he told the Post. “You’re not looking for aesthetics; you’re looking for functionality.” Trump seems to be impervious to the fact that painting a border wall requires more maintenance, which drives up costs.
Trump Undecided on Height of Fencing
The president has also gone back and forth on what height the fencing should be. The San Diego prototypes were built to 30 feet, but Customs and Border Protection has repeatedly indicated that 15 feet to 18 feet is a sufficient height. It also helps to keep construction costs down.
However, the Border Patrol is seeking to construct nearly 63 miles of new border barrier, rising up to 30 feet, along three protected wilderness areas in southern Arizona. According to the Tucson Sentinel, the agency is planning to “replace miles of dilapidated and outdated pedestrian fencing and vehicle barriers with a new bollard wall.” The proposed design would include concrete-filled steel bollards made of square steel around 6 inches on a side, and would rise 18 to 30 feet high. The report did not indicate if the tops of the bollards would be round or spiked, or what color the fence would be.