Stratfor: The Hurdles to Building Trump’s Border Wall

Summary:  Building a wall is one of Trump’s major campaign promises. Under the Secure Fence Act of 2006 America spent $6 billion to build 690 miles of fences and walls along the 1,900 mile border with Mexico (in addition to existing walls of unknown length). Here Stratfor examines the mechanics of fulfilling Trump’s promises.Stratfor

The Hurdles to Building a Border Wall

Stratfor, 23 January 2017.

The building of a border-length wall between the United States and Mexico is a campaign promise that U.S. President Donald Trump continues to nurture. But the construction of such an edifice is no small matter, assuming Congress would even approve or agree to fund the endeavor in the first place. Not only must the Trump administration deal with internal complications — legal opposition, issues of land ownership and physical geography — but there is also the matter of U.S.-Mexico relations and the fluid, adaptive nature of the migrant flow from South America.

The need to build a complete border barrier between the United States and Mexico was a consistent feature of Trump’s campaign trail rhetoric. Even after winning the election, Trump continued to tout the wall’s necessity. Now, it is well within the new administration’s power to seek legal justification and funding to build additional barriers along the border. This could mean additional fencing, but actually building a substantial wall is no small matter. It is relatively straightforward to reinforce places where barriers, such as pedestrian fencing, already exist. But when it comes to the substantial reaches of borderland without fencing, such as the winding path of the Rio Grande as it makes its way through Texas, things become more complicated.

It would be difficult for the incoming administration to justify constructing additional barriers along parts of the exposed Texas border, in part because of the natural barrier posed by waterways, and because much of the land along that section is privately owned.

The wall along the border with Mexico
The wall along the border with Mexico near Nogales, Arizona. Frederic Brown/AFP/Getty Images.

Before initiating the project, Trump’s administration would have to get Congress to agree that it has legal authorization for it, and lawmakers would have to approve the significant funding required. It is unclear what kind of project the new administration has in mind, but any attempt to construct new fencing or add barriers would likely face federal court challenges. In a worst-case scenario for the administration, a lengthy legal challenge would have to be resolved before construction could even begin. Local or national groups opposed to building the barrier would line up to seek injunctions preventing its construction, especially along parts of the border not already fenced off. Lawsuits could come even before funding is authorized.

The first challenge for Trump’s administration will be to determine the scope of what it wants to attempt. In December, members of the Trump transition team met with the Army Corps of Engineers to discuss the project and with the Department of the Interior to see whether regulations that might hinder construction could be waived. Any effort to build a major barrier will be met with resistance in Congress because lawmakers who have border constituencies will be reluctant to approve a project that would require obtaining land through eminent domain. Another option is to build a reinforced barrier along a relatively short stretch of the border, hoping that the symbolic effort is enough for the Trump administration to say it is fulfilling its campaign promise.

The government actually has a legal basis under which it can claim to Congress that it needs funding for a wall. The 2006 Secure Fence Act led to the construction of about 1,050 kilometers (650 miles) of border fence — half of which is pedestrian fencing, with the other half incorporating barriers to keep vehicles from crossing over. Most of this fencing runs through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Border barriers in Texas are mainly limited to high-traffic crossings, such as land adjacent to large border cities. Under the Secure Fence Act and adjustments made to the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, the president has broad powers to determine what kind of border barriers to build and where to build them.

A fragmented barrier.

Of more than 3,200 kilometers of US-Mexico border, less than 1,130 are blocked by walls, fences, or vehicle barriers. There are many reasons for these interruptions, including restricted access to private land, difficult terrain, and cross-border features such as the Rio Grande.

US-Mexico border fence


Trump’s team will most likely try to make a case for applying the Secure Fence Act’s provision for placing barriers “along not less than 700 miles of the southwest border.” A 2008 amendment to the 1996 law slightly changed that provision, specifying that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can determine where it needs to install such fencing. The Trump administration may also try to rely on Section 102 of the 2005 Real ID Act, which allows the DHS to waive legal requirements to ensure the quick construction of barriers that it is already authorized to build.

The administration will almost certainly have to make the case for what requirements should be waived and why. The Trump administration may claim it already has the legal authority to build fencing and could use these two provisions to request funding from Congress. Whether it gets the money is another question. It is clear, though, that the administration has the means to justify its demand for funding a barrier, whether it’s a wall, a fence or even just vehicle obstacles.

An attempt to provide funding for construction could come within a year. The House of Representatives and the Senate are slated to vote on a continuing resolution in late April to fund government operations, giving lawmakers in favor of border fence construction a chance to attach a funding authorization to it. Any attempt to shut down a border fence funding initiative added to the budget resolution would lead to a wider battle that could be too politically costly to pursue. Any delays to appropriating money for a border fence project, as well as legal battles that may ensue, could push the building of additional barriers beyond a Trump presidency — a fact that could jeopardize the entire initiative. Trump’s successor could choose to defund the initiative or redirect the nature and scope of any construction to differ from its original intent.

The political effects of any new border barrier on U.S.-Mexican relations will be influenced by several factors, including what input Mexico will be allowed to give on the project. Some of Mexico’s main concerns about a border wall include whether it reroutes migrants (particularly Mexican ones) to more dangerous border crossings, such as those through the Sonoran Desert; whether it leads to more Central American migrants being bottled up in Mexican states; whether it results in disruptions to commercial cross-border traffic; and whether the United States continues to voice any public demands that Mexico pay for the wall.

The Trump administration is also apparently considering another border policy option, one that would stem the flow of immigrants into Mexico from Central America. The effort would hinge on an initiative to help Mexico bolster security along the Guatemalan border. The main thrust of that option appears to be a joint funding initiative to secure the border, then possibly seeking a reimbursement of that money back from Mexico. Logistically, such an effort would seem to be simpler than constructing a complete wall along the U.S. border, given the relatively shorter distance and the limited number of roads and rail lines crossing from Guatemala into Mexico. But that plan has its shortcomings. Corrupt border officials could facilitate their northward journey, and it could suffer the same potential shortcomings as would a U.S.-Mexico border wall as immigrants find ways to bypass security mechanisms.

The Hurdles to Building a Border Wall
is republished with permission of Stratfor.

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About Stratfor

Founded in 1996, Stratfor provides strategic analysis and forecasting to individuals and organizations around the world. By placing global events in a geopolitical framework, we help customers anticipate opportunities and better understand international developments. They believe that transformative world events are not random and are, indeed, predictable. See their About Page for more information.

For More Information

See the Wikipedia entry on the wall. The report by GAO: “Secure Border Initiative Fence Construction Costs“, 29 January 2009. How much will the wall cost? See the MIT Technology Review article “Bad Math Props Up Trump’s Border Wall.”

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Donald Trump, about Mexico, about immigration, and especially these…

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  2. How to use refugees as geopolitical weapons, brutal but effective.
  3. A Harvard Professor explains the populist revolt against immigration & globalization — By George Borjas, Professor of economics at Harvard.
  4. An anthropologist explains the disruptive politics of immigration — By Maximilian C. Forte, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University.
  5. Stratfor: Is the West Being Overrun by Migrants? — By the famous sociologist and historian Ian Morris.


12 thoughts on “Stratfor: The Hurdles to Building Trump’s Border Wall”

  1. Might it be possible to use eminent domain or similar measures to ram things through? I honestly don’t know, although it seems as if political considerations alone would make the Trump administration want to step a little gently in red states. (Confiscating land in Texas and interfering with their large cross-border trade seems like it might not be good for GOP chances.)

    My favorite solution, though: “Instead Of Trump’s Wall, Let’s Build A Border Of Solar Panels” — “It would create jobs for would-be immigrants and a climate of civility between nations.”

    And if we put these in as competitors for Mexico’s solar power auctions, we might legitimately get Mexico to pay for them.

    1. Dana,

      “Might it be possible to use eminent domain or similar measures to ram things through?”

      When in doubt, read the post:

      “Any effort to build a major barrier will be met with resistance in Congress because lawmakers who have border constituencies will be reluctant to approve a project that would require obtaining land through eminent domain.”

      “My favorite solution, though: ‘Instead Of Trump’s Wall, Let’s Build A Border Of Solar Panels'”

      That is the kind of absurdly impractical “solution” to be expected from a “Poet, novelist and environmentalist”. Which is why no sensible nation lets such people near the controls.

  2. Its worth remembering the larger context: which is preventing illegal immigration. The most important enforcement tool would be strengthening the IRCA related rules making “it unlawful for employers to knowingly hire or continue to employ unauthorized workers.” After all, millions of illegal immigrants are already here!

    The wall is Bread and Circuses (a/k/a Reality TV) , the IRCA related rules are reality. That said, I predict The Donald is serious about restricting unauthorized workers, and he will strengthen IRCA enforcement.

    1. Eliot,

      (1) I agree that enforcing regs on employers is a key part of controlling illegal immigration. We will see i the extremely pro-corporate Trump administration will take that step. Also, will Team Trump stop their abuse of the Hb1 visa program — an powerful tool to depress wages of skilled American workers.

      (2) “The wall is Bread and Circuses”

      That’s become a fashionable belief. It has zero basis in history. Walls have been used with great effect for many millennia, in many circumstances. They are not magic barriers. They slow and channel crossing; they always require forces to support them.

  3. Dear FM and all,

    This comment is not about the content of the Stratfor analysis, which seems solid enough; at least, I don’t have facts at hand to refute it, even if I were so inclined. However, I *do* think it’s important to get at the motivation for /why/ Mr Trump keeps pushing these seemingly pointless and arguably self-destructive policies, which, after reading the article again, I don’t see any probing thereof. However, it’s hinted at (*maybe*) in the first line of the intro and the first paragraph:

    Building a wall is one of Trump’s major campaign promises.

    The *one* thing that Mr Trump has been fairly consistent about (AFAICT) is his so called “Contract with the American Voter”:

    Mr Trump, AFAICT, seems to be remarkably unTrumpian in this regard: he has, to date, consistently pursued the policies therein, if not to the intent, then to some semblance of the letter, which fits with his predilection as I see it to almost perfect mastery of the art of Frankfurteresque BS. If he can just build some sort of something that *looks* like a wall, he can check the box and declare victory and deliver “change” and be the barnstorming transformative badass that no one gave him the slightest chance of being. I am not *endorsing* this behavior, merely observing it, and the problem with BSers of the Frankfurter School (apologies, esp. to Dr Frankfurter who pointed out the dangers of BS in his worthy book) is the good/evil truth/false x/y of anything doesn’t actually matter — only does it advance the BSer’s goal.

    Dear FM, put me on the wall of epic fail if this prediction does not come to pass: all of the points in the aforementioned contract has not been plausibly done within the 100 day window. Much of it is “introducing”; he gets to check off the Supreme Court nomination tomorrow. The “wall” might just be a fence in Laredo, but, it’s a wall as far as the story is concerned. We can only hope the victory conditions are wee and the timeframes short for some of these items.

    1. Comparing the list to the last few days’ excitement, he seems to have gotten most of the things that don’t require Cabinet members or Congress done already. I expect he will attempt to work to get legislation passed in the next few months, as well as his SCOTUS nominee.

      I have heard some speculation that the poor structuring of his EOs has been a deliberate effort to cause chaos, which has kind of reaffirmed your point, Fabius, that the Left and Right may have traded places in the rhetorical sense. (I think the great foe to Trump’s effectiveness will be a huge number of unforced errors, which will hopefully not cause much systemic damage along the way…)

      1. Dana,

        “I have heard some speculation that the poor structuring of his EOs has been a deliberate effort to cause chaos,”

        Got the love the wild speculation of the Left, chattering irrationally away in their bubble.

        Getting a new administration off the ground is a task of immense difficulty. The Obama administration launched methodically but very slowly. Trump — in this as in several other ways — followed the almost-opposite FDR model: move fast to make full use of the first 100 days. That means taking half-baked measures, giving the impression of bold action — grabbing the momentum and forcing opponents to react to him.

        There are no easy choice, no handy-dandy scripts for new Presidents. Just trade-offs.

    2. It is probably more comforting to think it’s an evil plot by Darth Bannon (seems more like Kylo Ren to me) than to think it is just generalized incompetence. But that’s part of the allure of all conspiracy theories: At least SOMEONE is in control.

      I’ve tried to steer my own social sphere towards more civic engagement when it’s come up, rather than just chasing our own tails into an anxiety-ball.

  4. Dear FM,

    Ah, thank you for calling out my rhetorical devices. It’s one of the things I love about your work. I regret my wording. The *policies* are *not* absurd from a mainstream to mainstreamish conservative perspective, but the implementation of those policies have been questionable in the alignment of their effect to intentions. I will admit my idea of a conservative is not Reagan, but George HW Bush… Is it all just bluster and just bargaining? And, are the motivations personal, political, partisan? What constitutes any of those categories (including personal!)

    1. Bill,

      “Is it all just bluster and just bargaining?”

      The 1% has spent uncounted billions of dollars since their modern project began in 1964 to reshape America. Funding college professors, programs, clubs, scholarships and internships. Funding think tanks, advocacy organizations, conferences, and campaigns. It’s hilarious that at this late date so many people think that they’re kidding. No wonder they believe themselves better suited to rule America.

      Perhaps they’re right.

      For some details see The 1% won a counter-revolution while we played and The 1% won a counter-revolution while we played.

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