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The limits to using walls for migration, drug trafficking challenges

Right now, on a site near existing border wall outside San Diego, California, eight concrete-and-metal slabs sit awaiting judgment. They are prototypes for the Trump administration’s vision for a border wall that could cost between US$20 billion and US$60 billion to build.

In a new report, the Washington Office on Latin America points out that the section of the border where the prototypes sit—Customs and Border Protection’s San Diego sector—is a perfect example of how limited walls, fences, and barriers can be. This sector has 60 miles of border and 46 of them are already fenced off.

Here, fence-building has revealed a new set of border challenges that a wall can’t fix. The San Diego sector shows that:

  • Fences or walls can reduce migration in urban areas, but make no difference in rural areas. In densely populated border areas, border-crossers can quickly mix in to the population. But nearly all densely populated sections of the U.S.-Mexico border have long since been walled off. In rural areas, where crossers must travel miles of terrain, having to climb a wall first is not much of a deterrent. A wall would be a waste of scarce budget resources.
  • People who seek protected status aren’t deterred by walls. Some asylum-seekers even climbed existing fence at the prototype site while construction was occurring. In San Diego, they include growing numbers of Central American children and families. Last year in the sector, arrivals included thousands of Haitians who journeyed from Brazil, many of whom now live in Tijuana. The presence or absence of a fence made no difference in their decision to seek out U.S. authorities to petition for protection.
  • Fences are irrelevant to drug flows. Of all nine border sectors, San Diego leads in seizures of heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and probably fentanyl. Authorities find the vast majority of these drugs at legal border crossings—not in the spaces between where walls would be built. Interdicting more drugs at the border would require generous investment in modern, well-staffed ports of entry—but instead, the Trump administration is asking Congress to pay for a wall.

The border doesn’t need a wall. It needs better-equipped ports of entry, investigative capacity, technology, and far more ability to deal with humanitarian flows. In its current form, the 2018 Homeland Security Appropriations bill is pursuing a wrong and wasteful approach. The experience of San Diego makes that clear.



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