WASHINGTON — Mexico never paid for any of it. It’s less than half finished. And on Jan. 20 or soon thereafter, construction will come to an abrupt halt on the “big beautiful wall” that President Donald Trump promised to build along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The project has cost $15 billion so far, most of it diverted from the military budget after Congress refused to provide full funding.
President-elect Joe Biden vowed during the campaign to kill the project, but leave in place whatever the Trump administration leaves behind.
At the moment, that’s about 400 miles worth of levee wall and 30-foot-tall bollard fencing, though nearly all of that mileage already had some sort of barrier before Trump took office. Only 12 miles did not.
The rest is upgrade or replacement for shorter, less sturdy fencing, or a second layer of barrier meant to slow migrants and smugglers long enough for the Border Patrol to arrive.
“It was a referendum on the wall,” Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat, said of the election. Cuellar has fought on the Appropriations Committee to stymie Trump budget maneuvers that sapped billions from military spending for his pet project.
Trump and his supporters viewed the wall both as an actual deterrent to smuggling and illegal border crossing, and a powerful symbol that uninvited migrants were not welcome and that the United States was tightening security. For immigrant advocates and for many Mexicans, it has been an affront.
Although Biden won’t push to dismantle Trump’s physical legacy, he will undo sharp curbs on refugee admissions and a host of other immigration policies put in place through executive order.
A wall on the scale Trump demanded wasn’t even a minor priority during the Obama years for Republicans when they controlled both the House and Senate, and Cuellar sees little political will to push ahead with it once he’s gone.
“The wall came up after Trump came in. I think they will lose their appetite to fight for the wall,” he said.
Five days before the election, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said that by year’s end, 450 miles will be completed.
“The many miles of border wall system exists because of the will and vision of President Trump, and the dedication and hard work of the men and women of DHS, the Army Corps of Engineers and our colleagues from across the administration,” Wolf said in McAllen to mark completion of 400 miles. “While this is an important milestone, we are building even more wall.”
Another 210 miles are under construction, he said.
But at the current pace, contractors might only get to about 470 miles by the time Biden is sworn in.
Advocates for tougher border security say that’s not enough, though they concede there’s no hope that construction will continue under Biden.
They want the wall “completed to the greatest extent possible” — that is, other than where mountains or canyons make it unnecessary, said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
“The border wall is not the answer to stopping illegal immigration, but it’s an important component in an overall strategy to stop large-scale illegal immigration,” he said. “If you’re going to leave large sections of the border, without any kind of security, secure fencing, people are going to make the obvious choice to come in through those areas.”
Construction has proceeded during the pandemic.
At last count, just over 34% of the 1,954-mile border was walled off. The project has required 556,000 tons of steel and 797,000 cubic yards of concrete at last count.
As vice president in the Obama era, Biden was in charge of working with Central America to find ways of reducing the poverty and crime that led to mass migrations north.
His border security plans focus on improved screening at ports of entry, where most illegal drugs enter the United States, along with beefing up investments in surveillance technology and working with Mexico and Central American countries.
Cuellar agrees that it’s not enough to just kill the border wall, and he’s been advocating a security-conscious but wall-free approach to fellow Democrats.
“We’ve got to make sure that we don’t give an impression that we have open borders” he said. “The criminal organizations, they hire people, they know what our policies are. We don’t want them to go and advertise that there’s no wall so start coming into the US, and then we start seeing caravans again. It’s a balance.”
The wall was Trump’s signature promise in the 2016 campaign, and his relentless pursuit of it led to confrontations that did not thrill many in his own party. A 35-day government shutdown ended in January 2019 without Trump getting $5.7 billion in wall funding that he had demanded.
Of the $15 billion spent so far, Congress provided only $4.5 billion.
The White House cobbled together the rest from other accounts, primarily the Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of the wall project and a host of military construction projects such as hospitals and schools on military installations.
Many such projects were put on hold when the administration decided to circumvent Congress by tapping the Pentagon budget, a maneuver that did not sit well with many Republicans, in addition to infuriating Democrats.
“One of the easiest actions for President Biden to take right away will be to end the emergency declaration, which he can do immediately through a presidential proclamation,” said Jessica Bolter, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.
Whatever remains unspent can go back to the Pentagon.
The federal government has been in court trying to force private landowners along the border to give up land or allow construction. Those lawsuits will become irrelevant, Bolter said.
To actually halt construction, Biden will also have to terminate existing contracts.
The government routinely includes contract language allowing cancellation for “convenience.”
House Democrats have tried to get copies of the wall contracts but the Army has refused to turn them over, Cuellar said. That will change once Biden takes office, and lawmakers will know soon whether the Trump administration planted legal land mines to make it harder to stop the project.
At the Atlantic Council, Jason Marczak, director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, said the Trump administration’s “singular focus” on wall construction has left related priorities neglected.
And some of its policies have created chaos the wall is meant to prevent, such as the “metering system” that severely limits the number of migrants allowed to request asylum.
Marczak sees an “extreme need” to restore a system that lets people with legitimate asylum claims into the United States, “and at the same time, deter those from crossing without authorization.”
“Security at the border goes far beyond a wall,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how big a wall is when people have no other choice but to migrate because of security challenges in their own country or because of the economic devastation of COVID-19. They will migrate.”
©2020 The Dallas Morning News