I’ve spent the last four years watching, reporting on and obsessing over the border wall and, for the first time, I think President Donald Trump might actually build across all 1,954 miles of the international line between the U.S. and Mexico.
It was the promise that launched his last presidential campaign that fateful day in June of 2015 when he descended his golden escalator and announced he’d “build a great wall.” He defined his campaign by this promise — and offered more embellishments, “a big, beautiful wall.” Still, it’s a pledge I, and even the contractors I’ve met who placed bids to work on its construction, never took seriously. But since Trump was elected, two striking developments have made this fantasy much more possible, perhaps even inevitable.
When it became clear in February of 2019 that the president couldn’t get Congress to fully fund construction, he went around the legislative branch by declaring a national emergency at the southern border, allowing his administration to begin transferring military funds that had been appropriated for other purposes including military pay and training.
The president said he had the authority to do so because of a statute allowing for the transference of funds “for higher priority items based on unforeseen military requirements.” But there have been no unforeseen circumstances at the southern border since Trump took office. (Annual apprehensions are still down dramatically from the high established in 2000 — by 50% at the end of 2019.)
The second major development played out late on the last Friday in July, when the Supreme Court determined for the second — and perhaps final — time that the president had the authority to transfer the funds. His power to do so had been challenged by the ACLU, representing the Sierra Club and the Southern Border Communities Coalition, based on two arguments. One, that construction would “irreparably” harm the environment and, two, that Article 1, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution gives power to Congress — and only Congress — when it comes to withdrawing money from the treasury and deciding how to spend it.
Two lower court decisions previously blocking the president’s transfer of funds highlighted the distinct lack of “unforeseen” circumstances at the border, but with a 5-4 ruling the Supreme Court gave deference to Trump’s national emergency declaration and, accordingly, the power to transfer the funds. It made a similar ruling in July of 2019; that one was temporary, the ruling last month, as Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the dissent, “may operate, in effect, as a final judgment.”
The president has found a way to work around the legislative branch, and is now doing so with the blessing of the judicial branch. Contracts have been awarded and there are multiple active construction sites along the international line.
Work is proceeding with destructive speed. In Campo, California, the Army Corps of Engineers is trenching in the desert, on land reserved for the Kumeyaay tribes that have lived there for 12,000 years. Kumeyaay communities originally occupied all of present-day San Diego County and extended down into present-day Baja, Mexico, but their land was partitioned between two countries in 1848 after the Mexican American War. And now the U.S. government is building a 30-foot-high fence made of steel bollards on land reserved for the Kumeyaay.
Federal law requires that trained monitors be on the job site to look for cultural artifacts and human bones — discovery of which is supposed to stop construction. Kumeyaay elders told me that monitors were not given access as work commenced last month, and when they did finally get in, they were not able to do their job. “They keep moving the exact spot where they’re working,” one monitor told me. “It’s impossible to keep up. Even if we are in the right spot, they’re plowing up the earth so fast there’s no time for us to get in there and see what they might be digging up.”
To keep up the pace, the administration has waved dozens of federal environmental laws. Ancient saguaro cactuses have been cut down in the Arizona desert — an act that normally sends people to prison — and new fencing has decimated the 10,000-year-old Quitobaquito Springs, vital to the endangered species who live in the fresh water and sacred to the Tohono O’odham people who have organized communities around the water source for thousands of years.
The rapidity with which work is moving speaks to the administration’s will to complete the job, and Trump has already committed to transferring more funds from other sources, as needed. With last month’s ruling, the checks and balances have dried up. Who is left to stop him? Perhaps the only remaining device capable of stopping construction is an electoral defeat for the president in November, and no one is likely to assume that outcome with national polling looking similar to 2016 forecasts.
Four more years is certainly enough time to complete construction, given that Trump has now fashioned an exacting system for getting it done. The result might not be a 1,954-mile continuous “wall,” as described in the original promise. I’ve seen lots of barriers at the border made of many different materials — wire mesh, razor wire, corrugated metal — but nothing that would actually qualify as a wall. The idea of a “the wall” was always a fantasy, but the possibility of various barriers across the entire southern border is not.
Conceivably, there is just one part of the original promise that will remain hyperbole: Mexico will not pay for construction. American taxpayers are paying and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Even worse, some Americans allegedly have been defrauded by a fundraising scheme to build sections of the wall on private property, leading to the indictment of the president’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon. What began as a myth has become a very real assault on our individual and collective resources. As we grow numb to the routine of more than 1 million people filing for unemployment every month, and as schools run out of money straining to meet the president’s demand to reopen during a pandemic, $2.5 billion will be put toward trenching the earth and preparing footing for 30-foot-high steel bollards that we already know are scalable by humans and incapable of withstanding strong winds.