The ebb and flow of people across the border has long been a political and economic issue. With the struggling economy and unemployment of the 1930s Great Depression, restrictions on immigration from Mexico were tightened and many Mexican Americans were deported, including some who were U.S. citizens. As the economy rebounded and the U.S. entered World War II, the demand for labor resulted in an easing of the restrictions. However, the Eisenhower Administration in the 1950s reinstituted deportation as an immigration control tool, often not distinguishing between undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens. In 1969, the Nixon Administration launched Operation Intercept, which called for increased surveillance and inspections at border crossings that restricted travel and negatively impacted the economies on both sides of the border. 

Border restrictions then ratcheted up during the Clinton Administration following implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The Mexican farmer could not compete with American agricultural products, especially corn, that flowed into Mexico with free trade. A main ingredient in the Mexican diet, corn was the primary cash crop on which the Mexican farmer depended. With farmers now struggling to make a living, undocumented immigration increased, mostly through neighboring urban areas on the border, termed “conurbations.” Operation Hold the Line was initiated in 1993 for the El Paso/Juárez conurbation, and Operation Gatekeeper in 1994 for San Diego/Tijuana conurbation that erected barriers and increased inspections and patrols at these border crossings. This did little to slow undocumented immigration; rather, migrants unable to make a living in Mexico and Central American countries or escaping violence now began to attempt crossings through less inhabited sections of the border. The “coyote,” guiding bands of immigrants through remote desert and mountains, sometimes ruthlessly, entered the Mexican/American lexicon. Meaningful immigration reform proved to be elusive because of the politics involved.

Subsequently, the Bush Administration also capitulated to hardliners in the Republican Party and began pushing for a border fence. Initial authorization for erecting a border fence came in 2005 with the Real ID Act that, along with several modifications of federal law for identification documents and state driver’s licenses, included the use of border infrastructure and ground surveillance technologies for increased border security. The controversial Secure Fence Act of 2006 followed, which called for 652 miles of double fence to be constructed, later amended to allow the Border Patrol to use whatever barrier was appropriate to the terrain. 

Construction continued during the early Obama years, but often with vehicle barriers or a single fence to block pedestrians rather than the tall double fences originally envisioned by the hardliners. Even with the increased border security under his administration, Obama predicted Republican opponents would not be satisfied and famously stated, “They’ll want a higher fence. Maybe they’ll need a moat. Maybe they want alligators in the moat. They’ll never be satisfied. And I understand that. That’s politics.”

The barriers that have gone up and the increased surveillance over the years have resulted in undocumented immigrants abandoning former routes and attempting to cross at even more inhospitable terrain in the desert Southwest. Perhaps some in the government genuinely thought making border crossing more difficult would discourage migrants from making the attempt; however, with families to feed, they kept coming, often with not enough clothes, water, and food to make it successfully. The Center for Biological Diversity reports that more than 6,000 have died in the attempt in the last 20 years, a result that should have been easily foreseen in the intentional strategy to increase the difficulty of border crossings.

Completion of an actual wall, as now proposed by the Trump Administration, would be 200 times as long as the Berlin Wall, pass six national parks that sit along the border, and halt all animal ground migration along the borderlands. Executive Order 13767 directs the wall to be built; however, federal legislation is required to provide the funding. Senate and House Bills occasionally have been introduced to increase border security. The bills usually include the wall in the term “tactical infrastructure,” and ominously repeat a recurring phrase in all border bills, 

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Secretary of Homeland Security is authorized to waive all legal requirements the Secretary of Homeland Security, in the Secretary’s sole discretion, determines necessary to ensure the expeditious construction, installation, operation, and maintenance of the tactical infrastructure and technology…

In other words, the Secretary of Homeland Security is authorized to ignore all environmental and any other laws that impede construction of the wall. In 2017, CBP procured wall segment prototypes in response to the Executive Order.

Few believe a wall will be effective in stemming the tide of immigrants, or is even needed to control border crossings. The Customs and Border Patrol, in its 2017 annual report, “recorded the lowest level of illegal cross-border migration on record, as measured by apprehensions along the border and inadmissible encounters at U.S. ports of entry.” CBP also reported that they initiated a pilot program for remotely piloted “small unmanned aircraft systems.” If the pilot project is successful, the use of drones would even further reduce the need for a wall. The CBP continues to use and test the drones.

The CBP 2018 annual report showed a 15% increase over 2017 with a big jump in family units and unaccompanied children, many of whom were detained and children were taken from their parents in a controversial strategy to discourage immigration. In addition, the CBP in 2018 completed 27.9 miles of wall construction, most replacing existing fencing or vehicle barrier. 

In the 2019 budget negotiations, with the House in Democrat control after the 2018 mid-term elections, Congress refused to go along with spending billions of dollars on the wall. At first Trump refused to sign the budget bill that did not give him all he asked for, causing the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. He eventually signed the bill, but then declared a national emergency that many call “fake” to take money from other programs to build the wall. Both the House and Senate voted to end the emergency declaration, which Trump then vetoed. With Congress not having the votes to override the veto, the Trump Administration is now attempting to move money from programs approved by Congress to the wall project that was not fully funded by Congress. That sets up a lawsuit challenge because it is Congress’s sole authority to approve the budget.

In April 2019, the House of Representatives filed a lawsuit that states, “Absent any applicable Congressional appropriation, the expenditure of up to $8.1 billion to construct a border wall – and the transfer of appropriated funds from other sources to pay for the wall – violates the Appropriations Clause and the constitutional separation of powers.” Twenty states Attorneys General and environmental and progressive groups have also filed suits to block the funds transfer.

In an effort to allow wildlife to pass, New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich introduced S 264 in January 2019, a bill to prohibit the construction of “any levee wall, steel bollard fence, or other wall” along the southern border of the U.S. in any unit of the national wildlife refuge system, national wilderness preservation system, or wildlife corridor or on state land unless approved by the state. The bill has been referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

The Center for Biological Diversity calls the wall a “looming tragedy for the area’s diverse wildlife and people, as well as its rugged and spectacular landscapes.” The current 650 miles of barrier block about a third of the nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico. Around 300 miles of the barrier is actual wall, while most of the rest consists of vehicle barriers and fences that are still porous to wildlife in places. So, currently at least, some are able to get through. 

In her book, Continental Divide, Krista Schlyer says,

We face a moment where we must look in the face of the jaguar, one of the most beautiful creatures on Earth, and decide whether this wall—a wall that offers no hope of solving anything—is worth the loss of something so exquisite.

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