By Sarina Phu
While the contiguous United States’ border with Canada extends almost 4,000 miles and the border with Mexico runs half that length, at under 2,000 miles, the U.S.-Mexico border involves a much more complex, expensive system of defense than that of the US-Canada border.
The legal path to this extensive system of physical defense began in 1990 with the United States Customs and Border Protection’s Prevention through Deterrence Strategy, recounts Robert Lee Maril in his book The Fence (Maril 56). This constructed fourteen miles of border fence in the beginnings of the United States’ effort to control immigration (Maril 56). In 2005, the Real ID Act gave power to the Department of Homeland Security to “waive any and all laws that might hamper border fence construction” (Maril 56). In November of that same year, the DHS launched the Secure Border Initiative (SBI), a “multiyear, multibillion-dollar program aimed at securing U.S. borders and reducing illegal immigration,” according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Border Security: DHS’s Progress and Challenges in Securing U.S. Borders” (GAO 2013 12). This program initiated the development of DHS Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet) and tactical infrastructure, which included fencing, roads, and lighting (GAO 2013 12). In addition, the CBP increased the number of southwest border miles with two types of fencing, pedestrian and vehicle, from 120 miles to 650 miles (GAO 2013 12).
The expansion of the border fencing construction did not end there. According to Denise Gilman’s article, Seeking Breaches in the Wall, in 2006, the Secure Fence Act was passed, and although specific locations were set out for fencing, the total mileage of fencing mandated varied. Some governmental sources concluded that 850 miles of fencing were required, with at least 300 miles of wall to be constructed by the end of 2008 (Gilman 266). The 2007 Consolidated Appropriations Act required the DHS to build at least 700 miles of border fence. According to a 2015 GAO Report on Border Security, from 2005 to May 2015, the total mileage of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border increased to 652 miles (GAO 2015, at 9).
Currently, three types of border fencing exist – primary, secondary (or Sandia), and vehicle barrier fencing (Maril 56). The primary fencing comprises ninety percent of the fencing along the Mexican border (Maril 56). Maril describes this type of fencing as “Vietnam-era carbon steel strips, twelve feet by twenty inches wide by ¼ inches thick,” with “surplus steel planks welded to steel pipes, buried eight feet deep in the terrain at six-foot intervals” (Maril 56). To complete a single mile of primary fencing, 3,080 steel panels are required (Maril 56).
Behind the primary fencing lies the secondary, or Sandia, fencing. This fencing, composed of chain-link, is ten feet high, and angles towards Mexico a few feet at the top “to make climbing impossible from that side” (Maril 56). Between the primary and secondary fencing, a space large enough for an access road runs between the fencing for agents to patrol by vehicle (Maril 56). As of 2009, ten miles of secondary fencing had been constructed south of San Diego and some secondary fencing constructed in El Paso, for a total of 32 miles of secondary fencing.
The third fencing, vehicle barrier fencing, involves two types: permanent vehicle barriers, and temporary vehicle barriers. The permanent vehicle barrier, composed of steel posts, bollards, placed five feet into the ground into concrete forms, to prevent drug traffickers from driving loads across the border (Maril 56). Above ground, the posts vary in height in order to make erecting ramps over the barriers more difficult. The second type of vehicle barrier, temporary barriers, are built by the agents at Border Patrol stations from railroad tracks, telephone poles, or pipes, and installed along trails to slow or discourage smuggling (Maril 56). These poles, moveable only by forklift, are moved by the BP to new spots in order to keep up with the movement and strategy changes of smugglers (Maril 56).
In addition to the physical barriers of border fencing, the U.S. also utilizes SBInet, which “employs radars, sensors, and cameras to detect, identify, and classify the threat level associated with an illegal entry into the United States between the ports of entry” (GAO: Secure Border Initiative Fencing Construction Costs 2009, at 1). ). The 2013 GAO report details that at the end of the 2011 fiscal year, DHS had about 41,400 personnel “assigned to air, land, and sea POEs [ports-of-entry] and along the border, at a cost of about $11.8 billion” (GAO 2013, at 1). Maril also describes a high-tech virtual fence dating to 1998, the Integrated Surveillance and Intelligence System constructed in West Texas, that was a DHS program failure by under then-Secretary Michael Chertoff (Maril 58).
This comprehensive system of surveillance and security is also incredibly costly to implement and maintain. In Gilman’s article, each mile of pedestrian fencing cost an average of $3.5 million per mile. For fencing completed by private contractors in the final stage of the project, the average cost increased to $6.5 million per mile. The total cost of fence construction was about $2.4 billion (Gilman 270). DHS is responsible for maintaining the infrastructure, which includes repairing breached sections of fencing (GAO 2015, at 9). In 2010, this cost the department at least $7.2 million (GAO 2015 9). Gilman writes that the U.S. government estimate of the total cost of building and maintaining the wall over a twenty-year period amounts to a total of $6.5 billion.
Meanwhile, in the north, though the contiguous U.S.-Canada border is double the length of that of the U.S.-Mexico border at almost 4,000 miles, the border has “historically been understaffed and lacked the necessary infrastructure to adequately screen individuals seeking entry into the United States” (Lisa Seghetti, “Border Security: U.S.-Canada Immigration Border Issues” 2004, at 2). In 2010, The Canadian Press wrote that U.S Border Patrol officials controlled just 50 kilometers (a little over 30 miles) of the boundary, spending nearly $3 billion to patrol the border, compared to the $6.5 billion spent building and maintaining the physical wall alone along the southern, 2,000 mile U.S.-Mexico border (The Canadian Press 1).
This unequal policing of borders – physically, in time, and in cost – represents the discrepancy between the United States’ perspective of where the stronger threat of immigration originates. Combined with rhetoric like Donald Trump’s vague calls for building a wall along the border (a wall that already exists as some type of fencing along a third of the length of the border), this raises the question of whether or not this is the best allocation of funds.
Sarina Phu is a second-year undergraduate student at the University of Denver, majoring in International Studies and minoring in Leadership, Spanish, and Biology.