Securing the Border: A Cautionary Tale

By Curtis Kalin

Wastewatcher, February 2017

The promise to build a wall and secure the southern border of the United States was perhaps President Donald Trump’s most well-known campaign pledge.  On January 25, 2017, he signed two executive orders related to immigration.  Executive Order No. 3 called for the “immediate construction of a physical wall,” the “expedited determinations of apprehended individuals’ claims of eligibility to remain in the United States,” and the prompt removal of individuals “whose legal claims to remain in the United States have been lawfully rejected.”  Executive Order No, 4 called for the prioritization for deportation of undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions or who have been charged with a crime and the hiring of 10,000 additional Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, along with other provisions.  Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly signed a memorandum on February 20, 2017, to implement the two executive orders. 

Now that these plans are being set in motion, the question is how to secure the border and enhance the enforcement of existing immigration laws in a cost-effective, efficient manner to help solve a significant national problem.  Indeed, there is no doubt that securing the nation’s borders is one of the primary responsibilities of the federal government.  The two executive orders cited the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, the Secure Fence Act of 2006, and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.

When President Bush signed the Secure Fence Act on October 26, 2006, he said that the law “will help protect the American people” and “make our borders more secure.”  The bill passed the House by a vote of 283–138 and the Senate 80–19.  Senators Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Joe Biden (D-Del.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) all voted for the legislation.  Then Senator-Obama said that the legislation, “will certainly do some good,” and that it would ensure, “better fences and better security along our borders.”  However, this strong bipartisan support of increased border security does not appear to be the same as it was 11 years ago.

The Secure Fence Act called for 700 miles of physical barriers along the southern border.  To date, 670 miles of fencing has been built at a cost of $2.4 billion.  A January 29, 2009 Government Accountability Office report pegged the average cost of the fencing at $2.8 million per mile.

However, the fencing only accounts for about one-third of the 2,000-mile border, and much of the "reinforced fencing" the law called for was never completed.  U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Deputy Chief of Border Patrol Ronald Vitiello told the Senate Homeland Security Committee in May 2015 that, “It's a lot more expensive than we expected when we started, and it was much more difficult.”

Estimates of a reinforced fence that would cover more of the border have been between $8 billion and $21.6 billion.  The latter figure was included in an internal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report that was leaked to Reuters on February 10, 2017, based on the construction of “fences and walls covering just over 1,250 miles (2,000 km) by the end of 2020.”  However, the estimate is not based on any legislation that would be considered by Congress that could dramatically affect the cost by using virtual fencing in place of physical fencing, the creation of cost-saving public-private partnerships , or some other form of cost-sharing.

Hanging over all of these initiatives is the February 16, 2017 testimony by DHS Inspector General (IG) John Roth before the House Homeland Security Committee.  The IG focused his testimony on management and performance challenges related to unifying the Department, which was created from 22 separate agencies; acquisition, grants, and “management fundamentals.”  He cited the 2011 cancellation of the southern border initiative known as SBInet as “too expensive and ineffective” after $1 billion was spent trying to build the system across 53 miles of Arizona’s border.  The IG stated that “given the risks involved, we will be using a lifecycle approach to audit and monitor … the project throughout its life span, rather than waiting for the project to be completed or partially completed before looking at it.”  This will commonsense approach would help prevent “waste and mismanagement before the money is spent, rather than simply identifying it after the fact.” 

The IG then noted that it takes, on average, more than nine months to hire a Border Patrol Agent, which will create challenges in fulfilling the directive to hire an additional 10,000 ICE officers and 5,000 agents.  The IG reported that his office is engaged in a “series of audits” that will help DHS “quickly and effectively hire a highly qualified and diverse workforce.” 

As the Trump administration and Congress move ahead with their plan for increased enforcement of the immigration laws, they should be well aware of the cost overruns, waste, and inefficiency that often plague federal infrastructure projects and the hiring of additional personnel in a short period of time.  The DHS IG can be helpful in trying to prevent such wasteful spending, along with the appropriate oversight committees in the House and Senate.  While there are strong disagreements over how the border should be secured, there should be no dispute that any solution must protect both national security and the best interests of the taxpayers.

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