Is this thing really getting done? In the wake of President Donald Trump’s historic executive order, we visit the Arizona-Mexico border to answer questions about his promised wall.

Wall of Confusion

Written by Bill Wyman Category: Valley News Issue: March 2017
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“There’s nothing we can do,” Robert Uribe laments. “We’re just a small municipal government.”

As mayor of tiny Douglas, Ariz., a town of 17,000 on the southern edge of the state – literally a stone’s throw from sister city Agua Prieta, just over the Mexican border – Uribe has good reason to be contemplating the limits of municipal authority. Just days before, the new U.S. president made it clear that the heated, hyperbolic rhetoric of his campaign would indeed set the priorities of his new administration. “The Wall” is coming, and Uribe and his constituents will have a front row seat.

In Douglas, Nogales and other border towns, day-to-day life went on after President Donald Trump’s January 25 executive order: Cars and trucks chugged through border crossings, and both Mexicans and Americans lined up to cross on foot. Like Uribe, people here generally shrug off the issue, serving to illustrate the contrast between the grandiose talk of “the great wall” emanating from the new administration far away in Washington and the realities on the ground here in Arizona. The state will have very little say in decisions about the wall or its construction. But the consequences – physical, economic, political, social, for both good and ill – will be felt here for years, if not decades.

President Trump’s executive order diverts funds to the United States Department of Homeland Security for wall construction and tightens the nation’s immigration policies. These were just baby steps for what the administration insists will be a solid physical wall that begins in Tijuana and runs some 2,000 miles to Brownsville, Texas, on the Gulf of Mexico.

For such a tangible ambition, the Wall is riven with uncertainty and guesswork. It will take years to build, but how many years? It will be a logistical challenge, but how steep? It will be costly, but how much of that pork will realistically find its way into the Arizona economy?

For the time being, let’s focus on what we do know.

Brick by Brick

Facts and figures about the U.S.-Mexico border wall proposed by President Trump.

54% of Arizonans say they do not support the wall, according to a January poll by Data Orbit.

59% of Americans do not support it.

1,989 miles: Length of the continental U.S.-Mexico border.

By comparison, the Great Wall of China is 13,170 miles.

$20 billion-$30 billion: Estimated final cost of the wall.

Exporting AZ
Mexico is by far Arizona’s largest market for chief exports like aviation products, copper ore and computer processors.

Figures in millions of dollars:
Mexico — $9,162
Canada  — $2,303
China — $1,266
UK — $1,066
Germany — $830

Source: U.S. Census, 2015 figures

Fact No. 1 It’s already there. Sort of.  

For all its hype, one of the ironies about the wall is that, if it is built, virtually no one in Arizona will ever see it.

The reason? Since 2006, under the Bush administration, imposing metal fences – a wall in all but name – have stood sentry at each of the state’s six border crossings, which is to say, each of the six developed roads that lead into Arizona from Mexico. The fences divide the border towns and extend for miles in both directions. Until now, the U.S. border strategy has been to push those trying to cross the border on foot as far out into the desert as possible. Border Patrol officers aggressively monitor and patrol those areas, and maintain freeway checkpoints miles north as well. Critics of this policy say it makes crossing more dangerous and thus more lucrative to the mercenary and sometimes brutal coyotes who ferry desperate immigrants.

These impenetrable steel fences already qualify as the “large permanent barrier” the Trump administration called for. Therefore, future wall construction will generally take place in the remote areas between towns. Scrub desert. Sun-baked wilderness. Places most of us never visit.

Then again, much of the existing fence is in places we’ll never visit, either.

Consider tiny Sasabe, an unincorporated community of barely a dozen structures lining a bend in State Route 286 just a few meters from the border. Driving south from Tucson, you will see one, two, five, then 20 border patrol trucks speeding by or parked on the side of the road – and barely any nongovernmental vehicles. Long-time residents recall a time 30 years ago when the border crossing was a dirt road, usually unmonitored, permitting more or less unchecked illegal crossings.  

Then came the 1990s, 9/11 and much hand-wringing over immigration. Today, a giant border control center looms over the town; the complex is nearly as big as Sasabe itself. On each side, a giant weathered metal fence, made of slats some 15 feet high, limns a roller coaster of hills both east and west. The fence is anchored in solid concrete, and fronted by an access road.

All this, despite the merest trickle of border activity: On a winter afternoon, only a handful of cars approach the structure over the course of an hour.

Fact No. 2 It will not be easy to build.

Politics and popular opinion aside, the greatest hurdles facing President Trump and the DHS are the literal hurdles on the border: the vast dunes in southeastern California, the tumultuous Rio Grande in Texas and, oh, one or two large mountains in Arizona.

“The biggest challenge is the logistical one,” says Mike Gonzalez, director of McCarthy Construction, one of Phoenix’s largest building companies. “There are remote sites that have to be accessed, and just getting equipment to those areas is a big challenge.”

Starting in Yuma, the Arizona-Mexico border extends south along the Colorado River before cutting abruptly eastward at the town of San Luis, population about 30,000, a growing suburb of Yuma. Continuing east, the landscape becomes both forbidding and forbidden, as this is the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, where the U.S. military’s most advanced weapons systems are tested over a desert landscape of about 2,500 square miles stretching almost to Phoenix.

Next comes 85 miles under the auspices of the Department of the Interior: The Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which includes Lukeville, the gateway to Sonoyta, Mexico, known to vacationers en route to Rocky Point. The next 60 miles belong to the Tohono O’odham Nation – territory that’s technically a sovereign country, with tribal members on both sides of the border

Sasabe, the state’s most remote border town, sits between the tribal land and Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, which butts up against the Coronado National Forest, a massive tract of federal land that stretches to Nogales and resumes again thereafter. The last 70 miles of the border is state and private land and includes some of the most mountainous areas of the border, including the formidable Huachuca Mountains, interrupted by Naco, and then Douglas. In total, the Arizona border stretches about 365 miles, and only those portions located near inhabited areas, like Douglas and Nogales, are currently fenced.

“Step one is access and having mobility,” Gonzalez begins, sketching out a wall-building effort in the wilderness. Workers will have to first create roads suitable for heavy equipment. That means wide, even paths for big earth movers and heavy trucks to get through both the wildly uneven desert terrain in the Air Force range and the National Parks – places now 30 or 40 miles away from the nearest state highway – and the wooded mountainous areas, just to begin to deal with the job of digging the ditch for the wall. The Trump administration hasn’t said specifically what form the wall will take, but the assumption is it will be a concrete barrier of some height – Trump has implied as high as 55 feet – and depth, to deter tunneling.

Given the remote locales, Gonzalez says builders would likely have to build their own “concrete batch plants” at various sites along the wall’s path to provide the raw materials. They might be ringed with “man camps,” temporary housing for the workers. Since the president’s rhetoric on the wall has been so variable, it’s difficult to make coherent comparisons, but some tech analyses have said the project will be using concrete equivalent to building two or three Hoover Dams.

Fact No. 3 It will be lucrative for some people.

The work will presumably provide a hefty, if temporary, boost to the Arizona economy. As with everything else about border costs, government agencies and officials have cited varying figures over the years. But the U.S. has spent some $7 billion on the border and the 600 or so miles of fencing currently up, according to government figures cited by Fortune magazine. If the fences represented half that amount, to build another 1,400 or so miles would seem to carry a cost in the neighborhood of $15 billion, in today’s dollars. That aligns with the estimates Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has recently cited.

But that’s just a starting figure. The existing fencing was constructed over both the easiest terrain and the land closest to developed areas. Going through remote deserts and rocky terrain – mountain ranges aside – will raise the price considerably. “They may have to fly in some materials,” McCarthy’s Gonzalez says.

Various articles on the subject have posited costs of $20 billion to $30 billion or more – a hefty hit for taxpayers, but a potential windfall for the state construction industry. If Arizona, for example, received one-third of the construction contracts, excluding building materials bought from elsewhere, it could potentially realize billions in

increased economic activity over the time the wall was built, which might add half a percentage point annually to the state’s $250 billion-a-year economy. (There has been speculation in business publications like Bloomberg that builders will end up using cheaper Mexican labor for the project, which would drive some of the economic benefits south of the border.)

Who, precisely, will build the wall? Presumably, the Army Corps of Engineers will work with the Department of Homeland Security to design it, with project duties taken over by an international firm known for building large governmental projects. Firms with familiar names like Halliburton, Bechtel and KBR (formerly Kellogg Brown & Root), each with fabled access to Washington insiders, are routinely cited by media. Gonzalez points out a more prosaic reason such entities take over large projects: “They understand how to work with the government. That’s the biggest thing. They understand what government requirements are. It’s easier for them to respond to something than a company that’s never seen it, saying, ‘We don’t know what the hell they are talking about.’ They understand it and they’re good at it.”

According to Gonzalez, the general contractor would then hire various local firms to subcontract the different parts of the project.

“One thing I know about the government,” Gonzalez says, “is that they will purchase from local suppliers if they can. If there’s a concrete batch plant in Douglas that can handle the concrete it needs, it will be used. Wherever possible, based on what I’ve seen, they encourage the use of local resources.”

Thus far, chatter coming out of Arizona’s construction sector has been muted. Few sources reached for comment agreed to go on the record, and those that did were leery of the political optics.

Fact No. 4 It will be divisive.

Douglas Mayor Uribe embodies the changing face of America. A native Dominican of mixed racial heritage, he came to the U.S. as a child and is now living the American dream. Sort of. He’s a businessman and arts advocate in southern Arizona, but his café in downtown Douglas recently closed.

He, like the mayors of Phoenix, Nogales and Tucson, thinks the wall is a bad idea.

“We have a close relationship with Agua Prieta,” he says. “It’s the wrong message we’re sending – and to a country that contributes so much to our economy, trade and commerce. I’m disappointed we are in the state we are in right now. We should be promoting more trade and building working relationships that build on what’s been established.”

Uribe’s position may put him at odds with some of his constituents – some Southern Arizona ranchers and landowners who have publicly supported the president’s wall, citing drug activity, human trafficking and other border-related ills.

Naturally, the wall has also rankled environmentalists. Such a massive project would ordinarily be preceded by years of environmental studies. But a little-noticed provision of a 2005 congressional act purportedly establishing national standards for driver’s licenses gives the country’s Director of Homeland Security remarkable power to disregard virtually any law, including environmental ones, when it comes to building border fences.

That power, and the wall’s remote location, will make it difficult for environmental activists to do much about the harmful byproducts of construction. Since the wall will be going through wildlife refuges, damage to fragile ecosystems disrupted by the wall and its construction is almost a fait accompli. The impact would be felt most keenly by mammals in the area, who will find their roaming blocked. The Sierra Club says the endangered North American jaguar, which has been making tentative inroads back into the U.S. from Mexico, will be particularly affected.

Another political wild card: the Tohono O’odham Nation. While the United States presumably has the legal right to build a wall on its physical border between the tribe  and Mexico, construction will take on Bay of Pigs-caliber complications if both entities deny the U.S. physical access to it.

A tribe spokesperson recently released this elliptical statement: “While the Nation does not support a large-scale fortified wall, it has worked closely for decades with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and other
agencies to secure the U.S. homeland.”

The statement noted pointedly, “The executive order … was done without consultation with the Nation or many other border communities.”

The U.S. government negotiated and got permission to line the nation’s Mexican border with barriers that prevent vehicle crossings, but not those on foot.

Fact No. 5 It could economically backfire.

Despite its ostensible utility of protecting jobs and entitlement programs for American citizens, the wall could spell very real, very immediate damage for the Arizona economy.

The reason: President Trump’s dogged insistence to make Mexico pay for the wall – perhaps via a 25 percent tariff on imports – could create a trade war, and Arizona is more economically intertwined with Mexico than most U.S. states. Having repaired most of the PR aftereffects of the SB1070 “papers please” law, the state has shored up lagging trade with Mexico. Today, the Latin nation is Arizona’s most important trading partner: Imports total $7.5 billion a year and exports are $9 billion, according to state officials.

Trade officials view the future warily. “Forty-five million people cross the Arizona-Sonora border every year,” an Arizona official, who declined to be named, says. “More than 780,000 trucks go through. If that slows down, anyone could see the consequences. We’re not going to get anywhere if Mexico takes the same tack.”

The official acknowledges the wall itself – standing alone out in the desert – won’t affect trade. “The impact is what comes with it. Do we want to take this further, that we don’t want to be good neighbors? The wall doesn’t scare anyone. It’s what’s behind it.”