Former President Donald Trump campaigned on the promise that he would build a border wall and that Mexico would somehow pay for it. President Joe Biden also campaigned on a pledge he wouldn’t complete that wall and not “another foot” would be built.
Both men failed to deliver.
The wall was largely unfinished by the time Trump left office (and Mexico certainly didn’t pay anything), while last week, Biden announced that the wall would be further expanded. That included waiving environmental and conservation laws for the first time to install roughly a dozen segments totaling 17 miles of new barriers in South Texas.
Biden has tried to argue that his hands were tied and that the money allocated for the wall had to be spent, while he also said flatly that he didn’t believe border barriers to be effective.
Do Border Walls Work?
The concept of defensive walls dates back to the city of Jericho – at least if the Bible is to be believed – while walls have long been employed throughout human history to stop an invading force. China’s “Great Wall” was certainly a testament to the efforts to keep foreigners out!
However, other walls served other purposes.
During the Cold War, the Berlin Wall was constructed by the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) to keep its own residents in rather than to keep Western foes out. The same is still true of the barriers along the Demilitarized Zone in the Korean Peninsula.
Those latter barriers were/are effective because they were fortified positions.
Crossing from East Berlin into the free West Berlin wasn’t just about scaling a wall – it meant crossing an actual minefield, avoiding attack dogs, and not being spotted and shot by buards in 302 guard towers. The Berlin Wall was just 27 miles long, and it required a small army to monitor it.
The Korean DMZ is a 2.5-mile buffer with razor wire and some one million mines.
More than 40,000 still found a way to escape East Berlin, and nearly as many North Koreans have managed to cross the DMZ.
If those fortified borders can be crossed, the question to ask is whether walls serve any purpose today.
As the RAND Corporation reported, “No matter their original purpose, some basic principles behind walls remain timeless. Walls do work, at least for a time. There is a reason, after all, why states across the centuries have turned to walls as solutions to strategic quagmires.”
Yet, RAND added that walls have a shelf-life, and at best, walls were a delaying obstacle.
The massive walls that were built to defend the great city of Constantinople successfully helped fend off invaders for centuries but in 1453, the Ottomans breached the walls using massive cannons, and the rest they say is history. The Byzantine Empire fell despite having the best fortifications in the world at the time.
Impregnable – Not Really
Trump told his supporters in 2016 that the wall would be “impenetrable,” and perhaps he really believed it. History has shown otherwise.
In January 2019, he said in a speech, “Israel built a wall, 99.9 percent successful, won’t be any different for us.” That wall was breached last weekend. It was also less than 25 miles.
Tragically, as was just seen this past week, the Israeli-Gaza border wall was also all too easily breached much like those walls of Constantinople.
“No historical wall has proven impregnable,” the RAND Corp. further added.
One only needs to be reminded of what the sell-sword (mercenary) Bronn said in the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones when he was told a particular castle was “impregnable.”
“Give me 10 good men and some climbing spikes, I’ll impregnate (her),” Bronn responded.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection have made clear that climbing spikes wouldn’t even be necessary. Ordinary power tools have been used to cut through the steel – so much so that welding crews have had to be deployed to shore up the structural integrity of the barrier.
Then there is the fact that even before Hamas had conducted last weekend’s attack on Israel, the terrorist group had infiltrated under the walls with a series of tunnels – and we already know that Mexican drug cartels have built as impressive of tunnels into the United States. Some were as deep as 70 feet below ground. Between 1990 and 2016, as many as 224 tunnels had been unearthed at the U.S.–Mexico border!
Building a Wall Has Issues
While an actual wall could be built along the border of New Mexico, Arizona, and California, the issue becomes more complicated in Texas thanks to the Rio Grande – a river that isn’t all really all that grand.
A larger waterway like the Hudson River in New York can still be crossed easily by small boats, while a strong swimmer could easily cross the Detroit River from Windsor, Ontario to Detroit. The Rio Grande is just 328 feet at its widest point.
As a result, in some locations in South Texas, the wall has been built more than a mile from the international border – which means that thousands of acres of U.S. territory are inside the United States but outside the border wall.
Walls Won’t Stop the Flow of Drugs Either
Trump had also claimed that the wall could stop the flow of illegal drugs, but as noted already, tunnels will continue to be dug. In other places along the border, drug cartels are already employing drones.
But other efforts are a far bigger issue.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), most of the smuggled marijuana as well as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines largely comes through the 52 legal ports of entry on the border.
So, Could a Wall Ever Work?
For a wall to be successful, it would need to be like the barrier in Berlin during the Cold War. Even if mines weren’t an option, it would need guard towers that could monitor the entirety of the border – an option that is simply impossible, as history reminds us.
Hadrian’s Wall – the defensive fortification in Roman Britannia (now northern England) – was just 73 miles in length, but when fully manned required 10,000 soldiers to be stationed to guard it.
Even if the U.S. were to suddenly militarize the nearly 2,000-mile border – an impossibility – it still wouldn’t stop illegal immigration. Boats could just travel up the coast to Northern California, and the same would likely happen in the Gulf of Mexico. That would then require greater United States Coast Guard operations.
The costs would be unimaginable.
Though it is true that walls could curb some illegal immigration, it certainly won’t end it. For one, walls won’t prevent people from overstaying their visas.
The Rights of Property Owners And Other Considerations
Even if a border wall could stop illegal immigration, there is still the issue of the rights of American citizens. It may be easy to think of all of the land along the border as an empty desert, but that’s far from the case. As the Cato Institute found, private parties own the vast majority of the border in Texas.
That is why 70 percent of the existing border fence is located in California, Arizona, and New Mexico where almost all of it is on federally controlled land.
Yet, control of two-thirds of the borderland property is controlled by the states, Indian tribes, and private individuals. To construct border barriers in the past, the government attempted to use eminent domain, a policy supported by Trump. That essentially punished American citizens by taking their land from them with little to no compensation.
Few have been happy about it, and a handful have already fought the government’s efforts, and that has resulted in gaps in the wall while it is tied up in the courts.
“Native American tribes also have the capacity to stop construction of barriers. The Tohono O’odham Nation, which has land on both sides of the border, has already pledged to fight any efforts to build a wall there,” the Cato Institute noted, while adding that if a wall were to go through those lands it would need a stand-alone bill from Congress to condemn their land.
Such a move is unlikely to get bipartisan support.
Conclusion: Walls Aren’t Effective in the 21st Century
Simply put, a wall could be very effective at stopping animals like pumas, bobcats, and other large mammals from trying to cross the border. As for people, an expensive wall won’t be effective unless it is manned with upwards of 100,000 troops in guard towers, patrolled by aircraft and drones and efforts were made to regularly probe for tunnels.
That isn’t the least bit cost-effective – simply because there is no end game.
Perhaps instead the U.S. could find a way to curb illegal immigration by helping aid those countries that have corrupt governments, lack of opportunities, and high crime. That could entice those individuals fleeing their homelands and seeking a better life in the U.S. to stay in their own countries.
A policy of making all of the Americas (including Latin America) great should be an option. That could be a far better investment than trying to fortify the southern border.
Author Experience and Expertise
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.