President Donald Trump orders U.S.-Mexico border wall, but key details still to come
A look at the socioeconomic and environmental impact of a 2,000-mile long wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.
President Donald Trump's action Wednesday on building a massive border wall along the nearly 2,000-mile Southwestern border immediately reignited political passions in Arizona and across the Southwest, drawing support from like-minded border hawks but generating fiery denunciations from immigrant advocates and environmentalists.
Trump's vow to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico — and force Mexico to pay for it — had generated criticism and even ridicule during last year's presidential election as an impractical solution to the 21st-century border situation and a waste of money.
His decision to move forward did nothing to allay skepticism that it will ever happen as described.
"A nation without borders is not a nation," Trump said Wednesday in an appearance at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. "Beginning today, the United States of America gets back control of its borders."
The border-wall directive was one of two immigration-related executive orders signed by Trump on Wednesday and part of a series of Trump border-security initiatives, which also involve subjecting a broader category of immigrants to priority deportation; ending the so-called "catch-and-release" policy; expanding immigrant detention facilities and related personnel; and hiring 5,000 additional U.S. Border Patrol agents.
Trump maintains the steps "will improve the safety in both of our countries."
Via executive order, Trump directed John Kelly, his secretary of Homeland Security, to move immediately "to obtain complete operational control" of the border.
But many details about the border barrier — which Trump's campaign-stump presentation would characterize as a "great" or "beautiful" wall — remain vague.
Among those details is how Trump intends to force Mexico to pay for its construction. Trump vowed during the campaign that Mexico would bankroll the wall and the White House has indicated it intends to seek reimbursement for U.S. taxpayer expense.
Trump's order cites as legal authority the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 and the Secure Fence Act of 2006, among other "existing law."
The Homeland Security secretary is told to "take all appropriate steps to immediately plan, design, and construct a physical wall along the southern border, using appropriate materials and technology to most effectively achieve complete operational control of the southern border."
The border geography, much of which poses formidable engineering and construction challenges, will be surveyed as part of "a comprehensive study of the security of the southern border" that Trump wants within 180 days.
The initial money for planning, designing and constructing the wall would come from reprogramming federal funds, but a long-term funding plan and congressional budget requests also will be developed.
The cost of a border wall is estimated in the billions of dollars.
"And, yes, one way or another, as the president has said before, Mexico will pay for it," Sean Spicer, White House press secretary, said Wednesday.
But political experts and lawmakers suggested that Trump's vision of a great wall along the border likely will have to bend to reality, such as the diverse Southwestern topography.
"In terms of the wall, this will be an example of President Trump, perhaps, having too grand a sense of his powers," said Louis DeSipio, a professor of political science and Chicano/Latino studies at the University of California-Irvine. "Certainly, some money can be directed toward some planning for some expansion of the current wall and some of the feasibility studies. But to actually build it, there's not that much money sitting around in DHS (Homeland Security) appropriations that he can tap."
Congress inevitably would have to appropriate more money for construction, DeSipio said.
“Building a wall in the southern boundary, where we border Mexico, is a waste of taxpayer dollars,” said state Rep. Tony Navarette, D-Phoenix, at a gathering of activists Wednesday to decry Trump's recent orders. “And not only that, but it harms the environmental habitats of many of these animals that are facing extinction.”
Local activists voice their opinions about President Donald Trump's executive actions. Michael Chow/azcentral.com
U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who frequently criticized Trump's border-wall proposal during the presidential race, also noted that Wednesday's directive didn't really address how the project would be paid for.
"We know that as the planning process moves forward that it's going to look a lot different than what was talked about during the campaign," Flake told The Arizona Republic. "When you deal with the terrain, and, in Texas, you have the Rio Grande. Where do you put the wall? Certain areas are so remote that a wall just isn't the most efficient way to do it. You can do it with surveillance, drones, platforms, cameras."
Flake would not commit to supporting Trump's wall.
"We''ll see what it looks like when it comes to Congress," Flake said. "If he believes that Mexico is going to pay for it, then let's see what that (entails). In the coming months, we'll know more about what he's planning."
U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the senior Democrat in Arizona's U.S. House delegation who represents a congressional district on the border, said building a wall would be a big mistake that would hurt local economies, interfere with the migratory patterns of more than 100 endangered species and raise "sovereignty concerns" with tribal lands.
“To continue to militarize our border is to squander billions of taxpayer dollars on a scheme that is impossible from geographical and economic perspectives," Grijalva said in a written statement. "It will achieve nothing more than the continued criminalization of immigrants and asylum seekers through mandatory detention. At the same time, the wall is a literal barrier to the cross-border commerce that is so vital to border communities like mine in southern Arizona."
Other critics of the wall raised similar concerns about wasting money and damaging U.S. relations with Mexico.
"Most importantly, Trump's so called 'great wall' will do nothing to address the crisis faced by undocumented immigrant families that contribute tremendously to our economy, but fear every day they could be deported and separated from their loved ones," said Petra Falcon, executive director of Promise Arizona, a Phoenix-based immigration advocacy group. "We call on Congress and all Americans to stand against President Trump’s bigoted, ultra-nationalist proposals, and instead work across party lines and across communities to create an immigration reform plan that actually works."
U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, said it "makes no sense" to jeopardize a longstanding relationship with Mexico. "Clearly, Mexico is an ally, not an enemy," Vela told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. He noted Mexico is the nation's third-largest trading partner.
Vela gained national attention in June when he sidestepped diplomacy and wrote an open letter to Trump.
"Mr. Trump, you're a racist, and you can take your border wall and shove it up your ass," the letter states.
On the other hand, U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, who is the only Republican in the House of Representatives who represents south Texas, fully backs Trump's actions.
“Our border is not secure. Drug dealers, human traffickers, smugglers and others seeking to do us harm are exploiting this weakness,” Farenthold said in a written statement. “President Trump and I agree — we must secure the border."
But in Arizona, even Trump's fellow Republicans cited the potential logistical concerns with a border wall.
Former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican Trump supporter, said the terrain along parts of the border would make it difficult to construct a wall. But, she said, Trump’s actions are ushering in a new era on how the U.S. approaches illegal immigration.
"I have also said it’s going to be very difficult in certain areas to build a wall, and I’m certainly not an architect, nor a contractor, but I want our borders to be secured and President Trump has listened, and he’s going to make every attempt in order to get it done," Brewer said. "Even if we have the federal government on our side, it’s going to be difficult. But I think it gives hope to those who support securing our border and keeping America safe."
U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., also said the developments are "a good step in the right direction to show we’re serious about border security and we’ve heard the voices of the American people."
McSally said much of the vast southern border remains only partly monitored, meaning barriers of any kind are only a first step toward gaining "situational control" to shut down the sophisticated efforts by drug cartels and criminal organizations to continue crossing the border.
“The barriers themselves are not going to provide the silver bullet to border security. These cartels are innovative. They are nimble,” she said. “The barriers create a problem for them to solve.”
To do that will require an overhaul in border strategy, from rethinking mobile towers to moving manpower with the same swiftness used by the cartels, said McSally, who chairs the House Border and Maritime Security subcommittee and who, like Grijalva, represents a congressional district on the border.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, also was asked about the feasibility of such a physical barrier. He answered that "there’s a lot of areas that are also wide open and unprotected, so this is something that needs attention."
On another front, environmental groups instantly began sounding the alarm about the potentially destructive impact of a border wall.
Dan Millis, who heads the Sierra Club’s Borderlands project in southern Arizona, said the wall would cause more problems than it would solve. Millis said previous fencing projects along the wall have waived federal laws on clean water, endangered species, and other protections to the environment.
"We’ve already seen border walls fail for two decades," he said. "To double down on these failed policies is just a waste of money, and to attack immigrant families is just cynical."
The binational conservation group Wildlands Network said Trump’s executive order showed a "destructive regard" for the border region and the environment, and said they will also do what they can to halt construction of the wall.
Andrew Gordon, a close friend and former law partner of former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's, said Trump can waive the applications of environmental laws as other administrations have in the past, but that would invite litigation from the environmental community.
“He’s really going to get sued like crazy,” said Gordon, a Democrat who as a Homeland Security official in 2009 and 2010 oversaw construction of about 120 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. “Will they be successful? I don’t know. Will they slow him? You bet.”
Gordon offered other reasons for skepticism about Trump's wall timeline.
Gordon said he estimates the costs of a wall in the remaining sections of the border to reach about $25 billion but doubted that Homeland Security has within its discretion "anything close to enough money to build very much wall."
“I would be amazed if there is 10 miles of fence by the end of 2017,” Gordon said. “I would be absolutely astounded.”
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada, a Democrat, likened Trump’s executive orders on the border wall and immigration to "Big Brother telling me what to do."
The sheriff said any benefit to his agency from a wall would be minimal because it does not address the root issues of immigration.
“The border wall or these extensions of a wall, no matter how high, how tall, or how beautiful, it’s merely going to be another obstacle that these cartels and these people coming from poverty will overcome,” he said.
Republic reporters Ronald J. Hansen, Johana Restrepo,Yvonne Wingett Sanchez and Corpus Christi Caller-Times reporter Beatriz Alvarado contributed to this article.