Center for American Progress

5 Questions the Trump Administration Needs to Answer About the Border Wall

5 Questions the Trump Administration Needs to Answer About the Border Wall

Building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border would be costly, damaging to the environment, and ineffective.

A reverend leads a song on the U.S. side of the border fence separating Tijuana, Mexico, from San Diego, April 3, 2017. (AP/Gregory Bull)
A reverend leads a song on the U.S. side of the border fence separating Tijuana, Mexico, from San Diego, April 3, 2017. (AP/Gregory Bull)

In the U.S.-Mexico border region, an area that stretches nearly 2,000 miles, decisions about border security affect the daily lives of roughly 12 million people. The United States already has 653 miles of border fencing, and much of the rest of the border is comprised of the Rio Grande or located in some of the country’s most inhospitable locations, where a wall would be impractical and unnecessary. In addition to fencing, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, uses an array of surveillance and technology to monitor the border in real time.

Yet both as a candidate and as president, Donald Trump has repeatedly called for the construction of a “big, fat, beautiful wall” along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. The administration recently concluded a request for proposals from firms to construct the wall, and it has already started to send out notices to landowners along the border notifying them that the federal government will likely be seizing their private property.

Before the administration moves forward with its plans, here are five questions it must answer.

1. Who will pay for the wall?

While the DHS currently maintains a range of fencing types along the U.S.-Mexico border—from what would traditionally be thought of as a wall to less obtrusive fencing to keep out vehicles—the Trump administration wants to build a 30-foot-high concrete wall. This would be incredibly costly: After reviewing the evidence, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has concluded that the cost to complete the entire wall would be an average of $36.6 million per mile, or $66.9 billion in total.

While President Trump has repeatedly stated that he will make Mexico pay for the wall, Mexican officials have rejected that possibility out of hand. This means that U.S. taxpayers would likely be on the hook for the cost.

Here are just a few things on which the United States could better spend $66.9 billion:

2. How widely will eminent domain be used to acquire land for the wall?

According to the Government Accountability Office, the federal government owns less than one-third of the land on which the wall would sit. This means that the rest would need to be seized from states and private property owners using eminent domain, which is the ability of a government to take private property for public use. President Trump has plenty of experience with this in a personal business capacity. Many property rights experts have concluded that the federal government likely would be justified in seizing this land, but the process could be extremely time-consuming, and the federal government would need to provide “just compensation” to landowners per the Fifth Amendment’s takings clause.

Estimating the compensation costs to the federal government is difficult to do ahead of time, since, for example, building the wall through the middle of a property raises questions about the market value of that property. While it’s likely that any compensation would be challenged through litigation, ordinary landowners and ranchers living on the border are likely to get the short end of the stick, given the long history of the federal government undercompensating rural landowners. And the costs of both just compensation and the inevitable litigation will only increase the wall’s cost to taxpayers.

3. Will the wall respect tribal rights?

In response to the issuance of the border wall executive order, the National Congress of American Indians, or NCAI, passed a resolution opposing the construction of new border barriers on Native American land without consent from relevant tribes. The NCAI’s primary concerns center around tribal sovereignty, historic and culturally sensitive sites along the border, inequitable distribution of associated expenses, and division of tribal communities that exist on both sides of the border.

The Tohono O’odham Nation has been front and center in the tribal fight against President Trump’s border wall. The 34,000-member tribe straddles the U.S.-Mexico border, and its land is comprised of 75 miles of border land in Arizona. If built through the tribe’s traditional lands, the wall would cut off access to sacred sites and further isolate members who live on the Mexican side of the border.

Furthermore, because of tribal sovereignty rights, Trump may need an act of Congress to acquire tribal lands, which are protected by treaties and other laws, according to tribal law experts.

4. What impacts will the wall have on access to the Rio Grande?

A host of negative environmental consequences come with building a wall across the entire U.S.-Mexico border, including blocking wildlife migration corridors, worsening floods, increasing the United States’ carbon footprint, and building straight through Big Bend National Park. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, recently filed a lawsuit to halt construction until the proposed wall’s environmental impacts have been adequately studied.

But one of the most complicated questions related to the wall is the fact that 1,255 miles, or 64 percent, of the U.S.-Mexico border runs dead center through the Rio Grande. And as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has pointed out, “We’re probably not going to put it in the middle of the river.” Where then, would the wall go? It’s hard to imagine Mexico agreeing to host a wall, and it’s even harder to imagine the United States building a wall that essentially cedes huge swaths of the Rio Grande to Mexico, even if the nation has done so in a more limited fashion in the past. The river supplies water for at least 50,000 acres of farmland and countless communities, including all of the drinking water for the city of Laredo, Texas. Building a wall that cuts off U.S. access to the river could have extremely negative consequences for landowners, anglers, ranchers, energy development, livestock, agriculture, and wildlife.

5. Why is the wall necessary?

More than anything, it is not clear what problem the wall would actually solve. As the American Immigration Council points out, “The federal border agencies have not asked for a wall”; members of Congress from border states have not asked for one either. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) put it succinctly: “What I would like to see is a plan for how the money would be spent and a good faith discussion about what border security is really composed of. We haven’t had that.” And Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly recently told a Senate committee that “it is unlikely that we will build a wall from sea to shining sea.”

Particularly at a time when the unauthorized immigrant population is declining and border apprehensions are near 40-year lows, real border security ultimately means smart security: Increasing technology on the border to track people trying to enter without authorization and dismantling transnational gangs and smuggling operations that prey on individuals and traffic people and contraband into the country. It also means realigning the U.S. immigration system to provide legal avenues for people to enter the country as well as providing an earned pathway to legal status for unauthorized immigrants living in the country.

Choosing to build a wall instead would be costly, harmful, and a waste of taxpayer resources.

Jenny Rowland is the Research and Advocacy Manager for the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. Philip E. Wolgin is the Managing Director for the Immigration Policy team at the Center.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Jenny Rowland-Shea

Director, Public Lands

 (Phil Wolgin)

Philip E. Wolgin

Former Managing Director, Immigration Policy

Just released!

Interactive: Mapping access to abortion by congressional district

Click here