The Associated PressWASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. President Donald Trump’s vow to accelerate construction of a “contiguous, physical wall” along the Mexican border is slamming into a Washington reality — who’s going to pay for it and how?
Not us, say the Mexicans.
Instead, U.S. taxpayers will foot the bill, starting with money already in the Homeland Security Department account that amounts to a small down payment. Then it’s up to the Republican-led Congress to come up with $12 billion to $15 billion more, according to an estimate offered by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Thursday from a GOP issues retreat in Philadelphia.
GOP leaders refused to commit to paying for the wall with spending cuts elsewhere in the budget. That could mean costs would be paid for by adding to the government’s $20 trillion debt. Press Secretary Sean Spicer Thursday floated the idea of a 20 percent tariff on Mexican imports.
On Wednesday, Trump promised “immediate construction” would begin on the border wall, telling ABC News that planning is starting immediately. He again vowed that Mexico would pay the United States back, though he offered no details.
It is true there is a small amount available now in the department accounts dedicated to “border security fencing, infrastructure, and technology” — $100 million, by one congressional estimate — that would permit work to get immediately under way.
So far, thanks to spending in the late 2000s, Congress has provided about $2.3 billion to construct 1,052 kilometers of fencing and vehicular blockades. But Trump has promised a wall, not just fencing, and it’s not a universally popular idea by any stretch.
“The facts have not changed. Building a wall is the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border,” said GOP Rep. Will Hurd, whose sprawling West Texas swing district encompasses more than 1,287.5 kilometers of the border. “Many areas in my district are perfect examples of where a wall is unnecessary and would negatively impact the environment, private property rights and economy.”
GOP members of the appropriations committees are more likely to take a green eyeshade approach to the money since they are familiar with the likely trade-offs.
“There’s any number of complications,” said Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., former House Appropriations Committee chairman, citing obstacles such as Indian reservations and national parks and forests. And much of the remaining 2,092 kilometers is very rough terrain, with steep construction costs and a limited return for the dollar. “It’s expensive and it’s complicated.”
Hundreds of miles of the border are so rugged and inhospitable that it doesn’t make sense to even try to build.
And in Texas, almost all of the land along the border is privately owned. When former President George W. Bush tried to build border fencing starting in 2006, he faced stiff opposition from local ranchers and farmers, many of whom took the government to court on plans to use their land.
In many areas along the Rio Grande the fencing is built well inside the United States, as far as a mile north of the Rio Grande, to ensure that the structure doesn’t interfere with the flow of the river or is built on solid ground. The middle of the channel marks the internal border and a 1970 treaty with Mexico requires that structures built there not interfere with water flow.
“We have built a fence along the border almost as much as we possibly can without violating tribal laws, environmental requirements, and taking over peoples’ personal, private property,” said Michelle Mrdeza, who worked for the House Appropriations panel during the fence debate of the mid-2000s.
The existing blockade — roughly 563 kilometers to block pedestrians and 483 kilometers to block vehicles — has already been built along the southern border. That fencing was built in the areas that are most vulnerable to illegal crossings.
“Insofar as the problem is a physical barrier, we’ve basically addressed that issue,” said Rep. David Price, D-N.C., who chaired the congressional panel that funded the border fence when Democrats controlled Congress. “This focus, this fixation on a wall and pouring untold billions of dollars into a wall, is foolishness.”