Building the border wall has been central to President Donald Trump’s promises and it will be central to Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting’s coverage this year. We will be exploring the feasibility of various proposals as they emerge.
Trump has said a lot of things about that wall, but it’s still not clear exactly what he means.
- At one point, he said the wall would be 35 to 40 feet high and made of precast concrete, which he estimated would cost about $8 billion to construct.
- On other occasions, he has said it could be as high as 65 feet. (For comparison, the tallest sections of the current fence are about 20 feet tall.)
- He has repeatedly corrected journalists who called his project a “fence,” saying he is building “a real wall.” We don’t yet know whether he thinks any of the current fence meets that definition.
We do know a lot about the current border fence, though, because we’ve been collecting and analyzing data on it for years. Based on that, here’s a rundown of the job the new president has ahead of him.
Is what we have now a wall or a fence?
If by a wall, you mean a large vertical structure that’s not full of holes, then the current border barrier is definitely a fence, or rather a series of fences. There are many types of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Some sections are tall and are designed to block people from entering on foot – so-called pedestrian fence.
Other large sections of the fence are only a few feet tall and can be climbed over easily. These sections, designed to stop vehicles from crossing, stretch across more remote areas where it would be difficult to cross the border safely on foot.
Where is the border fenced today?
It depends on whom you ask. Many numbers have been suggested by government agencies, and Customs and Border Protection for years refused to release detailed spatial data about fence locations. In 2012, we started tracing the border fence using open-source mapping tools.
Later, Denise Gilman, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, sued the government under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain detailed PDF maps of the fence systems. (In an illustration of just how difficult FOIA work can be, she told Reveal that she filed her initial request in 2008 but didn’t get final maps until 2013.)
Reveal spent the first weeks of this year converting those PDFs into digital maps that can be used for analysis, combining it with our previous fence work to create the most detailed border fence map publicly available.
According to our new map, there are 700 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border – a Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman recently said the total is 702, so our tally is very close to the agency’s. However, in some high-traffic spots, there are two or three layers of fence in one place, leaving somewhere between 652 and 690 miles of the border actually covered by fence.
Those miles are divided into at least 385 miles of pedestrian fence and at least 301 miles of vehicle fence. (That leaves a few miles unclassified, which are clearly fenced but don’t appear on the Customs and Border Protection maps obtained through public records requests.)
Many shorter segments of fencing have been built along the border since the early 1900s. The Clinton administration built about 19 miles at the San Diego-Tijuana border. Then, George W. Bush spearheaded the biggest expansion, which led to the construction of 523 miles of fence.
Today, the San Diego-Tijuana boundary has the most elaborate fencing system, with multiple layers of pedestrian fence in some places.
But in remote areas, a single strand of vehicle fence can be the only marker of the international boundary.
Where is there no fence at all?
Most of the border – 65 percent of the nearly 2,000-mile border – has no fence. In its place are natural barriers such as rivers, cliffs and mountains that make it difficult to cross or difficult to build. Some of these are places with so little movement across the border that previous administrations have deemed a barrier unnecessary.
The biggest unfenced sections are in Texas, where the Rio Grande River forms a natural barrier. Other large gaps are in remote parts of New Mexico and Arizona.
Here and there, the fence also has smaller stops and starts.
What has Trump said that he wants?
In February 2016, Trump told MSNBC that the wall would be approximately 1,000 miles long, because “we have natural barriers” that mean a fence along the other 1,000 miles isn’t necessary.
Most other estimates of the cost to build Trump’s wall are much higher than his $8 billion figure. Writing in MIT Technology Review, Konstantin Kakaes estimated that the construction costs for a 1,000-mile concrete fence would range from $30 billion to over $40 billion. This cost would not include demolishing existing fence to replace it with a new wall, if Trump chooses to do that instead.
The Washington Post estimated $42 billion for 1,000 miles of a 25-foot wall.
For comparison, the United States’ newest aircraft carrier cost about $13 billion. So estimates for the fence range from 0.6 aircraft carriers to 3.2 aircraft carriers.
But, much like an aircraft carrier, construction is far from the only cost involved. Maintenance has been a constant headache along the border fence. Besides wear and tear from being exposed to the elements, people often cut through or damage the fence intentionally. New roads will need to be built to expand the system, and those roads also will need to be maintained.
According to a March 2016 U.S. Government Accountability Office study, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported that maintaining the existing fence cost the department at least $7.2 million in 2010.