- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2016

To some, it’s the friendship fence. To others, including, most famously, Pope Francis, it’s an unneeded and un-Christian symbol of division.

But Donald Trump insisted Wednesday that his plans for a border wall remain intact, emerging from a sensational meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto to say that, despite Mexico’s reluctance, more bilateral barriers will have to be built.

“Having a secure border is a sovereign right and mutually beneficial. We recognize and respect the right of either country to build a physical barrier or wall on any of its borders to stop the illegal movement of people, drugs and weapons,” Mr. Trump declared, with Mr. Pena Nieto looking on.

The wall has become deeply politicized over the last year as Mr. Trump has made it a major part of his campaign. But before that, border fencing was a bipartisan ambition that even drew the support of then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

They both voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which called for 700 miles of double-tier fencing in specific locations along the 1,989-mile southwestern border. That law easily passed, and the Bush administration deployed the National Guard to help begin building it.

A year later, however, Congress watered down the law, nixing the need for two layers and giving Homeland Security the power to choose where to build the fence — but keeping the 700-mile target.

SEE ALSO: AP FACT CHECK: Donald Trump on immigration

The Obama administration continued the construction in 2009, when Mr. Obama took control of the White House, eventually constructing fencing along 352 miles of the border, but stopped there. Homeland Security did erect another 300 miles of vehicle barriers that keep out drug-running cars and trucks, but are easily surmountable by people on foot, and Congress has said they don’t count toward the 700-mile target.

Rep. Peter T. King, the New York Republican who sponsored the Secure Fence Act, said even with the watering down, the law has been a success.

“The construction of the border fence has been a tremendous asset for border security,” he said in a statement to The Washington Times. “Increased Border Patrol agents and technology are also important but it is clear that adding physical infrastructure has proven to be vital, particularly in urban areas but also in many rural locations where drug and human smugglers were operating with near impunity.”

He said the surge of illegal immigrant children and an ongoing flow of drugs across the border show there’s more to be done, however, and said that requires a firm hand in the White House committed to border security.

“One thing is crystal clear, for security on our nation’s borders to improve and be sustained, we must have political will at the highest levels to build and maintain border infrastructure and implement lasting security solutions,” Mr. King said.

Both Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton, who is the Democratic nominee to succeed Mr. Obama in the White House, have mocked the push for a border wall, though they acknowledge their own past votes in favor of fencing.

SEE ALSO: Donald Trump dials back rhetoric: ‘Great respect’ for Mexicans

At a Democratic primary debate in March, Mrs. Clinton said her vision was for limited walls, and she said Mr. Trump’s rhetoric has gone beyond that. And she mocked Mr. Trump’s vow to have Mexico foot the bill as “just fantasy.”

Mr. Trump said at a joint press conference that the two men didn’t discuss who would pay for the wall, calling it a subject for later discussion. Hours later, the Mexican president posted a Twitter message saying he told Mr. Trump upfront that Mexico won’t pay for it.

The Clinton campaign said that undercut Mr. Trump’s entire meeting with the Mexican president.

“It turns out Trump didn’t just choke, he got beat in the room and lied about it,” said John Podesta, the Clinton campaign chairman.

Nearly everyone in the immigration debate says some fencing is needed — the question is how much, and what type.

Three years ago, during the last broad debate on an immigration overhaul, the Obama White House backed a proposal that called for an additional 350 miles of border fencing to finish the 700-mile goal. It passed the Senate, but the House never took up any immigration bill.

Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said there are places where geographic barriers already exist and fencing doesn’t make sense, and there are locations where a vehicle barrier may be enough.

But she also said there are places that need a 15-foot-high single-tier fence, and other places that need double fencing.

Two-tier fencing was supposedly meant to counter the problem of illegal immigrants scaling a single-tier fence from Mexico, where the U.S. can’t patrol. In a two-tier design, once migrants get over the fence, they’re in U.S. territory, trapped between the tiers, where the Border Patrol can catch them as they try to scale the second wall.

Those responsible for patrolling the border say fencing is an important part of the country’s defenses.

“The border fence has been extremely effective at stopping vehicle-borne loads of drugs or people,” said Shawn Moran, vice president at the National Border Patrol Council, the labor union for Border Patrol agents. “In areas where there is a vehicle barrier or fence, criminal organizations must completely cut or remove the barrier to be able to facilitate entry of an unauthorized vehicle.”

But U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the Border Patrol, said security is more than fencing.

“Level of security is not solely determined by border fence,” a spokeswoman said in an email. “The objective of the pedestrian fence is to reduce the amount of transnational foot traffic. The objective of [a] vehicle fence is to reduce the amount of transnational vehicle traffic. While [the] fence provides impedance and denial capabilities, agents still need to be able to respond and resolve situations between fences and in areas where [the] fence is located.”

Ms. Vaughan said Homeland Security also needs to be prepared for smugglers to get better at avoiding the fence altogether, including going beneath or over the top of the barrier. She said that means finishing a long-overdue system for tracking the comings and goings of all visitors, including those at land ports of entry.

“Getting the wall and other barriers built is not the end of the job,” she said.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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