President Trump took a victory lap at the border Tuesday, touting completion of more than 200 miles of his wall and vowing to finish another 250 miles before the end of the year, as he sought to remind voters of progress on his most flamboyant 2016 campaign promise.
Braving 102-degree heat in Yuma, Arizona, he signed a commemorative plaque placed at a spot marking the 200th mile, and called the barrier “really foolproof.”
Earlier, during a roundtable with border experts, he said the U.S.-Mexico boundary is the most secure it’s ever been — “it’s never even been close” — and said his wall is a key part of that, helping cut the flow of illegal immigrants. He also said it’s kept the U.S.-Mexico boundary from becoming a global coronavirus hotspot.
“In California, we have a certain area that is heavily infected on the Mexican side. If we didn’t have a border wall there, it would be really a catastrophic situation,” he said.
The Yuma region where Mr. Trump was visiting is slated for 110 miles of wall. So far, 60 miles have been finished.
Carl Landrum, acting chief patrol agent for the sector, said they can see a “huge difference.”
“Every single mile of new wall system that is put in — in every single mile — both illegal entries in that particular area, drug smuggling in that particular area, border crime in that particular area, has decreased,” he said.
Mr. Trump characterized the 30-foot wall as nearly impenetrable, saying it’s 99.6% effective and deeming it “just about unclimbable.”
“Maybe somebody can get an extraordinarily long ladder but when you get up there it’s very high,” he said.
In fact, there have been climbers and even people who have managed to breach the wall, given enough time.
But border experts say the wall is about funneling the illegal smuggling of people and drugs away from certain areas and toward places where the Border Patrol can detect incursions and respond to them — and the 30-foot design does that.
As of the end of last week 216 miles of wall have been built under Mr. Trump — though only three of those miles cover ground that didn’t already have a barricade. Most of the new construction replaces Bush-era vehicle barriers, which were easily surmounted. The rest replaced outdated fencing or is secondary wall, set back from the border to create an enforcement corridor.
Mr. Trump said that number will rise to 450 miles by the end of this year, and to 500 soon thereafter. That still leaves more than 230 miles budgeted for the future — though whether those get built could depend on the winner of November’s election.
Mr. Trump’s likely Democratic opponent, Joseph R. Biden, had once backed border barriers, including voting as a senator for 700 miles of double-tier fencing.
Mr. Biden has since changed his tune. In a statement Tuesday he called the wall “wasteful,” and his campaign website derides it as “not a serious deterrent for sophisticated criminal organizations” that control the smuggling.
Immigrant-rights advocates also complained about Mr. Trump’s wall focus. Tyler Moran, executive director of Immigration Hub, called it a symbol of “senseless cruelty.”
But the president said walls work.
“Two things that have never changed: a wall and a wheel. We’re going to always have wheels. We’re going to always have walls, and we have the best security wall ever built,” he said.
Mr. Trump is building most of the wall using money that Congress didn’t give him.
Only about $4.5 billion was earmarked by Capitol Hill for wall construction. Mr. Trump, though, has declared a national emergency and siphoned an additional $10 billion from Pentagon accounts to go toward wall building, as well as about $600 million from a Treasury account.
That $15 billion should be enough to construct a total of 738 miles of wall — or about $20.5 million per mile. That’s substantially higher than the $4 million to $6 million cost per mile for construction in the Bush and Obama years, but the Trump wall is of a larger size and scope.
Mark Morgan, acting head of Customs and Border Protection, said that’s why he calls the new construction a “wall system” and why he feels comfortable saying the mileage built so far is all new wall, even though all but three of those miles replace previous barriers.
Pressed by a reporter, he said those who refuse to call it new wall are pushing “a false political narrative.”
“From an operational law enforcement perspective, those are new miles of wall system that are going into the ground,” he said.
Mr. Trump on Tuesday claimed that the wall has helped cut the transmission of coronavirus across the border.
He said the situation in San Diego would be very different without the wall, given coronavirus cases in Tijuana, across the border.
“Now it’s stopped COVID, it’s stopped everything,” the president said.
But some virus cases are still getting through.
Mr. Wolf this weekend told CBS that one reason for a spike in cases in Arizona and Texas is people who have a legal right to cross the border even with the coronavirus shutdown — “U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents living in Mexico coming back over for medical treatment,” he said.