Homeland Security officials took a victory lap Thursday to mark completion of nearly 400 miles of border wall, putting a check next to President Trump’s most famous 2016 campaign promise and mocking news outlets that had predicted the project would never get off the ground.
Construction picked up dramatically over the summer as the Army Corps of Engineers and Customs and Border Protection built more than a mile a day, rushing to meet the Election Day benchmark Mr. Trump touted on the campaign trail this year.
“Today we can confidently say that our border is more secure now than at any time in our history,” acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said from McAllen, Texas, surrounded by top Border Patrol officials.
The event was billed to “celebrate the historic completion of 400 miles,” but they appear to have fallen just short, saying they’re “nearly” to the 400-mile mark. That includes at least 45 miles of wall in locations where no wall existed before, and about 350 miles to replace broken or outdated fencing built under previous presidents.
As Mr. Trump took office, critics said he would never get any of it done.
Mr. Wolf gleefully pointed to a Los Angeles Times headline from 2018 that suggested the wall was “a promise Trump can’t keep.” The Washington Post was even more definitive in 2017, proclaiming: “Sorry, Trump voter, you got scammed. You’re never going to get your wall.”
In that piece, contributor Paul Waldman said the “cruel realities of governing” would stop Mr. Trump.
“Not only has the media and politicians been proven wrong, they have been proven wrong 400 times — and counting,” Mr. Wolf said.
Adam Isaacson, who studies border issues at the Washington Office on Latin America, said 400 miles of wall is nothing to celebrate.
“It has become a monument to failure, xenophobia, human rights abuse, and environmental damage — and it must get taken down expeditiously,” he said.
Other critics say it’s wrong to say 400 miles have been erected, when most of that is replacing fencing that existed before. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said last year that meant no new wall had been built at the time.
Department of Homeland Security officials say that’s not the right way to look at it. They compare the wall building to someone who is driving a 20-year-old car and then swaps it for a new model.
“Do you tell them you bought a replacement car, or do you tell them you bought a brand new car?” said acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan. “It’s a brand new wall.”
At this point it’s a bit academic, because the administration has built brand-new wall by any definition.
When Mr. Trump took office, there were 654 miles of the border with some barrier. As of mid-October that was up to 670 miles.
More important for controlling the border, the effectiveness has been upgraded.
The 654 miles Mr. Trump inherited were comprised of 354 miles of fencing, a mishmash of styles, and another 300 miles of what was known as “Normandy-style” vehicle barrier, which could stop a car or truck but was easy to hop over or crawl under for those on foot.
More than 170 miles of the Normandy barrier has been replaced with a full wall, and more than 135 miles of outdated fencing was replaced with the new higher, tougher wall.
Additionally, about 30 more miles of wall were erected as a second tier, set back from the primary wall along the border, with a road running between them.
A migrant who surmounts the first wall must also get over a second wall, this time while on U.S. soil where detection is much easier. And the road gives agents fast access to respond and nab them.
The new wall does come with a massive price tag.
The cost per mile can vary greatly depending on the terrain, but according to current projections it’s averaging about $20 million per mile.
Fencing built during the Obama years cost between $4 million and $7 million per mile.
Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott told reporters this month that they’re getting a good return on the new investment. He said one 12-mile section of wall was so successful in changing crossing patterns that they were able to redeploy 150 agents elsewhere, or the equivalent of a $20 million return on investment each year.
Chief Scott said the new wall has an expected lifespan of more than 30 years.
The high price tag, though, has drawn scrutiny. The Government Accountability Office opened a review of the border wall cost after contracts went to a company with deep connections to Republican lawmakers, Fisher Sand & Gravel.
Fisher was also responsible for private construction of fencing for the group We Build the Wall. Top officers of We Build the Wall have been charged with fraud and money laundering.
The source of funding for the wall is also a black mark for Mr. Trump, who vowed during the 2016 campaign that Mexico would “pay for it.” Instead, it’s been American taxpayers’ money, taken out of Homeland Security funds or, increasingly, out of Pentagon accounts.
Mr. Trump’s move to tap the Defense Department funding has been challenged in courts and has lost every substantive ruling so far. But the Supreme Court allowed construction to continue while the cases proceed.
The justices announced this month that they will hear the wall-building case this term.
Mr. Trump in August, while touring the border in Arizona to mark 300 miles of wall construction, renewed his vow that Mexico will pay, suggesting a “toll” on money being sent across the border.
“It doesn’t matter whether they pay for it now or over the next couple months. Mexico will be paying,” he said.
A couple months later, there is no indication that any such plan is in the offing.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is part of one of the anti-wall lawsuits, says if its position prevails at the Supreme Court, it will demand that the wall erected with the challenged Pentagon funds be torn down.
Homeland Security officials have said they will comply with court orders, but say tearing down a successful tool would be boneheaded.
Mr. Wolf on Thursday said the demands for the wall come directly from the agents who patrol the border.
“If you are against the wall, you are against the men and women of Border Patrol. It’s that simple,” Mr. Wolf said.