On the campaign trail, President Donald Trump talked often of his plans for a “big, beautiful wall” along the southern border. Trump supporter U.S. Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, went so far as to build a desktop model of an “impenetrable” concrete wall topped with concertina wire.
After Trump’s executive order this week, Republican congressional leaders said they would seek to fund the wall plan before the end of September and are prepared to spend $12 billion to $15 billion.
But given the unique realities of the Texas-Mexico border, where private property abuts the serpentine Rio Grande and many local communities are bitterly opposed to a wall, the building of a continuous, concrete structure in Texas would be difficult to achieve, say a chorus of analysts, security officials and border area lawmakers.
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, whose district includes over 800 miles of border, said Wednesday evening it will be “impossible” to build a wall in many places.
“Big Bend National Park and 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,” Hurd said. “Building a wall is the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border.”
Other Texas congressional Republicans applauded Trump’s executive actions on immigration and the border without expressing support for a continuous wall.
Even officials with the National Border Patrol Council, the agents’ union that endorsed Trump and has pushed hard for enhanced border security measures, aren’t calling for a continuous wall from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean.
“We’re not talking about a great wall of the United States,” Brandon Judd, president of the Border Patrol union, told NPR on Thursday. “We’re talking about a wall in strategic locations.”
Victor Manjarrez, retired Border Patrol chief and project director at the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso, said that while building a wall along the expanse of the Texas border would be “extremely challenging,” more fencing is “absolutely needed” in certain locations, particularly in cities such as El Paso, Laredo and McAllen where urban areas have expanded since fencing was installed a decade ago.
U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, said that, given the speed of the executive order and the billions pledged by congressional Republicans, he worried Trump would push for the kind of wall he described as a candidate.
“I don’t know that Donald Trump cares what the people of Texas or their representatives think about this,” O’Rourke told the American-Statesman. “I hope Donald Trump will listen to Will Hurd.”
The proposed wall likely will run up against many of the same obstacles in Texas that bedeviled the previous effort under President George W. Bush, according to Reggie Thompson, Latin America analyst for Austin geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor.
While nearly the entire length of the border in California, Arizona and New Mexico has some form of fencing, only about 10 percent of the 1,200-mile Texas border has a human-made barrier.
The 110 or so miles of Texas fencing is mostly in urban or other high traffic areas and is designed to slow down illegal crossers and prevent them from melting into downtown populations.
Even that limited fencing came about after years of litigation. The federal government had to sue dozens of landowners just to get temporary access for survey crews.
And because of flood concerns and the fact that the Rio Grande twists and turns so frequently, fencing or walls must be built at a distance from the river’s edge, in some cases cutting property owners off from their farmland or ranchland. In some border cities, parks, golf courses and wildlife sanctuaries ended up south of the fence in a kind of no-man’s land.
Thompson said lawsuits from property owners and others could cause lengthy delays, depending on the project’s scope.
“In a worst-case scenario for the administration, a lengthy legal challenge would have to be resolved before construction could even begin,” according to a Stratfor analysis. Such legal wrangling, along with battles over funding, “could push the building of additional barriers beyond a Trump presidency — a fact that could jeopardize the entire initiative.”
Environmental activists would be sure to protest a wall, asserting the barrier would harm rare and threatened species whose habitat straddles the border.
For decades, environmental groups and the federal government have worked to cobble together land as wildlife corridors amid farms and asphalt to allow species to migrate.
Habitat fragmentation and flooding are two of the chief problems that would be exacerbated by an expansion of the border barrier, said Scott Nicol, who lives in McAllen and is co-chairman of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands team, which focuses on environmental issues along the border.
“If more walls go up, you’re going to be chopping up habitat smaller and smaller, making it more likely endangered species go extinct,” he said, pointing to animals like the rare ocelot.
And unless walls are set back far from the river, they will be in the flood plain, he said.
“You put it in the flood plain, you’ve just created a dam,” he said. “Now you’re stopping water from draining into the river like it’s supposed to.”
And if a hurricane drenches the area and the river fills up, he said, a wall could increase flooding on the Mexican side of the river – or lead to wall blowouts, with chucks of concrete pushed along by the force of the water.
Manjarrez said building a wall in remote areas like Big Bend could have unanticipated effects. Construction crews would need new roads to access the border area, which could then be used by smugglers. “What you just created there is a route of egress for the bad guys,” he said.
Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz says he is hopeful Trump will allow border communities to give input into his border security plan. Saenz said a concrete wall, which he labeled “offensive,” would cause flooding problems in his city and send the wrong message to Mexican trade partners.
Instead, Saenz is pushing for a virtual wall of better technology and more staffing.
Attempts to build such virtual walls have met with mixed success in the past. The Homeland Security Department’s $1.6 billion Secure Border Initiative, a Boeing project of radar, cameras and sensors in the Arizona desert, was a spectacular disaster, and officials pulled the plug on it in 2010. More recently though, Customs and Border Patrol declared successful the first phase of its Integrated Fixed Tower system, a network of linked sensors and cameras to illuminate remote areas of desert terrain.
“I certainly would want to work with our president,” Saenz said. “But a physical wall is not the answer.”