The big, beautiful wall may not be worth everything that we’re paying for it.
America! Land of the Free, Home of the Brave! One of President Trump’s most successful selling points going into the 2016 election was his intention to build a big, beautiful wall to keep Americans safe and to keep the riffraff out. “Build the Wall!” they chanted. Proud patriots got behind the wall idea and sent Mr. Trump to Washington to seal the deal. Now that a few years have passed, it’s worth examining how it’s going. Is the big, beautiful wall making us Great Again, or is it merely a reflection of our existing greatness?
How big is that beautiful wall anyway? In order to protect the border from sea to shining sea, we’d need 1,954 miles of an impenetrable barrier, well-maintained and consistently patrolled. So far, the Trump administration has spent $15 billion (in American dollars, not Mexican pesos) to build 216 miles of wall, most of which replaced older fencing instead of extending protection into new areas. (Consulting FOX News in an effort to cast this in the best possible light, one reads that when older fencing is taken down first, the replacement counts as new wall because it is made from a different material.)
Although Trump had to scale back ambitious plans due to funding shortfalls and adjustments that must be made when estimates crash into rugged reality, DHS is speeding construction by waiving the sort of regulations that reduce costs by requiring competitive bidding, allowing the government to pay more for less. Providing certified cost data to insure we’re only paying a reasonable number of billions of dollars is burdensome, the Administration claims. What patriotic taxpayer wouldn’t be excited to toss extra money into the pockets of guys like Tommy Fisher, who won a $400 million contract after wooing the President on Fox & Friends? (Fisher’s company has only been fined 16 times by the EPA since 2000, and penalized almost $1.7 million after nine counts of tax fraud that landed Fisher’s brother, then VP of the company, in prison. Small potatoes! It’s not like they put bounties on American troops or anything.)
Fisher is so impatient to get the wall built that he’s doing it on his own. In an attempt to showcase his high quality wallbuilding skills and help Trump get the job done timely, he constructed three miles of what he calls the “Lamborghini” of border walls on privately owned land right on the bank of the Rio Grande. The officially proposed path is a about a mile behind the wall Fisher built, and for good reason: months later, the river is eroding and undermining the 2.5-foot deep footings. They were cheaper and quicker to build than the official government design which relies on bollards sunk 6-7 feet underground for stability, but is it really a bargain if the wall flops over in the water?
Another story behind the wall is a reminder that not all costs are monetary. In Arizona, DHS has allegedly toppled and butchered hundreds of legally protected saguaro cacti to get them out of the way of construction. Saguaro, which can grow more than 45 feet tall and live more than 200 years, are sacred to the Tohono O’odham people who live nearby. The government, of course, claims that the uprooted cacti were taken to new forever homes, not left fallen and damaged as in photos tweeted by protesters.
Perhaps how cheap, patchy or flimsy the wall ends up being isn’t finally the point. According to a federal lawsuit filed by South Texas landowners last week, the wall is less about physical protection and more about racist nationalism. As evidence of such unsavory motivation behind the wall, the plaintiffs plan to use Trump’s own divisive rhetoric against him. Trump has certainly made no secret of his intention to drive wedges between Americans and stoke racial resentment as a path to re-election this year, and the wall is a powerful symbol to do it with. Could it be that Trump, like a virus, has infected the America’s own nucleus, and is even now redirecting the resources that we could be using to heal ourselves towards his own ill purposes instead?
If we continue to sacrifice our natural heritage, our national treasure, and our moral character to feed the parasite, the greatness behind the wall won’t be worth what we paid for it. We can’t call ourselves the home of the free when Mexico blocks the border to keep our contagion out. Nor are we the land of the brave when we’re huddling behind the wall in fear of poor people chasing a dream and willing to work and risk their lives for it, like most of our own ancestors did before us.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We could make other choices instead. If we fail, however, perhaps the most valuable legacy that Donald Trump will have provided for future generations is a heap of refined, bollard-shaped scrap metal at the southern border, easily reworked into the more useful tools our grandchildren will need to survive in the barren country we’re leaving them.