It’s Not About a Wall — but It Is About Over, Around, Under or Through

The continuing debate on President Donald Trump’s insistence on funding for a border wall between our southwestern border with Mexico threatens to derail negotiations between Republicans and Democrats over end-of-year funding. But it shouldn’t; both sides are closer than they might think.

The difference between the president’s resolve on funding for a wall, and the Democratic position supporting additional funds for border security is largely semantical in nature — both are means to achieve the same objective. Given such, both sides should be able to negotiate a reasonable compromise achieving their objectives. Both walls and border security protections will be needed.

The history of the construction and use of major walled border protection dates back more than 2,700 years to the initiation of early stage construction of the Great Wall of China. Other major border wall edifices include Hadrian’s Wall, the Maginot Line, the Berlin Wall, the Demilitarized Zone in Korea and most recently Israel’s West Bank security barrier. The success and failure of these barriers is the subject of debate, but clearly these facilities suffered in some form or fashion in providing border security. Usually, the events and occurrences related to security breaches that were not actually related to actual wall, or barrier security; rather, it was predicated on the failure of attendant border security operations or evasion of the wall.

The Maginot Line is particularly instructive. Designed and built in the 1930s by the French government to protect against a German invasion, it was constructed for the then-staggering cost of 3.5 billion francs and was the second-longest border security wall ever constructed, after the Great Wall of China. Germany attacked France on May 10, 1940, evading the much stronger southern Maginot Line and focusing its attack through the much less heavily fortified line on the Belgium border. By June 14, 1940, they had captured Paris. Similarly, in 1211, Genghis Khan attacked China through its weakest area on the Great Wall, ultimately overrunning the protections of the wall and overthrowing the Jin dynasty. The point is that a wall alone does not equate to border protection, but it can and should be part of a system of border security protection.

A wall is only as good as the ability to go over it, around it, under it or through it, and as soon as it is built there will undoubtedly be those who start to plan to evade wall security. Border security needs to be viewed holistically, and if it is to be effective it will be a combination of barriers (walls or wiring), patrol and policing, monitoring technology (drones and camera systems) and rapid response. It will have to be connected and cover the entire span of border. For instance, on the southern border, a total focus on land borders and walls will provide a road map to those who seek illegal entry to the sea, and shift border challenges to the Coast Guard and the Gulf Coast maritime states.

This issue is not new one. However, the focus has shifted slightly from a more comprehensive view of border security to a more limited attention for the need for a wall. In the aftermath of 9/11, Congress turned to comprehensive border security overhaul: creating the Department of Homeland Security; passing legislation on aviation and maritime security; and providing funding for border protection for the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection. The Secure Border Initiative was a CBP-led program initiated in 2006 for a new integrated system of personnel, infrastructure, technology and rapid response to secure the northern and southern land borders of the United States. Similarly, the Coast Guard was given funding to establish interagency operations centers to help protect maritime borders. While both agencies are well-intentioned and effective law enforcement agencies, they lag in developing and implementing available technology, especially available off-the-shelf technology. Unfortunately, congressional interest in these programs seems to have waned, and funding and follow through on the implementation of these programs lapsed.

The need to continue to upgrade our system of border security continues, and both parties agree on this. An integrated system of personnel, infrastructure (including walls), technology and rapid response is what’s needed. Anyone who shops for home security protection knows that technology currently exists that can provide protection and awareness of potential security threats – cameras, drones and sensors can be harnessed to work with physical infrastructure such as walls and fencing. Standards should be established to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of border security measures, and to consider whether implementation of border security measures will have unintended negative consequences.

One can only hope that both sides to this debate recognize that the objective they seek is the same, and ultimately sit down and negotiate a compromise that will allow us to move forward with an enhanced system of border security.

Carl Bentzel, who worked on surface and maritime transportation as a senior Democratic counsel in the Senate, is the founder of Bentzel Strategies LLC, a consulting firm established to conduct public policy advocacy.

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