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Border barriers

Could a wall really make the U.S. safer?

What's the U.S.-Mexico border really look like?

We hear a lot of opinions about the border wall these days: There’s talk of what the wall may look like, how far it may extend along the U.S.-Mexico border, and even whether adding solar panels to the wall may be a win-win. And at the core of this massive undertaking is the question: Can building the wall help make our nation secure?

To learn more about it, Kenneth D. Madsen took a sabbatical from his position as associate professor of geography at The Ohio State University at Newark to spend time near Tucson, Arizona. There, he explored the proposed expansion of the nation’s border barriers from the perspective of political and cultural geography.

“I spent a lot of time just observing, learning and getting to better understand the environment in terms of border security and how it’s experienced by local residents and various interest groups,” he says.

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Barriers cover 361 of 443 miles of Arizona’s border with Mexico. This pedestrian fence has security lighting on the west side of Douglas, Arizona.
Kenneth Madsen
Kenneth D. Madsen, associate professor of geography at The Ohio State University at Newark, spent significant time studying the U.S.-Mexico border up close, photographed countless miles and says there are significant environmental challenges with mountains and rivers when considering fully fencing the border.
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A vehicle barrier and port-of-entry in Nogales, Arizona. Border security towers can be seen in the background.
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A vehicle barrier near the Santa Cruz River east of Nogales, Arizona, has a flat plate added on top to deter climbers.
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This is a peek through a pedestrian fence on the east bank of the San Pedro River west of Naco, Arizona.
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This vehicle barrier and official boundary marker is located near the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Lukeville, Arizona. Vehicle barriers permit wildlife to pass through.

In Madsen’s view, the probability of completing the wall is questionable. And even if it happened, there’s “always potential for a go-around, go-under or go-through. Fences can only do so much, and even the Border Patrol generally considers border walls and fences only one of the many tools at their disposal, rather than a definitive solution. Certainly, many agents do not like the idea of a solid wall that makes it even more difficult to observe potential crossing activity from the other side."

Here, Madsen shares more about his time near the border.

Do you think building the wall is a good idea?

The wall has the potential to offer a localized solution to a broader issue. Many people like the idea of a wall because it’s tangible, visual proof that something is being done. In that respect, it’s less about stopping people and more about communicating that there is a plan and conveying a sense that progress is being made.

Do you think barriers will increase our national security?

People will find a way around a wall. Border barriers and stricter law enforcement almost always serve to shift the flows of migrants and illicit drug concerns elsewhere rather than definitively stop such movement.

It’s easy to believe that walls will solve our problems, but in the end, these ideas are really a distraction. A sealed border seems like a good idea due to its simplicity, but it doesn’t consider the underlying pressures — shifting jobs, economic discrepancies, political persecution, violence and drug addictions.

There is a long list of these types of things that a fence or wall does not address.

What have you heard from people in Arizona near the border?

In terms of local border residents, some people are in favor of the wall; some are against it. In that respect, it’s not necessarily different from viewpoints in Ohio or other places around the country, although I would say that opinion across the country generally comes down against such construction. A wall is also largely opposed by political leadership in the borderlands. Also, the issue has a much greater immediacy than it does for those living elsewhere.

Is a wall spanning the U.S.-Mexico border possible?

There are nearly 2,000 miles separating the countries and many of those miles would offer significant geographical challenges. Mountains and rivers require that one would have to consider flooding and erosion problems, for example.

Today, there are about 700 miles of walls, fences or other barriers along the U.S.-Mexico boundary. Some of these stretches are able to block vehicles but allow pedestrians and wildlife to pass. Other sections are more difficult to cross.

But before construction even could begin, the federal government will need to secure more of the land. Much of the land, especially in Texas, is privately owned. To use it, the federal government will have to acquire these portions of the border through eminent domain and/or build the wall farther away from the borderline. On the other hand, building next to the Rio Grande River itself would likely exacerbate flooding, expose the structure to erosion and block animal access to one of the only sources of water in an otherwise very arid region.

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Pedestrian fencing west of Calexico, California, parallels the All-American Canal, an aqueduct that carries Colorado River water to cities in Southern California. This is a see-through railing design that only appears solid given the angle of the photograph.
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Older-style pedestrian fencing on the eastern side of Calexico, California. Current stretches of border without barriers are generally in remote areas with rough terrain.
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Secondary pedestrian fencing and Border Patrol vehicles in San Diego County, California. Pedestrian barriers are generally found close to urban areas and accessible rural locations.
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This image highlights a painted side of a pedestrian fence in Tijuana. Secondary fencing can be seen in the background, along with Border Patrol vehicles and a road developed exclusively for law enforcement.
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Invisibility artwork is a feature on the south-facing Tijuana side of the pedestrian border fence, extending into the ocean.
What about the solar wall idea?

This is not the win-win situation that appears at first glance. There are a lot of problems with a solar wall.

First of all is the remote location of much of the border and the difficulty tying it into the existing electrical grid. Rock-throwing and breaches are already a problem for Border Patrol agents and could easily cause damage to such a structure.

Perhaps most problematic would be the extensive construction in sensitive landforms and habitat to make it happen. As someone from the Center for Biodiversity once pointed out, a solar wall on top of an ecological catastrophe is still an ecological catastrophe.

What do you see as the lesson from this?

Building more and larger border barriers may provide people with a sense of security. But it’s unlikely to change the dynamics that drive migration and the drug trade. And given supply and demand, those flows will find a way, probably lining the pockets of smugglers in the process. It’s a money game that even an $80 million investment in border walls will have difficulty keeping up with.

In my opinion, the construction of border barriers will simply divert time and resources from developing and implementing more lasting solutions.