Almost the entirety of the Trump border wall was constructed after December 2018 when the Trump sections were just 31 miles. With 455 miles by January 2021, if the border wall deterred illegal crossings, the Border Patrol should have seen fewer illegal crossings and fewer successful illegal crossings.
By David J. Bier
One of former President Donald Trump’s main presidential accomplishments was constructing hundreds of miles of wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. President Joe Biden temporarily suspended work on some unfinished sections in January 2021, but is now plugging some “holes” in Trump’s wall and adding some other portions. He shouldn’t bother. A few miles won’t fix what hundreds of miles already failed to. It’s time to just admit: Trump’s wall did not work.
It’s true that Trump did not finish every mile he wanted, but what he did construct was significant. Trump built 455 miles of border fencing of his own design: 18- to 30‐foot steel barriers. The total fencing—including Trump and prior designs—reached about 700 miles, including about 70 miles of double‐layered fencing (two fences running parallel to each other with space for Border Patrol vehicles in the middle). The Trump wall “system” also came with lighting, cameras, sensors, and new roads.
While only 47 miles were in places where no kind of barrier existed previously, Trump’s wall is not “only a replacement”—not to Trump nor to the border residents. Trump’s wall swapped out nearly 200 miles of “vehicular” fencing that was not even meant to keep out foot traffic. The rest of the Trump wall replaced old and shorter 8–10-foot fences. In many places, these dilapidated old fences were crumbling slabs—not the “impenetrable” steel monster that Trump promised.
Almost the entirety of the Trump border wall was constructed after December 2018 when the Trump sections were just 31 miles. With 455 miles by January 2021, if the border wall deterred illegal crossings, the Border Patrol should have seen fewer illegal crossings and fewer successful illegal crossings. Indeed, the agency already claimed that the wall was “deployed” and “effective” in late October 2020 with about 170 miles still to be built.
After a temporary lull in migration during the early part of the pandemic, that very month (October 2020) saw a significant jump in both known successful entries (what the Border Patrol calls “gotaways”), as well as arrests to levels as high as before the pandemic, and the numbers kept rising. Even before Biden assumed office, the Border Patrol was making more arrests and witnessing far more successful crossings after the wall went up than most months before the Trump wall. Figure 1 displays the extent of the available data for known successful entries as well as apprehensions.
Figure 2 focuses specifically on the known successful illegal entries. These refer only to crossers that the Border Patrol believes evaded capture and entered the country. The actual number of successful crossings is naturally higher, but witnessed successful crossings track estimates of total successful crossings based on models that focus on known facts (like recidivism of those who are captured and sent back). In any case, May 2021 saw the most identified illegal crossings in a month since April 2007. This was the eighth highest monthly figure on record. The Trump wall has not stopped immigrants from coming illegally, nor has it stopped them from successfully entering illegally.
Trump may claim that the border wall failed because it was not completed. Not only is that false, his own administration claimed that the wall was the reason that crossings temporarily declined in 2020. In January 2021, just before Biden took office, he said:
I kept my promises. And today we celebrate an extraordinary milestone: the completion of the promised 450 miles of border wall. … You have some areas that are virtually impossible to get by. So we didn’t need walls everywhere, but… in every region that we’ve built the wall, illegal crossings and drug smuggling have plummeted. … One of the big elements of the wall that make it so successful is we can have far fewer people working.
So Trump believed the wall was working too, and that it wasn’t needed everywhere. Regardless, if his $15 billion, 455‐mile border wall can be defeated by any small gap anywhere in it, it just goes to show the absurdity of the whole project because gaps can and are being made on a near‐daily basis.
The Trump border wall failed for all the predictable reasons. Immigrants used cheap ladders to climb over it, or they free climb it. They used cheap power tools to cut through it. They cut through small pieces and squeezed through, and they cut through big sections and drove through. In one small section in 2020, they sawed through at least 18 times that Border Patrol knew about in a month. They also made tunnels. Some tunnels were long, including the longest one ever discovered, but some were short enough just to get past the barrier.
While it was always obvious why the wall would never stop crossings, the border wall may actually have been counterproductive. The New York Times reported the roads created to build the wall “now serve as easy access points for smugglers and others seeking to enter the once‐remote areas along the border.”
But most importantly, many, if not most, crossers never tried to evade capture. They just walked up to the fence (which is mostly in the United States) and asked to be arrested, so they can try to obtain asylum. Many of them still attempt to climb the wall to avoid being stranded in the desert. Many have fallen and injured themselves, and some others have died. Border Patrol selected the extreme height of the wall based on “psychological tests to establish at what height an average person becomes so disoriented that he or she would stop climbing a wall”—stop or, just as likely, fall from it.
Trump may also claim that Biden’s unique border policies explain why the wall failed. But Biden doesn’t have any unique border policies. He’s maintained virtually everything that was in place when Trump stood in front of the wall in January 2021 and declared victory. He continued to expel as many asylum seekers to Mexico as Mexico would take (even larger numbers in absolute terms than Trump). But the numbers are even higher than before the expulsion or Remain in Mexico programs were in existence in 2018 and 2019. The wall just has not done anything. This recent article on Border Patrol agent complaints under Biden doesn’t even mention the wall.
U.S. migration should be managed through expanded legal channels. During his campaign, Trump also promised a “big, beautiful door” in his wall for the legal immigrants in “the largest numbers ever,” but he failed to deliver on that promise. Instead, he slashed legal immigration dramatically. Illegal immigration would disappear without a wall if it were legal for immigrants to move to the United States. That’s the only reform that will create lasting progress at the border.
David J. Bier is a research fellow with a focus on immigration at the Cato Institute. He is an expert on legal immigration, border security, and interior enforcement.