Watchdog: US has no way to measure border wall effectiveness

By ELLIOT SPAGAT, Associated Press

The United States does not have a way to measure how well walls or fencing work to deter illegal crossings from Mexico, according to a report released by Congress’ main watchdog.

The Government Accountability Office said the government spent $2.3 billion from 2007 to 2015 to extend fences to 654 miles of the nearly 2,000-mile border and more to repair them.

Despite those investments, the Customs and Border Protection agency “cannot measure the contribution of fencing to border security operations along the southwest border because it has not developed metrics for this assessment,” the agency said in a 75-page review.

Efforts to better measure success were aborted in 2013 because of a budget showdown between President Barack Obama and Congress, according to the report, which recommends developing new measures to justify more spending.

Donald Trump, speaking at a news conference recently, reiterated plans for a wall with Mexico — one of his signature campaign pledges — and promised to negotiate a lower price.

Border Patrol leaders have struggled to say with any degree of precision how well fences work.

Construction cost estimates have varied widely. The GAO report stuck with its 2009 estimate of an average of $6.5 million a mile for a fence to keep out people on foot and $1.8 million a mile for vehicle blockades. There are currently 354 miles of pedestrian fencing and 300 miles of vehicle barriers.

Republican leaders in Congress have said Trump’s wall would cost between $12 billion and $15 billion. Trump has suggested $12 billion.

An internal Homeland Security Department report prepared for Secretary John Kelly estimates the cost of extending the wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border at about $21 billion, according to a U.S. government official who is involved in border issues. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the report has not been made public.

The Homeland Security report proposes an initial phase that would extend fences 26 miles and a second wave that would add 151 miles, plus 272 “replacement” miles where fences are already installed, according to the official. Those two phases would cost $5 billion.

Few people dispute that fences contributed to a sharp drop in crossings in cities like San Diego and El Paso, Texas.

San Diego was the busiest corridor for illegal crossings until the late 1990s, when an enforcement surge pushed traffic to Arizona and other more remote areas where many crossers died from heat. As fencing critics note, border crossers continue to perish in isolated areas under extreme weather conditions.

Border Patrol agents the told authors of the GAO report that fencing has made it more difficult for people to ambush or assault them.

On the flip side, holes are often cut. The GAO reported 9,287 breaches in pedestrian fencing from 2010 to 2015. Agents said crossers have built ramps to drive over fences in Arizona and have burrowed beneath them.

Kelly told lawmakers that he would like to see wall construction well underway within two years.