A Grain Of Saul: Trump's Wall Probably Won't Happen, And That's A Good Thing

After spending time on the border, I hope he fails in his signature campaign promise.

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

There's good chance that Donald Trump's proposed border wall will never happen, and for the people who actually live on the border, that's a damn good thing.

Despite the president-elect seemingly pushing forward with construction plans for the wall, there are obstacles in building it, and if you visit the border like I just did, they become obvious fairly quick. I just spent a week in Brewster County, the largest county in Texas and one that sits on the border of Mexico.

Despite Brewster going red in last year's presidential election, nine of the 13 border counties in Texas actually went blue in 2016. A look at a map of election results tells an interesting story about the way many people on the border feel about Mexico and Trump's plan.


Image: Emma Kapotes / A Plus

The first and most important question to ask about this wall is where will it go? 

The answer may seem obvious: the border. But it's a bit more complex than that. The U.S.-Mexico border is just under 2,000 miles long, running from Baja, Calif., to Brownsville, Texas. As an example, let's just take a look at the 1,200 miles of Texas-Mexico border where many of the people I spoke to live.

When Trump talks about building his wall on the border, many Texans wonder what he means. The actual border is, in many places, defined as the deepest channel of the Rio Grande, the massive river that separates the two countries. Physically, putting the wall in the river would be difficult for obvious reasons. But legally, it's even less likely: the International Boundary and Water Commission, a treaty signed by Mexico and the U.S. in 1889, prevents any disruption to the flow of the Rio Grande, effectively moving any border wall out of the water and onto the banks of the river. 

So, where do you put it? Since Mexico is out of the question, there's only one option: on the American shore of the Rio Grande. Which, at first thought, might sound reasonable. But then you have to consider a unique challenge Texas poses: almost all the land on the border, save Big Bend National Park, is privately owned.

That means a bunch of Texans — many of whom don't want a wall — are going to have the government come in and build a giant wall on their property.

Not only that, but in order to erect this wall, the government will have to block residents of the border from their access to the river's water, which rural Texans still use in their day to day, and completely devalue any property that they take. Of course, in this case, Trump's administration won't just devalue the land on the border with a giant wall — they're going to have to use eminent domain and take it. It wouldn't be a first. Eminent domain, the power of the government to claim private property for public use with compensation, was used when the federal government voted to build a measly 100 miles of fencing along the border in 2006 and took land from more than 400 border residents. Trump, conveniently, has publicly expressed his love for eminent domain despite the fact that a majority of Americans are opposed to it. If Trump were to succeed in building his wall, it would almost certainly mean that residents of Brewster County — many of which supported him — would lose their homes, their land, and if they aren't compensated enough, their livelihood.

Much of the 2006 border fence wasn't constructed a few feet or yards in from the river: it went as far as 2 miles deep into U.S. territory, leaving lots of land in a sort of limbo between countries.  One resident fought the eminent domain case in court for seven years, which would amount to almost the entire length of a two-term Trump presidency.

Even if Trump's administration claims the land in a timely manner, bringing in big rigs full of cement, building material, and hundreds if not thousands of workers into this land wouldn't just be difficult, it'd be incredibly disruptive. Not only is there a ton of rare and unique wildlife along the Rio Grande, the river itself cuts through a rugged terrain that looks like this:

A view of a canyon near the Mexican border. Photo: Isaac Saul
A flyover of the Rio Grande river. Photo: Isaac Saul
The only road that runs along the border in Brewster County, surrounded by mountains and steep hills.  Photo: Isaac Saul

But challenges around the wall get even more confounding.

Say hundreds or thousands of Americans lose their land to the federal government, Trump's administration somehow gets the necessary trucks and workers into the winding canyons of the Rio Grande, and the wall gets built. 

Then what? Does everything on the opposite side of the wall suddenly become Mexico? 

The dozens of people I spoke to scoffed at the purpose of the wall, too: to create more border security. For one, it'd cost billions of dollars that could otherwise be used for more effective security measures. Residents on the border have hilariously depicted finding "footprints" of people who simply climbed some of the existing walls and fencing, or just cut right through.

"It takes about a minute and a half," one resident told Newsweek of cutting a fence or climbing the wall.

The current strategy of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which includes agent patrol, aircraft patrol, motion sensors, K-9 units, and border checkpoints as far as 60 miles into Texas, is actually quite effective. From September 2015 to September 2016, more than 400,000 immigrants were caught trying to illegally cross the border. According to McCallen, Texas, Mayor Jim Darling, that number — a 25 percent uptick from the previous year — is thanks in large part to human traffickers advertising Trump's promises to build the wall.

Perhaps all this is why Trump has already backpedaled on parts of his campaign rhetoric, admitting that, where appropriate, some parts of the border may only have fencing.

What moved me about my trip, though, was hearing people talk about the symbolic nature of building it in the first place. 

While it's true that our country can improve our border security, it's also true that the border is rich with cross-cultural love, friendships, family, and economy. 

Even in the post-9/11 era, in which wading across the river to a neighbor's home became a serious crime, lifetime residents of the surrounding border area have been heartbroken to see the demonization of their southern neighbors. Before Trump proposed a wall, peaceful protests to what is seen as draconian border enforcement were already underway, like the Voices From Both Sides border festival, where Americans and Mexicans walk out into the water every year to party and dance with their neighbors (or, in some cases, family members).

After all, Tex-Mex is more than just a type of cuisine, it's a reminder that for many thousands of Americans and Mexicans, the border is a place where the metaphorical walls that divide culture and nation are shattered — or climbed over. There, tucked into the Rio Grande region where President-elect Trump wants a giant impenetrable wall, Spanglish is not just some Adam Sandler movie. It's a dialect that has fostered countless families, friendships, and business transactions. 

And I, for one, hope it stays that way. It'd be a shame to watch a place so ripe for more bridges be divided by a giant wall.

Cover photo: Sherry V Smith / Shutterstock


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