He Says ‘Wall,’ They Say ‘Border Security’: A Glossary of the Border Debate

He Says ‘Wall,’ They Say ‘Border Security’: A Glossary of the Border Debate

Originally Published in The New York Times.

By Glenn Thrush

Jan. 31, 2019

Kellyanne Conway, White House adviser, recently dismissed as a “silly semantic argument” questions about President Trump’s use of the word “wall” — is it concrete, steel, see-through, a “smart wall,” slatted, piked, solar-powered, a chain-link fence or just a metaphor?

The semantics, however, are anything but trivial. If the White House and House Democrats are to reach a deal to avert another government shutdown by the Feb. 15 deadline, they must first reach a rough détente over what they are talking about — in particular, the definition of Mr. Trump’s “wall,” and of “border security,” the Democrats’ catchall description of their own approach.

“There’s no magic glossary telling you the difference between a fence and wall or a barrier, they are kind of interchangeable,” said Jeh Johnson, who served as President Barack Obama’s homeland security secretary from 2013 to 2017. 

“There is a distinction between governing and political rhetoric, and people should not get trapped in the binary,’” Mr. Johnson said. “The moment when we reach a compromise on the vocabulary is the moment we reach a compromise on the policy.”

Here is a glossary that could determine the fate of the debate.

Trump supporters last year at a rally in Macon, Ga.CreditGabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

In the beginning, there was a tweet. 

At 4:34 p.m. Aug. 5, 2014, Mr. Trump sent a message: “SECURE THE BORDER! BUILD THE WALL!”

Mr. Trump’s definition of “wall” has been a moving target since.

In the early days of the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump said the wall should be built of “precast concrete” with “no windows, no nothing.” He now says that he always meant that steel and “see-through” materials could work, too, and has, from time to time, mused about festooning the wall with solar panels. In December, he tweeted an image showing a puzzling rendering of a picketed “Steel Slat Barrier.”

Soon after taking office, the president commissioned eight prototypes of wall designs, four made of concrete and the remainder fabricated from steel and other materials. They ranged in height from 18 to 30 feet. 

The models were tested last year, and the results were inconclusive, according to leaked documents showing that all of them could be breached with a determined effort and the right tools. But Trump administration officials say that the testing provided them with valuable information, and lessons learned were incorporated into an already built section of slatted 30-foot-high “bollard” fence near Calexico, Calif.

As Mr. Trump’s image of the wall changed, so did its price tag. He now wants $5.7 billion for the wall — but that number has bounced between $4 billion and $20 billion over the past three years. During the shutdown fight, he even suggested that he would accept an unspecified “down payment.” 

Ms. Nielsen, the homeland security secretary, was roundly mocked for dropping the “the” before “wall” — with critics likening it to the “I love lamp” scene from “Anchorman.”

In reality, Ms. Nielsen was trying to keep her request as vague as possible to facilitate a compromise, while staying nominally true to Mr. Trump’s campaign promise.

“She was lampooned,” Mr. Johnson said. “But she was really just trying to introduce the concept that a wall could be almost any kind of a barrier.”

The fact that Ms. Nielsen felt compelled to use the “W” word indicated her concern about alienating members of Mr. Trump’s base, who roar “build the wall” at his rallies. To that end, members of the president’s team have been quietly removing the word “replacement” from public statements about upgrades to existing border barriers. 

They instead insert the word “new,” according to an official familiar with the practice.

Border Patrol agents apprehending migrants in October near McAllen, Tex. Democrats have suggested increases in staffing to increase border security.CreditLynsey Addario for The New York Times

As part of the failed 2014 “Gang of Eight” effort to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, a coalition of Senate Democrats supported a $46 billion bill to expand the Border Patrol, with improvements to existing fencing. The bill was shot down by House Republicans because it included a process that would have allowed many immigrants who entered the country illegally to remain in the country.

But the bill now stands as evidence to Mr. Trump and congressional Republicans of how Democrats in previous years voted to increase funding for barriers under the broad rubric of border security, when packaged with a path to citizenship. 

But Mr. Trump’s political weaponization of the wall is now making such a compromise increasingly untenable for Democrats. “We’re not doing a wall,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters this month. “Does anyone have any doubt that we’re not doing a wall?” 

The 2020 presidential campaign is making compromise even more difficult. Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, who announced this week that she is running for president, declared the wall “a medieval vanity project,” then vowed to make opposition to it a centerpiece of her campaign.

“The wall concept is an anathema to most Democrats,” said Geoff Garin, a veteran Democratic pollster who works for Priorities USA, a political action committee. “They are more than willing to have a granular conversation about what is common sense and effective border security, but it’s not going to be a conversation about a wall in any sense that Trump has used the word.”

A section of border fencing, constructed by homeland security, on private property in Naco, Ariz.CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times

The word “fence” is, for the moment at least, less politically charged than “wall.” 

In 2006, a coalition of Republicans and 90 Democrats in the House and the Senate — including Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton, then senators — passed President George W. Bush’s plan to add more than 700 new miles of double-layered “reinforced” fencing. 

“I am comfortable with barriers that involve vehicles, fences,” Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, told CNN this week.

But what exactly is meant by “fence”? The southern border is already a crazy-quilt of different border barriers of different sizes, different materials, installed in different eras — known, by and large, as fencing.

And they have different uses. Urban chain-link is meant to deter migrants on foot; an array of metal and concrete “vehicle barriers” have been strung in remote areas; and stretches of concertina wire are used to fill in gaps where there are no permanent structures and on top of structures where there are some. There are also dozens of variants — pickets, corrugated panels, berms, X-shaped steel barriers, even planked walls placed along Gulf Coast beaches. 

In recent budget bills, Democrats have insisted on a provision limiting the expansion of barriers to “existing” technologies, a move intended to frame any new construction as an old “fence” rather than a new “wall,” according to a senior Democratic congressional aide.

Back in 2006, Ms. Pelosi and other congressional liberals voted against the reinforced fencing bill. It is not clear they would support a similar measure even if it were part of a more extensive deal that included a reprieve for the young undocumented immigrants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, was one of those who supported the 2006 bill, and late last year offered Mr. Trump a $25 billion deal that included protections for DACA recipients — and left open the possibility of more fencing. Ms. Pelosi did not agree to the proposal.

Roughly half of the existing border fencing is made up of X-shaped steel vehicle barriers.CreditScott Olson/Getty Images

Mr. Trump’s $5.7 billion request would pay for the installation of barriers on another 215 miles of border — in addition to an estimated 654 miles of fencing, much of it in the form of vehicle barriers, currently in place along the 1,900-mile border. 

That number would include installation of about 100 miles of barriers to keep out migrants, many from Central America, seeking to enter the country on foot in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Before the shutdown, Republican senators, led by John Cornyn of Texas, proposed passing $1.6 billion in funding for 65 miles of that project.

The idea went nowhere at the time. But a handful of congressional Democrats, including Senator Jon Tester of Montana, did not rule out supporting the plan in the future.

A Border Patrol agent watched surveillance cameras monitoring crossings on the Rio Grande last August.CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times

“The walls we are building are not medieval walls,” Mr. Trump said on Jan. 25 during his rambling Rose Garden announcement of the three-week funding deal that ended the 35-day government shutdown. 

“These barriers are made of steel, have see-through visibility, which is very important, and are equipped with sensors, monitors and cutting-edge technology, including state-of-the-art drones,” he told reporters.

It seems like an unlikely gateway to compromise, but some Democrats believe the president was signaling his willingness to accept funding for new technologies, beyond steel and concrete.

Two days earlier, Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, told reporters that he would be open to fulfilling Mr. Trump’s $5.7 billion request if it were spent on a smart wall, targeted at improving border surveillance, the expanded use of drones and X-ray technology to screen for weapons and drugs, as well as on the hiring of more Border Patrol agents.

Mr. Trump, aides said, is open to spending some of the money on similar improvements. His idea of a smart wall was inspired by the one built by Israel on its border with Gaza, which uses high-tech surveillance equipment, including closed-circuit cameras.

A fence along the border with Mexico in Brownsville, Tex.CreditTamir Kalifa for The New York Times

Mr. Trump’s language has softened as the funding fight has intensified, and “barrier” now enjoys pride of place next to “wall.”

“If the committee of Republicans and Democrats now meeting on Border Security is not discussing or contemplating a Wall or Physical Barrier, they are Wasting their time!” he tweeted on Wednesday.

A day later, he was back to wall-only: “Lets just call them WALLS from now on and stop playing political games! A WALL is a WALL!” he tweeted on Thursday.

Whether Mr. Trump was providing semantic cover for a compromise deal may depend on whether he is disciplined enough to tone down his messaging. 

His allies seem eager for him to do so.

“It doesn’t have to be a wall,” Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California and the minority leader, told reporters on Tuesday. “Physical barriers would be fine.”


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