Border authorities, activists weigh in on ‘new wall vs. replacement wall’ debate


DONNA, Texas (Border Report) — A debate has been raging in the media, social media and throughout the country over whether “new wall” or replacement wall” has been built along the Southwestern border.

Chad Wolf, the Department of Homeland Security acting secretary, called it “a common misconception” he said needs clarifying.

Wolf said the administration has built “83 miles of new border wall” so far.

“When we tear down 1970s-era landing-mat wall that is 7-to-8 feet high and you put up what’s behind us, that’s not replacement wall. That is a new wall. That is a new, physical infrastructure. So I don’t agree with the assertion that we’re simply replacing wall by constructing what’s behind us in places that have never had this type of physical infrastructure,” Wolf said.

Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf speaks Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019, south of Donna, Texas, where new sections of the border wall have been built. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

Wolf held a news conference Thursday against the backdrop of South Texas’ first “new” wall panels that have been put up south of Donna, where no barrier existed.

Read a Border Report story on Wolf’s visit to Donna, Texas.

Behind him, the 18-foot-high steel bollard panels jutted into the bright blue South Texas sky, sitting atop 12-feet of concrete. Located a half-mile from the Rio Grande in a predominantly agricultura community, Wolf said this structure is needed to keep out drug smugglers, human traffickers and those trying to illegally enter the United States from Mexico.

The debate over what exactly is going up is mired in politics.

The Trump administration has been keen to boast that it has added “new” border wall miles, as the president has promised he would do. In fact, Wolf said on Thursday they are on track to build 450 to 500 new border wall miles by the end of 2020. They said 153 miles currently “are in progress.”

DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf, second from right, views new border wall on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019, south of Donna, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

But many border-wall opponents say it’s largely a numbers game for the president, and don’t want to add to his boasting. And so the term “replacement” wall is being often used in Washington, D.C., and by several major media outlets, like The Washington Post, which has said no new border wall miles have been constructed.

In a Sept. 6 analysis of the issue, The Post wrote: “Replacing dilapidated vehicle barriers and weathered fencing with newer, sturdier stuff is the kind of routine government business that predated Trump. It’s fair to say Trump is trying to put this routine business on steroids, but that’s still a far cry from the massive new bulwark made of concrete that he promised for so long.”

There has even been a disparity of border wall terms used by leaders within the Department of Homeland Security.

On Nov. 14, the Washington Examiner reported that Acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan said “78 miles of wall has been erected under Mr. Trump, but all of it has replaced outdated fencing or barriers that had previously existed.” The headline of that story read: “DHS confirms no new border wall yet.”

Morgan’s department is under Wolf.

Apples to oranges (or tractors to buildings)

Caught in the middle of all this back-and-forth are border communities, whose residents say comparing what is going up to what had been previously there is like apples to oranges. One environmentalist said, “it’s like comparing a tractor to a building.”

In Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, in Southwestern Arizona, for instance, miles of new 30-foot-tall steel bollard fencing has recently gone up where vehicle barriers and low metal fences had stood for about a decade. This prompted about 500 people to show up at this rural national park on Nov. 9 and protest what they say is “new” wall.

Read a Border Report story on the Nov. 9 protest at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

The new structure juts from the Sonoran Desert floor through miles of saguaro cactus, and rare organ pipe cactus, for which the national park is named.

“The notion that ‘no new border wall has been built’ is dead wrong. Media outlets like The Washington Post are misleading the public by parroting it,” Laiken Jordahl, of the Center for Biological Diversity, told Border Report on Friday.

“Here in Arizona, we’re watching Trump’s massive 30-foot walls replace tiny vehicle barriers that both people and wildlife can pass right over. The heartbreaking reality is that we’re watching new border walls go up in all four border states, ripping through some of the most spectacular places in the borderlands,” said Jordahl, who organized the Nov. 9 protest in Arizona.

These photos below show the fence that had existed at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument — built through the 2006 Secure Fence Act — and what is currently being built there now. (All photos are by Sandra Sanchez/Border Report):

The new structure is replacing the old structure, but they are clearly different, Jordahl says.

The vehicle barriers were wide enough that wildlife could pass through, yet vehicles — which used to race through the desert — could not. The old structures somewhat resemble images of the tank barriers placed on Omaha Beach, in France, during World War II.

The new 30-foot-tall wall has 6-inch-wide metal slats spaced four inches apart with a 5-foot solid anti-climb metal plate at the top.

“A 30-foot-tall bollard border wall with gaps that are just 4 inches wide is not comparable to a vehicle barrier that is 4-to-6 feet tall and has spaces wide enough for a deer to pass through. Bollard walls block wildlife and floodwaters, and for the most part vehicle barriers don’t,” said Scott Nicol, co-chairman of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Campaign.

A deer is seen crossing under an earlier fence structure in this undated photo taken by U.S. Fish and Wildlife. (Courtesy Photo)

“When pundits argue about whether this is ‘new’ or not, they are quibbling over labels, and it is the impact of border walls that matters, not the word choice. The bollard walls being built right now through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge and other places are inflicting terrible damage that those ecosystems have never seen before,” Nicol said.

Nicol charges Trump is just trying to up his wall mileage numbers prior to the 2020 election, and has waived 41 laws in order to erect the structures quickly. But Nicol worries that the new bollard border walls “will dam water and cause erosion and flooding, and they will block the movement of jaguars, Mexican wolves, and other endangered species,” Nicol said.

“Bollard border walls are tremendously destructive monuments to Trump’s bloated ego,” he added.

Also up for debate is whether the border barrier is a wall or a fence. The answer might depend on where you live. Many of those who’ve long lived in communities along the border have known it as the “fence.” Across the U.S., it’s most frequently called the “wall,” which some say is a politically-charged term. Currently, “wall” is the term most widely used nationally, according to Google Trends data.

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