There’s No Real Difference Between Border Walls and Border Fences

Sometime between now and Dec. 21*, when the current appropriation for the Department of Homeland Security will expire, Congress needs to provide the agency with another’s year’s funds. A single word has become a sticking point for the politicians who will vote on that funding: “wall,” as in President Trump’s border wall. 

Trump and his Republican allies are demanding billions of dollars for walls along the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats, wanting to be seen as opposing Trump, say that they won’t vote for border walls. But they, led by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, are willing to vote for “fences.”

The current Senate iteration of the DHS appropriations bill contains $1.6 billion for 65 miles of either border walls or border fences — depending on one’s party affiliation — in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. This is an area that received 54 miles of either border wall or border fence in between 2009 and 2010. I live in the Rio Grande Valley, a few miles north of the 2009 border wall and in the vicinity of the new ones: No one here has ever called it a fence. 

Sen. Schumer recently took to the floor to split the fence/wall hair, saying that, “It’s just what we’ve done in previous years — funding for fencing on the border where experts say it makes the most sense. It would protect our border far more effectively and far more quickly than any wall.”

He has also repeatedly said that Democrats have successfully opposed Trump's "concrete wall" — meaning DHS's recent prototype barriers erected near San Diego — which is cold comfort for those of us who live in the path of construction that is every bit as damaging. It also ignores the fact that one of the designs set for construction in South Texas is, in fact, full of concrete and steel.

Levee Border Wall in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. 2009.
Levee-border wall topped with bollards under construction in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. (2009)

The previous funding that Sen. Schumer is referring to is the omnibus bill passed just last spring that also gave Customs and Border Protection (CBP) $1.6 billion. When they describe the thing that they will be building through farms and wildlife refuges in South Texas, they do not use the word “fence.”

Instead, CBP says that they plan to build two types of border wall, first 25 miles of what they call “levee wall [which] would be a concrete wall to the approximate height of the levee crest with 18-foot tall bollards installed in the top of the levee wall,” and 8-12 miles of “bollard wall [which] would be 20- to 30-feet high utilizing 6”x6” concrete filled steel bollards.”

Bollard Wall
Bollard border walls in the town of El Calaboz, Texas. (2009)

But Democratic members of Congress who don’t want to own up to giving Trump his border wall, largely seen as a symbol of racism and xenophobia, still cling to the semantic game in an effort to avoid culpability. Those of us who have been forced to live with border walls know first-hand that whatever name is applied, they inflict tremendous damage. 

I detailed this damage and the likely harm that new walls would inflict in a recent report for the ACLU and other organizations, which can be read here.  I would encourage members of Congress to read it before they vote on border wall funding.

The funds approved by Congress last spring will build the levee walls through the National Butterfly Center, Bentsen State Park and World Birding Center, and the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Thirty-foot-tall walls of concrete and steel will cut off worshippers from the historic La Lomita chapel, leading the Diocese of Brownsville to assert that "church property should not be used for the purposes of building a border wall [which] would in fact be a sign contrary to the Church’s mission." Farmers, some of whom have held property in their families since the 1760s, will lose riverfront land. Bollard border walls will be built in the Rio Grande floodplain, where they will put communities on both sides of the river at risk of worsened flooding, potentially leading to property damage and deaths. 

And as walls go up, migrants are pushed into more dangerous border crossings, leading to more and more deaths. Calling a 30-foot-tall concrete and steel monstrosity a fence does not change its nature. 

Those of us who live along the border would at the very least appreciate honesty in Congressional debates. Members of Congress can vote for border walls or they can vote against border walls, but either way, they need to own their vote and its on-the-ground impacts.

Semantic games are not appreciated by those of us who will have to live with the consequences.                                         

Scott Nicol is the co-author of the recent report Death, Damage, and Failure: Past, Present and Future Impacts of Walls on the U.S.-Mexico Border released by the American Civil Liberties Union and partnering organizations. He lives and teaches in McAllen, Texas.

* This piece was updated to reflect the two-week continuing resolution agreed to by Congress on Monday, Dec. 3, which funds the government until Dec. 21. 

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More Capitol Hill semantics. Fence/Wall...what's the difference?

John Anthony Vi...

Well, when we lose over 113 Billion in cost annually, it strains our own healthcare in the long run, and pays to build this wall system sooner than later.


Nice job, Scott. Of course you're right. The Democrats voting for this nonsense - like the neoliberal Schumer - are as culpable as Trump. Thanks for exposing the hypocisy.


If you want the USA to let more foreigners in then you should push for legal means for them to come here. Illegal immigration is dangerous for the people sneaking in and US Citizens. It also creates chaos which slows down the process for everyone and creates billions of dollars in income for organized crime. If there is not enough public support to get legal immigration increased then that's the will of We the People.


BUILD THE WALL it is better than a fence. Put E-VERIFY in place in every state and that will cut down on illegal entry in to America. But of course the Democratic,liberals don’t want this they want everyone illegal aliens in world to live in America. They don’t like AMERICAN CITIZENS or CHILDREN Democratic and liberals would like the middle class pay for illegal aliens.

Tom Gruver

Chuckle Schemer is a gutless wonder that needs to go. Change party affiliations if you want to be a Repuke


What the difference between funding the wall and supporting illegal aliens and their children. America deported illegal aliens back to their countries which cost all money. America housing illegal aliens children who are in detention centers which cost all money. What about illegal aliens children who are going to school in America which cost a lot of money. What about illegal aliens who uses emergency services in hospitals and they can’t pay guess who has pay for their bills the AMERICAN TAXPAYERS When the border personnel find illegal aliens injured in the desert and they need health care services guess who have pay for their medical services AMERICAN TAXPAYERS. Who feeds and clothes illegal aliens when they are in detention center AMERICAN TAXPAYERS. Why not build the wall it is cheaper than than taking care of them. What about all the trash that illegal aliens leave in America coming across guess who pay for It? The Arizona/New Mexico/California and Texas taxpayers and not the illegal aliens or their countries. When illegal aliens drive a car without insurance or driver licenses and hit American citizens guess who pay for these? The cost of higher property tax and medical services is because of illegal aliens. When illegal aliens have anchor babies and get food stamps/welfare and medical care guess who pay for these services?


There are some differences—on the Texas border expanding levee walls increases the dangers from flooding, putting many people (as well as wildlife and properties) on both sides of the border at greater risk.


You can thanks illegal aliens, drug cartels for the wall. I hope that the wall is built to keep out illegal aliens. Go through the front door instead of the back door.


Walls can be climbed and tunneled under. It’s a waste of money. Why should we pay for a wall that the liar in chief said Mexico would pay for?


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