US & World

30-foot border wall prototypes erected in San Diego borderlands

Competitors who are hoping to gain approval to build the border wall have until the first of next month to complete their work.
Competitors who are hoping to gain approval to build the border wall have until the first of next month to complete their work.
/Bill Wechter for NPR

Construction crews are erecting eight looming prototypes of President Trump's border wall in a remote section of the San Diego borderlands. Four are solid concrete; four are made of steel and concrete; one is topped with spikes. They all approach 30 feet in height. The cost is $20 million, which Congress had set aside in its current budget. Crews in yellow hardhats working with cranes and forklifts are expected to complete the models by the end of the month.

Once the sections of wall are finished, Customs and Border Protection — parent agency of the Border Patrol — will evaluate them for three criteria.

"We want a better barrier. One that is hard to scale, hard to penetrate and hard to tunnel under," says Roy Villareal, chief of the San Diego Border Patrol sector.

"We're hoping innovation from private industry combined with our experience generates the next evolution of border security infrastructure," he continues.

Aurelia Rodriguez and her daughter Melanie stand in a structure in Tijuana, Mexico, with a view of border wall prototypes under construction.
Aurelia Rodriguez and her daughter Melanie stand in a structure in Tijuana, Mexico, with a view of border wall prototypes under construction.
Sandy Huffaker/Sandy Huffaker for NPR

About a half-dozen undocumented immigrants have been apprehended in the middle of the construction since the concrete slabs started going up. Most of them hopped over the 10-foot, Vietnam-era landing mats that currently serve as the primary border fence. Typically, about 70 illegal crossers are picked up in the San Diego sector every day.

While the mockups are massive, it's anybody's guess whether they'll ever get built. Trump's border wall is opposed by congressional Democrats, as well as most of California's and San Diego's leadership. But they're certainly getting lots of press. Every day, border agents shuttle in news crews from as far away as the Czech Republic and the Netherlands to shoot video of the busy construction site just east of the Otay Mesa port of entry.

South of the prototypes is a dusty Tijuana industrial zone. To the north are the rugged Otay Mountains.

Crews work at the construction site of prototypes for President Trump's border wall in San Diego County.
Crews work at the construction site of prototypes for President Trump's border wall in San Diego County.
Bill Wechter for NPR

"The real issue with building a border wall is what the Congress does, not what the contractors do ... The price tag on this is enormous," says Doris Meissner, a former immigration commissioner and now a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

CBP expected the prototypes to spark big protests similar to the crowds that massed at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota last year decrying the pipeline. Officials even set aside a "free speech zone" and planned contingencies if trouble broke out. But since construction began three weeks ago, there have been no demonstrators.

"We want a better barrier. One that is hard to scale, hard to penetrate and hard to tunnel under," says Roy Villareal, chief of the San Diego Border Patrol sector.
NPR

"We knew this was political theater (from the Trump administration) and we're not going to respond," says Christian Ramirez, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition in San Diego. "This is much ado about nothing." He says the much photographed prototypes represent "a guise that a border wall is being built" to please Trump supporters who chanted "Build the wall!" during the campaign.

On Tuesday, the president tweeted, "BORDER WALL prototypes underway!" above pictures of the sand-colored barriers. Sector Chief Roy Villareal declines to predict the future of the prototypes, or whether they are, in fact, a model for a wall to be ultimately constructed somewhere along the southern frontier. "Part of the intent of the prototypes is to influence the ultimate design of new border fencing," he says. "[The final design] may well not be what you witnessed this morning." The administration has asked Congress for $1.6 billion for 74 miles of new border wall — most of it in south Texas. The request is pending as Congress considers larger border security and immigration legislation.

Bill Wechter for NPR
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