Legislators want flexibility in border security, not a continuous, concrete wall.
President Donald Trump’s border will be a wall, if the definition of a wall is a combination of technology, border patrol personnel and infrastructure like fencing. But that wall probably won’t cover the whole border, the head of homeland security said.
“It’s unlikely that we will build a wall or barrier from sea to shining sea,” Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
Barriers work, Kelly told the committee, but not without technology and personnel. Of the initial $1 billion budget request for the wall, Kelly said the department plans to invest one-third into technology to improve situational awareness—surveillance systems, aerostats, drones and ground sensors—and to address personnel issues at Customs and Border Protection.
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Former CBP officials at a Tuesday hearing urged the panel it takes all three—the tech, the infrastructure and the people—to secure borders. The trick is getting the right mix for each area’s unique geography and community.
“It’s not a cookie-cutter solution anywhere along the border,” said David Aguilar, former acting commissioner of CBP.
A 125-mile stretch of border in Yuma, Arizona sector, for example, is secured with a mix of physical infrastructure: layers of fencing, all-weather roads, vehicle barriers, 9 miles of lighting, a bridge and a “floating fence” for the sand dunes, Roland Coburn, former deputy chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, told lawmakers. Border patrol agents who walk the border will be the best resource to help figure out what their sectors need, he said.
“They won’t ask for more than what they need, but they do need to be given exactly what they need,” Coburn said. Maintaining and repairing existing fencing will also be in their requests, both Coburn and Aguilar told the panel.
But fencing isn’t what Trump promised, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., pointed out. He promised a “great, great wall” with Mexico picking up the tab. The first request for proposals—now closed—sought a “physically imposing” concrete wall between 18 and 30 feet tall with elements that deter climbing and tunneling. A second request allowed for “alternative designs” including “see-through” structures.
During the hearings, lawmakers debated what a wall is—or what it could be—more than whether the border should be fortified. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., for example, went with the fencing, people and technology model. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., offered a wall made of drones, electronic fencing and people.
“General, is the president OK with fencing instead of a wall?” McCaskill asked.
Kelly said the president told him his job is to secure the border, adding, “I have a lot of elbow room.”
“So he knows that we’re not going to build a concrete wall—a 2,000-mile concrete wall?” McCaskill pressed.
“The president knows that I’m looking at every variation on the theme and I have no doubt when I go back to him, ‘wall makes sense here, fencing—high-tech fencing—makes sense over here, technology makes sense over here.’ I have no doubt he will go tell me to do it,” Kelly said.