By Beldon Butterfield
If it is true that the scars of war are the borders of many nations, then there is no greater proof than this 2,000-mile meandering boundary connecting the Pacific Ocean with the Gulf of Mexico, separating the United States from Mexico. Sometimes impregnable to those who try crossing it illegally, sometimes so porous it is hard to conceive of the border as anything but an imaginary line. Despite assertions to the contrary, it is impossible to build a wall from El Paso to Brownsville, Texas, along the Rio Grande unless the United States is willing to give up some very valuable territory. The same can be said for a fence.
According to the International Boundary and Water Commission, 1,200 miles of the border between Mexico and Texas follows the middle of the Rio Grande “along the deepest channel.” Unlike the remaining 800 miles, the Texas border contains many impenetrable obstacles to the building of a wall. When the Secure Fence Act was passed in 2006, the government built 650 miles of wall along the 1,954-mile US–Mexico boundary. While 1,254 miles of that border is in Texas, the state has only 100 miles of wall due to the geographic terrain.
Along this river there are 13 dams and reservoirs that straddle both sides of the Rio Grande. The most prominent of these is La Amistad Reservoir, also known on the US side as the Amistad National Recreational Area, administered by the National Park Service, offering 60,000 water acres for boating and fishing where the border is separated by 30 miles of buoys. Farther west, the 60-mile shoreline of Falcon Lake Dam (100,000 water acres) has the border dividing the lake through the middle. In 2010 David Hartley and his wife crossed over to the Mexican side on their jet skis to view a half sunken church. Mexican smugglers mistook them for intruders. David’s body was never found; his wife barely made it back across to the US side alive.
Two hundred forty miles of the border is administered by the National Park Service in and down-river from the Big Bend National Park that borders the Rio Grande. Then there is the question of natural obstacles such as the Santa Elena Canyon, where the Rio Grande cuts through 1,500-foot-high cliffs. Eminent domain is also a problem that states other than Texas don’t face. The river at times changes course, as do the adjoining wetlands, depending on the time of year.
When most politicians and the media refer to a “wall” separating both countries, it is understood they are talking about “securing the border” largely with the use of technology. This includes the use of drones and spotter planes, fences where possible, and a greater number of Border Patrol Special Agents.
Not so with Donald Trump.Trump claims that if he can build Trump Towers in New York City, he will have no problem building a wall across the entire border. He also claims, “I will build a Great Wall of China higher and deeper.” According to Trump’s recent announcement, it just rose 10 feet when ex-President of Mexico Felipe Calderón attacked him.
Ignorance on the part of Trump is one thing, but that politicians and the media have not called him out on his ridiculous claims is something else. America needs to take a lesson in topography and geography.
Beldon Butterfield has lived in Mexico for 50 years. His latest book is Mexico Behind the Mask, Potomac Books (University of Nebraska Press), Washington, DC, December 2012.