"If you build a 10ft wall on the Texas border, the 12ft ladder business in Mexico will boom." This was the rather flippant opinion of Prof Mark P Jones from the department of political science at Rice University, Houston, over a year ago when both President Donald Trump's election chances and, with it, his calls for a "wall" – were still considered improbable by most.
Eighteen months on from Prof Jones's interview with The Irish Times, not only does Mr Trump have his finger on the pulse of the most powerful nation in the world, but a wall between Mexico and the United States is not only probable, it's happening.
The question now is whether any improved border security will be like the bricks and mortar which separated East and West Berlin for decades or that which currently divides Palestine and Israel.
‘Wall’ as metaphor?
Or is the wall the convenient label referring to improved border security tech applications? Drones, x-ray machines and fibre-optic sensors etc are already part of the existing security apparatus and would surely be more successful than a bricks-and-mortar partition, however high you build it.
“A physical wall across Texas would need to be nearly 1,300 miles in length and would neither be cost effective or make a dint in the already porous border security situation,” explains Artemio “Temo” Muniz, chair of the Texas Federation for Hispanic Republicans.
“I think a ‘wall’ has become necessary, but not because it will be an effective way to keep illegals out. But hopefully it will get some real conversation about immigration reform started.”
Muniz’s position finds much of his time taken up with border control issues and believes technology offers a significant part of an overall solution.
“If you are going to institute a wall, it needs to be high tech – a virtual wall where fibre optics, lasers, drones, and real-time data analytics are more effectively incorporated into the overall set up,” he says.
“That way you wouldn’t need as much human interaction on the ground.” This, he says, would improve safety for border patrol guards as well as providing more accurate data for analytics.
“You could still have some parts of Texas where a physical wall might be needed, but really what’s needed are virtual bricks and mortar. It’s much lower cost.”
As a fiscal conservative, the very thought that any new administration would consider spending money on a physical wall when so many other infrastructural projects are in need of attention simply baffles Muniz. “Believe me, any wall – real or otherwise – should be at the bottom of the priority list.”
Still, some reports suggest up to 30 per cent of Americans are in favour of Trump’s original plan to build a physical wall that would need to span over 2,000 miles to completely divide the two countries.
Such a “solution”, however, takes little or no account of the local variables pertinent in US-Mexican border town relations.
"The relationship between border towns ranges from fully integrated to downright hostile," explains Fernando Luiz Lara, associate professor of architecture at the University of Texas in Austin. "San Diego and Tijuana already have a fence but are still highly integrated with an estimated five million people crossing every year."
Laredo, Texas and nearby Nuevo Laredo in Mexico are so integrated, they share the same baseball team. "Then there are others – such as Brownsville and Matamoros, which historically have had very poor relations and, therefore, a more complicated and hostile border situation prevails.
"You've also got cities in Arizona where people from both sides routinely go to hospitals on one side and dentists on the other," says Luiz Lara.
US-Mexican relations on a local level are not likely to be high on the priority list of the new president. But there are some larger issues which will need to be addressed. In an OpEd for the Dallas Morning News in January, Prof Luiz Lara listed the key drivers in terms of understanding southern border politics. Three major industries dominate the discourse, and, therefore, the entire border landscape.
“First is the globalisation industry, which moves $500 billion in goods between the US and Mexico every year, including $160 billion through Interstate 35 in Texas,” said Luiz Lara. “The industry has a goal to have a border that facilitates ongoing exchange.
“The second is the labour industry, which employs millions of Hispanic workers in the US (legally or not) and wants a border that is not tightly closed, but also not completely open.
“The third is the military industry, which sells the idea that the border is dysfunctional so that both governments can justify spending billions on equipment, personnel and infrastructure.”
Drugs, weapons and the automobile
Together, says Luiz Lara, these three industries are implicit in the unreasonable levels of oversight, leaving border security so complex an issue to fix.
The biggest oversight of all is the privilege given to motor vehicles. This is where many believe a significant proportion of the illegal smuggling is happening. “It’s a randomised process,” says Luiz Lara.
“Border security look at your face and, if you drive a big SUV and you have the correct identification, you’ll go ahead. Regardless of whether you look Mexican or American [presumably referring in this context to Caucasian American] if you’re upper class, you won’t have any problems. However, if a poor construction worker or maid tries to pass, they’re going to be stopped.
If people cross by foot they are heavily scanned, interviewed, even interrogated. “The level of scrutiny is worse than at an airport.”
Even cargo is scrutinised to such extremes that most experts seem confident of security levels on that front. "By NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] law, shipping trucks from one country cannot cross a border into another," says Luis Lara.
“This means Mexican trucks have to unload, where a third-party contractor takes their cargo to the other side of the border, inspects it, and then it is moved on to a new truck on the US side for transportation north.”
Airport-style security for cars?
Luiz Lara isn’t the first person to suggest using existing technologies to tighten security for automobiles but his proposal is a little left field. “In the same way we travel through airports, we allow our luggage to go through a more powerful scanner, while we go through a metal detector, people should have to step out of their vehicles while their car goes through a similar technology.”
Anyone whose had the misfortune of being at a busy Dublin airport knows just how time consuming and stressful an experience airport security can be. So just imagine if it were not only human traffic being checked, but also the cars of each and every traveller? Being an architect, Luiz Lara has looked at this problem with design in mind.
“Common to all border towns is a large buffer of undeveloped land on the US side, while the Mexican side is denser and built up against the dividing line,” he says.
US authorities label these buffer zones as “parks” but in reality are heavily militarised, deforested wasteland. “Let’s just say you wouldn’t take your dog for a walk there,” says Luiz Lara.
The architect argues these areas could be transformed into waiting areas for people while their cars were being scanned. “You could have cafes and stores, like at an airport, and riverwalks along the Rio Grande,” he says.
It’s a nice thought – however hard to swallow in these cynical times. Ironically, so much tech innovation in the US comes from its military.
If they were prepared to invest in greater scanning technology for cars, the problem of people, drug and/or arms smuggling would be greatly reduced overnight. This is unlikely though.
“It’s important the border remains dangerous,” says Luiz Lara. “The militaries on both sides profit from fear.”