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The border wall fight at the center of the government shutdown, explained

Steel slats, concrete, walls and fences: here’s what Trump actually wants to build, and what Congress might be willing to pay for.

People viewed through the US/Mexico border fence in Tijuana.
People viewed through border fence in Tijuana.

The federal government has been partially shut down since December 22 — with no end in sight.

Politically, the stalemate might seem justifiable: President Donald Trump is determined to get funding for the border wall that was his signature promise of the 2016 presidential election, and Democrats in Congress — who as of January 3 will control the House of Representatives — are determined not to give it to him.

In terms of the actual real-world impacts of the fight, though, the government essentially shut down more than 120 miles of steel poles. That’s the difference between the $5 billion in wall money the Trump administration treated as its red line for any funding bill, and the $1.6 billion that Republicans and Democrats had floated as a compromise before the shutdown began.

Thanks to the fact that Republicans are about to lose unified control of the government — and Trump’s, shall we say, unconventional approach to negotiating — the gap is now wider: between the $5.6 billion appropriated by the GOP-led House in December and the $1.3 billion Democratic leaders in Congress have offered as an extension of existing funding levels.

Neither of those price tags is attached to an actual amount of barrier that can be built. That’s the weird thing about this debate: The wall is a potent symbol for both parties, but it’s also an actual physical barrier that existed before Trump took office but is being fortified and extended under his watch. The best way to talk about the real-world stakes of the shutdown fight is to look at what each amount of money would actually build.

Everyone agrees about what kind of barrier is best — except for, sometimes, Donald Trump

To the extent that members of Congress have been talking at all about what they are willing to pay for on the border, they’ve gotten a little hung up on what Kellyanne Conway correctly described on Sunday as a “semantic debate.” Conway went on, however, to say that Democrats were treating the word “wall” as “a four-letter word” — which is as good an illustration as any of why the semantic debate isn’t being resolved.

The problem is that plenty of Democrats in Congress, most Republicans in Congress, and the Department of Homeland Security all agree about what kind of barrier to build on the southern border: a bollard barrier made of steel poles, erected close enough together to prevent entry but far enough apart that Border Patrol agents can see what’s happening on the other side. (This is the “see-through wall” that Trump got excited about in 2017.)

Previous administrations referred to bollards as fencing; the Trump administration calls it a wall; and Trump himself started calling them “steel slats” in December because he thought it sounded tougher.

But it’s been hard for others to let go of the idea that Trump promised a concrete wall along the entirety of the US-Mexico border — an idea that Trump himself backed off from before the 2016 election, but that his allies and opponents alike have continued to cling to. Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) falsely claimed that the bollard fence in the Trump cartoon tweet is “not even in one of the designs the Border Patrol has proposed.”

Unhelpfully for his administration — and the prospects of a deal — Trump appears vulnerable to this criticism.

On Sunday, outgoing Chief of Staff John Kelly told the Los Angeles Times that the idea of an opaque concrete wall was abandoned “early on in the administration, when we asked people what they needed and where they needed it.” That is an accurate description of what Kelly and his successor, Kirstjen Nielsen, have done as homeland security seecretaries. But Trump responded to it by insisting that “an all concrete wall was NEVER ABANDONED” and that “parts” of the wall will be “all concrete.”

As is often the case with Trump, it’s difficult to tell whether he is being mendacious (or ignorant) about what his administration is doing, or attempting to change it. But Trump’s policy incoherence gets at why these negotiations have been so difficult. There’s very little distance between the concrete (so to speak) proposals for what barriers are needed and where; the distance is between the framing each side would need to place on a deal to make it acceptable to their parties. Once that comes into play, the president, at least, appears willing to shift the policy to fit the politics rather than the other way around.

What the Trump administration wants: $5 billion for 215 miles of border wall

Ultimately, the Trump administration wants to build hundreds of miles of border barriers — a lot more than $5 billion can provide. But it has identified particular stretches of the border as top priorities, and a $5 billion appropriation would allow it to blast through several of them.

The Department of Homeland Security estimates that if it got the whole $5 billion Trump has made his red line for wall funding, it would be able to build 215 miles’ worth of barriers along the US-Mexico border. Most of this — about 150 miles — would be built where no physical barriers currently exist; the rest would be intended to replace some of the older and less imposing barriers along the border.

The administration’s top priority is building about 104 miles of barriers in the Rio Grande Valley — which has become by far the most common area for Central American families to cross between ports of entry (i.e., illegally). Pretty much all of that would be new barriers, since pre-Trump there weren’t many man-made barriers along the existing natural barrier of the Rio Grande.

With the rest of the money, it would want to build (in order of priority) 27 miles of barriers in the Yuma sector in Arizona, 14 miles in the El Centro sector in eastern California, and 55 miles of barriers in the Laredo sector in western Texas. It would round out the $5 billion with five miles in the San Diego sector and nine miles in the El Paso sector (far west Texas and New Mexico).

These are all estimates because it’s impossible to predict exactly how much the government will get for its money. In particular, the more legal action the administration has to take in order to procure the land for building the wall, the more expensive it will be to build. And building a wall out of bollards means buying a lot of steel — which might be an expensive proposition when Trump is placing tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.

What Democrats are willing to give: $1.3 billion for an unspecified amount of border wall

The Democratic counterproposal to Trump — which they’re planning to pass in a bill on Thursday, the first day of the new Congress — is that he will get exactly the same amount of money for the border that he got last year: $1.3 billion. This would be part of a stopgap funding package for the Department of Homeland Security that would reopen the department through February 8.

While it’s generally logical to continue funding at existing levels, though, it doesn’t easily lend itself to inking new government contracts to build massive new infrastructure. The $1.375 billion that DHS got for border barriers in fiscal year 2018 is still being allocated (more on that below), but it’s estimated to come out to 84 miles of barrier. But you can’t just build that same barrier again with another $1.3 billion, and it’s not clear whether either Democrats or Republicans are going to drill down on what exactly they want that money to pay for.

What the outgoing House authorized: $5.71 billion for an unspecified amount of border wall

Generally, Congress appropriates money for specific projects. But the bill hastily passed by the House on Thursday night simply writes a check for US Customs and Border Protection for “Construction, Procurement and Infrastructure” — to the tune of $5,710,357,000.

To state the obvious, that is more money than the $5 billion Trump insisted on.

It’s not clear exactly what the extra $710 million could do. It’s possible that the Trump administration could use it to build more than the 215 miles of barriers it wants; it’s also possible that it could use that money for technology, manpower, or something else. Or it could simply exist as cushion — just in case steel is more expensive than anticipated.

What the Senate has floated: $1.6 billion for 65 miles of “fencing”

When the Senate’s subcommittee for homeland security appropriations in June passed a DHS budget for fiscal year 2019, it included $1.6 billion for the Trump administration to build 65 miles of barriers in the Rio Grande Valley. The subcommittee called it “pedestrian fencing,” but in practice, it would be identical to the barrier the Trump administration is now calling a wall.

This was Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s offer to Trump earlier this month, to the consternation of progressives who wanted no money whatsoever for “Trump’s wall.” It’s since been revived as a possibility by Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, who suggested it as a way to avert a shutdown.

Democrats in the House have said they wouldn’t vote for even $1.6 billion in “wall money.” They may thread the needle the same way the Senate has, and decide that they are going to call it “fencing” or just “border security,” even as they give the administration money for something Trump will call a wall. Or they could decide that as long as Republicans insist on talking about $1.6 billion for a wall, they won’t vote for it — forcing it to pass the House with Republican votes and the Senate with Democratic ones.

Focusing on the Rio Grande Valley is in line with DHS’s current priorities, which makes sense given that it’s the epicenter for the current influx of Central American families (often seeking asylum). But as recently as Thursday, Trump made it clear that he wouldn’t sign a bill that didn’t give him $5 billion — and even if he indicated he would cave, the Freedom Caucus might not.

What is already happening: about $1.7 billion for about 120 miles of wall

Of course, while all this is happening, the Trump administration continues to build border barriers based on the money it received in fiscal years 2017 and 2018. Even if Trump didn’t get a penny of new wall funding, they’d be set to keep building barriers through next year. This is why Trump finds himself frantically toggling between messages: bragging one moment about how much wall has already been built, then demanding the next that Congress give him buckets more money to build it.

According to DHS, the money it got for 2017 (about $341 million, specifically restricted by Congress for use replacing existing barriers) is allowing them to replace about 40 miles of walls and fences — of which about 34 miles have already been built.

The money for fiscal year 2018 — about $1.375 billion dedicated to particular areas — is still being doled out in contracts. Construction hasn’t yet started on any of the 2018 projects. But the Department of Homeland Security says it’s awarded $500 million in contracts already — for 25 miles of levee wall in the Rio Grande Valley, and replacement barriers in Arizona — and is about to close on contracts worth an additional $500 million to build replacement barriers in California and some new wall in the Rio Grande Valley.

The first of those projects, the levee wall in the Rio Grande, is slated to break ground in February. The others will be constructed over the course of 2019, if everything goes according to plan.

It’s not alarming that DHS hasn’t already built everything it wanted to build with the money it’s already been given; the contracting process often takes a while, and there’s also the small problem of getting ownership of the land.

DHS maintains that this step of the process, in particular, is going a lot faster under Trump than it has under previous presidents, largely because it’s such a high priority — so that, for example, there are government attorneys who are dedicated full time to the eminent domain lawsuits to gain ownership of border land. (According to DHS, many of the landowners they take to court actually want to sell their land to the government, but they have to go to court to condemn the property anyway because it’s not always legally clear they have the legal title to sell.)

The Trump administration has gone from insisting on concrete barriers that Mexico would pay for to trumpeting the existence of a “wall” made out of materials that were already in use before Trump went down the escalator at Trump Tower to declare its candidacy. If it wants to, it can take whatever barriers it ends up building, and declare victory. The question of how much wall is enough is much less a question of policy than of what Trump will be satisfied with — or have to reconcile himself to.