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At $11 Billion And Counting, Trump's Border Wall Would Be The World's Most Expensive


President Trump often tells his supporters he is delivering on his signature campaign promise. Here he is at a rally in Milwaukee this week.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You're going to have a wall like no other. It's going to be a powerful, terrific wall.

KELLY: That promise comes at a cost. As NPR's John Burnett reports, it is already the most expensive border wall in the world, and the bills keep piling up.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: To get an idea why we're spending a fortune on Trump's border wall, I've come out here to one of the construction sites down in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. On one side of a caliche road, you can see the pedestrian fence that was erected more than a decade ago. At 18 feet, it looks downright puny. On the other side of the road are massive steel panels rising 30 feet above the cotton fields.

The price tag for the president's border wall, now projected to be 576 miles long, has pushed past $11 billion. To put that in perspective, that's approaching the cost of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. President George W. Bush's fence averaged $4 million a mile. Trump's wall costs five times that, nearly 20 million a mile. But Customs and Border Protection spokesman Christian Alvarez points out there's a lot more to Trump's barrier.

CHRISTIAN ALVAREZ: The border wall system will include 150-foot enforcement zone, lighting, cameras, other technology. So it's not just going to be the barrier itself.

BURNETT: There's more steel, an expensive commodity in a 30-foot structure. There are powerful floodlights. Every mile of it will have conduit for electric power and fiber optics that connect the surveillance cameras. Electronic gates cost up to a million dollars apiece. And there's a graded graveled enforcement zone as wide as a six-lane highway. Congress funded the wall here in the Rio Grande Valley, but the government still wants more.

Now CBP is dipping into $600 million from a Treasury fund that holds money seized in criminal investigations. Some of that will be used to build the wall higher and 10 miles longer. There have also been unforeseen expenses to address serious seepage problems on the concrete levee wall along the Rio Grande. Those extra costs came to light in a deposition by a CBP official made public last week. And the official said they need more money to cover the ballooning expense of acquiring the private property the wall sits on.

SCOTT NICHOL: It just significantly increases the hurdles that the government has to face.

BURNETT: Scott Nichol is a longtime wall opponent with the Sierra Club down in the valley. He joins me a few days later at a spot overlooking the construction site.

NICHOL: Where you have private property and the government has to go through the courts to get that property, it takes a lot longer, and it drives the cost up because you have to pay for that land. You have to send DOJ lawyers in to get that land.

BURNETT: Just how expensive is Trump's wall?

REECE JONES: The 30-foot U.S. wall is the most expensive wall that's being built around the world.

BURNETT: Reece Jones is a geographer at the University of Hawaii who studies border walls. There are now more than 60 border walls in the world. Jones says they're much in vogue in the post-Cold War era. But, he says...

JONES: The cost of almost $20 million per mile is four times as much as the most expensive other walls being built.

BURNETT: Israel's wall on the West Bank ranks as the second-most expensive. It costs $1 million to $5 million a mile. At 30 feet, Trump's is also the tallest in the world, a fact the president gushes over.


TRUMP: Our very big and very powerful border wall is going up at a record speed. And we are at - and we're fully financed now. Isn't that nice?

BURNETT: For the record, the wall is not going up at a record pace. It's fallen behind schedule precisely because of the problems acquiring private land in South Texas. But it is fully financed because of the president's willingness to sidestep a defiant Congress. A Democrat-controlled House authorized less than $3 billion for the wall, much less than Trump asked for.

So Trump shut down the government, declared a state of emergency and diverted billions more from the Defense Department to pay for his wall. Pro-immigrant groups promptly sued and initially succeeded in getting injunctions to block military funding for the wall. But the Supreme Court and an appeals court have allowed the administration to proceed with construction.

Representative Henry Cuellar sits on the House Appropriations Committee.

HENRY CUELLAR: I mean, with all due respect to the president, he's obsessed with this wall.

BURNETT: Cuellar is a Democrat from Laredo.

CUELLAR: I live on the border. I don't want to see chaos. I want to see law and order at the border, but I don't want to just be spending billions of dollars to those federal contractors.

BURNETT: And who are those federal contractors? Mostly giant construction companies accustomed to handling complex federal projects. Then there's Fisher Sand & Gravel. The North Dakota company snagged a $400 million wall contract after CEO Tommy Fisher went on Fox News - the president's favorite channel - to boast how he could build it faster and cheaper on the California border.


TOMMY FISHER: So that current fence that they're building right now in Calexico - the government has given basically 300 days to build 2 miles. With one crew, we can build 15 miles in one year.

BURNETT: Now the Pentagon inspector general is looking into the contract. Auditors want to know if the White House steered it to Fisher, who says his bid was best. Meanwhile, Trump wants to build even more wall. This week, Homeland Security asked the Defense Department to come up with funding for 270 additional miles of border wall. The Pentagon is studying the request. If approved, that would mean three-quarters of the U.S. southern border would be walled off from Mexico.

John Burnett, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.