Great wall of Mexico

South Australia dog fence Photo by Bob Wilson

There are precedents for President Donald Trump’s plan to build, or complete a 3,208 kilometre wall between Mexico and the US. The Australian outback features not one but two barrier fences, sprawling the length and breadth of the country.

A tour guide took us on a sunset tour out to the ‘dog fence’ near Coober Pedy in 2014. The South Australian section of the 5,531km fence which runs from the SA border to Queensland is 2,250 kms long.  Built in the 1880s, it’s the longest fence in the world and keeps wild dogs out (or in).

In Western Australia there’s also the 3,256 kms long Rabbit Proof Fence. Possibly because there’s a movie by that name, it is now known as the State Barrier Fence of Western Australia. Having done our share of outback travel, we can tell you that rabbits are still breeding away and undermining parts of Australia, despite myxomatosis, 1080 poison and vermin proof fences. Western Australia’s fence was completed in three stages in the early 1900s as an attempt to isolate the west from the national rabbit plague.

Just so you all know, dingoes and rabbits were not asked to pay for the construction of these fences.

Yes, it makes you think.

There’s no doubt that well-built vermin fences, extending a long way into the ground, have been successful at keeping rabbits and other pests from undermining Australia and also prevent dingoes from savaging livestock. So the cost is defendable, as is the ongoing expense of sending out boundary riders on weekly repair patrols. Feral camels do the most damage, so not surprisingly; there are plans for a taller (electrified) fence.

So what about President Trump’s wall between Mexico and the US? Despite the fact that a 1000 kilometre stretch was completed by George W Bush’s government, this is still going to be a $20 billion exercise. Crikey, that’s about 30% of the US education budget, right there.

And speaking of education, a Pew Research survey found that 61% of Americans think a wall between the US and Mexico is a dumb idea.

Our Albuquerque correspondent, despite living 693 kilometres from the New Mexico border at Juarez, thinks the wall is ‘insulting, a blight and really bad foreign policy.”

Thanks to Bloomberg and heavyweight sources like the Department of Homeland Security, here’s what we know about the challenges facing President Trump’s wall. The notoriously porous border between the US and Mexico is almost 3,208 kilometres long, two-thirds of it tracking the Rio Grande River. The border passes through cities including San Ysidro (California) and El Paso (Texas), rural farmland, desert, mountains and wildlife reserves. The border features 30+ patrol stations and 25 ports of entry.

Barriers already extend along a third of the border, giving President Trump’s contractors something of a head-start. Most of the California, Arizona and New Mexico borders have existing barriers. These range from 5.5m high iron and corrugated metal fences to what our Albuquerque correspondent calls “pedestrian fencing.’

Bloomberg reports that in 2015, the Customs and Border Patrol claimed an 81% strike rate for apprehending and turning back Mexicans attempting to cross illegally (or should that be irregularly).

No-one really knows how many undocumented Mexicans are living in the US but informed estimates figure around 11 million. There have been amnesties in the past, but that does not appear to be an option under a Trump administration.

A Pew Research Centre survey conducted in 2015 found that 72% of Americans (including 80% of Democrats, 76% of independents and 56% of Republicans), thought undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay “if they meet certain requirements.

Most of the existing border fence was built after 2006, when President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fences Act. I hate to be pedantic, but the act specifically says “Fences” not walls. When President Trump talks about his vision, most of us imagine a Great Wall of China or the 8m high sections of the West Bank edifice.

Al Jazeera reports that the West Bank security fence is the largest infrastructure project in Israel’s history. Nearly 15 years old, the 706km long fence costs Israel $260 million a year to maintain.

The ‘separation barrier” as it is coyly known, comprises mostly 2m high, electrified barbed-wire fences with vehicle-barrier trenches and a 60m exclusion zone on the Palestinian side. But in densely populated urban areas with space limitations, the Israelis built an 8m concrete wall.

Walls built between countries or within countries are always controversial, and, well, brutally divisive.

There’s no space at this time to delve into the tragedies of the Berlin Wall, which divided East and West Berlin for 27 years, for reasons which now seem specious. History shows that barrier walls built for whatever reason are destined to become decaying tourist attractions,

Visitors to Britain often schedule a visit to Hadrian’s Wall, a fascinating relic of 122AD when the emperor Hadrian demanded a wall be built east from Wallsend on the River Tyne to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. Hadrian’s Wall was the north-west frontier of the Roman Empire for nearly 300 years, built by the Roman army (to separate the barbarians from the Romans). Hadrian’s Wall was made a World Heritage Site in 1987.

In 2010 English folksingers Julie Matthews and Chris While joined a group of songwriters to write songs inspired by Hadrian’s Wall. Their song which emerged from the All Along the Wall project, Rock of Gelt, imagines a bored centurion who has been dragooned, if that is the appropriate word, into “building the Empire’s last frontier.”

There are only a handful of inscriptions to be found along the remains of the stone wall, including a piece of graffiti found in the Gelt Valley. It translates to: “Daminius didn’t want to do it,” which becomes the repeated refrain at the end of the song.

So will Donald Trump persist with a plan to build/complete a wall that 61% of Americans do not want? No doubt the 39% who want it would argue it will employ large numbers of people, through the building phase, then on maintenance and security.

Maintenance of walls and fences is an ongoing issue – just ask a fencing contractor called in to repair or replace fences wrecked or washed away in floods. The annual maintenance bill to keep the Dingo Fence in sound repair is around $10 million, according to an article in The Conversation. The authors argue for a re-think of the country’s vermin fence policies, including a plan to move a section of the fence to test whether the now endangered dingo can help restore degraded rangelands.

The humanitarian question is, if you must build a barrier wall or fence, surely you should have to justify the exclusion of a species?

As poet Elvis McGonnagal wrote, inspired by the Along the Wall project:

“Walls entomb, walls divide

Walls barricade the unknown

Berlin, Belfast, Gaza

Walls set difference in stone

 But the same sun that sets on the west bank

Rises up on the eastern wall

A man’s a man in Mesapotamia

A man’s a man in Gaul.”

*thanks to Julie Matthews for the insights