An Arizona Border Wall Case Study

Justin Bristow


A recurring question regarding U.S. border security is how effective a wall is in terms of investment and utility. The comments are many, from the wall providing a deterrent and preventing illegal border crossings to resourceful smugglers finding ways to circumvent the wall completely. The purpose of the wall is to impede or slow down illegal entries so the Border Patrol can increase arrests in that border zone. Increased arrests and subsequent consequences for illegal entries can make it bad for business and therefore lead to greater levels of security in certain border regions.

Since the Border Patrol became a member of the Department of Homeland Security, fences and tactical infrastructure have been part of the strategy to improve border security.

In the state of Arizona, case studies of the Yuma and Tucson sectors show that the building of a fence has been successful, as well as where results have been more limited. After reviewing the data, the Yuma sector experiences more arrests but a majority of entries still occur in zones where the wall is located. This higher number of entries supports the need to impede crossers or delay their arrival at their destinations. This delay allows the Border Patrol to respond more quickly to intercept the smugglers and make an arrest. However, deterrence is limited with structures built before 2007 (a legacy fence). Replacing the wall can improve deterrence by adding detection capabilities, as well as increasing officer safety if it is possible to see through the wall.

Controlling this nation’s border is a federal responsibility, but just one of many. The Border Patrol has limited resources and must spend them wisely. Dollars for tactical infrastructure are competing with technology acquisition, staffing needs, as well as other government priorities across the Department of Homeland Security. The ability to identify the requirements needed to secure the border while having resources available for other needs across the government is critical in gaining more support to invest in the wall in the future.

The Tucson sector data show that a larger number of entries than for Yuma are deflected to more rural or remote zones. However, evidence shows that more Tucson entries are successful when crossing away from urban areas with fencing. Not being able to guarantee a greater number of arrests makes the Tucson sector a favorite location for smuggling.

As a result, some border zones in the Tucson sector are strong candidates for building a border wall. This new wall construction should include detection technology to alert law enforcement of potential and actual incursions at the immediate border, as well as allow for a more immediate and effective response close to the border as long as enough personnel are available to make arrests.

One mathematical formula that describes how fence or barriers enhance operational control can be defined as: operational control is achieved if time of crossing + vanishing time is > sum of the estimated time to detect, identify, and classify + estimated response time. In other words, if detection and response is greater than crossing and vanishing time, it is successful and is an indicator of improved operational control. The study of both sectors does show that a wall is effective in some locations but is a much lower priority in other border zones due to a lack of activity, greater response time available to agents, terrain, and fiscal responsibility. The author’s recommendation is that all urban and rural zones with effectiveness under 80 percent be upgraded to modern fencing. Very remote areas below 80 percent effectiveness would be exempt if zone activity remained low.

The cost of the wall projects in Tucson is much cheaper than in south Texas or in San Diego County. Arizona can receive three miles of new fence or more for each mile constructed in South Texas. The ability to have immediate detection and improved officer safety will allow agents to respond quicker to make an arrest. Improved effectiveness rates will reduce activity and decrease detention and transportation costs for the government.


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