Border Walls Get Teched Out
Emily Pollock posted on April 18, 2018 |
Today's border walls aren't just walls; they're complex barrier systems that include man-power, surv...
Sensor towers placed along the U.S. border with Mexico are only one part of a new
Sensor towers placed along the U.S. border with Mexico are only one part of a new "invisible wall" of technology hemming in the border. (Image courtesy of GovTechWorks.)

President Trump’s contentious border wall has come back into the news recently after the President ordered the deployment of the National Guard to the U.S.-Mexico border. The idea of a physical coast-to-coast wall has fired the imaginations of many Americans, both those for and against its construction.

But a wall is never just a wall, especially with the high-tech available today. Some even argue that a physical border wall is unnecessary.

In a recent statement to CNN, Texas Representative Henry Cuellar said, “Violent drug cartels are using more modern technology to breach our border than we are using to secure it. We can't double down on a 14th century solution to a 21st century challenge if we want a viable long-term solution.”

To understand how today’s invisible border tech is shaping the way we understand borders, let’s take a quick trip through famous border walls across the centuries.

The Wall of Mardu

Modern ruins of the City of Ur, which the Wall of Mardu was built to protect. (Image courtesy of
Modern ruins of the City of Ur, which the Wall of Mardu was built to protect. (Image courtesy of

One of the first defensive border walls we know of was the Amorite Wall, built in the 21st century BCE to keep the nomadic Amorites out of Sumeria. While the wall is almost entirely destroyed today, it’s believed to have stretched for a hundred miles between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The wall was an impressive endeavor, especially for its time, but ultimately, it failed…badly. Because the wall didn’t go all the way around Sumeria, invaders simply walked around it. The Sumerian city of Ur fell to invaders in the 20th century BCE, and so began the end of Sumerian civilization.

The Great Wall of China

A Ming-era section of the Great Wall. (Image courtesy of iExplore.)
A Ming-era section of the Great Wall. (Image courtesy of iExplore.)

Probably history’s most famous border wall, the Great Wall of China was constructed by several dynasties over more than a thousand years. It began humbly enough as a series of independent walls made of stone, wood and earth that were joined in the 3rd century BC by order of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. The original wall rose between 15-30 feet (depending on the terrain) and was built by an army of soldiers and convicts. But the wall we know today was mostly built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The later Ming rulers built more than 550 miles (8,850 km) of high stone wall, taking advantage of natural barriers like mountains and rivers.

Despite the massive effort to construct it, the Great Wall was only somewhat effective. It was an effective psychological deterrent to smaller bands of “barbarians,” but more organized enemies, like the Huns, were able to ride around the wall, find under maintained sections they could ride over, or simply bribe guards to allow them to pass through one of the main gates.

Hadrian’s WallModern ruins of Hadrian’s Wall. (Image courtesy of

Modern ruins of Hadrian’s Wall. (Image courtesy of

Built in the 2nd century BC under the Roman Emperor Hadrian, Hadrian’s Wall was another “barbarian barrier” meant to defend Rome’s colonies in Britain from Picts and Scots. Stretching 16-20 feet tall, the wall was built from local limestone, with an “inner core” of clay, soil and stones. The wall had an early equivalent of the complex no-go zones surrounding border walls today: any invading enemies would have to pass over a ditch, the wall itself, a broad military way for troops to walk along, and a vallum (a ditch with an accompanying palisade).

While the wall itself was a successful construction project, it was built more for political showmanship than to actually defend the border, and it fell into disrepair after Emperor Hadrian’s death.

The Berlin Wall

Citizens of West Berlin watch over the newly-created wall, in 1961 (Photo courtesy of Paul Schutzer, Getty Images)

While most border walls are built to keep foreigners out, the Berlin Wall was built to keep citizens in. In 1961, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) realized it had a problem. Despite the “workers’ paradise" the GDR had made of East Berlin, its workers kept defecting to the West, leaving the country with a rather severe case of brain drain. To prevent more defections, the GDR’s authorities started building a barrier between East and West Berlin in the middle of the night on August 13, 1961.

By 1975, the wall, which was made of 12-foot-tall slabs of reinforced concrete, stretched 87 miles. It also had a parallel fence built 300 feet into East German territory, with the space between the two barriers filled with raked sand that would show footprints. The wall was also reinforced with mesh fencing, barbed wire and anti-vehicle trenches, and boasted 116 watchtowers and 20 guard bunkers. During the time the wall was in place, an estimated 100-200 people were killed while attempting to cross the barrier, most of them by armed guards operating under a shoot-on-sight order.

It was a combination of political change and good ol’ human error that brought about the wall’s collapse. In 1989, people started demonstrating against the weakening regime in favor of being permitted to cross the border. After a secret meeting about new border regulations, Politburo spokesman Günter Schabowski was handed a set of the new regulations without knowing when they were supposed to go into effect. Schabowski panicked when he was interviewed by reporters about the change, and said the regulations went into effect immediately, sparking a cross-border exodus. Since nobody was willing to give the order to shoot on hundreds of civilians, the technologically fortified border collapsed without a single brick falling.

Israel’s West Bank Barrier

One of the most heavily-defended sections of Israel's West Bank Barrier (Photo courtesy of Justin McIntosh)

Part wall, part fence, the 420-mile-long barrier has been under construction since 2002 at a cost of $2 million/kilometer (according to the BBC). Most of the barrier is a 16-foot-tall wire and mesh fence with a concrete base, but in more built-up areas, the barrier stands as a 25-foot-tall concrete wall with embedded watchtowers.

Opinion on the barrier is as divided as the people it separates. Israel says that the barrier is necessary to prevent suicide attacks on Israeli civilians. Others see it as an "apartheid wall" as the wall is built on Palestine's land and cuts many Palestinian settlements off from the surrounding region. In 2003, the UN said the border wasn't legal under international law, but Israel continued with its construction.

Like the Berlin Wall, the structure features a footprint-sensitive dirt and anti-vehicle ditches. But, unlike walls that came before it, the West Bank barrier uses sensor, radar and camera technology. The "smart wall," developed by Israeli defense contractor Elbit Systems Ltd., includes touch sensors and cameras built right into the wall, underground sensors tuned to catch movement on the ground above, and drones paroling the skies up above it.

Those following the Trump wall and its developments may already be familiar with Elbit Systems. The Israeli security company recently won a contract to supply radar towers to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Building the Trump Wall

A section of Trump's bollard barrier under construction (Photo courtesy of Customs and Border Protection)

When Trump ran for president, he envisioned a wall like the Berlin Wall—only better. A concrete-slab wall would stretch from coast to coast, rising up to 40 feet in the air. The design now under construction is far more modest, as the U.S. president has been unable to get the U.S. Congress to approve the $25 billion needed for the wall. The current design features a bollard-style barrier stretching between 18 and 30 feet high, with five feet of anti-climbing plate on top. The concrete base of the barrier will be reinforced with rebar. It will extend six feet into the ground to deter digging under it. According to Customs and Border Protection(CBP), the 20-mile barrier should be completed in under two years.

It has been pointed out that this new “wall” is very similar to the bollard fence in nearby New Mexico, constructed under President Obama’s mandate. But according to Border Patrol, this barrier is different. “This is the beginning, in this sector, of the president’s border wall—very much so,” Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Hull told the Texas Tribune at the unveiling of the construction project on April 9.

The Human Element

Regardless of whether or not the structure actually qualifies as a “wall,” physical barriers are only one part of border security. And, increasingly, they are one of the least important parts.

One of the other important aspects of the border is manpower. Like the kings of ancient Sumer or the government of the GDR, the U.S. government relies on human beings as a huge part of its defense strategy. Approximately 20,000 Border Patrol agents are responsible for watching over the border, both at and between official checkpoints. The Border Patrol has struggled with recruitment recently and is short about 2,000 agents.

And, more than almost any border wall before it, the new border replaces on-the-scene manpower with surveillance devices like underground motion sensors, remote-operated cameras, long-range radar towers, aerostats (balloons and blimps) and drones.

Currently, there are more than 12,000 remote sensors buried along the border and three radar-enabled towers that can track people from up to 7 miles away. Both systems are linked with centralized cameras, so that any disturbances can be monitored by Border Patrol agents in a centralized location. Agents should be able to pick up on disturbances, monitor them for their level of “threat,” and only leave their locations to deal with actual attempted border-crossings. CBP also has a small fleet of Predator drones that enable the agency to photograph huge swathes of the border from the air.

Remote sensors are particularly useful in the Rio Grande Valley section of the border, where protected natural parks prevent border agents from clearing dense foliage around the border. Manuel Padilla Jr., the Border Patrol sector chief for the area, told the New York Times that more sensors are necessary to secure the area: “In the absence of being able to get in there, we need to be able to see what’s going on so we can catch drug trafficking and other activity before those who are doing it reach cities in the region.”

As heavy-tech as the areas between crossings are, the “invisible wall” becomes even stronger at the areas around authorized crossings. At crossover points like the one in Hidalgo, Texas, automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) take photos of the license plates, cars and drivers of border-crossing cars, which are then run through a database that holds information about criminal records and immigration law violations. Even if the search doesn’t trigger an alert, the information the ALPR collects is stored in the database, giving Border Patrol officials a complete record of who has crossed the border, and when.

But perhaps the most advanced use of border security technology may be used far away from the border: the use of biometric information at airports. U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Biometric Air Exit program takes travelers' biometric information as they leave the United States by air. In 2004, CBP developed a program that uses fingerprints for biometric identification, and it’s currently developing and expanding a facial recognition program. These programs are implemented in partnership with airlines. And the Goodlatte-McCaul bill, which is currently making its way through Congress, would expand the use of biometric information even further, allowing CBP to take biometric information from everyone leaving the U.S.

At the 2016 Annual Border Security Expo in San Antonio, FLIR Systems sales rep Bryan Block jokingly told VICE, “I'd tell Mr. Trump we can build him a wall—a radar wall, of 360-degree radar surveillance.” Today, that invisible wall is looking less and less like a joke.

What Next for the Wall?

Fans of the invisible wall have a lot to look forward to. While the new congressional budget didn’t include all the money for Trump’s desired super wall, it has allocated about $400 million for border technology, including $50 million for towers and $20 million for ground sensors. But not everyone is enthused about the new security measures; many have concerns on both the privacy and the practicality fronts of the project.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit focused on defending civil liberties into the digital age, has been extremely critical of the Trump wall, especially the use of biometrics at the border. In a piece in January of this year, EFF Senior Staff Attorney Adam Schwartz put out a statement decrying the use of drones, automatic license readers, and biometric screening at the borders. Schwartz expressed concern that biometric data collected at borders could be stolen or misused by government officials, and that surveillance drones without fixed flight paths could be used (accidentally or deliberately) to collect information on people living near the border. He also objected to the potential for using automatic license readers at "internal checkpoints" away from the border. "Such high tech spying would unduly intrude on the privacy of immigrants and Americans who live near the border and travel abroad," Schwartz concluded.

America’s border has moved beyond the “14th century solution” of simple physical barriers, but we still have a lot to learn from these earlier walls. History tells us that border walls don't fail because of a lack of technology; they fail because of human error, political change and the plain old determination and desperation that attend most unlawful border crossings today. And those things are a lot harder to fix than simply putting up a concrete wall at the border.

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