Texas congressman's 'smart' border wall alternative deserves consideration
The serenity of a 75-year-old Texas wildlife refuge, regarded as a "crown jewel" among birding enthusiasts, is already being disrupted, and it could get worse. Much, much worse.
Federal engineers have begun drilling for soil samples in the Santa Ana National Wildlife refuge, apparently in preparation for a 2018 jump-start on building President Donald Trump's long-promised "big, beautiful" border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
Big: Yes. Beautiful: Speaking charitably, that's in the eye of the beholder.
But practical? Experts across the entirety of the political spectrum continue to express serious doubts.
Which is why a fresh proposal to use cyber-technology — you know, that American know-how stuff that got us to the moon — rather than medieval barrier tactics is worth a listen.
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, a Texas Republican, leads a small coalition of border-state lawmakers backing a newly introduced bill for a "smart wall" that would substitute a network of high-tech security systems for a physical wall wherever feasible.
Hurd, whose South Texas district takes in roughly 800 miles of U.S.-Mexico border — more than any other congressional district in the nation — is more of an authority on the subject than most of his colleagues. A former CIA operative, he has also worked as a cybersecurity advisor. The "smart" plan, he says, could reduce the cost of a "wall" by billions — yes, that's with a "b" — reducing the estimated costs from $24.5 million-per-mile for Trump's plan to a (comparatively) fractional $500,000 per mile.
No guarantees, of course. Previous administrations' checkered efforts to create a "virtual fence" using cameras and remote sensors have proven costly and ineffective.
And yes, while backers of the "SMART" plan (Secure Miles with All Resources and Technology Act) tout the proposal's technological pragmatism, there are behind-the-scenes political linkages as well. The bill's sponsors have partnered with Silicon Valley wunderkind Palmer Luckey, who carries baggage of his own. He was ousted from the virtual reality company he founded and sold to Facebook after it was made known that Luckey had quietly funded pro-Trump, Hillary Clinton-bashing networks on social media.
Yet, compared with Trump's ham-fisted, damn-the-torpedoes determination to create a breathtakingly expensive, environmentally destructive wall, a sound approach grounded in modern technology is, at least on its face, a marvel of common sense. It supporters say it would improve on previous "virtual" security efforts through a carefully integrated combination of sensors, computer imaging, and virtual reality headsets to maintain an "eyes on" presence along the border.
Perhaps more important in Texas than elsewhere is that a physical wall creates significant "takings" and eminent domain headaches: Nearly all of the land along the Texas-Mexico border lies in private hands, and owners say a wall would be financially devastating. The federal government, in fact, is still mired in years-old lawsuits filed by landowners over old, piecemeal plans to construct security border fencing.
"In Texas, we have a long tradition of private property rights," said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who joins with Hurd in backing the SMART proposal, in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times. "Any time big government starts taking land — especially the valuable part, access to water — then it becomes a battle cry."
No matter where you stand on border security issues, the hard fact is that a 2,000-mile concrete wall would be little more than an extravagant monument to political absolutism.
If there's a case that we could swap the political statement for superior security, without the disruption, at a fraction of the cost?
Yes, we're listening.