Will Trump settle for a high-tech SMART Wall? Congress is hoping so.

Profile picture for user Jerry.bowles By Jerry Bowles August 9, 2017
Donald Trump wants to build a physical wall across the U.S. border with Mexico.  Congress doesn’t want to spend the money.  Will the President shut down the government to get what he wants or go for a SMART Wall? Place your bets.

smart wall
A SMART Wall could take both Congress and President Trump off a collision course over the proposed building of a physical border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

While on the campaign trail, building a wall to curb illegal immigration became Trump's most popular pledge and, as icing on the cake, he promised he would make Mexico pay for it.

Aside from his most fervent followers, few middle-of-the-road Americans took the talk seriously.

Skeptics quickly pointed out that the border already has 650 miles of existing fencing, that building a physical wall would cost billions of dollars and probably be bogged down in court for years by lawsuits, is impossible in places because of topographic issues, and that the number of people crossing the border illegally has been declining in recent years.  Not to mention that Mexico isn’t going to pay for it. U.S. taxpayers will foot the bill.

The most charitable explanation of Trump’s from fellow politicians and mainstream journalists was that the wall was really a metaphor for tightening border security by hiring more border agents and fixing existing fencing and other tools. He really wasn’t going to build a physical wall.

Except, apparently, that is exactly what he wants to do. The political insider website Axios quotes sources close to Trump as saying he's dead serious about building an impressive wall and...

...will go crazy when he realizes Congress has no plans to pay for it.

Axios adds

He will accept no substitutes to a huge, long, physical wall, which he believes his voters viscerally want.

Why does this matter now?

One of the first items of business when Congress returns from its August recess is to approve the budget for FY18.  Many Congressmen fear that the President—who has very few legislative achievements to show in his first six months in office--will not sign the budget authorization bill unless he gets what he wants on the border wall. A stalemate could lead to a government shutdown.

Enter the SMART Wall

In an effort to head off a showdown and provide an alternative approach that might attract the support of moderates, Texas Republican Representative Will Hurd, whose district includes over 800 miles of the US-Mexico border, has introduced the Secure Miles with All Resources and Technology, or SMART Act.  The bill is co-sponsored by representatives from border states California, New Mexico and Texas, as well as Pennsylvania.

The bill mandates the Secretary of DHS to deploy the most practical and effective border security technologies available to achieve situational awareness and operational control of the border.

The Secretary will also be required to submit a comprehensive border security strategy to Congress that lists all known physical barriers, technologies, tools, and other devices that can be utilized along the southern border, including a detailed accounting of the measures selected for each linear mile of the border and a cost justification for each such measure.

That means before constructing expensive physical barriers, the DHS secretary would have to justify the expense to Congress.

To grease the skids with local communities, the bill authorizes $110 million to increase coordination and collaboration between Customs and Border Patrol and State, county, tribal, and other governmental law enforcement entities that support border security operations.

Lastly, the bill creates a two-year grant program to improve emergency communications in the southern border region, including multi-band radios and upgrades from outdated or poorly functioning communication networks.  Said Hurd:

Violent drug cartels are using more modern technology to breach our border than what we are using to secure it. We can’t double down on a Third Century approach to solve 21st Century problems if we want a viable long-term solution. We need a Smart Wall that uses high-tech resources like sensors, radar, LIDAR, fiber optics, drones and cameras to detect and then track incursions across our border so we can deploy efficiently our most important resource, the men and women of Border Patrol to perform the most difficult task--interdiction. With a Smart Wall, we can have a more secure border at a fraction of the cost--that can be implemented and fully operational within a year.

Texas Democrat Henry Cueller, a co-sponsor of the SMART Act, is more direct:

This bill provides a pragmatic approach to secure our borders. It calls on DHS to deploy the most effective security technology--such as sensors, aerostats, and cameras--rather than building walls to meet campaign promises.

The most compelling argument for the SMART Wall is cost.  Based on the Trump administration’s budget, each mile of a physical wall would cost $24.5 million. Hurd quotes 'leading technology entrepreneurs' as saying that utilizing off-the-shelf technology to build a SMART Wall would bring the cost per mile down to less than $500,000.”

The Hurd bill has the endorsement of the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC), the exclusive representative of approximately 18,000 Border Patrol Agents.

Who are the tech players? 

Congressman Hurd has been working on the SMART Wall plan with Anduril Industries, a recently launched defense technology startup started by the 24-year-old wunderkind Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus VR and designer of the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality head-mounted display.

Luckey departed Facebook’s Oculus division (Facebook had bought Oculus in 2014 for $2 billion) in March for, among other things, secretly funding a pro-Trump political organization.

Rumor has it that Luckey is also tight with Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Some sleuthing of registration papers by the LATimes found that  Brian W. Schimpf is listed as chief executive and Matthew M. Grimm as chief operating officer of Anduril.  Both came from Palentir, another secretive company, backed by Trump’s biggest Silicon Valley supporter Peter Thiel.

My take

As with most things Trump, this one is unpredictable.

In developing a fallback plan, Congress is rather like the parents of a teenage boy trying to convince him that the Mini Cooper they’re giving him for his 16th birthday is just as good as the BMW he asked for because it has a nice interior and a great radio.

On the one hand, the fact that building a SMART Wall is likely to be beneficial to some of his strongest Silicon Valley supporters suggests that Trump might buy the idea. Iy gets him off the cost hook while allowing him to claim delivery of a superior solution that has all the attributes of a physical wall. On the other hand, the President has proven that his image trumps (sic) loyalty.

If his supporters cry foul, he is likely to dig in. That depends on how well his much vaunted sales patter comes across - assuming of course he buys the idea. The burning question remains - would he go do far as to shut down the government in order to get his way?  Consult your local oddsmaker daily.