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Border Patrol Professionals Weigh In On What's Needed: Wall Or Fence


President Trump is taking his argument for a border wall to the border today with a visit to Texas. The president, we should say, has staked a lot on this wall. He's allowed a partial government shutdown to continue, impacting scores of federal employees. He walked out of a meeting with Democratic leaders yesterday, calling the meeting a total waste of time. And, of course, he made the wall the subject of his first prime-time address from the Oval Office.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This barrier is absolutely critical to border security. It's also what our professionals at the border want and need.

GREENE: What professionals at the border want and need. Well, since the president's speech Tuesday, some of those border professionals have been talking to NPR's John Burnett, who has been out in the field with them. And John joins us from San Diego. Good morning, John.


GREENE: So you rode along with some Border Patrol agents along the fence line in the mountains south of San Diego yesterday. This is the area where President Trump is talking about the need for a wall. What are you...


GREENE: ...Seeing and hearing?

BURNETT: Well, I rode with two Border Patrol public affairs officers for seven hours. And a lot of what we saw and talked about relates exactly to what the president's asking for in border security. The San Diego sector out here is small, only 60 miles of land border, but it's just across from a major Mexican city, Tijuana. And the area used to be the nation's illegal crossing hot spot back in the '80s.

Today, this western-most border's a sort of poster child for bigger, taller, longer fences. And you can see the construction of a new, formidable 18-foot-tall barrier made of steel bollards with rebar and cement inside of them, a big steel anti-climb plate welded on top. And this replaces the flimsy, old sheet metal fence.

It's safe to say what they showed me was a sales job for the construction of the Great Wall of Trump. And the chief patrol agent says where they have two layers of fence, he gets 90 percent operational control of the border.

GREENE: OK. So the Great Wall of Trump, as you're calling it. But there already is some fencing there. So what - if President Trump, you know, gets what he wants, what would this mean in the San Diego sector? How much new fencing would actually be there?

BURNETT: Right. So if you check with Homeland Security, they'll tell you they want 5 additional miles of new fencing. They already have 46 miles of fencing. It would be five more. And where would it go? The existing fence stretches all the way from the Pacific Ocean to Otay Mountain. And at one point yesterday, we were standing at the eastern end of the border fence, where it currently ends. You can see the international border rising steeply up the slope of Otay Mountain.

And I was here three years ago on an earlier ride-along, and I remember the agent at the time telling me that that mountain is our deterrent - that they have agents on ATVs, in jeeps, who catch illegal crossers out in those rugged ravines. And yesterday, I asked Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Michael Scappechio, why do you now need a new fence to continue all the way up the mountain?

MICHAEL SCAPPECHIO: And it all comes down to resources. If the resources are available, it'll help us do our job better. If they're not available, we have to utilize terrain, such as Otay Mountain, as a deterrent, and we have to shift our resources, like our surveillance, like our manpower. If we can put a border barrier, we can utilize our manpower elsewhere.

BURNETT: So what they're saying now is different from what they told me three years ago. They're saying a fence built across this mountain means they don't need to put agents out there to chase illegal crossers through the gullies. And remember that Border Patrol is chronically understaffed.

GREENE: I'm just thinking to that comment still. This sounds like a different argument than what you hear from President Trump - that there's a crisis at the border. You need a big wall. He's saying, yeah, if we have the money, a wall here, instead of a mountain, would allow us to shift manpower elsewhere. It's so interesting. I mean, it's - both arguments for a wall, but subtly different.

So I guess I wonder what are these officials actually there saying about the president's comments that, you know, officials like them are clamoring for this?

BURNETT: Right. Well, I talked to Chief Patrol Agent Rodney Scott, and I asked him. So the fence is so expensive. You know, you already attained all this operational control between Tijuana and San Diego. Why do you need more fence out here in the outback where illegal traffic is less? And here's what he said.

RODNEY SCOTT: Customs and Border Protection has had this systematic plan that we've been acting on for years, building on infrastructure where we believe we need it. And all of a sudden, it got unbelievably political overnight, as opposed to what we're saying that we need.

BURNETT: So I talked to line agents in South Texas, but they'll say there's too much emphasis on the wall these days, and it's just as important to have cameras and sensors and lights and manpower in the mix.

GREENE: And what does it feel like right now in Tijuana, John? It's a place that we've been paying so much attention to with a lot of migrants trying to come across.

BURNETT: Right. Well, what surprised me is nobody is being sent back. Remember, right before Christmas, there was this - they called it a historic measure that would force asylum-seekers to go back to Mexico and wait there while their cases are being resolved in U.S. immigration courts.

And a senior administration official who's close to border security told me, this week, the Remain in Mexico rule has been suspended for now. He said the administration's working out diplomatic complexities with Mexico. And now Mexico's balking at having to handle so many poor immigrants waiting around their border cities for months.

GREENE: NPR's John Burnett in San Diego this morning. John, thanks.

BURNETT: You bet, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Burnett
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.