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These border towns could be first to get Trump’s ‘big, beautiful’ wall

Two people climb the border division separating Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and El Paso. (Herika Martinez/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite more than a year of campaign rhetoric about a “big, beautiful wall” spanning the entirety of the southern border, the Trump administration plans to start with a much less ambitious footprint focusing only on the most highly trafficked corridors, according to a Department of Homeland Security planning document.

Identified as “high priority” in the document are the border sectors of the Rio Grande Valley in the southern tip of Texas -- encompassing Rio Grande City, McAllen and Weslaco -- as well as El Paso, Tucson and San Diego.

The areas were selected because of their proximity to urban centers and roads, allowing those who cross to vanish quickly, according to the document, which was made public by congressional committee staffers.

The preliminary plan anticipates adding more than 100 new miles of wall over the next two years, on top of the 700 miles of fencing that already exists, at an initial cost of more than $3.6 billion.

The wall, even on a smaller scope than billed during the campaign, is a sticking point in high-stakes budget negotiations to avert a government shutdown this week.   

Trump himself weighed in Monday, tweeting: "The Wall is a very important tool in stopping drugs from pouring into our country and poisoning our youth (and many others)!"

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The National Border Patrol Council, a union representing Border Patrol agents, hailed the targeted approach as a more practical and effective solution to illegal immigration than a 2,000-mile wall stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

“As long as you put it in strategic locations, it will do a good job,” said Brandon Judd, the council's president.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman emphasized in a statement to The Washington Post that the document is preliminary and that the areas of priority could change, depending on an assessment by the border sector chiefs expected in the coming weeks. 

Of the more than 400,000 illegal immigrants apprehended along the southern border in 2016, nearly half were stopped in the Rio Grande Valley, according to data compiled by the U.S. Border Patrol. Even as border crossers overall have decreased over the past two decades, the number of vulnerable crossers, including unaccompanied children and women with children, from Central America soared in the final years of the Obama administration. 

“Donald Trump sold a seamless wall as the solution to our immigration problems, but a wall is more symbolic. I don’t believe it’s going to produce statistically significant results,” said Joel Villarreal, mayor of Rio Grande City who attended a border summit on April 17 to discuss planning for the wall.

Elected officials in the border towns say their residents have mixed opinions on whether a wall is an effective deterrent to people crossing into the United States illegally.

“Border communities are overwhelmingly in favor of securing the border,” Villarreal said. The question is how. He believes the best solution combines technology -- such as drones and thermal imaging -- and personnel along with physical infrastructure.

There was talk of a border barrier in Rio Grande City after Congress passed the 2006 Secure Fence Act during President George W. Bush’s administration, but the fence that sprang up along other communities in the valley never materialized in Villarreal’s city.  

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Private landowners are on edge as they brace for lengthy eminent domain battles with the federal government, Villarreal said. A seamless wall is unfeasible, he said, because of international treaty and flood zone requirements. The winding Rio Grande serves as a natural border with Mexico.

Miles of the existing border fence in other towns were constructed along a levee well north of the river, on U.S. land -- “rendering any property south of the wall worthless,” Villarreal said. “You’re looking at potentially thousands more acres being lost along the border.”

In Mission, a Rio Grande Valley border town next to McAllen, Mayor Beto Salinas said many residents, including himself, eagerly await the pending construction of President Trump’s wall, believing it will offer peace of mind.

“Everyone who lives along the river is afraid,” Salinas said. “The best thing that could happen to us is that we go ahead and build the fence and see if we can stop some of the illegals from coming across. It’s not just one or two of them, it’s 20 or 30 of them at once, every night.”

A few towns over in Weslaco, City Manager Mike Perez said he hears from angry residents about undocumented immigrants trampling through their yards, filling water jugs from their faucets and exchanging wet garments with clean ones hanging from their clothes lines.

“In the country, at night, people are knocking on doors and looking for water,” Perez said. “It can scare the hell out of you.”

Farmers and ranchers complain about damaged crops and barbed-wire fencing being cut, letting their cattle out. But they also don’t want to have to farm around a wall, Perez said.

In the San Diego sector, Homeland Security chose Imperial Beach and Chula Vista as priorities for border barriers because it would be easier to build on the region’s federally owned land, the planning document said. The Tucson sector, encompassing Nogales, was chosen to stop drug traffickers and prevent armed conflicts between U.S.-based crews and armed mules affiliated with the Sinaloa cartel. El Paso was included to improve security.

Judd, of the Border Patrol union, said El Paso has traditionally been a major hot spot for smugglers and drug cartels, although fewer illegal crossers are arrested in that city overall than in the other areas identified in the planning documents. 

“If we say, ‘El Paso is not necessarily the problem spot it used to be,’ we’d be projecting,” Judd said. “If we focus everything on Tucson and San Diego, we’d create the funnel for people to go back to El Paso. We’re trying to learn from the mistakes of the past.”

Two decades ago, he said, authorities focused heavily on El Paso and San Diego, but the criminal cartels simply shifted to the Tucson region. “Tucson was wide open,” Judd said. “It was literally the wild west.”

Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) told The Post that there is “no rational motive” in identifying El Paso as a priority, given that the city has been one of the safest in the United States for years and that it already has a fence separating it from Ciudad Juárez in Mexico.

“It’s part of the president’s goal to incite fear and anxiety about the border for his own political gain,” O’Rourke said. “Apprehensions at the border are at the lowest in modern times, even before Trump was elected.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, during a visit to El Paso on Thursday with Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, outraged community leaders by using war terminology to refer to the city as a “beachhead” and “ground zero” against drug cartels and gangs.

The Homeland Security document, released last week by Democratic staff of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, estimated nearly $1 billion in fiscal 2017 for real estate costs, environmental planning and design for building 34 new miles of a border barrier in the Rio Grande Valley and replacing 28 miles of fencing in San Diego with a wall.

In fiscal 2018, Homeland Security is initially planning for 71 more miles of a border barrier in the Rio Grande Valley, Tucson and El Paso sectors -- at an estimated cost of $2.6 billion.

The internal government planning comes as the White House, eager to show progress on a key campaign promise, appears headed toward a budget showdown with Congress over $1.5 billion for the wall, which Democrats have called a “poison bill.” Administration officials have proposed a deal to preserve key Obamacare payments in exchange for border-wall funding as part of a larger spending bill required to keep the government open beyond Friday.

The $2.6 billion highlighted in the fiscal 2018 budget blueprint includes money for border security technology and tactical infrastructure, as well as funding to plan, design and build the border wall, said Carlos Diaz, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman.

“Specific details will accompany the release of the complete budget in mid-May,” Diaz said. “Until prototypes are completed and evaluated and design determinations are made, CBP cannot provide a more detailed estimate of the total cost of border barrier system.”

More than 200 companies have responded to the federal government’s two requests for proposals to build a solid concrete border wall and another wall design by the April 4 deadline. Twenty vendors will be selected this summer, Diaz said. And prototypes will be built in San Diego shortly thereafter.   

Asked whether a wall is still necessary despite a significant drop in the number of illegal border crossers during Trump's first months in office, the Border Patrol union president responded emphatically.

“Yes, we do,” Judd said. “The reason is because if you wait until you have a problem, you’re behind the curve. It’s just like our military. Do you just completely and totally halt production on new technology because you’re at peacetime? You have to prepare for the future.”