So when the New York Times’s Michael Shear and Julie Hirschfeld Davis reported Tuesday that now-President Trump had, at some point, suggested that an effective barrier on the border might include a moat stocked with alligators and snakes, it seemed like an opportunity for a similar analysis. After all, this was an idea so ludicrous that in 2011, President Barack Obama used it as a joking example of how far Republicans might be willing to go to secure the border.
Trump doesn’t appear to have been joking. Deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley issued a non-denial denial, saying that there “have been so many wild, inaccurate and offensive fake news characterizations about the President’s plans to protect the American people and secure our Southern Border, but you don’t have to wonder about what he wants to do.” Gidley did not say that this was one of those purported “fake news characterizations.”
In a tweet, Trump addressed the report, writing that the news media had “gone Crazy” because he wasn’t advocating a “Moat stuffed with alligators and snakes, with an electrified fence and sharp spikes on top.” That, despite having in the past praised the electric fence on South Korea’s border with North Korea and having at one point tweeted an image of his wall design — complete with a zoomed-in look at the spikes on top.
So my thought then: Let’s price this out. How much of the border would need a moat? What’s the cost of the number of alligators sufficient to serve as a deterrent? What kind of snakes would thrive in the moat’s water? And what water are we talking about? A big canal, bringing in water from the Gulf of Mexico? Much of the border is a desert, after all.
But it quickly became obvious that this was not the same sort of ridiculous claim as those millions of taco trucks. Here’s the Times’s full description of what Trump had been mulling over, however seriously:
“Privately, the president had often talked about fortifying a border wall with a water-filled trench, stocked with snakes or alligators, prompting aides to seek a cost estimate. He wanted the wall electrified, with spikes on top that could pierce human flesh. After publicly suggesting that soldiers shoot migrants if they threw rocks, the president backed off when his staff told him that was illegal. But later in a meeting, aides recalled, he suggested that they shoot migrants in the legs to slow them down. That’s not allowed either, they told him.”
This is ridiculous. It’s not funny.
Trump’s frustration about the border has centered on the increase in the number of people arriving earlier this year. That rise (which has since receded) was driven largely by an increase in the number of “family units” seeking entry: parents with children. Trump would often suggest, without evidence, that the children were not actually related to the adults they were with but were instead victims of human trafficking. (Data from the Department of Homeland Security failed to reinforce this claim.) Instead, the surge was actual families, hoping to gain entry to the country by seeking political asylum — overwhelmingly fleeing crime or abuse — and then being released into the United States as their claims were processed.
These are the people Trump wanted to see try to scramble past alligators. The people Trump suggested might be shot.
When a group of migrants — including children — tried to enter the country in November, they were greeted with tear gas. It prompted a rare moment in which Trump viewed his then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen favorably, because she was finally taking the tough hand he wanted to see.
In June, a news photographer captured the aftermath of a family’s attempt to cross the Rio Grande to enter the country. Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Valeria died as they tried to make it across, washing up on the shore of the river face down. Valeria was not yet 2 years old when she drowned.
That’s the danger that Trump speculated about introducing everywhere on the border, to keep people like Martínez Ramírez and Valeria from asking the U.S. government if they could live here.
That’s the cost of the moat.