Friday, March 25, 2016

The Great Wall of Trump

I have a minor, geeky point to make about the mythical wall that Donald Trump seems to believe he can build along the border with Mexico.

Put aside the huge cost of building and patrolling such a wall, independently estimated to be at least $25 billion just for the construction (and rest assured, Mexico will NOT pay for it). There’s also the actual geography of the border to consider.

One geographic reality of the Trump Wall in particular seems to me likely to force the US to effectively give up control of some its territory for long stretches of the border. I’m talking here about the Rio Grande.

I have crossed the US-Mexican border only a couple of times in my life. One of these was at the Boquillas crossing on the Rio Grande, the river that for some 1200 miles (1930 kilometers) forms America’s southern border. The river, in fact, makes up almost two-thirds of the total length of that border.

At the time (1985), Boquillas was an “informal” border crossing, way off the beaten track. My future wife and I happened upon it during a pre-Christmas get-away to Big Bend National Park, a national treasure nestled, you might say, in that large “S-shape” on the bottom of Texas where the Rio Grande curves north after flowing southeastwardly from El Paso. In other words, the “Big Bend”.

The pueblo of Boquillas del Carmen in the distance, as seen from the US. 


Big Bend, by the way is an amazing park, an outstanding place to visit, especially if you enjoy stark desert landscapes far from civilization. We loved it there. We did small day hikes, along the river and in the Chisos Mountains. We spotted roadrunners, coyotes and foxes near the campgrounds. I can’t remember if we saw any snakes, but no doubt they were nearby. We visited hot springs. And we got familiar with the river that forms the southern edge of both the park and the nation.

Along the park’s boundary, the Rio Grande is mostly flat and placid, and only about a hundred feet across. It cuts through at least three major canyons, but the part we saw mostly occupied a narrow flood plain between low banks of limestone. From our campsite at Rio Grande Village, we could hear roosters crowing from across the river. From riverside trails, we could see cattle wandering in and out of canebrakes on the opposite shore. And from the Boquillas Crossing, we made a short, undocumented visit to the other side.

This border crossing lay at the end of short unpaved road that reaches the river just upstream from the Mexican hamlet of Boquillas del Carmen. In the graveled riverside parking lot sat just a car or two, with a few enterprising local men lounging on the hoods. We paid one of them a couple of dollars to paddle us across the river -- and the US border -- in an aluminum johnboat. It took only a minute or two. Once on the other side, we could have paid a couple of more dollars to ride burros to the village about a mile away, but we chose to go along the rough road into town on foot.

It was the quintessential dusty one-street town. We looked around, had a relaxing lunch of tacos and cold beer under a breezy awning. We bought a couple of simple figurines carved from green onyx as souvenirs. I don’t recall seeing any other gringos. After a couple of hours maybe, we returned across the river, back to the United States.

Crossing the border at Boquillas was quasi-legal and essentially unregulated before 9/11, providing probably the main source of income for Boquillas del Carmen’s 300-odd residents. After the fall of the Twin Towers shook America’s sense of security to its core, this faraway river crossing was shut down. It was reopened in 2013, but now as an official, though unstaffed, Port of Entry with high-tech kiosks allowing visitors from Mexico to connect remotely to distant immigration officials. Its laid-back nature has been, it would seem, changed forever.

I’ve been recently reminded of Boquillas, and our long-ago crossing there, by all this talk of Trump’s Wall. Which brings me (finally) to my geeky point:  where exactly along the Rio Grande does Mr. Trump intend to locate his magnificent wall.

I assume the official border follows the middle of the river. And, I’m guessing that, for all kinds of engineering and hydrological reasons, you can’t erect a YUGE concrete wall smack down in the middle of a 1200-mile waterway.

Obviously, the wall has to be built on shore. On the American side, of course. I feel certain Mexico would not allow it on its side.

I also have a feeling it’s not practical to place a wall right on the water’s edge, which might vary anyway with spring floods, etc. That means the wall would have to be set back some distance from the shore, say two- to three-hundred feet. Depending on the local geography, an even wider buffer zone might be needed.

Rio Grande, international border on the edge of Big Bend National Park.

Photo: Glysiak

To me, this strip of land between the wall and the river would become a no-man’s land, mostly off limits for ordinary Americans, but accessible to anyone from the Mexican side to come and go as they please. The wall would replace the river as a de facto border.

Access to the river would be limited by the location of gates or portals built into in the wall. Maybe most of these would be only for Border Patrol agents to pass through. Most likely, only a few would be open for ordinary Americans.

In other words, only Americans with the right documentation could access the river at official border crossings (no undocumented Yankees fishing on the Rio Grande!). This would leave miles and miles of the Rio Grande difficult to reach for locals and tourists. It would greatly complicate commercial rafting operators, not to mention anyone else who wanted to have fun on the river.

And then there are the reservoirs. The Rio Grande is impounded by two dams on the US-Mexican border, creating the 65,000-acre Lake Amistad (ironic name, there) and the 84,000-acre Falcon Reservoir. These large bodies of water straddling the border are understandably popular with fishermen and other recreationists.

I can only assume that Trump’s Wall would have to be constructed along the entire long, convoluted shores of these lakes, essentially sealing these enjoyable waters off from easy access. To Americans, that is.

I doubt the average bass fisherman in Texas setting out to launch his boat at the Rough Canyon ramp, some ten miles north of the Mexican half of Lake Amistad, nowadays has to remember to bring along his passport (which 80% of Americans don’t have anyway). After Trump’s Wall goes up, he will.

Otherwise, how can he, as an American, be allowed back into the States after a day of fishing on one of Texas’ biggest lakes? Ironic, isn’t?

A wayward gringo enjoying a cerveza in Boquillas del Carmen.


  1. Very cool photo from Boquillas del Carmen. I wish I could have casually walked across the border and had a beer. Alas.

    As to the wall, you're sounding sane ideas and common sense. Trump supporters aren't into the whole concept of sanity. Of course, RepubliKKKans in general don't like sanity.

    1. I'm assuming that after the crossing was reopened, it's again as easy to get over to Boquillas del Carmen as when we visited. Just need to have a passport nowadays.

      In any case, I'd recommend a visit to Big Bend anytime, even if you stay strictly on the US side of the river. Nice place.