National Security

Feds Need Better Border Wall Planning, Watchdog Says

Government Accountability Office says Customs and Border Protection has not assessed cost in proposed barriers

President Donald Trump’s administration is pushing ahead with plans to construct a wall along the southwest border without properly assessing costs, a congressional watchdog concluded Monday.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined that the project could waste money without a better cost assessment. The agency also faulted Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials for failing to document one of two sectors properly.

Rebecca Gambler, a director on the GAO’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Justice team, said on the agency’s podcast that DHS can improve its process.

“With regard to CBP’s methodology for identifying and prioritizing locations or segments for barrier deployments, we found that … one key factor that CBP did not consider was costs associated with locations or segments,” she said.

“We found that that was problematic because, without assessing costs for specific segments or locations, CBP really does not have full information for assessing its prioritization decisions,” Gambler said.

The conclusion was part of a review of the administration’s plans to spend $1.6 billion to build new barriers and repair existing fencing over about 79 miles in the Rio Grande Valley sector in Texas and San Diego.

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Matthew O’Brien, director of research at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), told LifeZette that the GAO normally does good work. But he said Monday’s report missed the mark.

“This seems to me to have been written by people who don’t have any concept of logic,” he said.

O’Brien said the report’s authors do not appreciate that cost planning is extremely difficult since much of what the Trump administration proposes is novel.

Related: Trump Doubles Down on ‘Build the Wall’ Shutdown Threat

“We don’t have a functioning border barrier,” he said. “They’re speaking as if this was something we already had.”

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), said red flags raised by the GAO are far from “fatal” to a government project. She said she has talked to managers in the federal government who actually welcomed the GAO’s taking a critical look at projects.

“That’s how we often get better results in government,” she said.

The GAO suggested the government risks wasting money.

“Without assessing costs, consistent with leading practices for capital decision-making, CBP does not have complete information for prioritizing locations to use its resources in the most cost-effective manner,” the report states.

Related: Trump Must ‘Pick the Right Timing’ to Push for Border Wall, McCarthy Says

The report also faults the agency for failing to document plans for constructing a secondary barrier segment in San Diego. That contrasts with the Rio Grande Valley segment, where DHS leaders approved and documented plans in December.

Estimates of the overall cost of Trump’s proposed border wall vary dramatically. A 2017 survey of estimates by FAIR indicates the projections ranged from $8 billion to $40 billion, with most estimates falling between $15 billion and $25 billion.

O’Brien said it would not be a surprise if the project cost more than projected and took longer to complete.

“Show me a government program that doesn’t cost more, take longer, and not work as well as projected,” he said.

O’Brien said that what Trump proposes is radically different from any barriers that exist along the border. As a result, he added, the report misses the point in criticizing the government for not assessing cost based on current fencing. He said it would be like estimating the cost of a new car based on the price of a Yugo.

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O’Brien said the government generally estimates cost on a project by comparing a proposal to a similar project. But he said Trump is a businessman who thinks “outside the swamp.” That’s why the administration has asked for prototypes, O’Brien said.

Vaughan said the goal of any wall system is to prevent illegal immigrants from crossing to the United States and stop smugglers from bringing contraband into the country. She said the record of fencing, in places where it has been erected, is pretty good.

“There may be legitimate questions with respect to this particular wall,” she said.

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