Tens of thousands of heavy steel slats, once destined to become part of former President Donald Trump’s border wall, are slowly rusting in the open air throughout the southwestern borderlands. The bollards—18- or 33-foot-long hollow posts, most of them reinforced with concrete and rebar—are worth at least a quarter of a billion dollars. The Department of Defense owns most of that steel, but it’s unclear what will—or can—be done with it. For now, it remains in spider-webbed stacks sunning themselves in vast staging areas along the wall.
President Joe Biden persistently campaigned on a clean break from the policies of the Trump administration. Perhaps in no other field did Trump’s critics hope for swifter and more complete reversals than in immigration and border policy. Those hopes have been dashed: Despite many promises, the Biden administration has effectively locked in, and in some cases even expanded, draconian anti-immigration measures implemented by Trump. The wall was supposed to be the easy change. But halting a project of this scale is never easy.
In the last months of the Trump administration, construction crews were rushing, sometimes working around the clock, to erect more miles of wall. Within sight of Guadalupe Canyon, in the southeastern corner of Arizona, land made up of rounded buttes and steep canyons—critical habitat for jaguars and other endangered cross-border species—crews were dynamite-blasting into mountain sides in order to, as the chant went, build the wall.
The border wall now runs much of the length of Arizona, which is where most of the construction took place over the past four years. One recent afternoon, as I passed through the shadows the wall was dropping on the road that runs along the border, evidence of construction lingered: a slowly dripping water truck, a gaggle of thickly dusted vehicles, a generator gone silent. The project had the strange quality of seeming like a fresh relic, unfinished and yet already bearing a patina of rust.
Down a little hump in the road from the wall near Guadalupe Canyon stood a fortress of bollards: 30 huge stacks forming a ring, in the center of which were piles of light poles, PVC piping, electrical wires, prefab concrete, tangles of steel mesh, and long snakes of steel rebar—all just sitting there.
Near one of the steel stacks, I could see, parallel to the deep clefts of dynamited mountain running up Guadalupe Canyon, the clawlike marks of a switchback road gouged into the mountainside for the construction crews. No bollards were installed up that precipitous slope, but on top of the butte, where it levels off, stood a short orphan section of wall, about 50 yards long and easily skirted in either direction. Given the difficult terrain in Guadalupe Canyon, the wall here cost about $41 million a mile to build. In its fragmented state, its function, besides serving as possibly a monument to the former president, remains unclear.
Even after Trump lost his reelection bid, crews continued blasting mountains, cutting road, and raising bollards until January 20, when the Biden administration took power and indefinitely paused construction. On his first day in office, President Biden declared, “It shall be the policy of my Administration that no more American taxpayer dollars be diverted to construct a border wall.” (Nonetheless, a levee-cum-border-wall is currently going up in South Texas.)
Biden’s day-one proclamation laid out a series of steps designed to stop wall construction, including terminating Trump’s state of national emergency on the southern border and redirecting funds away from border-wall projects managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But contracts had already been signed with construction companies, and materials already delivered. Biden’s proclamation did not specify what to do with all the steel. Some contractors are still being paid to maintain already built segments of wall, or guard leftover material. Along with the steel, contractors have left light poles, electrical supplies, crushed aggregate, processed riprap rock, sand, culvert materials, and piping—altogether worth about $350 million, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—sitting unused in the desert. The Corp wouldn’t itemize costs of materials, and anti-wall watchdogs (as well as some basic math) put the total number significantly higher.
A report from GOP staff on the Subcommittee on Government Operations and Border Management, written by aides to pro-border-wall Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma, claims that the Biden administration is spending as much as $3 million a day paying subcontractors to guard border-wall materials and keep work sites safe. Lankford’s office did not respond to specific questions about how they calculated the price of site maintenance and security. I made repeated inquiries to multiple government agencies, as well as to one of the primary steel manufacturers, Atlas Tube, asking how much the government paid for the steel, and received no response. I also filed a public-records request with the Army Corps of Engineers, and was told to expect responsive records in about nine months. The White House did not respond to a detailed request for comment.
“We know how much an F-35 fighter costs and how much components cost for the latest Gerald Ford aircraft carrier,” Myles Traphagen, who monitors the effects of border enforcement on the environment for the Wildlands Network, told me. “But everything regarding the borderlands wall is severely obscured from public review and scrutiny.”
Although the unused light poles, rebar, and other material can probably be easily repurposed, the steel itself, mostly in the form of bollards, poses more of a problem. Just one site in New Mexico has about 31,000 bollards, according to calculations I made from aerial photographs. Another 20,000 bollards are spread across four sites in Arizona; a few thousand more sit in the chaparral hills outside San Diego. I spoke with one steel manufacturer that supplied material for the border wall. The company’s spokesperson didn’t want to be quoted by name talking about government contracts, but estimated that each bollard costs about $9,000, not including modifications (welding to steel panels and filling with rebar and concrete) or installation costs. If that number is close to accurate, about half a billion dollars’ worth of steel is sitting in the sun in New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
In the Tucson sector, the Border Patrol zone that covers most of Arizona, where there are multiple steel caches, the private company Southwest Valley Constructors was awarded a $524 million contract “for design build of the Tucson sector barrier wall replacement project.” The estimated completion date for that project, which remains unfinished, was September 7, 2021.
The unused materials in the Tucson sector are mostly unprotected. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, private contractors—in this case, Southwest Valley Constructors—are responsible for maintaining security. I walked around among the steel stacks, tapping on the bollards—they look something like brutalist organ pipes—at multiple locations and on separate days, and nobody ever asked what I was doing. (Southwest Valley Constructors received three other federal contracts for border-wall construction, with its multiple contracts adding up to more than three-quarters of a billion dollars.)
In Texas recently, someone stole almost $1 million worth of steel once destined to become part of the border wall. (The police recovered the metal within days.)
Although the elements will eventually do damage and oxidize away the value of the steel, it’s made to withstand exposure. This material “could be there a really long time and it wouldn’t matter,” Charles Carter, president of the American Institute of Steel Construction, told me.
But complicating any chance at repurposing the steel—besides the sheer quantity—is the fact that many of the bollards have been partially filled with concrete and rebar. To reuse the metal, someone would have to cut out that concrete, then cut up the steel, before turning it into scrap metal—a process that significantly diminishes resale value.
In the 1990s, when the federal government built the first segments of the border wall along the major cities in the U.S. Southwest—El Paso, Texas; Nogales, Arizona; San Diego—it used recycled steel from helicopter landing mats left over from the Vietnam War. (Some of the wall material also came from former Japanese internment camps.) The reverse process, turning wall, or nearly wall—unused bollards—into Army matériel may be less seamless.
“The government will seek to transfer usable material to other federal agencies before considering material for donation or sale,” Jay Field, a public-affairs officer at the Army Corps of Engineers, told me. Field also specifically addressed the concrete: “We have no plans for separating the concrete from the excess bollards for disposition.”
According to a calculation from the Congressional Research Service, the Trump administration directed $16.4 billion in funding to barrier construction along the southern border. Most of those funds, about $10 billion, came from the Department of Defense. An April DOD memorandum estimated that the government may now incur as much as $1.4 billion in suspension and termination costs.
In October, both Texas and Missouri sued the Biden administration for halting border-wall construction and not using the funds specifically appropriated by Congress for that purpose, hoping to force the administration to raise the bollards sitting in the desert and ensure that the wall continues its latitudinal march along the international divide. Despite the lawsuit, large-scale wall-raising isn’t likely to happen, at least not under the current administration. It took Trump, who campaigned on the promise of a wall, a dubious declaration of a national emergency—bypassing Congress and stretching the definition of national emergency—to drum up the money to get that steel cast.
The border wall’s opponents claim that the wall itself, not migration, is the crisis. Even half-built, the existing parts of the wall force migrants into ever more remote, and ever more perilous, crossing zones. Some of these zones are seeing record numbers of migrant deaths. Ecosystems, too, are imperiled by the wall. “At least 93 endangered and threatened species—think jaguars, ocelots, Mexican gray wolves—are pushed nearer to extinction by border walls,” Russ McSpadden, of the Center for Biological Diversity, told me. “Walls in the wild destroy habitat, alter waterflows, and disrupt wildlife migrations.”
The wall is much more than a physical object. As a barrier, it’s easily sawed through. It has holes and gaps, and needs near-constant repairs and monitoring. The wall represents, Traphagen said, the “erosion of the democratic process, compromising the integrity of environmental laws, and a fake emergency.” It’s also a political and logistical quagmire. Biden can’t seem to drag himself out.