Nearly a year after President Donald Trump's surprise electoral victory, the first step to fulfill the central pillar of his campaign—a promise to build a wall along the country's southern border—has taken shape along the perimeter between San Diego and Mexico.
The construction of eight prototypes is complete, and they will now face a battery of tests to see how difficult they will be to climb or breach.
Six contractors across the country have met their Oct. 26 deadline to finish work on eight 30-foot models for Trump's border wall in the bustling Otay Mesa border-area between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico.
With the first deadline behind them, the real challenges for the prototypes—the tests to see whether any of them will be used to build the 2,000-mile wall Trump has envisioned—are ahead. Congress has shown little appetite to provide the estimated $26 billion construction of the entire wall would require.
Still, border agents with years of experience patrolling the San Diego perimeter for illegal immigrants and smugglers welcomed the advantages a new border wall would bring.
Standing in front of the towering eight prototypes, agents pointed out that the current system is made-up of ramshackle Vietnam-era corrugated steel landing mats that form the primary eight-to-10-foot barrier between Tijuana and San Diego.
A taller, 18-foot secondary steel mesh wall also separates the two countries in most areas of the San Diego sector, but agents say the mesh is easily cut open and breached on a regular basis.
Pointing out dozens of patched holes in the secondary steel-mesh wall, one agent said it takes just a minute and a half for smugglers and others to cut it open.
"The prototypes are attempting to eliminate those challenges—being able to jump up and over, being able to dig underneath, because the landing mats are just sitting on top of the dirt—so they dig under it quite often," said Eduardo Olmos, a Customs and Border Protection agent with 10 years of experience during a tour of the prototypes with reporters Wednesday. "The secondary wall is steel mesh, so it's actually compromised or cut by the smugglers."
Carlos Diaz, a CBP spokesman, picked up a hard, dirt rock the size of a baseball form the dusty ground. He said agents are often hit by the rocks that can be easily hurled over the current walls.
"The way I explain it to people is when you watch baseball and you have the World Series going on. … you see the [wounds] that people get when they get hit in the head, and they are wearing a helmet," he said. "Imagine what happens when a rock hits agents and sometimes they are not wearing helmets."
If Congress doesn't fund the full wall, the CBP may still decide to use some of the new designs in certain high volume areas or to replace dilapidated existing structures.
With the prototypes' construction completed Thursday, the CBP will allow 30 days for the material to cure before a 30- to 60-day evaluation phase will begin. Another unnamed company will test the prototypes for their ability to deter beaches with "anti-climbing, anti-scaling, anti-digging" criteria, Olmos said.
"The CBP has the option to choose one model, two models, or all of them, or a combination of designs and ideas," he added.
The CBP required four of the eight prototypes to be constructed from reinforced concrete and four others to be constructed of other material that could provide see-through capability.
Some of the builders appeared to give an added priority to aesthetics. One of the prototypes is made up of light-blue, dark-blue, and white-painted steel, while another appears to have been stamped with a brick design.
With their towering, 30-foot height, all appear formidable with some made out of shiny steel and others more starkly solid beige concrete and utilitarian.
Two of the prototypes have steel bars to allow see-through capability at ground-level. Environmentalists have filed lawsuits arguing that the such a wall would prevent some endangered butterflies and birds and other endangered species from crossing.
The see-through versus solid walls have strategic advantages and disadvantages as well.
"We can see the size of a group staging on the south side, what they are doing, and just kind of prepare ourselves for what is going to happen," said Theron Francisco, a border patrol agent. "As far as the disadvantages, if there is a group staging on the south side, and we want to get in a position to apprehend that group, they would be able to see us getting into place and see our whole operation; there's a give and take in that."
Francisco says agents have seen first-hand that adding new infrastructure can deter illegal crossings and smuggling.
Trump's promise to build the wall and his administration's stepped-up immigration enforcement presaged a dramatic decrease in illegal border apprehensions. In fiscal year 2016, there were 415,816 border patrol apprehensions nationwide and 31,891 at the San Diego sector, according to CPB statistics.
As of Aug. 31 this fiscal year, that number decreased to 287,637 nationwide and 23,846 in San Diego.
"In the San Diego sector, we have seen what adding the additional new infrastructure has done to the apprehensions and the number of arrests we've had here so the addition of new prototypes and or this new wall we would gladly accept it, it would definitely help out," Francisco said.
"Our system is pretty old now, it's getting outdated and we need new, updated materials to be innovative and make it harder for them to come across," he added.
However, Francisco stressed that a wall alone won't stop the dangerous illegal crossings and drug and other smuggling.
"A wall by itself won't stop it. We need additional boots on the grounds, we need agents, we need the technology, the cameras, the sensors, the lighting … drivable roads, all-weather roads," he said. "It's a whole system that is needed. Just one aspect of that won't do it alone."