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Pro-Trump Lawmaker Says 'Build A Wall' Doesn't Exactly Mean A Wall

U.S. Border Patrol officers keep watch at the fence separating U.S. and Mexico in the town of El Paso, Texas.
Mark Ralston
AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Border Patrol officers keep watch at the fence separating U.S. and Mexico in the town of El Paso, Texas.

How would Donald Trump's most attention-grabbing promises become reality?

One answer came from one of the members of Congress who would face the task of actually enacting the promises. He's Pennsylvania Rep. Tom Marino, who recently became one of the first prominent Republicans to endorse Trump for president. Marino's answer: On one key issue, Trump doesn't literally mean what he says.

"It doesn't have to be a brick-and-mortar wall here," Marino told NPR's Morning Edition. "We're talking about technology that we have that can sense people's movements," as well as additional border guards.

It was a striking position for Marino to take. He appeared to be interpreting Trump's border policy as no radical departure. It sounded instead like an amplification of the policy the United States already pursues.

Recent administrations, including that of President Obama, have built fences or concrete walls along hundreds of miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. A casual drive along that border reveals radar-carrying blimps and other signs of sensor technology already deployed. Marino said it hasn't been enough.

The Obama administration, especially in its early years, reported that it substantially increased the number of deportations of people caught in the U.S. illegally — so much so that immigrants' rights groups fiercely complained.

Conservative critics nevertheless insisted that Obama was not serious, complaining that the wall must be higher, and cover the entire border.

Trump captured this sentiment from his campaign's first day, describing many Mexican migrants as "rapists" who were "bringing crime," and vowing to build "a great wall" to seal the border, which Mexico would pay for. Responding to claims that this was wildly impractical given the border landscape, he spoke of his skill as a builder. In a February debate, Trump responded to Mexican criticism by saying: "The wall just got 10 feet taller, believe me."

Yet while Trump's rhetoric remains fierce, Marino's description better captures Trump's position as the candidate has gradually refined it over time. He has limited the apparent scope of his original idea laid out in June.

In that February debate, for example, Trump did not speak of a wall along the entire 1,900-mile border. "We need 1,000 [miles]," he said, "because we have a lot of natural barriers."

He has also said he wants a much higher barrier than the walls and fencing that now exist. But in urging partial coverage of the border, his view is not radically different than that of recent U.S. officials, who have built roughly 700 miles of walls and fences, relying on natural barriers such as mountains to block the rest. It is their position, of course, that Trump has gained so much from excoriating.

Listen to some of the Morning Edition discussion with Rep. Marino and Republican strategist Mark McKinnon:

To hear the full conversation, including a report from NPR's Sarah McCammon in Palm Beach, Fla., click the audio at the top of the page.

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.