By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
One of President Trump’s signature campaign promises was to build additional miles of border barrier—most commonly referred to as his border wall—between the U.S. and Mexico. Despite many attempts to acquire additional funding from Congress and land along the border from private owners, several legal and financial hurdles have prevented the construction of anything more than replacement fencing.
After the government shutdown a year ago, Trump declared a national emergency in order to reallocate Department of Defense dollars to border wall construction. Several lawsuits were filed immediately after the declaration, claiming the reallocation was unlawful and intended to get around Congress, rather than bolster national security. Trump initially requested $5.7 billion and was granted $1.37 billion in the budget approved by Congress.
To date, the White House has been able to obtain several billion dollars in DoD money, redirected from counterdrug and maintenance programs. However, the ability of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to use these funds was further hampered by investigations connected to building contractors.
Border Wall Probe
When Trump started looking at firms to build wall sections, he pressured the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to go with Fisher Industries, whose CEO is a Trump campaign donor. The DoD’s inspector general is now set to audit a $400-million border wall contract just awarded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to parent company Fisher Sand and Gravel to determine if it met solicitation standards, and on December 19, Sen. Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island), the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, requested a probe of border barrier procurement by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Fisher Industries’ problems don’t end there. They have been working with a privately funded organization called We Build the Wall to build a three-mile stretch of border wall on private riverside land south of Mission, TX, which is currently owned by Neuhaus & Sons. In early December, the National Butterfly Center sued both companies and obtained a temporary restraining order to halt construction. Two days later, attorneys with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas, on behalf of the International Boundary and Water Commission, filed a suit of their own against both companies in federal court, also seeking to halt construction.
Texas: ‘Right of Entry’
DHS is also having a hard time acquiring the land it needs to start wall construction, ironically in deep-red Texas. Several landowners in Texas have received “right of entry” letters from the federal government, which the first step in eminent domain seizure proceedings. Legal challenges ultimately won’t stop the land acquisition by the government, but fair compensation hearings can certainly delay construction plans.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the Trump administration has built about 90 miles of border barrier, but mostly replacing existing fencing, according to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers December 2019 report. In October, the administration started building 13 miles of wall in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, where it has issued contracts this year to build another 83 miles of wall. The government also began building 166 more miles of wall this year in border areas near Tecate, Mexico; El Centro, CA; El Paso, TX; and Tucson and Yuma, AZ.
‘On Track to Build 450 to 500 Miles of New Wall By The End of 2020’
Money still appears to be a major obstacle, despite the DoD reallocations. The Border Patrol said in a statement that it is still “in the process of determining real estate requirements” for building portions of the border wall in Texas. “These locations are not currently funded for real estate acquisition or new border wall system construction and the total number of miles is dependent on the amount of funding received.”
On December 20, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf told reporters, “We are on track to build 450 to 500 miles of new wall by the end of 2020.” However, according to one contract reviewed by NPR, called RGV10, construction isn’t even expected to begin on certain wall segments until March 2021 — well after the election. The government plans to erect 110 miles of the total 450 miles of new barriers in the Rio Grande Valley. However, since January 2017, the Trump administration has only taken three miles from private owners in the RGV, according to a CBP spokesperson.