Nogales, Sonora (June 6, 2020) — President Donald Trump’s administration is looking into the possibility of allowing private companies to buy land along the U.S.-Mexico border and build their own private border wall, according to a request the federal government made to private contractors.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection — the agency responsible for securing the nation’s borders — issued May 29 a request for input from contractors about how to improve anti-climb and anti-breach features of the 30-foot bollard fencing that construction crews have been installing all along the southwestern U.S. border, KJZZ first reported.
As part of the request, CBP also signaled its openness to let private companies take a lead in the multi-billion dollar effort to fulfill one of Trump’s signature campaign promises.
“CBP recognizes that private entities and nongovernmental organizations also have an interest in supporting the mission of border protection, by deploying private wall solutions,” the request said. “Mainly, those parties that can arrange private financing, and private acquisition of land may have an interest in devising a wall structure that is consistent with government specifications.”
Government watchdog groups criticized the proposed idea, saying that privatizing border-wall construction could lead to corruption in the bidding and contract-award process, and weaken oversight and accountability along portions of the border where the private construction happens.
As of Wednesday, construction crews have completed 194 miles of new border barriers, although the overwhelming majority of construction has been in public lands. Only a handful of miles have been erected in areas of the border that didn’t have any existing barriers.
“By its own standards, I’m guessing the administration seems like it is behind where it had hoped to be in terms of border wall construction,” said Austin Evers, the executive director for American Oversight, a nonpartisan government watchdog group.
“So what I think we see here is an effort to outsource the border (wall) construction to private parties to do what Donald Trump has been unable to achieve because he’s not good at government,” he added.
The four-page request for information includes a list of 30 sites along the U.S.-Mexico border, totaling more than 250 miles, as possible locations for private border wall construction.
Contractors have until June 12 to present their submissions on private construction efforts and improvements to the bollard fencing design.
So far, there are two sections of existing border fencing built by a private group on privately owned land along the U.S.-Mexico border: a half-mile stretch just west of El Paso in Sunland Park, New Mexico, and a three-mile segment in Mission, Texas.
The private entity behind construction is We Build the Wall Inc., a nonprofit group with strong Arizona ties led by prominent conservative figures such as former Trump strategist Steve Bannon and former Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling.
The group raised nearly $25 million for private border wall construction through a GoFundMe account. Brian Kolfage, the founder, lived in Tucson for a decade and graduated from the University of Arizona.
Tom Tancredo, a former Republican congressman from Colorado and an advisory board member for We Build the Wall, said he welcomed Customs and Border Protection’s request soliciting input about private wall construction. He said their experience can serve as a model for other efforts.
“We’re cheaper and we’re quicker, and we’re more effective and efficient,” Tancredo said. “And so it’s only logical that if you want something done right, you will let private contractors do it.”
We Build the Wall ran into several obstacles during construction in New Mexico and in south Texas, even though the work was happening on private land. Construction on both projects had to stop or was delayed because of issues over building permits and land surveys, among other things. The work eventually resumed and was completed earlier this year.
Tancredo said some challenges, such as the opposition from certain groups or local governments, were expected and unavoidable given how contentious the issue of border security has become, and are likely to persist.
“That’s just a problem we have to deal with and I don’t know how the federal government can help us with that,” he said.
Since construction ended, the group has continued to solicit donations for more private border wall projects, but locations and details haven’t been disclosed. The group offers private tours of the New Mexico barrier, according to their website.
In both private construction projects, the group hired Fisher Industries of Dickinson, North Dakota, and its subsidiary Fisher Sand and Gravel Co. to build the bollard fencing. CEO Tommy Fisher has appeared numerous times on Fox News to promote his company, and Trump has also advocated on their behalf.
Scott Amey is the general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a nonpartisan government watchdog. He warned that the privatization of border wall construction could open the door to inappropriate influence and government corruption.
“This may be a way that certain contractors or landowners would want to curry favor with President Trump and others within the Trump administration by deciding that they would want to invest their own money in building sections of the wall that meet government specification,” he said.
POGO published an analysis on Friday showing that the U.S. government has awarded $6.1 billion in border wall contracts out of a projected $11.1 billion needed to build 576 miles of new border barriers.
The watchdog group found that a large bulk of the money has gone to two companies, Fisher Sand and Gravel and Barnard Construction of Bozeman, Montana.
Both companies have with deep ties to the Trump administration. The owners of Barnard Construction regularly have donated to Republican candidates, including Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., in her 2018 Senate race and Trump’s reelection campaign.
In December 2019, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded a $400 million contract to Fisher Sand and Gravel to build 31 miles of border fencing along protected desert wilderness in southwestern Arizona. In May, they awarded the company a $1.3 billion contract for 42 miles of construction in Arizona. That is the largest single contract to date.
That first contract, for 31 miles, is under review by the Department of Defense’s Office of the Inspector General.
The Pentagon’s watchdog office said it would audit the award process in response to concerns from Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, about “inappropriate influence” because of the company’s relationship with Trump.
The audit is ongoing, according to Thompson’s office.
Thompson also issued a statement Friday criticizing Customs and Border Protection’s request for input on private border wall construction.
“There is zero reason for CBP to be outsourcing construction to private groups. In fact, it would likely turn into a fiasco, just as we saw in Texas last year,” Thompson said. “There is just not enough oversight of construction with private money on private land to ensure federal and international law are followed, environmental impact is minimized, and operational needs are met.”
Evers, the executive director for American Oversight, said he was also concerned that allowing private companies to acquire and build border walls on private property could lead to less transparency and oversight because private entities cannot be held accountable to the same degree as the federal government.
He also said that privatizing construction could have the effect of prolonging border wall construction past Trump’s time in office.
“If a project exists that has already been privatized, land has already been cleared for construction, and it’s outside the purvey of ongoing government control, then those projects could live on despite the fact the next administration and the American public, through their vote, may wish to curtail it,” Evers said.
Tancredo pushed back against those concerns. He said privatizing construction would lead not lead to more corruption because there are processes already in place to root it out. He pointed to the review of border wall contracts by the Pentagon’s inspector general.
He added that private entities, such as We Build the Wall, must meet higher standards than the federal government, because they do not have access to many of the tools the government uses to facilitate construction.
“We have to deal with all the same things that the federal government deals with,” Tancredo said. “Sometimes the federal government has the ability to waive a lot of those restrictions, there’s a law that actually allows them to do that. We don’t have the same law, so therefore we have more to deal with than than the federal government.”
The request for information is the first step in a lengthy process before any private construction could start.
Once the federal government receives submissions by June 12, officials can use those responses to issue a request for proposals, essentially seeking bids for the project. It could then take several additional months to analyze the bids, award the contracts, and prepare sections of the border for construction.
Customs and Border Protection told The Arizona Republic it will “evaluate next steps once responses are received.”
They agency also said their request for input from the private sector would not impact “any of the currently funded new border wall system construction projects,” according to a statement issued Friday.
Since Trump’s term began in 2017, the border agency has sought improvements to its border wall designs. That year they authorized the construction of eight wall prototypes in San Diego, and settled on 30-foot steel slats as the best design.
Trump has pushed for changes to border barriers to prevent migrants from scaling over or through it. That includes an idea to paint the border wall black, which could swell costs by an additional $500 million, the Washington Post reported.
Last month, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf toured border wall construction in Arizona. He acknowledged during his visit that his department was looking into that possibility.
The request for information published May 29 is aligned with previous efforts to seek improvements, Customs and Border Protection said.
“CBP recognizes that industry, other agencies, and other private entities may have interesting, innovative, and creative ideas that could be implemented to enhance and or improve future border barriers,” the statement read. “This is the most sophisticated border wall system we have ever built, but we will never disregard innovative and creative ideas that could continue to enhance border barriers.”
The analysis by the Project on Government Accountability claimed the Trump administration has prioritized and sped up border wall construction, employing waivers of federal laws, at the expense of the environment and border communities.
Amey argued that changing border wall designs and privatizing construction to fulfill Trump’s desire to build a border wall will come at the expense of American taxpayers.
“We’re talking about the president kind of changing things on the fly here. This is going to add time and its going to add costs,” he said. “It’s just nickel-and-dimeing us, and we’re a long way off from the original statement that Mexico will pay for this wall.”
Source: USA TODAY
The Mazatlan Post