President Trump took office promising to build “a large and beautiful wall” along the 1,954-mile border between Mexico and the United States, but so far the federal government has managed to build only one mile of new border wall.
Texas can be the biggest obstacle. Unlike other states, most of the U.S. border in Texas is privately owned, which has delayed construction by the US Army Corps of Engineers. UU. Federal attorneys have had to review property records, locate landowners, make offers to buy the land and, if the owners refuse to sell, file lawsuits to confiscate the land.
Tommy Fisher, a contractor with a Trump-like ability to do business, says he can do much better.
His company has built about 1,500 feet of what it says will be about three miles. The cost, he estimates, will be $ 42 million, faster and cheaper than government contractors who have spent months inspecting and building more expensive border fences nearby. The estimated time of completion: two weeks.
Fisher, 50, said he hopes to sell or lease his fence section to the federal government, and convince them to hire him to build more. He has already bought hundreds of miles of land in other parts of the river in Texas from about two dozen private owners. It has also attracted fierce criticism and a federal audit.
“We will protect South Texas faster than they ever dreamed,” he said Tuesday, while helping workers pour concrete and place 18-foot steel bollards along the banks of the Rio Grande, a few miles away. west of the border city of McAllen. So far, they have built around 1,500 feet.
Fisher, who took over his father’s family company when he was 25 years old after graduating from Arizona State University with a degree in agribusiness, moved quickly to acquire land, overcoming local opposition.
Last year, federal prosecutors and the National Non-Profit Butterfly Center sued to stop Fisher’s fence. They argued that the wall was too close to the Rio Grande and risked changing its flow, altering the border and forcing flood waters into Mexico in violation of international treaties, all of which Fisher disputed. Last week, a federal judge ruled in Fisher’s favor, lifted a temporary restraining order and allowed construction to resume.
Fisher’s neighbors are outraged.
Rey Anzaldua’s family has owned land next to where Fisher is building his fence for generations. Now he fears they may lose it by erosion.
“By cleaning the weeds of the riverbank, they have accelerated the erosion process and the next flood, we are going to lose some land,” said Anzaldua, 75, a retired customs agent. “What damage will it cause to our property and properties downstream, or properties on the Mexican side?”
Scott Nicol, co-president of the Sierra Club Borderlands campaign, argued that Fisher’s private fence could make erosion and floods worse.
“I shouldn’t be able to do it,” said Nicol. “A major concern is that the land on which the wall sits will erode and be swept away. You can have terrible destruction only with their building materials hitting things. ”
Another detractor is Terence Garrett, professor of political science in the Rio Grande Valley at the University of Texas at Brownsville.
“It’s more symbolic than effective,” Garrett said. “It may be cheaper, but I am not sure that I am using the quality of the materials I would normally see. It will not be as strong and it is certainly not well thought out in terms of location.”
Usually, Garrett said, the walls are built far from the royal border and run in a straight line because it is prohibitively expensive to follow the dramatic curves of the Rio Grande. By following more than one straight line near the river, Fisher’s wall could cause massive flooding and danger to property, animals and the environment whenever hurricanes or tropical depressions feed large amounts of water from tributaries to the river .
The idea of a private contractor building a wall, Garrett said, has shocked many neighbors.
“Normally, it has some kind of process to evaluate what could actually be commendable for the area, which could be reasonable. There are surveys conducted by the government, arriving with the Army Corps of Engineers, and in the process some type of conviction. It may be against the idea of the government taking its land and using eminent domain, but at least there is some kind of process. There is no process here. There is no realistic assessment of how it could affect the area. That is the problem that owners and neighbors have.
“Anything you do along the Rio Grande affects your neighbor because the river changes. It can be moved at any time. Whatever you do, it will affect your neighbor, including those on the other side of the river in Mexico. “
Fisher began preparing to build border fences as soon as Trump was elected. He visited the Arizona border, spoke with agents and ranchers of the Border Patrol.
“I wanted to build the largest infrastructure known to man, and I said I think we can improve it more than agents have,” said Fisher. “If you want to protect the border, we have a solution here in Texas that is faster and better.”
In fact, the Washington Post reported this week that Trump is preparing to divert an additional $ 7.2 billion in Pentagon funds for the construction of the border wall this year, enough to complete about 885 miles of new border barrier for the spring 2022. That would bring the total federal funds allocated to border fences to $ 18.4 billion.
“The first priority of the Department of Defense is the protection of the homeland,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday. “If that is what is needed, we are prepared to support it.”
An eight-mile section of the border fence being built by a federal contractor near Mission cost $ 167 million, about $ 21 million per mile, $ 7 million more per mile than Fisher’s fence, which also includes an access road of concrete Fisher said that if the government contracted with him to build on the one hundred acres of private land he owns along the river in Texas, he could encircle everything within a year for about $ 1.4 billion, and would keep it for a decade for $ 400 additional. million.
In an interview, Carmen Qualia, assistant chief patrol agent for US Customs and Border Protection. UU., Which oversees the construction of the border wall in the area, said the other fence could have been more expensive than Fisher’s because it includes a concrete dam.
She said a five-mile stretch of the border fence that federal contractors are building west in Starr County cost $ 14 million per mile.
Both fences will be completed within a year, he said, among nine ongoing border wall construction projects in the Rio Grande Valley.
Qualia has already said that the pace of the construction of the border wall “is picking up” and “we have not had unusual delays.” He said the agency was not consulted on Fisher’s wall but was not worried.
When Trump was elected, Fisher hoped to offer an offer to build the entire border wall. He turned to the right-wing media, exposing his case to Trump through television and Twitter.
With 1,600 employees, his North Dakota-based family business, Fisher Sand & Gravel, had handled major western highway projects, even for CalTrans, but nothing for National Security. The first time they were allowed to bid on the border wall last year, Fisher won a single federal $ 400 million contract to build 31 miles closely in Yuma, Arizona. The survey is underway, he said, but the company faces a federal audit following complaints from members of Congress that Trump directed the work in his own way.
Fisher insists that he did nothing wrong and that the audit will show “how much we save taxpayers.”
The Pentagon audit was ongoing this week, according to Pentagon spokeswoman Dwrena Allen, and the Army Corps was cooperating, according to Raini Brunson, a spokeswoman for the body.
Last year, Fisher was hired by the conservative non-profit organization We Build The Wall, whose board includes former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, to build a nearly half-mile of about $ 23 million in 10 days in Sunland Park, NM, despite opposition from local officials.
The group claimed on social media to have raised $ 25 million to hire Fisher as its contractor for the walls in New Mexico and Texas. Fisher said the nonprofit contributed only $ 1.5 million of the $ 42 million to nearby Texas and is not involved in its other companies.
He erected one of the wall prototypes in California and put pressure on lawmakers and National Security, spending $ 75,000 in 2018 and $ 27,500 last year, according to the Responsive Policy Center. After helping elect North Dakota Senator Kevin Cramer, Fisher attended the Trump Union State speech as his guest, shaking hands with the president.
Fisher appreciates the comparisons with Trump: a businessman educated in construction work. After their crews cleared the brush from the riverbank to build their fence, Fisher made them plant palm trees and Bermuda grass. He says he wanted the area to look like a golf course to please Border Patrol agents working in the area and, of course, Trump.
“I have done everything I can as a citizen,” he said. “The government can see what can be done. Now is the time for them to say that we are going to protect this country. “
Writer Jenny Jarvie in Atlanta contributed to this report.