The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump administration in an all-out push to build border wall before election

Border fence construction in January on Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument land in Lukeville, Ariz. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
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President Trump’s administration is racing to build his border wall as quickly as possible ahead of the Nov. 3 election, with construction crews now adding nearly two miles per day. It is an unprecedented pace toward meeting one of Trump’s signature 2016 campaign promises.

The latest figures from U.S. Customs and Border Protection show the rate of construction has nearly doubled since the beginning of the year, accelerated by the government’s ability to cut through national forests, wildlife preserves and other public lands already under federal control.

In southeastern Arizona, blasting crews have been using dynamite to level the steep sides of Guadalupe Canyon, a rugged span where the cost of the barrier exceeds $41 million per mile. Across the state at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, border agents have forcefully broken up protests by members of the O’odham Nation attempting to block the bulldozers near ancestral burial sites and a fragile desert oasis.

CBP officials are preparing a ceremony for Trump next month that will mark the completion of 400 miles of new fencing. The administration has installed more than 341 miles so far, according to the latest figures, and CBP officials say they remain on track to finish at least 450 miles by the end of 2020.

Mark Morgan, the acting CBP commissioner, told reporters that the president has proved his doubters and critics wrong.

“Even as the nonbelievers, the folks who have been out there for a very long time who said we were never going to get this done, what I refer to as the judicial activism of lower courts that have tried to stop our construction of the wall, the false narratives and, quite frankly, the lies out there about the effectiveness and need of the wall — despite all that — this president has remained steadfast in his commitment, his commitment to the American people and to the men and women of CBP,” said Morgan, erroneously claiming the government was building 10 miles per day.

“This isn’t the president’s vanity wall,” he said.

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon was charged Aug. 20, 2020 with defrauding donors to an online fundraising campaign to build a border wall. (Video: Zach Purser Brown/The Washington Post)

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has said he will immediately halt construction of the barrier if elected, a looming threat for the private companies that have secured billions of dollars in contracts. Crews have been working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on at least five locations on the border, according to officials overseeing the project who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.

The torrid pace of construction has had the biggest impact on Arizona, where the U.S. government has accelerated the project by building through protected areas and federal lands — areas where the administration is able to bypass environmental laws, archaeological reviews and other safeguards.

Progress has been slower in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, the busiest span of the border for illegal crossings and the region that CBP has identified as its top priority for barrier construction. Nearly all of the land where the government seeks to build is in private hands.

The Trump administration has completed just five miles of new barriers in the Rio Grande Valley, CBP officials said, citing the difficulty of accessing and acquiring private land and the engineering challenges of installing the barriers along river levees. CBP officials said they have obtained about 40 percent of the land they need in the Rio Grande Valley.

As coronavirus cases surged in Arizona on June 23, President Trump said the border wall stopped covid-19. (Video: The Washington Post)

Administration officials have pointed to the growing number of migrants caught hiding in tractor trailers or coming ashore on California beaches as an indication the new fencing is forcing smugglers to adopt more-desperate tactics. In the San Diego area, where double-layered fencing creates a formidable barrier, the number of migrants arrested in maritime events has tripled since 2018, according to CBP figures.

But the effectiveness of the new structure is difficult to evaluate, because the administration has adopted emergency procedures during the coronavirus pandemic allowing agents to quickly expel border-crossers to Mexico, bypassing normal immigration proceedings and asylum protections.

Trump has put the wall project at the center of his reelection campaign, while continuing efforts to deceive the public with claims that Mexico is footing the bill. Mexico is not paying for the wall.

The president has obtained $15 billion in federal funds for the project, but just one-third of that money has been authorized by Congress. The rest, nearly $10 billion, has been diverted from the U.S. military budget, giving Trump enough to build 738 miles of new barriers, or enough to cover more than a third of the 2,000-mile boundary with Mexico.

In addition to the 331 miles of new barriers completed so far, approximately 250 miles are “under construction” and an additional 157 miles are classified as “preconstruction,” CBP figures show.

The wall's future

CBP officials said the current pace of construction is possible because the administration has cleared bureaucratic and financial hurdles, leaving crews with a clear path. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the private contractors building the structure do not receive financial incentives to finish the job ahead of schedule.

As with so much else, the future of the wall project is contingent on the outcome of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

If Biden wins and brings the bulldozers to a halt, construction companies will receive less than the full value of the contracts, according to a current and a former official with close knowledge of the project. Those contractors could bill the government for a “demobilization cost” as they withdraw crews and equipment from the border, but they would probably need to go to court to seek additional funds, the officials said.

“There will not be another foot of wall construction in my administration,” Biden said in August during an interview with reporters from the National Association of Black Journalists and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Biden said he favors “high tech” systems that rely on surveillance technology and would direct resources to the legal border crossings where most illegal narcotics are seized.

Biden did not commit to removing or dismantling the barrier, as opponents of the project have advocated. The structure has grown into one of the most expensive federal infrastructure projects in U.S. history, and as long as the barrier remains a divisive symbol of the Trump presidency, bipartisan support for its maintenance and upkeep will remain in doubt.

Long-term maintenance costs for Trump’s border wall could cost billions

Trump has urged several design changes to the barrier to make its appearance more intimidating — insisting, for instance, that it should be painted black to absorb more solar radiation. CBP officials said they do not have the funding available to order crews to go back and paint segments that have been installed, but four sections under construction in Texas will receive a black epoxy finish before installation, fulfilling Trump’s wishes.

Environmental impact

The canyons and deserts of southern Arizona have become a battleground for opponents of the project, spanning from conservative ranchers to environmental activists. Dan Millis, who leads the Sierra Club’s campaign against the barrier, called it “totally enraging” and “completely intolerable.”

“We’re wasting billions upon billions to build an apartheid wall twice as tall as the Berlin Wall,” he said. “It’s a complete waste, and it’s a shame and a blemish on this country.”

Clashes between protesters and border agents at Organ Pipe this month reflect an intensification of efforts by Native American groups to protect places they say are at risk of irreversible damage, including archaeological sites and fragile ecosystems such as Quitobaquito Springs, less than 100 yards from the path of bulldozers, where diminishing water this summer has imperiled an endangered pupfish.

President Trump on Jan. 6 reiterated his argument for building a wall on the southern border, saying, "We have a crisis at the border." (Video: The Washington Post)

The Trump administration declared a national security emergency at the border that allows the crews to plow through environmental protections to expedite construction. CBP officials said some of the Sonoyta mud turtles and endangered Quitobaquito pupfish at the springs have been relocated. The spring’s clay liner is leaking from several cracks, officials said, and a lack of monsoon rains this summer has left the oasis with its lowest water levels in at least a decade.

Where border wall rises, these ranchers see defeat

Significant effects also have been reported at the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge east of Douglas, Ariz., where contractors tapped into nearby aquifers to make cement for the barrier’s base. The refuge has small ponds that sustain populations of borderland wildlife, including pumas, bears and other species.

The refuge manager warned supervisors that water depletion was an immediate threat to the endangered species on the refuge and that the slow pace at which the aquifers are recharged — over thousands of years — means any damage is effectively permanent.

As the water has been pumped out to make concrete, the pressure in the aquifers has dropped, drying up surface water. This summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had to install several solar-powered pumps to keep water flowing to the surface for the animals to drink.

Beth Ullenberg, a spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, provided a statement from her agency and CBP saying the agencies were working with the Army Corps on “mitigation measures to assist with needed water flow.”

“The current pumps in the water wells are being replaced by the construction contractor with higher capacity pumps to allow for increased water flows into the ponds,” the statement said.

In the Peloncillo Mountains farther east, crews are blasting through the Guadalupe Canyon area to build roads so excavators and bulldozers can access the steep terrain. It is the area where the first live jaguar was photographed on U.S. soil in a generation, in 1996.

There have been several more documented jaguar sightings since then, but Millis, of the Sierra Club, said 80 percent of critical habitat for the big cat’s return will be blocked by the steel bars of the fence.