Trump's Wall
February 7, 2020

The section of President Trump's border wall being built through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona's Sonoran Desert has been controversial from the start. The national monument, established in 1937 and named a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve in 1976, is not only a fragile ecological gem but also an area with deep spiritual and cultural importance to several Native American groups and dozens of unexplored ancient archeological sites. Homeland Security Department (DHS) contractors recently started blowing apart a mountain in the national monument to facilitate border wall construction, The Intercept reports.

"The construction contractor has begun controlled blasting, in preparation for new border wall system construction, within the Roosevelt Reservation at Monument Mountain in the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson Sector," Customs and Border Protection told The Intercept in a statement. The blasting "will continue intermittently for the rest of the month," CBP added, and there will be "an environmental monitor present during these activities as well as on-going clearing activities."

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who visited the area last month, said he has zero faith the government's "environmental monitor will do anything to avoid, mitigate, or even point out some of the sacrilegious things that are occurring and will continue to occur, given the way they're proceeding." Contractors are already draining water from a rare desert spring to mix concrete, and they have sliced up and bulldozed iconic saguaro cacti and inadvertently uncovered possible burial sites, The Intercept reports.

To rush through his border wall, Trump has leaned heavily on a post-9/11 law that gives DHS broad powers to waive all sorts of laws, including the Environmental Protection Act to the Endangered Species Act, The Intercept says. "A historically significant area is going to be changed irreparably," Grijalva lamented. "You're never going to be able to put it back together." Peter Weber

December 27, 2019

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) leaders are still insisting President Trump will build 450 miles of new border wall before 2021, but few people in southern Texas think that's realistic. The obstacles to Trump's wall "include an investigation into construction contracts, funding delays, and a recent legal decision blocking emergency access to Defense Department funds to build it," The New York Times reports, but acquiring private lands "may be the tallest barrier standing between the president and his wall."

"Most of the borderlands in Texas are privately owned, unlike states to the west where a strip along the border is mostly federal property," NPR notes. In Texas' Rio Grande Valley, the Trump administration has acquired only 3 of the 110 miles of private borderland it wants for the wall. The government has sued 48 landowners for access to survey their property, the first step toward confiscation.

The government can probably seize most of the land, eventually, using eminent domain, and that inevitability has prompted some Texas landowners to reluctantly sell part of their property to the feds. "Adding to the heartache," the Times reports, in many cases "the construction is not on the border, which runs along the Rio Grande. It is well within the American side." Some landowners are fighting Trump in court.

"Construction has already fallen behind schedule because of how difficult it is to take private land," NPR reports. "Disorderly property records, complications with landowners, and a cumbersome condemnation process have slowed progress to a snail's pace. That's despite an army of federal land specialists trying to rush the process to please the president."

"Federal entities that acquire property have a process," Hyla Head, a former real estate specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who spearheaded former President George W. Bush's push to seize borderlands in 2008, tells NPR. "You may not like it, but this is tried and true. We have laws to protect property owners." Of the more than 300 cases the Bush team brought against landowners, 46 are still open. Learn more in NPR's report below. Peter Weber

December 11, 2019

A federal judge in El Paso ruled Tuesday that President Trump can't use $3.6 billion in repurposed military constructions funds to build his Mexico border wall. The nationwide permanent injunction strips Trump of about a third of the $10 billion he has claimed for border barrier construction, specifically the funds Trump planned to use to build 175 miles of steel barriers. U.S. District Court Judge David Briones said Trump does not have the lawful authority to use the National Emergencies Act to sidestep Congress and reprogram money appropriated for different purposes. The Trump administration has signaled that it will appeal the decision by Briones, a Bill Clinton appointee. Peter Weber

December 5, 2019

"Nearly three years after President Trump took office, work is finally underway on one of his key campaign promises," Norah O'Donnell said on Wednesday's CBS Evening News. Reporter Mireya Villarreal looked at the first new border wall being constructed under Trump's watch, in Donna, Texas. The new section won't be completed until January 2021, she noted, and the initial eight-mile stretch will cost $167 million.

"All told, nearly $10 billion has been set aside from government agencies for wall funding — and that's a bill U.S. taxpayers, not Mexico, are footing," Villarreal noted. At least 78 miles of border fencing has been replaced since 2017, and the Trump administration is shooting for 80-90 miles of new wall over the next year or 18 months, a Border Patrol official told Villarreal, calling it an "aggressive" target.

At least 31 miles of that new barrier will be built by Fisher Sand and Gravel, a company Trump has repeatedly pressured the Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Homeland Security to hire, Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a booster of the North Dakota company and recipient of donations from its CEO, Tommy Fisher, tells The Washington Post. The Pentagon disclosed Monday that Fisher was awarded $400 million to build a new barrier in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona by the end of 2020.

Trump has been impressed by Tommy Fisher's border wall pitches on Fox News, Cramer has said, but the Army Corps of Engineers had previously dismissed Fisher's bids as subpar. Fisher has also built a few miles of border wall on private land under contract with the conservative crowdfunded group "We Build the Wall." A Texas state judge ordered a halt Tuesday to the company's construction on land near the the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas, because the barrier — being built without permits or an impact study and despite a cease-and-desist request from the International Boundary and Water Commission — risks doing "imminent and irreparable harm" to the nature preserve. Peter Weber

November 4, 2019

President Trump touted the strength of his border wall at a campaign rally in Tupelo, Mississippi, on Friday night. He told the crowed that Army wall engineers wanted to use concrete, steel, and rebar, and he told them even though it would cost more, use all three materials. "I did all three because it's a different form of cutting," Trump said. "You can get through steel, but you can't through the concrete, and then, you can't through the hardened rebar."

Hours later, The Washington Post reported Saturday that Mexican smugglers were actually cutting through the new replacement barrier Trump has erected near San Diego using cordless reciprocating saws you can purchase for about $100 at hardware stores. Specialized blades can slice through the steel-plated, rebar-reinforced concrete bollards in minutes, border agents told the Post.

"After cutting through the base of a single bollard, smugglers can push the steel out of the way, creating an adult-size gap," the Post reports. "Because the bollards are so tall — and are attached only to a panel at the top — their length makes them easier to push aside once they have been cut and are left dangling."

On Saturday evening, reporters asked Trump if he's concerned that people are able to cut though his new border wall. "I haven't heard that," Trump replied. "We have a very powerful wall. But no matter how powerful, you can cut through anything, in all fairness. But we have a lot of people watching. You know, cutting — cutting is one thing, but it's easily fixed. One of the reasons we did it the way we did it — it's very easily fixed to put the chunk back in. But we have a very powerful wall. But you can cut through any wall."

You can read more about Trump's $10 billion border wall, its strengths and weaknesses, and how Mexican smugglers are cat-and-mousing U.S. border patrol agents at The Washington Post. Peter Weber

September 5, 2019

"President Donald Trump is building his wall, and Puerto Rico is going to pay for it," NBC News reports. On Wednesday, the Pentagon announced that it is diverting $3.6 billion appropriated for 127 Defense Department projects to build 175 miles of new and replacement border fencing; $400 million of that comes from 10 projects in Puerto Rico, including a power substation and a National Guard readiness center. Also defunded, Reuters notes, are schools and daycare centers for military families from Kentucky to Maryland and Germany to Japan.

Trump declared a national emergency in February to circumvent Congress, which declined to fund his wall, and the Pentagon released its preliminary list of defunded projects in March. A Pentagon spokeswoman said Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who signed off on the diverted funds, was following a "lawful order" from Trump. She said the Pentagon hopes Congress will fund the defunded projects but acknowledged there's no guarantee it will.

The first tranche of $1.8 billion in redirected funds will come from U.S. bases overseas, with Germany losing $550 million and Japan taking a $450 million hit. The $1.8 billion being siphoned from 23 states includes $160 million from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York and $125 million from military bases in New Mexico. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said the facilities previously slated to be replaced have "equipment being held together with duct tape" or "recently caught on fire," and "stealing funding from these essential military construction projects to pay for the president's political pet project is an unconscionable attack on military readiness and the health and safety of our men and women in uniform."

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, lauded Trump for taking action to address the "very real crisis at the southern border" and urged Congress to re-fund the defunded projects. Peter Weber

May 15, 2019

The Trump administration has already started tearing down trees and leveling ground to erect tall border fencing in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, and Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge are next, The Associated Press reports. On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security again waived dozens of environmental and other federal laws to allow barrier construction along stretches of U.S.-Mexico border in California and Arizona.

DHS was vague about its plans, but the Center for Biological Diversity says the administration plans to build or replace 100 miles of fencing in Arizona and California, including through the two public lands. "The Trump administration just ignored bedrock environmental and public health laws to plow a disastrous border wall through protected, spectacular wildlands," the center's Laiken Jordahl tells AP.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, established in 1937, encompasses 516 square miles filled with its unique namesake cactus. Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1975 on land set aside in 1939, is home to 275 wildlife species. DHS, using redirected Pentagon funds, will replace waist-high bollard fences meant to stop vehicles with fences 18-30 feet high, AP reports. "The government will also build new roads and lighting in those areas in Arizona."

Organ Pipe Cactus was once a heavy corridor for drug smuggling, and much of the park was closed to visitors from 2002 to 2015, when "the National Park Service and Border Patrol conceived a plan to allow continued surveillance by the Patrol while Park Service crews erased hundreds of miles of illegal roads and road traces that had been woven through Organ Pipe Cactus," National Park Traveler reports. The waist-high fencing, put up in the mid-2000s, "succeeded in ending illegal vehicular border crossings while allowing wildlife to pass through." Environmental groups say the new fencing will further endanger vulnerable species, including jaguars and the Sonoran pronghorn.

DHS is accepting public comment on the plan through July 5. Peter Weber

May 13, 2019

The Defense Department said Friday that it intends to build 80 more miles of border fence using $1.5 billion taken from other projects, and on Sunday, The Washington Post revealed some details of where the Pentagon found its spare cash. Since Congress and Mexico have declined to fund President Trump's southern border wall, he has ordered the military to build it without congressional authorization, using authority claimed under a national emergency he declared and also by moving money around in the Pentagon's massive budget.

According to a Pentagon document obtained by the Post, this $1.5 billion will come from funds set aside to upgrade the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile program and its aging ground control center; the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) program and its reconnaissance aircraft, which provide airborne fighter jets surveillance and other information; an unidentified Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA) "space test experiment"; funds to support coalition forces and the Afghan military; a military retirement fund; and other programs.

The Pentagon document doesn't detail how much money is being taken from each program, but The Associated Press reported Friday that $682 million will come from Afghan and coalition forces, $344 million from unspecified Air Force programs, $251 million from an ongoing program to destroy chemical weapons, and $224 from the military retirement system. In March, the Pentagon announced it's transferring $1 billion from military personnel funds for Trump's wall, and Trump plans to take another $3.6 billion in military construction funds.

The Pentagon said in the document obtained by the Post that it "carefully selected sources for the reprogramming that are excess or early to need and will not adversely affect military preparedness." Several top Democratic senators told the Pentagon on Friday that if it insists on flouting Congress' authority to dictate how federal money is spent, "we look forward to hearing your views on how you intend to repair the damaged relationship between the defense oversight committees and the department." Peter Weber

See More Speed Reads