Initial sections of fencing for a privately funded border wall were installed last weekend in Sunland Park, N.M., as the result of a crowdfunding effort that went live in December.
On Thursday, the leaders of the project showed off the nearly completed section of wall, running across rough terrain next to where the official border barrier ends. Project leaders said they have mapped out at least 10 other spots along the border where they could build more wall.
President Trump has repeatedly tried to win funding for the construction of a border wall, which was a centerpiece of his 2016 presidential campaign. But he has faced opposition by Congress and by the courts. Recently, a judge in California temporarily blocked the administration from using funds not appropriated by Congress to build a wall.
U.S. Air Force veteran and We Build the Wall founder Brian Kolfage told reporters that the construction site on private land in Sunland Park was chosen two months ago after he and other project leaders heard complaints of theft and other security issues from residents in the area.
"It's the stories of the American people who drive this," Kolfage said. "This is a project that was started by the American people who all believed in border security and who believe there is a crisis down here."
Cease and desist
Sunland Park Mayor Javier Perea issued a cease-and-desist order earlier this week for the wall construction, citing a lack of permits. "I mean this is an issue that was railroaded into the city of Sunland Park," he explained. "And it takes time for us to review documents and ensure that everything's in compliance."
Both Kolfage and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach — an immigration hard-liner who serves as general counsel to the group — argued they had filed the correct paperwork and had briefed the necessary authorities on their plans.
The city has since approved construction of the wall to resume.
Miles and miles of wall
The contractor building this section of wall is Fisher Industries of North Dakota. According to The Washington Post, Fisher Industries is a favorite of Trump and he has urged the Army Corps of Engineers to consider the company for a contract to build the wall.
At Thursday's press event, Fisher Industries President Don Fisher seemed to be pitching his company for future wall construction projects. "Fifteen-hundred people from the Fisher Industries team stood up and [were] so proud and honored for We Build the Wall to give us a shot to do this," he said. "We have the ability to build in the multibillions and build miles and miles and miles."
Still, some local politicians were unhappy with all the outside attention. In addition to Kobach serving as general counsel to the We Build the Wall group, former presidential adviser Steve Bannon is the chairman of the group's advisory board.
"It's deeply disturbing when outsiders, like Kris Kobach and Steve Bannon, come in and use our community and people as a backdrop to further their racist agenda," U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat representing nearby El Paso, Texas, told the Silver City Sun News.
Filling in gaps
According to Kobach, the steel wall extends for a half-mile. He praised how rapidly the project came together and said that, despite the short-term setback over permitting, the wall is now virtually complete.
"It shows how quickly a private organization can identify the problem, take the steps necessary to mobilize resources and get to the site, and then complete the project," Kobach said.
Kobach added that We Build the Wall aims to supplement the government's efforts to secure the border by filling in gaps in the existing wall. He said he was satisfied with the project's results without governmental resources.
"We do have agility and speed and determination, and that's what I hope you see on display when you look at this wall," Kobach said.
Kolfage said that the new wall has already deterred immigrants from crossing the border illegally and that it will relieve some of the duties of Border Patrol agents in the area.
"We can patch one hole, it's gonna leak somewhere else," Kolfage said. "But it starts funneling people toward these other holes. Border Patrol agents no longer have to worry about this hole."
The El Paso sector has seen a huge surge in legal and illegal border crossings in recent months. On one night earlier this week, Customs and Border Protection says it apprehended 1,036 migrants attempting to cross the dry Rio Grande riverbed.
Still, CBP told NPR that this privately funded wall project was completed in an area that was not prioritized for border wall construction. CBP said the wall is not connected with their work and added that the agency will continue to fulfill its standard role in the areas where the private barrier has already been constructed.
We Build the Wall
Kolfage spearheaded an original GoFundMe campaign for the wall in December that received over $20 million in donations from thousands of contributors in its first few weeks. He subsequently created a Florida-based nonprofit called We Build the Wall Inc., which currently raises money to finance the project.
According to the group's website, the campaign's ultimate goal is to raise $1 billion. Kolfage says that could be achieved if all 63 million Trump voters donate $80 to the cause. The site includes a graphic that shows the fundraising campaign's progress, as well as photos and updates from the wall construction in New Mexico.
The amount of donations currently stands at over $23 million, and Kolfage said donations have increased exponentially since photos and videos of the building site were released over the weekend.
A previous Web version of this story incorrectly said the border wall in Sunland, N.M., stands 310 feet tall. The barrier is actually about 18 feet tall and runs along an incline that climbs to 310 feet.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There is a new section of border wall under construction in Sunland Park, N.M. Now, this isn't President Trump's wall. This is the first crowdfunded border barrier built with private donations on private land. The team behind the wall showed it off for reporters yesterday, and Mallory Falk, with member station KRWG, was there.
MALLORY FALK, BYLINE: A cement mixer pours concrete onto the ground near a newly built barrier at the corner where New Mexico, Texas and Mexico meet. Construction workers in bright green and orange T-shirts stand at the ready with shovels to smooth the new concrete into a road for Border Patrol vehicles.
BRIAN KOLFAGE: This is a project that was started by the American people who all believed in border security and who believe there is a crisis down here.
FALK: Brian Kolfage looks out over the construction site. All this was his brainchild. He founded a nonprofit called We Build The Wall and hired a construction company, Fisher Industries, to start building on private land.
TOMMY FISHER: Fifteen hundred people from the Fisher Industries team stood up and was so proud and honored for We Build The Wall to give us a shot to do this.
FALK: Tommy Fisher is president. He's pitching his company as the best contractor for other sections of the wall on private or government land.
FISHER: We have the ability to build in the multibillions and build miles and miles and miles.
FALK: And he's not the only one who sees this as just the beginning. Another is Kris Kobach, former secretary of state of Kansas and now legal counsel for We Build The Wall. He says the group's already identified 10 other potential sites.
KRIS KOBACH: We've kept the locations a secret. And then once we start building, of course, we announce, here we are.
FALK: Customs and Border Protection says they're not a partner on this project and that this stretch of land in New Mexico isn't a high-priority site. But Kobach claims his group's been in close communication with officials. And once construction is done, in his words, they'll hand over the keys to the car.
KOBACH: I know for a fact that they are very eager to take control of this site and use it.
FALK: We Build The Wall may have been in communication with Border Patrol. But when it comes to local government, that's a different story. Javier Perea is mayor of Sunland Park. The city learned just last week that this wall project was in the works. He says construction started before all the permits were in order.
JAVIER PEREA: This is an issue that was railroaded into the city of Sunland Park. And, you know, it takes time for us to review documents and ensure that everything's been in compliance.
FALK: Sunland Park is small, less than 20,000 people, and has limited resources. The mayor says the city was already struggling to deal with permitting issues. And then when he ordered a temporary pause on construction, he and his staff were flooded with calls from wall supporters. And his family even received death threats. Perea worries that other small border communities could also be blindsided. And he says...
PEREA: The construction of this border wall, I do not believe it's going to accomplish what many people think it will. And what it will accomplish is that maybe it'll funnel some people to different areas in the desert.
FALK: He says a half-mile of private wall is not the solution to the border crisis.
For NPR News, I'm Mallory Falk in Sunland Park. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.