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The private border wall being built on the Rio Grande

Posted January 20, 2020 3:24 p.m. EST

— Donald Trump is the name most commonly associated with the border wall. But along this three-mile stretch, Tommy Fisher is the name on everyone's mind.

Fisher, an Arizona resident and head of a construction firm, saw an opportunity to help deliver on Trump's promise by paying for and building a three-mile barrier in Mission, Texas, a city on the US-Mexico border. And as he's pursued government contracts, he's also launched into private projects that have both stirred controversy and put the company's work into full view.

"Once you see it," Fisher, donning a Fisher Industries hat with Trump 2020 stitching, recently told CNN, "this proves what we've been saying."

And many have come to see it.

The privately funded project has gained national attention amid an administration push to construct 450 miles of new barriers in the ramp up to the presidential election. Fisher hopes the administration purchases the three miles of wall he constructs and signs the company up to build more miles.

"I believe we're in America and America always buys the better technology no matter what," Fisher said.

Over a span of three hours one morning last week, landowners visited the project, Border Patrol officials cycled through and some 60 men erected dozens of feet of barrier along the riverbank. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf also stopped by the project late last year.

Trump has sought to pull hundreds of millions of dollars from several government accounts to build his signature border wall. But those attempts have been met with legal challenges and delays.

Fisher's project was also temporarily halted after being sued by federal prosecutors and the National Butterfly Center, a 100-acre wild butterfly habitat near the project's location.

Fisher's method of building just feet from the Rio Grande river became a point of contention, in part because of the potential for flooding and damage to surrounding property.

The Trump administration's wall plans, meanwhile, sit farther away from the river. A project down the road is a half mile from the river at its shortest point, according to Christian Alvarez, a Border Patrol spokesman.

After three years in office, the Trump administration announced earlier this month that the wall had reached the 100-mile mark -- the majority of which was replacing barriers with newer, enhanced designs and around half a mile was constructed in the Rio Grande Valley where no wall previously existed.

The Rio Grande Valley poses a unique challenge to the administration since much of the land along the border is privately owned. The government needs to acquire the land to build on it, which can be a long, arduous process. While some landowners may be open to selling their property, others are resistant to the idea.

In Mission, Texas, Fisher found a landowner willing to sell his property. The $40 million private wall currently under construction is located along the river bank on private land. Nearly $2 million was provided by We Build the Wall, a group backing Trump that crowdfunded money for the wall, Fisher said.

Clayton Neuhaus, son of the landowner, frequently visits the property to observe the project. He was eager to see the progress last week.

"This is awesome," Neuhaus said, giving Fisher a pat on the back. "I've never seen this much machinery in my life," he laughed.

Other landowners entertaining the idea of selling land to Fisher have also passed through Fisher's construction site.

"It's a beautiful wall," said Sam Sparks III, who owns 1,200 acres and was touring Fisher's project. "The concept of it being on the river is imperative, second to none."

Sparks said the federal government has surveyed his land, but current plans would slice through his property, making it difficult to work the land. "We'd have to send people south of the wall to work," Sparks told CNN.

Fisher says he takes federal guidelines into account and the proximity to the Rio Grande river sets him apart.

"This is where, once they see this, there's no reason to ever build two miles, three miles off the border," Fisher told CNN. "If you build back there, what do you got? You still have to walk through this cane field."

But there is an advantage to having the wall farther away from the river. Alvarez explained that the lead up to the wall sets up more interdiction points, allowing agents to apprehend individuals before they reach the barriers.

'They're gambling'

Not all of the project's neighbors have welcomed the private wall.

Federal prosecutors and the National Butterfly Center, a 100-acre wild butterfly habitat near the project's location, sued Fisher over the project last year.

The International Boundary and Water Commission, a government agency, claimed that the private wall "may cause an obstruction or deflection" of the flood and river flows of the Rio Grande River that could violate a treaty between the United States and Mexico. The lawsuit was heard alongside the center's case.

Earlier this month, after construction was temporarily halted, Southern District of Texas federal Judge Randy Crane ruled the private border wall effort could move forward.

Javier Peña, a lawyer for the National Butterfly Center, told CNN the structures run the risk of getting clogged up in the event of a flood with debris pileup and creating a potentially dangerous situation.

Terence Garrett, a professor of political science at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Brownsville who focuses on border security, echoed those concerns.

"When the water comes rushing down it goes through the bollards, it carries debris, it builds up and creates a wall. It's dangerous," Garrett said. "This is effectively a role of the dice. They're gambling."

Peña said he's been contacted by other landowners in the region surrounding the private wall, worried about damage to their land.

Fisher, for his part, has expressed confidence in his team and says that they've taken precautionary measures, such as creating a slope of grass "that conveys water," re-planting trees, and using a concrete base.

Fisher nabs a government contract

Construction firms have been competing to win multimillion-dollar contracts to build portions of the wall, including Fisher's construction firm, Fisher Industries.

The family-owned company, which has captured Trump's attention, was among a handful of construction firms chosen to build prototypes of the border wall in 2017.

Since then, Fisher has been awarded a $400 million border wall contract to "design-build border infrastructure along the southern perimeter of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge" in Arizona by the end of 2020, the Pentagon announced late last year.

Lawmakers pushed back against the award, noting Trump's support of the company and previous proposals that didn't meet requirements.

After requests by lawmakers to review the contract, the Defense Department inspector general said it would initiate an audit of the solicitation and contract award.

Fisher says he welcomes the audit. He's repeatedly argued that he can get the job done faster and cheaper than his competitors. He has dozens of men working from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily to erect three miles of barrier in Mission. A project, that when done, will have taken two months, even after court's temporary block on construction.

"I'm using our innovation to give the government and the taxpayers a more economical thing," Fisher said.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, continues to seek additional funding for the wall.

Last week, the Defense Department said that it received a Department of Homeland Security request to build and pay for hundreds of additional miles of barriers on the US-Mexico border.

The request is for roughly 270 miles of border barrier and other infrastructure to be built in areas that are considered drug corridors, a mix of rural and urban areas, a senior Department of Defense official told CNN.

The administration is also considering diverting around $7.2 billion in additional Pentagon funding for border wall construction, five times what Congress authorized, sources told CNN.

The additional funds, first reported by the Washington Post, would allow the government enough money to complete approximately 885 miles of new fencing by the spring of 2022, according to an administration official.

Asked about reports that the administration is preparing to divert billions in military funds for the border wall, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has said the Pentagon remains "committed to supporting the Department of Homeland Security and its mission" and would support its efforts financially "if that's what it takes."

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