Construction of a viral $23 million GoFundMe-crowdfunded wall on the southern border aimed at deterring immigrants from crossing illegally was only recently complete. On Monday, however, the newly installed, half-mile long wall suffered a major setback when federal officials from the United States Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC) ordered that a large gate built into the steel fencing be kept open during the day because it blocks access to a U.S.-owned levee road, dam and a historic monument. The USIBWC is the federal agency in charge of addressing waterway issues between the US and Mexico.
The controversial half-mile wall constructed along the US–Mexico border in Sunland Park, New Mexico, near El Paso, Texas, was erected earlier this month after organizers raised more than $23 million on GoFundMe, the online crowdfunding site. However, the construction was done “without authority,” Lori Kuczmanski, a spokesperson for the USIBWC, said Tuesday. We Build the Wall organizers had failed to obtain the required authorization to build the barrier on federal land, cutting off access to waterways and a public monument.
“This is normally done well in advance of a construction project,” said Kuczmanski. “They think they can build now and ask questions later, and that’s not how it works.”
The group selected the section of the New Mexico border to build the wall because it was “the number one most important mile to close,” said Steve Bannon, the former strategist for President Trump and advisory board chair for the project.
But in a statement, US Customs and Border Protection said the “project is not connected to our efforts,” and that it had already prioritized building border barriers in locations that “will most impact border security operations.” The site where North Dakota–based construction company Fisher Industries built the crowdfunded wall on private land was “not prioritized under current funding,” the agency said.
Kuczmanski said the international agency had been made aware the wall was being built near federal property but was told the project would remain on private land. Then on June 2, We Build the Wall organizers submitted a letter and “a couple of drawings” requesting to build a gate across federal property.
“It was not a complete application packet,” she said.
The next day, IBWC officials learned that We Build the Wall’s construction crew had already poured a cement slab on federal property. The gate was immediately shut upon completion, Kuczmanski said, cutting off access for the agency, its security agents who patrol the area, and the public.
IBWC officials asked that the gate be left open and attorneys for the project said in response that “‘it will be handled immediately,’ but it was never opened,” she said.
In response, IBWC commissioner Jayne Harkins decided on Monday afternoon to prop open a large gate installed in the barrier. The gate, constructed on roughly 33 feet of federal property, had blocked officials from accessing a levee and dam, and cut off public access to a historic monument known as Monument One, the first in a series of obelisks that mark the US–Mexico border from El Paso to Tijuana.
We Build the Wall locked the private gate on June 6. After USIBWC made “repeated requests” to unlock and open the gate, law enforcement officers removed the lock and opened the gate to allow for dam maintenance. The agency is now requiring that the gate be kept open “during business hours” and locked at night “due to security concerns.”
The IBWC will maintain “operational control” of when the gate is open or shut. Meanwhile, We Build the Wall has accused the agency of “overreach.”
Most of the crowdfunded wall is situated on private property owned by a brick company. But when a sliding gate attached to the wall is closed, it crosses into federal land and blocks off a federally owned road, Kuczmanski tells TIME. “We have operational needs that we need to maintain, and with it being closed, and them not giving us access, we’re locked out of our own property.”
“It prohibited us from doing our operation and mission, maintaining the levee, we have to do vegetation control, dam maintenance… we have to have oversight of our area and we were locked out of that for days,” Kuczmanski told Business Insider.
She said that We Build the Wall decided to build the gate without submitting a permit application with required documentation about the project, a process that typically takes around three to six months. “Considering we had asked them to cease operations and we were confident they would do that and abide by the rules, we were pretty shocked they went ahead with construction, which is not a normal practice,” she said.
Brian Kolfage, the triple-amputee war veteran who founded We Build the Wall and started the GoFundMe campaign with an original goal of $1 billion, has faced criticism throughout the crowdfunding process — for initially lacking a plan to build the wall, and later for prompting concern from donors about how their money would be spent. He has touted the construction in Sunland Park as evidence that the fundraiser has worked.
The initial decision by the agency had prompted a series of angry tweets from Kolfage, who claimed that “Mexico just opened all gates” through IBWC for a “mass invasion.”
He told Business Insider that his group has been working with them since the beginning and said he had been told that they could build without the permit as they worked through that process to submit their application.
The IBWC is a fine example of over reach and growing to big. They are over stepping DHS, national security experts and undermining @realDonaldTrump as soon as they locked our gate open we noticed many other gates around el Paso just opened up!! They are planning for mass invasion
— Brian Kolfage (@BrianKolfage) June 11, 2019
“They allowed us to build a wall on their property and we were thankful for that. There were no issues at all until the ACLU got involved and then the day later they backtracked on everything and said that the wall was going to be open indefinitely,” Kolfage said. “We’ve been submitting drawings, plans, and they were okay with us building before we had their permit.”
Kolfage added that the gate was never locked and all the IBWC had to do was “push it open and, boom, they’re in.”
He told Business Insider that he eventually wants the Department of Homeland Security to act as gatekeepers for the barrier. “They support what we’re doing behind closed doors,” Kolfage said. “All the agents love it, all the agents were actually really pissed off when they came to work the next morning and saw the gate open.”
A US Customs and Border Protection spokesperson told Business Insider in May that “this project is not connected to our efforts,” and that Border Patrol “has identified requirements to construct more than 700 miles of border barriers along the Southwest border. These requirements have been prioritized against currently identified funding sources to enable construction in locations where border barriers will most impact border security operations.”
“It is not uncommon for vendors to undertake demonstrations of their capabilities utilizing their own resources,” the spokesperson added. “We encourage all interested vendors to compete for border barrier contracts through established mechanisms to ensure any construction is carried out under relevant federal authorities and meets UBSP operational requirements for border barrier.”
Kuczmanski told Business Insider that IBWC commissioner Harkins decided on Tuesday that while the gate will remain open during the day, IBWC will close it at night -which, according to Kolfage, is fine because “all the traffic comes through that area at night.” Kuczmanski added that the gate will remain open until everything is resolved, describing the process as ongoing.
Kolfage said that the gate staying open is a temporary decision and he is optimistic the issue will be resolved soon. We Build the Wall plans to begin construction on the remainder of its barrier over the next couple of months.
“I’m not sure when everything was finally submitted, but [IBWC] has everything as of today, and we are pretty sure tomorrow they are going to say We Build the Wall has given everything and we now have the permit,” he said. “I am very confident this will all be resolved hopefully tomorrow.”
Water agency officials, however, said We Build the Wall organizers went forward with construction of the fence without turning in the proper paperwork for the barrier.
“Their permit is still in the works,” Kuczmanski said. “We’re asking for documentation.”
Kuczmanski says USIBWC is still waiting for We Build the Wall to fully file a permit request related to its use of federal land — a different permit than those required by the city.
We Build the Wall has estimated that the Sunland Park portion of the wall — which, at about a half-mile long, is a small fraction of the roughly 1,950-mile-long southern border — will cost $6 to $8 million. The organization said it is planning to continue building walls in other locations on the border, but has yet to announce where those walls are located.
The decision marked the second time We Build the Wall organizers have been accused of moving hastily on construction of the border wall without first obtaining authorization from public officials.
In a statement, the agency said it “is continuing to work with We Build The Wall regarding its permit request.”
Attorneys with the agency and We Build The Wall have been in contact daily to resolve the issues surrounding permits, the spokeswoman said.
The agency also addressed allegations from Kolfage and his organization that IBWC had left other gates opened in order to facilitate a “mass invasion.”
“The USIBWC is not charged with security other fences or gates as reported by We Build The Wall,” the agency said. “The USIBWC did not open any other gates in the El Paso area as erroneously reported.”
“This is policy and procedure, and you don’t just come into our property and build first,” Kuczmanski said. “We’re treating them the same we treat anybody else.”
“The USIBWC is concerned about the safety and security of our employees and the infrastructure at the American Dam, which is next to the privately-constructed gate,” the agency said in a press release Tuesday, explaining why the gate would be kept open. “Despite USIBWC requests to locate the gate further from American Dam, the private gate was constructed in a way that may channel undocumented immigrants into the American Dam area.”
When the We Build the Wall GoFundMe page launched in December, it raised $20 million in less than a month with the goal of paying for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border that was a central promise of President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. While Trump declared a national emergency this year to authorize about $8 billion in spending on the border wall, there is an ongoing legal battle over the use of defense funding for the wall.
Construction on the private wall in Sunland Park began on Memorial Day this year, but it was temporarily halted by a cease-and-desist order from city officials, who said We Build the Wall lacked the necessary permits and was in violation of city ordinances. City and state leaders criticized the wall as unnecessary and ineffective, but the mayor later allowed construction to continue.
In May, the city of Sunland Park issued a cease-and-desist order to the group stating that the proper permits had not been issued and that the wall’s construction team had not submitted adequate plans to the city.
Sunland Park Mayor Javier Perea told BuzzFeed News the city was caught off guard by the wall’s construction, but that the city had limited resources to address the issue.
Kolfage, meanwhile, claimed on Twitter that the project was in compliance and that construction had intentionally started during a three-day weekend “when corrupt city was partying over the weekend” because the group had “planned for battle.”
While Kolfage has touted the project as the “Cadillac of walls,” BuzzFeed News recently observed dozens of people crossing the border into the US in search of Border Patrol agents to request asylum just a short distance from the wall. City officials and local residents, even those who supported a border wall, also told BuzzFeed News they were concerned the half-mile privately funded wall will only direct migrants to other parts of town, creating a new host of issues.
We Build the Wall has come under increased scrutiny since its viral online fundraiser, most recently prompting an investigation by the state of Florida, where the group is incorporated as a nonprofit.
“In response to consumer complaints, including those referred by the Office of the Attorney General, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has opened an investigation into this charity,” a Florida Department of Agriculture spokesperson told WLRN.
Our border wall & gate are secure again and we still have not had a single breach. I want to thank the IBWC for acting swiftly and we look forward to working with you on our future projects! @RyanAFournier @Rambobiggs @sethweathers @gehrig38 @SaraCarterDC @StumpforTrump pic.twitter.com/uD8rhB4P7L
— Brian Kolfage (@BrianKolfage) June 12, 2019