President Trump promised during his campaign to “build the wall.” But nearly three years later, the only new barrier erected along the 1,900-mile southwestern border stretches just 32 feet.
The four steel and concrete panels were installed two weeks ago here in Texas, just east of this town of 17,000.
Chad Wolf, the new acting secretary of Homeland Security, visited the site Thursday and said the government was poised to complete 500 miles by the end of next year.
“We must secure the border,” he said. “President Trump has been clear. To do this, we must build a border wall and we are on track to do that.”
Whether the government meets that goal depends in large part on what counts as new construction.
Wolf said that along the entire border, 83 miles of wall have been built since Trump was elected and that 153 miles were “in progress.” But opponents of the wall point out that most if not all of that construction has involved improving or replacing existing barriers — not filling in the gaps.
The new 32-foot section is part of an eight-mile stretch in Donna that is expected to cost $167 million. Construction was slated to start in February but was delayed until October.
Scott Nicol, co-chair of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Team, doubted whether Homeland Security would even complete those eight miles by the end of 2020.
The new panels are on federal land, but the surrounding land is privately owned, raising the specter of lengthy legal battles and further delays.
The federal government could condemn the land and seize it, but that would almost certainly trigger court challenges. Lawyers from the Texas Civil Rights Project already represent a half-dozen Rio Grande Valley landowners with pending cases.
“They are fudging to please Trump,” Nicol said of Wolf’s assurances that the government will meet the president’s deadline. “They put out a contract, but they put out a contract on land they don’t actually own.”
A Florida-based non-profit called We Build the Wall — which made headlines when it erected about a half-mile of border wall in eastern New Mexico last spring — was recently stopped from building a similar barrier on private land in the Rio Grande Valley by the International Boundary and Water Commission, an agency with representatives from both the United States and Mexico.
Wolf said his agency would remain “transparent with landowners” and that he had spoken with a commander from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers working on the wall who was confident they could meet Trump’s deadline.
But there may be other obstacles.
Homeland Security, the federal government’s third-largest agency with about 240,000 employees, has been plagued by leadership vacancies and hiring problems, according to an annual report released Monday by its inspector general.
Within Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been managing wall construction. But it has had more immediate concerns. During the fiscal year that ended in September, it caught and temporarily detained nearly a million migrants — the highest total in a decade.