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CBP

CBP considers outsourcing border wall construction to ‘private entities’ near Tucson

Tommy Fisher, president and CEO of Tempe, Ariz.-based Fisher Industries, surveyed border fencing that he's building on private land in south Texas. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Federal officials are asking private groups if they want to build a second layer of wall along 40 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border near Tucson.

Customs and Border Protection officials posted a request for information on a federal procurement website May 29, saying the agency “recognizes that private entities and non-governmental organizations also have an interest in supporting the mission of border protection, by deploying private wall solutions.”

The request was aimed at groups that can “arrange private financing, and private acquisition of land” and “may have an interest in devising a wall structure that is consistent with government specifications,” CBP officials wrote in the request, which was first reported by KJZZ’s Fronteras Desk.

The purpose of the request was “solely to conduct market research,” rather than a request for proposals for specific projects.

Any construction of the wall by a private party would “need to comply with federal laws and regulations,” as well as meet the Border Patrol’s operational requirements, CBP said in response to questions from the Star.

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CBP did not say exactly where private groups might build the wall, but the request included a list of 30 “possible locations” that cover 253 miles, including 114 miles of border near Del Rio, Texas; 70 miles near El Paso; 40 miles near Tucson; 25 miles near San Diego; and 4 miles near Yuma.

Private groups have until Friday to express their interest in building the border wall.

The request came as federal agencies race to complete 450 miles of wall along the U.S.-Mexico border before the November election.

The construction of a border wall was President Trump’s signature campaign promise of his 2016 campaign. As of June 3, firms working under contract with the federal government had built 194 miles of wall.

Near Tucson, all 137 miles of wall projects are being built by firms under contract with the federal government. When construction is completed, all but a handful of miles of border near Tucson will have a 30-foot-tall steel wall, with the exception of the roughly 60 miles of border on the Tohono O’odham Nation, where CBP is not allowed to build the wall.

Those projects generally involve building a single layer of wall, although in a few towns like Naco a second layer is being built. The May 29 request described building a second layer of wall to “complement existing primary barriers” on 40 miles of border that ranged from “urban” to “rocky and mountainous rural areas.”

CBP declined to say whether the agency plans to add a secondary wall along the entire Arizona-Mexico border. The Yuma area already has two or three layers of walls and fences in some areas.

Private groups

The May 29 request did not mention any group by name, but one group has led an aggressive campaign since late 2018 to build the wall with private funds.

The group, known as We Build the Wall, raised $25 million from 500,000 donors and has built several miles of wall in New Mexico and Texas, according to the group’s website. Their fundraising campaign went to Sahuarita in February 2019, headlined by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

We Build the Wall continues to send out fundraising emails couched in alarmist phrases, such as saying the wall “will keep ALL Americans safe from outsiders” and warning of a surge of criminals coming across the border once the coronavirus lockdowns end.

We Build the Wall did not respond to an inquiry from the Star.

The projects in New Mexico and Texas were built by Fisher Sand and Gravel, which already is building border wall in Arizona under contract with the Army Corps of Engineers.

Fisher Sand and Gravel was awarded a contract worth up to $400 million in December to build 31 miles of wall on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge southwest of Tucson and $1.28 billion in May to build 42.5 miles of wall near Nogales and Sasabe.

The inspector general of the Defense Department is auditing the December contract award to see whether Trump inappropriately influenced the award.

Concerns

The May 29 request raises concerns about private groups currying favor with Trump by volunteering to help him complete his promise to build the wall, said Molly Claflin, chief oversight counsel for American Oversight, a nonpartisan watchdog group in Washington, D.C., that has conducted a long-running audit of border wall construction.

“This is another opportunity for companies and individuals to do work that hopefully will get them rewarded by the president later down the line in some fashion,” such as ambassadorships or lucrative contracts, Claflin said.

She also pointed to concerns that the public would not know whether private groups “improperly coerced” landowners into giving up their property for wall construction or whether environmental and worker safety regulations were followed.

Private groups are not subject to the same public records laws as federal agencies, so “Congress really has to step up now” and hold hearings and ask for documentation of the decision-making process, Claflin said.

“You can’t build a wall of this scale on a national border and not have national interests implicated,” such as foreign policy, Claflin said.

U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, a Democrat whose district includes much of the Arizona border, said outsourcing border wall construction will result in “more corruption” and “allow the Trump Administration to evade any accountability for their actions.”

“With handouts of profitable government contracts to Trump donors and the unlawful seizure of Department of Defense funds to construct it, the wall has been mired in corruption from the very beginning,” Grijalva said.

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© 2020 The Arizona Daily Star