Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf made an unpublicized visit Wednesday to the site of a privately constructed border wall during his first official trip to the southern border, Yahoo News has confirmed.
The stop at the half-mile stretch of crowdfunded steel bollard fencing, which was built without permits this spring on private land in Sunland Park, N.M., was not mentioned in a media advisory sent by the DHS press office ahead of Wolf’s trip to El Paso, Texas, where he was slated to “participate in an operational tour of DHS facilities on the southwest border, meet with local DHS leadership, survey new border wall construction, and meet with state, local and community officials.”
However, a DHS spokesperson, who declined to speak on the record, confirmed to Yahoo News that Wolf did, in fact, stop by the private wall in Sunland Park, where he spoke to the owner of the property and an engineer from the construction company that built it.
“They wanted to see what we built, they wanted to inspect it,” Brian Kolfage, founder and president of We Build the Wall, the nonprofit group behind the project, told Yahoo News. “They’re interested in what we’re doing and future projects.”
Kolfage, who launched a GoFundMe campaign last December to raise money for President Trump’s border wall, informed Yahoo News on Wednesday of Wolf’s plan to visit the site of We Build the Wall’s first completed structure in Sunland Park. Kolfage said that his organization has been in communication with officials at DHS for months, and that members of We Build the Wall’s board met with Wolf in Washington, D.C., last week. Kolfage declined to say who, specifically, from We Build the Wall was at the meeting, but the group’s board includes prominent supporters and associates of the president, including former White House strategist Steve Bannon, Blackwater USA founder Erik Prince and Kris Kobach, the aggressively anti-immigrant former Kansas secretary of state and current Senate candidate.
The DHS spokesperson did not confirm last week’s Washington meeting with Wolf, who was sworn in last Wednesday as the department’s fifth acting secretary under Trump. Additional questions from Yahoo News about conversations between We Build the Wall and DHS officials also went unanswered. At a Wednesday press conference in El Paso, however, Wolf appeared to indicate his support for such independent efforts.
“I welcome all that want to be part of the solution,” Wolf said in response to a question from reporters about We Build the Wall’s latest effort to build a new section of border wall on private land along the Rio Grande in South Texas.
“Obviously, when you’re talking about a border wall system, you have to do that in close connection with CBP [U.S. Customs and Border Protection], the Army Corps of Engineers and the like. The requirements that they have are pretty robust. … It has to meet certain requirements,” Wolf told reporters. “So if there are going to be private entities that do that, we want to make sure that we’re talking to them, and I know the chief and others are doing that each and every day.”
At the same press conference, El Paso Border Patrol Chief Gloria Chavez praised We Build the Wall’s first completed section in Sunland Park.
“When that wall got built, everything changed for us and we were able to manage border enforcement actions there even better,” said Chavez, who accompanied Wolf to the half-mile fence, located on the southern edge of an inactive brickyard owned by an 85-year-old Air Force veteran.
Residents of Sunland Park, an impoverished and primarily Hispanic border town sandwiched between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, were blindsided when the border wall was erected without permits over Memorial Day weekend. Attempts by city officials to intervene were immediately met with a barrage of angry and even threatening emails, phone calls and social media posts from supporters of We Build the Wall. Similar tactics were used to steamroll the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission when We Build the Wall and contractor Tommy Fisher, an outspoken Trump supporter whose previous bid for a federal border wall contract was rejected by the Army Corps of Engineers, once again failed to obtain permits before proceeding to build a gate extending from the end of the wall on private property across federal land.
Though Kolfage says We Build the Wall and Fisher have been “working with IBWC from the start” on their latest project in South Texas, the plan to build 3.5 miles of steel fencing along a riverbank near a butterfly reserve has prompted backlash from environmental advocates.
The visit by Wolf and Chavez to the private wall, along with their comments to reporters Wednesday, seems to be the first public expression of support by DHS officials for We Build the Wall.
Shaw Drake, policy counsel at the ACLU’s Border Rights Center, said DHS’s apparent openness to working with the group raises “concerns that DHS is yet again attempting to usurp congressional authority to build destructive border barriers.”
“The public has a right to know what DHS is up to with [We Build the Wall],” Drake told Yahoo News. “President Trump failed to get his border wall the right way, through Congress. We demand transparency to ensure the administration does not partner with private groups in order to defy Congress and build more wall.”
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