President Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border has raised a lot of questions since he began talking about it at campaign rallies nearly two years ago – and this week, the American people will finally have a chance to get some answers.
This morning, the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on “Fencing Along the Southwest Border.” The witnesses at this hearing are former – not current – officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. (Word is the administration wouldn’t send anyone to talk about the president’s signature policy.) In any event, Tuesday’s witnesses are in a great position to provide answers about previous efforts to secure the border – and the major, very expensive problems past projects have run into.
On Wednesday, the same committee will question the current Secretary of Homeland Security, John Kelly, on the topic of “Improving Border Security and Public Safety.” This hearing is going to cover a broad range of topics, but given the emphasis that the White House has placed on building the wall – and the impending deadline for contractors to submit wall proposals for consideration – Secretary Kelly can and should be answering questions about the wall. Secretary Kelly’s willingness to answer questions will speak volumes about the administration’s commitment to transparency and oversight.
President Trump has said that the wall will be built ahead of schedule and under budget. He has promised that it will be big and beautiful. He has pledged to get personally involved in the contracting process, and at various times, he has famously claimed that Mexico would pay the wall.
It’s not clear to what extent we are supposed to take the president literally in his statements, but it is painfully clear how much we still don’t know about this whole project. We do know that if the wall goes ahead as currently proposed, the project is likely to be wasteful, artificially constrained by a budget that seeks to cut corners, harmful to landowners, devastating to ecosystems from the Gulf of Mexico to California, and riddled with corruption – and that’s the best case scenario.
American Oversight launched Audit the Wall last month to conduct a full investigation into the border wall project, its impact, and the potential for fraud and conflicts of interest. We will be monitoring the Senate hearings this week, and you can follow along with us on Twitter at @WeAreOversight.
Here are ten questions that we’ll be watching for and that we would like to see answered:
- How much should we take President Trump at his word? Is he going to get personally involved in the contract negotiations, and if so, how will the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) guard against favoritism and corruption in the procurement process? What steps is DHS taking to ensure that bidders with ties to the president or the administration do not have an unfair advantage?
- What has the government learned from previous border fence efforts – including the failed SBInet project that was canceled after taxpayers spent $1 billion on 53 miles of virtual wall? How effective have previous fence projects been in reducing illegal immigration?
- Where is the wall going to be located, and is it even going to be a wall? As Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke pointed out last month, there are many logistical obstacles to building a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, including the fact that more than 1,200 miles of that border runs through the middle of the Rio Grande River. The president has insisted that there will be a wall – but how much of the border will actually be walled and how much will be protected using other methods such as surveillance?
- What is the schedule for moving forward with the wall and how much is that schedule being driven by political influence? The deadline to submit proposals to build the wall has been pushed back repeatedly. Why has that deadline shifted, and has the current schedule for the wall project been determined based on political or practical considerations?
- How many property owners are going to be affected by the wall construction? We know the government intends to seize private land through the use of eminent domain, but we don’t yet know how many landowners – or tenants – will be affected. And if some sections of the wall are built north of the actual border, will some Americans be living in a “no man’s land” on the Mexican side of the wall?
- Will the wall bisect the Tohono O’odham Nation in spite of opposition from the tribe? The Tohono O’odham Nation is a Native American tribe whose land runs from Arizona south into Mexico. Has DHS or the White House been in contact with the tribe to discuss the wall proposal? And if the tribe objects, how does the administration plan to move ahead with the wall?
- What is the wall actually going to cost? The White House suggests it will cost approximately $12 billion, a DHS report indicates it will cost over $20 billion, and a Senate report says it could cost over $66 billion.
- How is the administration planning to fund the wall? If Congress does not appropriate funds for the wall in the government spending bill later this month, how will the next stage of the project be funded? Will general appropriations be diverted to build the wall? And what is the plan for securing funding long term?
- Is the wall project legal under current law? The Executive Order instructing the Secretary of Homeland Security to begin construction on the wall cited the Secure Fence Act of 2006. Does that statute actually provide legal authority to build the border wall that President Trump has proposed?
- What commitments to transparency is the administration willing to make? During the Recovery Act initiative in 2009, the Government Accountability Office essentially audited the projects in real time, and the administration created a website where the public could easily track spending. Will the administration make any commitments to releasing information about bidders, proposals, or other negotiations?
To date, the administration has provided no clear answers on funding, design, or schedule for the wall – only assurances that it is going to be built. In the absence of more information, we see a strong likelihood for corruption, misconduct, and waste. American Oversight is committed to getting answers, and we hope that the Senate hearings this week are a step forward for transparency and accountability.