More than two years after the 2016 presidential campaign, the construction of a wall along the southern border remains one of President Donald Trump’s favorite talking points. Today, American Oversight published a report on its investigation into the administration’s preparations for fulfilling this campaign promise, revealing that promise to be nothing more than a rhetorical tool.
Over the course of 20 months, 40 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and three lawsuits, American Oversight’s investigation has determined that the administration has not only failed to make the necessary cost and funding determinations, it also hasn’t made adequate legal preparations for an infrastructure project of this scale. As the president continues to rally around increasing border security — even going so far as to claim he would be “proud to shut down the government for border security” — the administration has made no serious efforts on a number of key prerequisites to building a wall along the U.S. Mexico border.
American Oversight’s new report analyzed the responses provided by multiple federal agencies to our FOIA requests — including agency emails, briefing memos, as well as letters asserting that agencies had no records at all regarding certain topics — to assess federal preparations for the wall project. The report also drew upon news reports and previous published studies.
Not only had U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the agency currently responsible for the security of the southern border, not set aside funding for such a massive infrastructure project, adequate estimates of the project’s true cost have also been hard to come by. An August 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the administration failed to consider how geographical differences would affect cost estimates, and the minority staff on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee published a report stating that the full bill could be as high as $70 billion — well over Trump’s $25 billion request in early 2018 and the $5 billion he is currently demanding from Congress under threat of government shutdown.
Earlier this year, Congress appropriated $1.6 billion for maintenance of current barriers, and that money was used to award replacement fencing in Arizona (set to begin in April) and 14 miles of new construction in Texas (set to begin in February). Two miles of wall in Southern California, which the administration claimed constituted the first completed section, had actually been planned since 2009 — and used 2017 funding.
The president persists in claiming that Mexico will fund the wall’s construction, a vow he made during his presidential campaign. But there have been no efforts by U.S. diplomatic officials to push Mexico to accept this — in fact, in memos prepared for meetings of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Mexican officials, references to the border wall were only to be addressed “if raised” by the Mexican officials, and the issue was not included as a State Department “key objective.”
It’s clear that there were no serious plans to get Mexico to foot the bill, but alternate financing isn’t readily available either, nor was there a comprehensive schedule from the administration for the wall’s construction. Emails between CBP officials and congressional staff reveal that neither branch of government knew where it could find funding, with one House staffer saying, “Apparently, there is a pot of money somewhere we didn’t know about.”
Additionally, most border land without a fence is privately owned, and the administration has made little effort to prepare for eminent-domain seizures — or for the significant legal challenges that would likely arise, and take years to resolve, for hundreds of the nearly 5,000 parcels of land in question. DHS and U.S. attorney’s offices in New Mexico, Arizona and California sent letters indicating that they found no records of efforts to plan a significant eminent-domain undertaking. While news reports said that the administration had begun preparations to seize private land in the Texas Rio Grande Valley in June 2018, neither U.S. attorney’s office for the two Texas border districts have responded to our March 2017 FOIA request. Justice Department records we obtained indicated that no land-acquisition cases had been referred to the department.
The administration has also made almost no efforts to engage with the leaders of a sovereign Native American tribe that controls 62 miles of border land. In one of the few communications produced from our FOIA requests, the chairman of the Tohono O’odham nation criticized the CBP’s apparent failure to provide Tohono leaders with details about border-security plans, saying it was “inconsistent with the government-to-government relationship between the Nation and the United States.”
Another consideration the administration failed to make was the serious damage to ecosystems along the border from the construction of a contiguous wall. In a 2007 Fish and Wildlife Service analysis, officials warned of “serious, and likely irreparable, wildlife and habitat loss” from the placement of 70 miles of border fence in the Rio Grande Valley. Subsequent FWS biological assessments in 2012 and 2016 indicated that harm to ecosystems would also arise from similar border construction, including damage to the habitat of the endangered Sonoran pronghorn and the threatened northern Mexican gartersnake.
Trump’s reliance on the wall as a rallying cry is grounded not in policy considerations but in his attempt to placate his political base. The administration’s inaction doesn’t just reveal Trump’s call for the border fence to be a toothless demand; it also points to the failure of the administration and agencies to seriously study the effects and consequences of what the president promises.
American Oversight will continue to investigate the border wall project and rhetoric, and we’ve also launched investigations of the president’s family-separation policy, the deployment of troops to the Mexican border in the weeks before the 2018 midterm election, and the administration’s statements about the “migrant caravan” from Central America. The records we uncover from those investigations — along with any other documents we obtain regarding the border wall — will be published at americanoversight.org.
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