Border Wall on Private Land in New Mexico Fuels Backlash

Border Wall on Private Land in New Mexico Fuels Backlash

Originally published by The New York Times

Congress has so far thwarted President Trump’s plan to build a wall along the border with Mexico. But that hasn’t stopped some supporters from finding a way to build their own barrier.

A group that pushes for stricter border control is spending $6 million to construct less than a mile of border fencing on private land in southern New Mexico. Their hope is for the project to help limit the flow of migrant families trying to enter the United States around El Paso.

“It really was ridiculous how easy it was to get around the El Paso wall until we built this,” said Kris Kobach, who is known for his hard-line stance on immigration and is on the advisory board of the group, We Build the Wall, which collects donations to finance a barrier on the southern border.

Mr. Kobach unveiled the fencing on Memorial Day on land in Sunland Park, N.M., owned by the American Eagle Brick Co. He said that the company hired to build the wall, Fisher Industries of North Dakota, hoped to complete the project in a few days.

The wall’s effectiveness and legality, though, are in doubt. The stretch of wall could simply push migrant families toward crossings in more remote areas, as other portions of border fencing have done.

Still, the project has already come under criticism from elected leaders in New Mexico and Texas who see it as a publicity ploy, while others point to the ties between We Build the Wall and a right-wing militia whose leader is in jail on weapons charges.

The mayor of Sunland Park, Javier Perea, said the city issued a cease-and-desist order on Tuesday after determining that the builders had failed to obtain the required permits for the project.

“The construction of the wall at this point is in violation of city ordinances,” Mr. Perea said, saying that a survey had not been filed and that the fencing exceeded the maximum allowed height of 6 feet.

Dustin Stockman, a vice president of We Build the Wall, said that the project was on “strong legal footing” and would be completed.

Representative Veronica Escobar, an El Paso Democrat, focused scrutiny on Mr. Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year, and Stephen K. Bannon, a former adviser to Mr. Trump who is chairman of We Build the Wall’s advisory board.

“It’s deeply disturbing when outsiders, like Kris Kobach and Steve Bannon, come in and use our community and people as a backdrop to further their racist agenda,” Ms. Escobar said in a statement.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, also a Democrat, said: “To act as though throwing up a small section of wall on private land does anything to effectively secure our southern border from human and drug trafficking or address the humanitarian needs of the asylum seekers and local communities receiving them — that’s nonsense.”

We Build the Wall was started in December as a GoFundMe online fund-raising campaign by Brian Kolfage, a disabled Air Force veteran. The organization said it hoped to raise $1 billion. So far, it has collected $20 million from private donors.

Jeff Allen, a co-owner of the company on whose land the wall is going up, told The El Paso Times why he favored the project. “We have been burglarized by illegals,” he said. “We have drug traffickers coming through here, and anyone who is against this is against America.”

The desert near Sunland Park has been the site of militia activity. A group called the United Constitutional Patriots uploaded video to social media showing its members detaining migrant families.

We Build the Wall used video recorded by the militia in its fund-raising pitches, according to a report by Phoenix New Times.

While Mr. Kobach claimed on Tuesday that We Build the Wall was not tied to the militia, Jim Benvie, the spokesman for the militia, said that he had dealt with Mr. Kolfage, the founder of We Build the Wall, and expressed delight with the project.

“This is our stomping ground,” Mr. Benvie said about the area where the wall was being built. He added that the group considered the project a victory and planned to patrol in other areas in Texas, Arizona or New Mexico.

Mr. Trump has encountered one obstacle after another in his quest to build a wall along the entire border. After Congress refused to allocate money for the project, a federal judge in California granted an injunction this month preventing the Trump administration from redirecting funds for the wall using a national emergency declaration.

Even before this flare-up of militia and construction activity, residents along the border have long been grappling with existing fenced sections. Researchers say that the expansion of border fencing during the Bush administration pushed migrants toward crossing in more remote territory, resulting in hundreds of deaths from exposure to extreme desert heat.

Mr. Kobach, who came under scrutiny this month for his list of conditions, including an on-call jet, if he were to become the Trump administration’s immigration czar, disputed assertions that this new portion of wall would place migrant families at risk.

“I don’t think this fence endangers anyone’s life,” Mr. Kobach said, while claiming that migrants would not seek to cross the border at the point where the new portion of wall ends, near a cliff. “I doubt that they’re going to try to climb over an 18-foot bollard wall,” he said.

Still, as debate unfolds about the wall, the desert is claiming lives. In one grim episode this month, a 26-year-old Mexican man was found dead near another portion of border wall in southern New Mexico. Investigators are looking into whether he fell to his death while trying to scale the wall.

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