The Trump administration is seeking $4.1 billion over the next two years to begin construction of a wall on the Mexican border, as well as money to hire 20 more Justice Department lawyers to “obtain the land” for the wall.
Much of the land along the Rio Grande in Texas is privately owned and the government would need to undertake condemnation proceedings to acquire it — a sometimes lengthy legal process.
Meanwhile, the Homeland Security Department is close to issuing several bid requests for a 30-foot-high wall, although it modified an earlier notification that it should be made of concrete. It is now seeking bids on concrete and other materials. The bids for the prototype design are expected to be due in May.
The moves indicate President Donald Trump is moving quickly on his signature campaign promise to seal the border, even as he is asking American taxpayers to pick up the tab, not the Mexican government. Estimates put the project at $15 billion to $25 billion.
In Trump’s budget request released Thursday, he is seeking $3 billion more this fiscal year for border security and immigration enforcement, which includes $1.5 billion for the wall. Next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, he is requesting $2.6 billion for the project.
“The request would fund efforts to plan, design, and construct a physical wall along the southern border, and make other critical investments in tactical border infrastructure and technology,” Trump said.
“I think the funding provides for a couple of pilot cases … different kinds of barriers in different kinds of places,” Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney told reporters Wednesday. “We try and find the most cost-efficient, the safest and also the most effective border protections.”
The budget doesn’t specify where the wall will be built, but the American-Statesman first reported last month that initial construction would be near El Paso, Tucson, Ariz., and El Centro, Calif., according to a Homeland Security Department document. A separate agency notice earlier this month said that long-term “more extensive construction could include the Rio Grande Valley in the southeast of Texas, the area in and around El Paso, the desert along the Arizona border, and the area south of San Diego, Calif.”
The Texas frontier accounts for more than half of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. Texas lawmakers of both parties have been resistant to the idea of a contiguous wall — although Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has said there would be “levels” of border security, including cameras, high-tech devices like drones and more Border Patrol agents.
But U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, sharply criticized the budget’s boost to border security at the expense of other programs. “The president’s proposed budget would be a disaster for Texas, and for the country,” he said. “He wants to take money from programs that Texans actually need, and use it to hire 20 new lawyers. Those lawyers’ entire jobs will be to take private property away from American landowners on the border, so the president can build his arbitrary border wall.”
According to reports in the San Antonio Express-News and the Texas Observer, the Homeland Security Department has already begun the process of notifying landowners along the Rio Grande that their property will be confiscated and that they will be paid for it, in some cases at seemingly below-market rates. One family said it was being offered $2,900 for 1.2 acres near Los Ebanos, in western Hidalgo County, according to the Express-News.
U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, said he had learned from federal officials that the first step would be to build the prototype wall for 16 miles near San Diego. “It’s just a tremendous waste of resources where there’s so many competing needs in this country,” O’Rourke said.
Also opposed to a contiguous wall: U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, whose district stretches from near El Paso to San Antonio and includes 800 miles of border.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who has taken lawmakers to tour the border, said in a published report Wednesday, “I support border security, but I think we need a little more definition of what the plan is. I would propose we come up with a plan and then we can come up with when and how to fund it.”
But U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on Homeland Security, welcomed the Trump budget request, which includes a 10 percent spike in defense spending.
“I’m grateful to finally have a president committed to rebuilding our military, defending our borders and securing our great nation,” Carter said in a statement.
And U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, said that, “as Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, I will work with the Trump administration and my colleagues to make sure our counterterrorism and cybersecurity programs, first responders, and those protecting our land, sea, and aviation sectors have the funds they need to defend our homeland and our citizens. Of note, the additional funds for border security and interior enforcement show this president truly understands these pressing challenges.”
A team of five American-Statesman reporters and photographers traveled nearly the entire length of the Texas-Mexico border to examine how the existing border fence is affecting communities in the Rio Grande Valley, and to study the impact the coming border wall might have. The four-part series continues Sunday with a look at Big Bend.