The recently revealed map of Trump administration plans for new border wall segments in Hidalgo County is almost identical to a proposal drafted by a politically connected private engineering firm and endorsed by Hidalgo County officials in February.
In a letter to the Homeland Security Department, Hidalgo County officials proposed a partnership to build 30 miles of combined levee walls and border fences, essentially filling in the gaps in the existing border fencing in the county. The proposed $379 million plan was developed by Dannenbaum Engineering, a firm that built the previous round of levee border walls in the county. Dannenbaum’s offices were raided in April by the FBI, which is reportedly investigating the firm’s pursuit of government infrastructure projects.
After an avalanche of criticism from residents and activists, Hidalgo officials sent a follow-up letter in May, emphasizing their opposition to the border wall and, County Judge Ramon Garcia said, clarifying that their initial letter wasn’t an “invitation.”
But it appears that federal officials took it as one.
At a recent meeting with local officials and stakeholders, Border Patrol officials described their plans for 28 miles of levee border walls in the county as reflecting local wishes, according to two people who attended. “It was presented as the locally supported option for the border wall,” said Scott Nicol, co-chair of the Sierra Club Borderlands initiative. “Now we are stuck.”
Customs and Border Protection officials didn’t respond to requests for comment on whether their Hidalgo County plan was shaped by the letter.
But Nicol said that in the meeting, Border Patrol officials clarified that local support was indeed a reference to the February proposal, in which Garcia said that new construction would lead to $500 million of economic impact and more than 5,000 new jobs. “Needless to say, this would be a tremendous economic stimulus and jobs program for Hidalgo County and the Nation,” Garcia wrote.
Garcia has told the Statesman that the February letter was written when it appeared that a border wall in the county was inevitable.
“It looked like there was no way of stopping it,” he said. “If they were really insisting, then we ought to do it in a way that can benefit by helping our comprehensive drainage system.”
But residents pointed out that the flood levees that would be rebuilt into border wall had already recently been repaired with federal stimulus money.
Dannenbaum has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to political candidates around the state, including about $25,000 to Hidalgo County officials since 2009. After the April FBI raids of the firm, Hidalgo County commissioners voted to end negotiations with the firm to build a new courthouse.